65@65 #54, Two Lakes WOSC
Of the most regular, everyday swimming places for me, ever since I realised that I didn’t need to drive hours to the coast to get a ‘good day out’ at the beach, is at the West Oxfordshire Sailing Club. When we lived in Cambridge in the 1980s and 90s we used to drive to the Norfolk coast, Hunstanton, Cley-Next-The-Sea, Burnham-Overy-Staithe, very beautiful, sometimes just for the day, with the kids. This was before some of the coastal region became ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’ – Burnham Market. The drive back, two hours or so, often undid all the chilling that the swimming had done for the day. They were lovely days, but not so frequent. We also made it to the Suffolk coast from time to time – Walberswick especially, but also Southwold and Aldeburgh, the latter a couple of times for the festival. We saw Jessie Norman lift the roof off the Snape Maltings one day in June 1989, then to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge the next. Aldebugh is a great place to reflect, to sense the many artist-ghost-presences there, and to hear the shingle sing.
Where the shingle sings – the sound-echo of the waves on stone-sand-rocks - is wherever there is a tide and the force of water tumbling the rocks until they are silky-smooth and then to sand (a project of millions of years), and ears to hear the crash-jungle-jangle – shh-shh swish. This eternal music is set to the rhythm of astronomy and physics as it meets biology and nature. Each beach has its own music. Going to work in Perth, Western Australia unlocked the music of the Indian Ocean, in the fierce drawing in and out of breath of sea on sand at North Cottesloe Beach (with one held breath every ten or so, as the next wave came in to dump and disrupt – counting waves was like counting bars in music). There was the boom! And the ‘bust…’ Of the ocean at Margaret River – I can still practice the breathing that goes with this water – sharp explosive out-breath, sucking in deep through teeth of air to fill lungs and explode again. As I do this now, I am right there on the edge of the terrifying Indian Ocean, ready to swim, with no space for mistakes.
Western Australia unlocked the swimming for me, with places to swim being easily accessible within a half-hour drive of home. This made swimming three times a week an almost natural thing for me to do. The very outdoors nature of the place made it easy to get out of bed for a swim. Going to North Cottesloe beach at six in the morning meant engaging with a very lively activity scene – swimming, kayaking, running, even yoga seemed very physical. A very positive place, where when someone asked how you were you said “Good!” like you really meant it and felt it. Sometimes “Good!” was “GOOD!”, it was THAT good. And, you know, it felt good to say it. Coming to the University of Oxford meant coming to one of the most land-locked places in the UK – how to keep the swimming going? At first it was at Swinford Bridge, right next to my village – it was free to go in, and the adolescents swam there across the summer, as they still do – which made it a natural place to go, just a kilometer from home.
Then we joined the Sailing Club, mostly because it was a close-by open space with facilities and two lakes, the larger for sailing, the smaller, for not much at all at the time. The then Commodore, John, was accommodating of my swimming, by the time I knew how much more I preferred swimming to sailing. With time, I took part in some swim events, initially of a kilometer or two, and was granted privilege of swimming in the large lake when there were no boats on the water. This was a mile around, which made it perfect for training for things like the London Mile, for example, which I did a number