65@65 Swim #56 – River Evenlode at Charlbury, Oxfordshire
Remember when? This question came to mind over and over, on the way to, during, and after the swim in the River Evenlode at Charlbury. Charlbury is a pretty West Oxfordshire town with a train station and a field adjacent to a river (among other charms). Jeremy, with whom I have swum many the year, invited me (or did I invite myself?) to swim at his corner of paradise, which is here. The first “remember when?” was the first swim I did here with Jeremy and Bex, one February evening, 2014. There was snow on the field as we walked across to the get-in place for the swim, this was a very pretty and intimate corner of nature made light by the snow in the winter dark. Bex and Jeremy walked the walk of knowledge, knowing exactly where they were going. Much of swimming open and sometimes wild involves meeting and being with people with local knowledge of swimming, knowing exactly where they are going, where to get in, sometimes how to get in, people in whom you trust and whose trust is never betrayed. Bex and Jeremy, with their quiet assurance, made this seem like perfectly normal behaviour - crossing a snow-laden field in the icy winter to swim from a small weir, in the dark. There was a bench when we got there, there still is. That time we got changed, at that time we all wore wetsuits, at that time it seemed to take longer to change into at out of wetsuits and out of and into warm clothing than the swim itself. We stepped carefully in the dark down to the top of the weir, then sat on its concrete-topped edge, accommodatingly wide enough and broad enough to seat three of more, then gently entered the water and swam upstream then back. Then to reverse the process – from a step in the water to waters edge careful not to slip, then step up, up, across onto solid space and bench. Fleeting torchlight to find which pile of clothes was whose also showed lobster pink emerging from wetsuit black. Then lobster pink against the dim white of light reflected on snow showed flesh briefly on show as we ragged-scrambled into layer upon layer – one more for when you get out than when you get in, the wisdom of Jeremy shining true as always. But before that, Jeremy, unpeeled from wetsuit scrambled down again, eyesight adjusted to the dim snow-light, dropped into the ice-water briefly for his ‘buzz’. The buzz was the thing, the brief sensation of burning, then subsequent burning pleasure, was the drive to daily or almost daily winter swimming. For Jeremy, for me, for Bex, for so many friends.
That was then, this is now. Bex came tonight, this summer night, still daylight, warm and a little humid. We were not sure if she would, and very pleased she did. There was much excitement, much waving of hands, no kisses or hugs, but only Covid-19 greetings and felicitations, mimed air-kisses and embraces.
Then the next “remember when?”. When I met my tribe, emerging from the Thames at Donnington Bridge, in wetsuits, in December, much more trembling than shivering. Bodily tremor at Richter Scale 7 equivalent (major, sudden severe) Bex was the first to emerge, the first soul I set eyes on and the first to ask of “how can I join?”. If swimming at Charlbury in February in the snow is not a usual activity for most, I was ready to join this select group of cheery hardened souls. On that weekend day, I had dropped off my son to go rowing at exactly the place where seal-like souls were emerging from the Thames, very cold, active, determined, one after another, maybe twenty of so, I don’t remember exactly how many, but impressively many. I was much excited, having swum year-round from previous years but on my own at Hardwick Pond. My tribe was now here emerging from the water. It only seemed natural that they should, my mind and body being prepared and able to see who they were. This was the very first Swim the Thames group, I was to find out. I had to stay in touch, I had to swim with them, to become one of them if I could. I asked Bex for her email address, which she scrawled shiver-handedly on a scrap of paper, less an email address than an abstract expressionist evocation of one. She said “see Jeremy”, as her body and soul were struggling to compose themselves into a combined non-shivering state. Jeremy, nearby was also challenged by the cold water, but gave a more steady-handed email address. I could never see Jeremy as an abstract expressionist. So, remember when I found my tribe and swam with them across winter and summer via spring and fall, and even after reaching the end of the non-tidal Thames at Teddington, and continue to see and swim with a number of them to the present-day. The Thames was Swum, in stretches, every two weeks, or sometimes twice on a weekend, or just once a month across winter. Only a handful finished the entire distance, and I am just 13 kilometers short.
Tonight’s swim was a very small pod, August-swimming in a fairly isolated spot, swallows and amazons, the banks of the Evenlode exploding with flowers and foliage. The water cut a slight chill at seventeen degrees, feeling cold to me after weeks of no-swimming, post knee replacement surgery, and swimming at around twenty degrees in Hardwick Lake when I did get back into the water. The cut of the water was good on the flesh, head down to cool off, a memory of my last swim before surgery, at Wallingford. That night I was ready to murder for a swim; tonight I cannot not even think or dream of it – I am in truly remarkable company, to share, remember and be with.
65@65 Swim #57 – Newnham Riverside Club, Cambridge
It felt like entering Narnia, the magical world created by C.S. Lewis. I was in Cambridge but brought Oxfordshire with me, such is the way we interpret the world with what we know, see what we want to see and make invisible what we don’t understand. C.S. Lewis was both an Oxford and Cambridge man, in that order, holding office in both universities across his life. He was a cracking intellect who wrote some cracking stories, as well as holding down his day-job and being good company in the pub, so I have heard. I can’t come anywhere close to even comparing myself with the giants of the intellectual world but have been close enough to enough of them to have felt the magic, and always hope for a little of their angel dust to land on me. Indeed it was a Nobel Prize winner whom I met and talked with in Papua New Guinea who inspired me to anthropology at a time of life when what I did could have gone in so many different directions. And I continue to meet members of this august club of intellects and doers. I held an academic position at the University of Cambridge for eleven years, and now at the University of Oxford for twenty one years. Entering through the gate to the Newnham Riverside Club felt like I was entering the world constructed by C.S. Lewis, the wardrobe in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. But backwards, from the Oxford end.
I have huge thanks to Rose, who suggested and invited me to this very special place. I know Rose from the Serpentine swimming Club, and what led her to suggest a swim here was that we both have Cambridge University in our backgrounds, and that I had never been to this wonderful place, despite having spent so many of my younger academic years at Cambridge. I kind-of knew about the club when I worked there, but couldn’t work out where it was nor did I meet anyone who was openly a member who could help me. Going to the Newnham Club could have evaded me forever, if not for Rose – thank you again.
Rose is both passionate about swimming, and is deeply kind and enthusiastic in a Melbourne-smiling-positive way. “No worries” means just that, but also no hurries, knowing that if she has agreed to do something, it will get done, no need to follow up. In this case, Rose agreed on this visit and I knew it would happen, even though Covid-19 changed the earlier plan.
Rose has the key that opens the door (really, the gate) to the Newnham club – she showed me. Entering the gate-wardrobe door into Narnia on this the hottest day of the year was not disappointing – the Narnia was a lush green and warm and friendly paradise. Getting to Cambridge, agreeing a meeting place, Pauline and I started by acting on a small misunderstanding of where to meet. We drove to Cambridge good and early, found a place to park (ever more difficult in this city), convenient for meeting with Rose we thought, but not so. We arranged to meet at the Canoe Club, but we were waiting at the wrong one – town, not gown. Rose messaged; we worked out who was where; we acted on Rose’s instructions; we apologised; ultimately we wanted to swim, needed to swim as the sun reached it height. Rose was patient and explained the misunderstanding on our part as we opened the door to the wardrobe. The river swimming club was originally a canoe club, and was still known as such. Local knowledge of which Pauline and I were lacking. Of course; should have known; Cambridge has many mysteries – the wrong canoe club… This brought me back to many confusions while I worked at the University of Cambridge. I never understood the place when I was there – as a criminologist friend explained to me, “the University and its Colleges have much in common with criminology – you can never understand it, you can only get a feel for it”. This advice came late in my tenure at Cambridge, but it has served well at the other mysterious place, Oxford. Now I try not to understand things too directly, and by doing so find that understanding something can creep in unannounced, silently through a side entrance. It can tip-toe towards the bench I am sitting on, sit down next to me and wait for me to stop my treadmill mind long enough to pause and look around to see it smiling softly.
There were few clues to finding the Newnham wardrobe – much as I experienced Cambridge life in the 1980s and 1990s. A few wet-haired friendly-smiling folk walked in the opposite direction on the same track from and to the club, in summer dishevelled loose fitting clothes. This offered some sign that we were getting near, if only I had noticed as we were approaching the club. The gate-wardrobe door was visible from just a few meters, and was a welcome sight. Turn of key, creak of gate, what would be there? Water of course, but there are many ways of doing water, doing swimming. Once inside the wardrobe, a chalk board offered knowledge of water temperature, so important for most swimmers - plenty warm enough today. Then a short path, which opened out onto a be-lawned bay. Walking on, there was another bay, then another after that, each separated by hedgerows. There were people showing more than is usual on a hot summer’s day, but there were also people in their togs. The people I saw, engaged with, seemed to have magic in their eyes – placid and smiling gently. We wore our togs, Pauline and I, taking the lead from Rose. We found shade (that late afternoon the car registered a temperature of 39 celsius). We changed; we found the step ladder down to the River Cam; we stepped down slowly into the cool water, waiting our turn; we nudged the small-leaved green water-weed aside getting in waist-deep. Then we dropped full-body into the water, and gave a sigh of gratitude – to the hot dry sunny day, to the welcoming Cam, to the friendly club members, to Rose especially, and for just being alive, in Narnia.
65@65 Swim #58 - Royal Victoria Docks, London
This is the closest I will get to swimming in Paris this year –standing next to Seurat’s painting ‘The Bathers as Asnieres’. There are good places and good people in Paris who swim outdoors, in open water, and I had hoped to make one of my 65 swims there. Covid-19 and my knee operation did for that, for this year. I was in the National Gallery in London, giving special attention to this painting, and to Monet’s painting of bathers at Grenouillere. Both places, Asnieres and Grenouillere were western suburbs of Paris in what were then less fashionable, close to or surrounded by factories and the working classes. They are both now absorbed by greater central Paris. This prepared me, unexpectedly, for the next swim, which I would do after leaving the National Gallery – at the Royal Victoria Docks. A western industrialised suburban of London undergoing rapid urban development from brown field across the past three decades, now part of greater central London. This post-industrial landscape, with tower blocks, parks and landscaping, still has some brown-field sites scattered around, something that became clear to me from the air later, when I took the cable-car from the Docks to the Millenium Dome, on the other side of the River Thames, to meet with my son for dinner. The Thames here is broad and brown as it approaches its end towards the ocean, still 50 kilometers away. Once my mind had been prepared by the Impressionist's bathers at the National Gallery, I filtered what I saw at the Royal Victoria Docks swimming venue, having crossed to the most eastern part of London from the centre.
My first experience of swimming at the Royal Victoria Docks was doing the London Mile, now many years ago. I have swum it several times, but that first time I was raising money for a leukemia charity. My son, the one I was going to see tonight, was ill with this disease, and our lives as a family had been turned upside down by it. When chronic disease strikes you have little choice but to follow the rules set by the medical profession. The limited space for self-agency lies in things like raising money for an appropriate charity or institution; so it was with me, raising money for a leukemia charity. I cried but twice when my son contracted leukemia – very soon after we knew and we knew the implications, which for a teenage boy are hard to take. I cried again at the Great London Swim, months later. This was the first time I swam at one of these events, and I didn’t know what to expect – these swims were popular, increasingly so, so it was easy to find the destination, once of public transport – just follow the swimmers. I was a wet-suiter then, and I think the organisers demanded that wet suits be worn at that time. Once ready, dressed and zipped up, there was a walk of around 300 meters to the start-point. I went alone, and I don't know how this happened - somehow got talking to two women who were also raising funds for cancer research, who had cancer in their families. I cried, we all cried, let it out, hugged, promised to each other this would be the best swim ever, that things would work out. As we walked to the start, when we got into the water to warm up we looked to each other, hard into the eyes, Scandinavian-style, deep into the soul. We promised each other - to be strong, to swim for those that matter. Well-wishing for the swim ahead, just a mile, then we somehow gave up our individuality and swam together, looked out for each other, until we got separated about two thirds of the way round. In the pumped-up atmosphere of the swim, with music pounding, being pep-talked into the water, this was indeed the best swim ever. I, we, were not competing for a time, but for something much more important. For one mile, we had our purpose back. I said goodbye to them at the end; I didn’t ask their names (it didn’t seem important), and I have never met them again, but I remember the swim well, with its bitter-sweetness, and still salute them for their strength and resilience.
All this, the London Swim when my son had leukemia, came out unexpectedly when I was talking with a swimmer, on this sunny day at the Victoria Docks late August 2020, queuing to be registered and signed up for swimming. I talked to him of the nostalgia that has attached itself to many of the 65 swims I am doing, and this particular swim today. He had simply asked why I was swimming here, in the eastern waters of London, and he got it all. At the very least he was polite to listen, and he wished me well. Nostalgia is the wrong word for the swim this particular afternoon, but the memory of that first swim was strong. The sense of joy was strong, to be back here on a sunny afternoon, in warm water, swimming skins (in swimmer terminology, without a wetsuit), in no hurry and taking in the monumental urban landscape of Canary Wharf as I went around. In memory of a difficult time in the life of my son and my family, I was pleased with the swim now – someone bumped into me, a wetsuited man in his late twenties, and he apologized. I just said to him that I was having fun today, and I was. My thoughts turned from memory to supper - in Greenwich with my son. I would take the cable car across the River Thames I decided, to continue the fun – I have never taken the cable car before.
The swimming scene at Royal Victoria Docks was very mellow that day – the swimmers were mostly younger wetsuit warriors, not as intense and targeted on the swim as they can be. There were almost as many in skins, all happy. There never used to be regular swimming here, but the annual Great London Swims put the Docks on the swimming-scape. The case for regular swimming was made and won, and the National Open Water Coaching Association (NOWCA) made this another regular venue for outdoor swimming in London. The staff here were relaxed and friendly, competent and efficient, making the experience here far more pleasant than I had expected. So much has developed in this little corner of East London, lawns, open spaces, water-side views and walks, cafes and restaurants. Mostly younger adults enjoying the sun, stretching and exercising, walking and running, swimming and water-boarding, the place has energy, even while the pandemic is dampening all enthusiasm. Getting onto the cable car and rising into the sky I looked down and across to where I had been, to the swimming venue and the adjacent café, to the many people making this a wonderful place to enjoy the tail-end of this summer. I promised myself that I would be back on another day, for another swim, for another relaxed coffee by the water.
65@65 Swim #59 – Chipping Norton Lido, The Cotswolds
There is a little London glamour attached to the modest, beautifully proportioned and very lovely lido at Chipping Norton. It was Jeremy’s 70th birthday pool party, and our arrival brought to mind that other Chipping Norton Jeremy – Clarkson. True to Top Gear form, he once drove a Rolls Royce into the pool, and there are images of the stunt in the foyer of the lido, as well as the radiator from the Roller itself. J-Clark and Alex James (cheesemaker and former Blur band-member) have run the annual pool auction on and off for years. This helps keep this privately owned pool afloat, financially solvent, since the town council washed their hands of it in 2002 – too expensive they said. Samantha Cameron was, I am told, a regular swimmer there, husband Dave not so, although sympathetic. Local people raised funds to have the pool built in the first place, and it opened in 1970. A generation on, and council funds were tight, but the Keep Our Pool Open campaign raised enough to buy it out. I don’t know the detail, but to my mind it is a fine example of local action. The company formed to manage it was and remains the Chipping Norton Lido Limited. Similarly imaginatively-named were the Chipping Norton Recording Studios. A song from my Papua New Guinea soundtrack (which is dominated by Bowie) is ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty. This was recorded here – the amazing saxophone riff in the middle is worth listening to repeatedly – it takes me back straight away now, and my daughter, in her twenties, tells me it’s cool now too. A verse from the song goes ‘He's got this dream about buying some land; He's gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands; And then he'll settle down In some quiet little town; And forget about everything’. Did Chipping Norton inspire that verse? I would like to think so.
Many of the rock-notables (and wannabe notables) came in their Rollers to Chippy to record – Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, Marianne Faithfull, Alison Moyet, Radiohead, Status Quo, Bay City Rollers, Chris Rea among them. Keith Moon, drummer with The Who owned the Crown and Cushion Hotel in the High Street. I can only imagine a kind-of ‘Fawlty Towers’ management style, something like Basil Fawlty on speed. More sensibly, Princess Margaretha of Sweden, sister of Carl XVI Gustav lives in Chippy. I have no idea if she swims at the lido, but wouldn’t it be great if she did? I have never struck up a conversation with a princess in a pool, although I have a genuine princess as a colleague at my work, and I once supervised a Spanish princess when I was at Cambridge. What is it about anthropology and royalty? Gabriella Windsor (the clue is in the name) did her Masters in anthropology in my department a decade or so ago. Charles, Prince of Wales did his undergraduate degree, badly, in Archaeology and Anthropology at the Cambridge Department I worked in, but many years before I got there. I am sure Margaretha of Sweden is very sensible and keeps a low profile. Chippy has many stars and notables, a kind of Hampstead in the hills. While Hampstead has its Ponds, Chippy has its Lido.
The star tonight is Jeremy, whose link to Chippy Lido is strong – he always carries a season ticket, the season being summer-long, swims here when he can, and lives now but a short walk away. The other star is Karen, Jeremy’s wife, who unstintingly supports his swimming passion, tonight at the Lido, setting up the party. Many old friends are here, including Liz, the manager of the Lido when she is not being a theatre designer, Kristie and Judy, Christa, Jim, Leslie. And Polly and Patrick, of the Chippy-independent book-shop, Jaffe & Neale, which has the very books you never knew you couldn’t do without, tea and fantastic cake. I met Polly at synchronised swimming classes last year, of course at Chippy Lido. I thank/blame Jeremy for the introduction to synchro. He took classes during the previous summer and spoke of how wonderful it was, hard work, but wonderful – first-time synchro swimmer at the age of 68. I was 64 the summer when I took my classes – again at Chippy Lido. How to describe it - it was not Rio 2016 Russian Olympic synchro, with scary precision and make-up. Nor was it Swimming with Men, the very sweet movie about a men’s synchro team, with Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves and Jim Carter. Chippy synchro was mostly women, many having taken lessons before, fit and strong, who could do things with their bodies in the water that should carry a health warning beyond the age of fifty years. Sometimes the only man, sometimes with Jeremy, and sometimes with Polly’s young-adult son, striving and sinking, sometimes gaining a glimpse of satisfaction in doing something I thought impossible at the start of the evening, I synchro-sank more than I synchro-swam. I strived for a gold star for effort, trying to please our very chilled but authoritative coach, a champion in so many ways, whose very occasional ‘well done’ brought a school-boy glow to my heart.
The morning after synchro was always telling – my body telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, especially in my sixties. Getting out of bed the night after synchro, I was a broken man – twisted and hurting in places I didn’t know I had. My body screamed “do not go back next week!”. But I did, chanting the mantra “better to have synchro-ed in my sixties than to have never synchro-ed at all”. I was happy with my achievements, happy that Jeremy led me to this particular water. It had been my plan to have one of my 65@65 swims doing synchro at Chippy Lido, as I planned a return to synchro in the summer of 2020. Synchro class fell victim to Covid-19 lock down, but tonight there was to be a momentary synchro rebellion.
Jeremy’s 70th birthday party, and in his words, to celebrate his entry into second childhood, he, or rather Karen, his wife, fell upon the idea of a pool party. How could anyone vaguely interested in swimming refuse a pool party? It is a birthday, there will be cake as well as swimming and messing around in the water, what is not to like? Karen, Kristie and Christa have all brought cake. There is plenty of cake. Almost too much cake (can you every have too much cake?). In the water we swim, we frolic and float, form (socially distanced) groups, talk, mingle – it seems to be easier to have a socially distanced pool party than a stand-up drinks and food party. Chippy Lido has plenty of lawn, plenty of space to be both separate and together in a separated kind of way.
Separate and together is how the synchro moves started that night, almost organically from conversation into action. For starters there was Liz, Jeremy and me, struggling with synchro-skulling and wiggling our legs – “try the egg-beater” suggested Jeremy, unhelpfully. For those that don’t know, the egg-beater is a form of synchro-torture which involves keeping yourself afloat while circling your legs in opposite directions – an egg-beater in the water. Try that after a knee replacement but seven weeks ago. Then in came Elsa, who synchro-ed like she was born to it. And then there was Leslie, who had never synchro-ed but who watched and copied. Leslie is super-fit to the core, and took to it like a, well, Russian synchro-swimmer. Me - I was hardly fit enough to swim post-surgery, let alone beat eggs in the water, be a flamingo or a crane (but I tried). My new knee didn’t know this was how life with me would be, and wanted it struck out of the contract. I settled upon the simplest knee-friendly move - sculling on my back mostly, propelling myself forward slowly. Bex then came over and asked how to scull forwards. She was of course an instant natural at this and made a competition of it – “race you to the end” she said. We raced, she won, time flew by. The hour and a half went so quickly and there was limited time for cake and speech from Jeremy. The party was exactly the right thing, everyone agreed, missing swim-socialising across the Covid-19 summer . The sun shone then dipped and dropped, throwing at us a pink and red sunset – we glowed in the changing light, no-one more so than Jeremy, the star in the Chipping Norton swim firmament.
On reflection driving back - the swimming, who could say no to a swim? The syncho - new muscles were found again. The party - old friendships were renewed after long absences, new ones made, mostly with the non-swim partners of swim-friends. It was the very best of an evening, of a party, such a good thing. My birthday wish to Jeremy is that he has continues to have much fun and many frolics in the water, long into his seventies and beyond. I wish him the discovery of the stiff muscles of his youth and that he continue to enjoy life to its fullest, to continue to call us to do new things; may he be forever young.
Once home, Pauline and I were tired and went straight to bed. In the morning there was the pain of protesting muscles, the muscle-memory of a fine night out at Little Glamour in the Cotswolds, at the equally fine Chipping Norton Lido, and in the company of the very splendid Jeremy and Karen and of friends who shared a very special evening.
65@65 Swim #60 - Hampton Court, The River Thames
“As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise” – this Kinks song from my early adolescence, was running through my head. David Bowie did a cover of this, and I was mind-flipping from Kinks to Bowie and back again. Bowie does the better riff, but it is Ray Davies vision of London. I was rushing as I could to get to Hampton Court to swim with Juliet Turnbull and her pod of six for her FIGS swim (Friday I Go Swimming), and I didn’t need an iPod – the Kinks-Bowie sunset mash was happening in my head. I had been through Waterloo train station twice today already, to attend a funeral in Wimbledon, and now again to swim-rendezvous at Hampton Court. It wasn’t yet sunset but would be by the time we finished the swim, from a beach downstream of Hampton Court Bridge and Hampton Court Palace, and it would be night by the time I came back to Waterloo Station again. Gazing from the train at my imagined Waterloo sunset, Monet’s riverscapes of the Thames gave the visual back-drop to the music - autumnal skies like fire, in red and orange and gold. Ray Davies of the Kinks saw several Waterloo sunsets from his sick-bed in St Thomas’ Hospital as a child, saw the Thames daily from the Waterloo train, met his first girlfriend along the Embankment at Waterloo. For me the connection was less romantic, perhaps more exotic – I saw my Waterloo sunsets from my sick bed at the same hospital, when I had malaria upon return from Papua New Guinea in 1981. I had stopped my antimalarial medication after coming to the UK and slipped into malarious fever every 48 hours. One of these fevers happened at work, and I was taken to hospital after I slumped down on my desk one late afternoon. My boss at the British Council, Dr Penny Aspden, knew malaria when she saw it, having worked in India for many years, and she called the ambulance which took me to the nearest hospital, St Thomas’, across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament. I was in a deep fever when my first Waterloo sunset appeared to me as a livid hallucination as I lay in my hospital bed. Malarial fever gives the most outrageous dreams, and I thought it was one of those until the next evening, when I was less feverish and I saw my next Waterloo sunset, the Houses of Parliament in silhouette against red, pink and gold.
I was wishing for one of these paradise Waterloo sunsets in real life tonight, while on the Waterloo train to Hampton Court, remembering malaria, The Kinks, Bowie and Monet (who painted several Waterloo sunsets of his own when he exiled himself in London in 1970 to 1871, and on subsequent visits to London). I regret that it wasn’t to be – there was too much cloud but at least no rain, after the past days of summer storms – but the evening offered many good things. Arriving at Hampton Court train station and hurried via a busy road to a turn-off and a footpath that led to a very calming river scene, down by the Thames. The busy modern world just disappeared, as it is so often with outdoor swimming - you turn off down a track to a river – and find the water. People were there by a small beach, changing, coming out of the water. There was Juliet, ready in her recycled plastic-water-bottle fabric togs, smiling. This was a regular swimming spot for the people of this locality, with multiple small beaches along the Thames - I have swum here before, but really I just swam through with noticing what a lovely local swimming area this was – wooded, with trees hanging over the river, very pretty. Hampton Court Palace was upstream and the plan was to swim toward it and beyond it as far as possible toward Hampton Court Bridge before it started to get dark. I met Peter and Allison, and we swam together. Peter was wearing a mermaid-tail, who once he got his fin going, raced ahead of us. Allison and Juliet were stronger swimmers than me but they took account of my new knee, and we swam together, chatting. The river was flowing faster than at any time across the summer – the rain-storms of previous days were now running in the river. We came to Hampton Court Palace, to the right (I felt like a tourist), and agreed that this was amazing. Allison felt that it was especially so because King Henry the Eighth lived at this very grand palace, 500 years ago or so.
It was an evening of mental time-travel – now to Tudor England and Henry the Eighth. He is known in the popular imagination as the king who married six times and broke with Catholicism. I think of him as a revolutionary who shaped the fractal island of Britain and its brother island Ireland in ways that continue to the present day. To try to understand why most Scottish and Irish people hate the English, Henry the Eighth is a good starting point. He changed made England a protestant country, gave himself and his ancestors a God-given right to rule, and imposed his rule on Ireland. The God-given right to rule took hundreds of years to overturn, the Irish got back (most of) their country only in the twentieth century, while the English still look upon Catholics with suspicion. I wonder briefly as I swim, how many of the political changes underway now, with Brexit and Covid-19, will stick for nearly so long as Henry the Eighth in politics and the English imagination. Certainly, both of these have divided the United Kingdom. But more importantly, here in the Hampton Court water, did Henry the Eighth swim? Are we sharing something of his divine right to swim right now, in the water? I chose to think so – Alison was smiling broadly, so she was sensing something of Henry the Eighth, I thought. It was certainly possible - he was an accomplished athlete in his youth. He also knew the River Thames, from Hampton Court to Westminster, to Greenwich, as well as upstream perhaps as far as Oxford.
Here in the water the sun is going down, into twilight, and Waterloo Sunset floods into my mind again. Juliet smiles and says how happy she is, as we start to go downstream from Hampton Court Palace – “I am in paradise” goes the song. It’s a Friday night swim, without socialising but with wishes-well for the evening, for the weekend. A kind of end-of-the day swim to pull the knots of the week out of the hair, pleasant, happy, each individual with their own trajectory but companionable. I am very content. Juliet gets my stuff from her boat so that she can go back to her houseboat on the river, downstream. My good funeral clothes. I laugh with Alison while we change at a bench nearby – my good white shirt has buttons and my fingers are quite stiff and I struggle to do them up. A sin among outdoor swimmers is to wear a shirt, for this very reason – wear a tee shirt, a loose top, something you can throw on easily, to make it easy to make the transition from cold water to dry land. Peter had a great swim, with his fin, and Alison was Friday-night happy. Such lovely people, I hope to see them again before long. Juliet, thank you for inviting me to your swim-bubble tonight!
65@65 Swim #61 - Kew Bridge to Hammersmith, The River Thames in London
That’s life. C’est la vie. So das ist das leben. It amounts to the same thing, which Scottish poet Robert Burns summarised as “the best laid plans of mice and men..” This was to have been the last of my 65 swims at 65 years of age, in the Thames as it becomes majestic – the royal Thames in full flow. There were to have been many people, especially those who wanted to add to the length of the Thames they had swum already, with the original Swim the Thames group. From source to Teddington, then on to Richmond, then Kew, and now Hammersmith. The best laid plans had gone astray this summer because of the forces of the universe, in the form of Covid-19, that swept aside all careful plans including swimming projects. Lock down in March symbolised exceptional times. Life became strange (I heard so many people refer to it as ‘a strange time’) - the economy almost ground to a halt, people stopped commuting, zoom became a verb (as in ‘I’ll zoom you’), toilet paper, tinned tomatoes and pasta were hoarded in a food shopping frenzy that rivalled Christmas (I was imagining what kind of Christmas Day could be had with these three items). So embracing strangeness I took an executive decision about my birthday and locked it down. If Covid-19 lock down was to get in the way of swimming my 65 at 65, then I should stay 65 years of age for the length of lock down. There is fictional precedent – Peter Pan stopped growing up, and the Serpentine Swimming Club has its Peter Pan Race every year on Christmas Day in Hyde Park, London – a very tenuous link to swimming.
I moved my birthday to October 3rd from July 3rd, allowing for lock down, when it wasn’t reasonable to swim in groups or for a period even at all. This allowed for a lawful completion of 65 swims in my 65th year. The present swim was to have taken place on June 20th, when time and tide married auspiciously for an awesome swim. After The Big Interruption (Covid-19), the next auspicious marriage of time and tide (on a weekend) post lock down was towards the end of August. So it took place on the last public holiday of summer.
Who was swimming today? Hywel, Chris, Mike and Leslie, as well as myself. Rod was on paddle board giving us support. Hywel and Chris have swum the length of Thames, and I have in very most part. Mike, Rod and Leslie are members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, as am I. Leslie and Rod are more importantly for today’s swim frequent swimmers in the Thames at Hammersmith. We were going to swim a magnificent swim, 5.5 kilometers downstream from Kew Bridge, not something to be done lightly. Leslie and Rod know these often fierce tidal waters well, and it is not for the inexperienced. In fact, if you have only swum in a pool, however good you are, this is not a place to come for your first outdoor swim. Rod passed over the monthly summer swim to NOWCA a c few years ago, so there is a way of doing the Hammersmith end of the swim in a tightly regulated way, if you think it might be for you. Leslie has swum this stretch of the river so frequently, I think he can claim this stretch of the river as his, along with Rod. We timed the swim to coincide with the out-going tide - there is no other way of doing it. We waited at Kew Bridge for both Leslie to arrive and for the tide to turn. With little more to do, fully prepared, Chris and I compared our leg injuries - his wasp-sting, and my knee surgery scar. Both were red, both were seeking cold water to ease the hotness.
The tide began to turn as Leslie arrived – we could see it against the wall of the bridge, a level wet mark some two or three centimeters above the level of the water. Swimmers cannot possibly swim against the tide here and expect to make any progress, indeed quite the opposite. The tide is predicted and there are charts for this, but predictions and real life do not coincide precisely. Today there was about ten minutes ‘delay’ relative to the prediction. If going with the tide is the only way to go, swimming with it not an easy ride either – there are whirlpools and any debris in the river can move toward you at alarming speed. I watched a green buoy move towards me so fast I had to swim sideways to avoid it. That is, I was moving towards it so fast, and all I could do was steer my body away from it. It was a humbling experience to be in water that is so powerful, so connected to the ocean, moving so quickly as though it knew it was urban, slick, responding to being in fast-moving London. You had to keep your wits about you, like you would on the streets of London, making the swim all the more interesting, different from other swims.
This is not to say there wasn’t time to talk, smile, enjoy the moment, look up as well as down and across. The bridges we swam under marked our rapid progress. We started at Kew Bridge (which opened in 1903), and went under Kew Railway Bridge (a beautiful iron-work construction opened in 1869) at about 700 meters. Chris at the front disturbed the swans and they came flying overhead, low, enforcing their ownership of the river. Chiswick Bridge (opened in 1933 and built of stone and reinforced concrete to look like a bridge from a much earlier era) came to us a further 1.4 kilometers on. Barnes Railway Bridge (a beautiful truss-arch bridge of 1895) descended upon us 1.2 kilometers beyond that. The final run, 2.2 kilometers was bridge-free, but full of interest. The river was flowing fast and free, and the urban landscape revealed houses of earlier eras switching position with much more recent builds. The end, at the steps of Black Lion Lane, seemed far too soon, Rod’s positioning of himself and his paddleboard at Black Lion made it easy to see where to get out a hundred meters or more ahead, easy to position yourself in the right place to stop and get out, and not overshoot. Hammersmith Bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge of 1887 was a further 800 meters or so down-stream. Changing here at Black Lion, on the Upper Mall overlooking the Thames, Sunday afternoon activity – cafes, children playing, people taking a gentle walk by the river - no-one bothered to look at this odd-looking assortment of middle-aged (and older) men. This is London, no-one looks, no-one judges... I brought my new bathing kimono (yukata) with me – I had been inspired by both the kimono exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and seeing Takahashi Hiroko’s magnificent kimono designs at Japan House, London. My yukata - it is modest and easy to pack into a swim tow bag, easy to change in, in public.
After the swim, Rod very kindly and generously invited us for a drink and some snacks at his house not far away downstream. Downstream is also where Leslie lives, and where the Red House of William Morris is – the latter a direct link of this stretch of the Thames with the Upper Thames, at Kelmscott Manor. I have been to Kelmscott Manor but not to the Red House, which is currently Covid-19 closed. At Rod’s, Leslie talked with passion and enthusiasm of William Morris and how he rowed (or more likely was rowed) from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor, which he owned and designed according to his Arts and Crafts Movement. His revolution was a renewal of artisanal artistic design and production at a time of rapid industrialisation in the late nineteenth century. Rowing the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott and back again must have been like like moving from industrial to rural, from present to past, and from mass-production to individual craftsmanship. We speculated that it might have taken Morris and his rower two weeks or so to travel to Kelmscott in their age and time. Here in the twenty first century, I can do it in a little over two hours in the comfortable modernity of my motor car. The very speed of transport now – physical and virtual - makes life schizophrenic, makes it possible for me to feel in the past and the present at the same time. In the late nineteenth century, I guess William Morris coped by retreating to Kelmscott Manor when he felt overwhelmed by the speed of everyday life in London.
Leslie asked about the 65 swims at 65 years of age, which swims were most interesting to me, which swims I found the best. This was difficult for me to say because all the swims carry something of importance and interest to me. I ventured swims in Lake Zurich, the Upper Thames and Venice. The last of these fired him up – he loves the houses skirting the waterfront at Hammersmith, and one of note is the Byron house. Leslie was keen on swimming all the Byron swims in the world, big and small - from Hellespont in Turkey to the Cam at Cambridge, if you will. And of course to swim in Venice. I can see Leslie doing all the Byron swims – he is determined, resourceful and persistent, perhaps a kind of swimming bulldog. Now just short of his 500 kilometers of swimming outdoors this year, he is pleasant and good company too (some determined and persistent swimmers can be arseholes – not he, far, far from it). He did the swim we did twice over today, with just a snack in between - he got cold, warmed up, and swam back again.
Reflecting on life today, this particular day, la vie aujourd’hui, a beautiful day. Thank you Rod, for the support and hospitality. Thanks to Hywel for scoping the swim and being there from start to finish, from idea to bottle of wine. Mike is stalwart, kind and generous, impish in humour, totally dependable – thank you for sharing this swim. Chris - along with Hywel, part of the original Swim the Thames backbone, balances humour and seriousness in a way that pulls people together and along - someone I respect deeply and am glad could be here to swim today. Leslie – what more can I say? Deep respect for what you are doing.
Reflecting on this particular day, while driving home... Chris felt odd wearing a wetsuit, but was very pleased to have swum this stretch, being pleasantly surprised by it’s greenness and character. Leslie and Rod were very kind and generous in sharing their stretch of the Thames, where local knowledge is key to understanding how to swim this fierce and magnificent river here. Hywel and Mike - always kind, helpful, well-humoured. My mind drifted to swimming identities _ there are many of these in the world of outdoor swimming. Could there be one for Hammersmith swimmers? At Lake Bled, Slovenia, in February I met some wonderful people who answered to various animal identities – seadogs, sea-horses, bears. At Clevedon Marine Lake there are orcas and walruses. In Oxford we have the Dodos. “Bulldogs”, I thought. Those that swim here might be deemed Hammersmith Bulldogs – I don’t know how our local hosts today might see it, but right now it somehow captured the spirit of today’s swim. Feeling the glow of a great day out in great company, the later after-glow of having gotten cold in the water, having shivered then recovered, the to-be last swim of the 65@65 happened differently but beautifully.
65@65 Swim #62 - Clevedon Marine Lake, near Bristol
I am the walrus… I am the walrus…’ kept circling in my mind on the way to Clevedon Marine Lake, across the other side of Bristol, on the Bristol Channel. Pauline and I were going to a swim session organised by the Walruses here. Some swimming groups have an animal identity, like the Berlin Brandenberg Bears, the Biarritz Polar Bears (Paris also has it’s Polar Bears, as do St Peterburg and Coney Island), or indeed the Oxford Dodos. The outdoors swimmers here at Clevedon have at least two (I suspect more) animal categories of swimmer - walruses and orcas for sure. The Beatles song put me in a surreal frame of mind – ‘see how they run like pigs from a gun see how they fly’ – yesterday was very wet and windy as Storm Francis lashed the UK, and my son saw an (empty) pair of trousers billow out and fly over a neighbour’s house. If pigs were to fly today, I would be ready for them. More Beatles-walrus ran around my mind as we drove, got closer – ‘Sitting in an English garden waiting for the son; if the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain’ – it has been a mixed and contrasted summer with sun and rain and sometimes both, and this week is no exception. Yesterday saw a day-long storm and gale-force winds, trousers flying. Today another Beatles song seems right - ‘here comes the sun…it’s alright’.
Pauline and I got to Clevedon bang on 10am, when the walruses meet. I was mindful of the surreal, and was ready for them – and for any ‘elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna’ – you never can know, especially when there are already Walruses and Orcas. The song ‘I am the Walrus’ was John Lennon’s take on Lewis Carroll's ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. Carroll was an Oxford mathematician, and in mathematics, strange things can happen, beyond the comprehension of the ordinary mind – I am not a mathematician, but am open to strangeness.
The Marine Lake was easy to find. After parking we walked up to it’s concrete lip, beyond which you could see the ocean, in front of which there was another lip, a horizon dividing the lake from the ocean, separating culture from nature. I scanned right-left and there were yet few people, but swimmers aggregating and changing at the southern end, which is where we went. I met Jo, introduced myself, asked about Head Walrus Tim (whom I met at Lake Bled in Slovenia in February – a lovely, warm and kind man). Jo looked right and left, no Head Walrus in sight, but she introduced me to Steve, a towering man in his forties, whom I also met at Lake Bled. The Winter Swimming World Championships there had strong UK representation, and Clevedon was one of the most numerous clubs. Tim arrived and was warmly greeted by all around, and he in turn warmly greeted Pauline and myself. We had brought cake, which quickly disappeared in return for warmth, gratitude and good-will.
We looked across the sea, Tim and Steve and me. The sun shone upon the sea, and the sea was as wet as wet can be, to paraphrase Louis Carroll – ‘The sun was shining on the sea, Shining with all his might: He did his very best to make, The billows smooth and bright’. Yes there were clouds, billowing white ones; no inflated trousers in flight, it wasn’t to be that sort of day, which I thought can only be a good thing.
Zoe and Jo were changing by the rocks, and I dropped myself there too, getting a little warmth from the roughly hewn stone as I changed. Jo asked me if I did much of ocean swimming, and I kind-of dodged around that one. Probably unfairly of me, it seemed at first bite to be the sort of question that fell into the category ‘do you play chess?’. Now ‘Do you play chess?’ questions are seemingly innocent, but play to the advantage of the asker. A question-trap for the unwary – say yes, and you are up for a very short humiliating game (if the question is really about playing chess), or if the question-asker is a psychopath, you are up for a longer, more humiliating game. This is because they play with you and tell you when you make a wrong move (most humiliating is when all of your moves are wrong, and they tell you of all of the times they have ‘spared’ you). The key to such questions is to spot them and answer ‘no’ straightaway. No room for indecision, no opening for cat-and-mouse. I was wrong about the nature of the question. Walruses are above cat-and-mouse, especially Jo-Walrus – a truly lovely person, as was everyone I met this fine morning. She loves the place, the people. I was wrong about her, and fortunately didn’t shut down the question this morning, but nor did I need to. How did I answer? Well, I love ocean swimming, that’s what I tried to say, without committing to it. I shuffled from foot to foot, and Jo put me out of my ambivalent misery. It was quite straightforward – in the afternoon a small group Walruses would be swimming a mile to the pier in the distance and back again; did I care to join them? I guess what did for me was that Jo didn’t smile much when I just met her, so I couldn’t tell whether this was a ‘do you play chess?’ question. I am used to non-smiling with Russians, who do not waste emotional energy on people they don’t know or don’t yet know if they like, but Jo isn’t Russian or didn’t seem so. I very politely declined the ocean swim, as my mind and mouth said no while my body clearly said yes. We had to be back late afternoon, much as I would have liked to have stayed. Next time.
Moving subjects, I asked a now-smiling Jo about the swimmer-art-tiles by the ladder into the water. “Nancy Farmer”, she said – they were familiar to me, and I said so – they capture the spirit of outdoor swimming very, very beautifully, and especially outdoor swimming here at Clevedon. A fraction of smile formed as Jo warmed up to the conversation, awkward goose-bumps disappearing. I went to look – at those, but also later the other tiles Nancy Farmer had done for the Lake. Jo was among those that commissioned them for the Marine Lake, and was keen on the history and heritage of the place. She had helped negotiate the various plaques and explanations in place around the concrete lip of the Lake. And poetry, we had this in common, she liked poetry – there was a swim-poem in tile-work, surrounded by the work of Nancy Farmer, which we had to see, she said. Which we did, after lunch.
Before lunch, there was the swimming, which was good, cheerful and polite people enjoying the morning or doing workerly laps of the 250 meter-long Lake at its longest. The shape and depth of the Lake was determined by nature, the cut-off line was straight as only culture can have it. I swam close to the edge, on the edge of culture and close to nature, four laps. With a kilometer under my belt I felt I had earned some food. Zoe and Helen came to greet me along the way, broad smiles under swimcaps. We were asked if we would stay for lunch – “for sure!” I said. At the nearby restaurant, we sat outside and overlooked the Marine Lake and the ocean beyond. We talked of distances swam today, of animal species of swim-groups, that sort of thing. I had done four lengths, Helen two. Zoe had done two lengths and a mermaid. My anthropologists’ antennae poked out - “What is a mermaid?” I asked. Whereupon the conversation turned to a little more history. The Lake was opened in 1929 and thrived. When cheap package holidays from the 1960s enticed people overseas for their summer holidays, Clevedon Marine Lake went into decline, only to be revived and renewed in the 2000s, most recently with significant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This year, now, the Lake was thronging with people, families, swimming, dipping, diving, paddle boarding, a friendly lively scene. And the mermaid? There used to be a mermaid statue in the lake, and this became a marker for swimming, a local non-standard swimming distance. When the mermaid was removed, a buoy was put in its place. People still swim the mermaid now, a symbolic one, and sometimes the swim not the standard non-standard mermaid but a wide mermaid. A wide mermaid - what could that be? I felt the ghost of Lewis Carroll tap on my shoulder – be ready for strangeness, I thought.
“What is a wide mermaid”, I asked then, I couldn’t resist. The risk of question with a self-evident answer is that the answer is self-evident, which it was today. Sometimes it isn’t, and that can be interesting, or even strange. Which is one of the reasons I love swimming – there is so much to know beyond the swimming as well as with it. It is perfectly enough today to see people at this wonderful place, Clevedon Marine Lake, clearly proud of it, happy, friendly, swimming. What more can I ask for? Thank you for everything, Walruses.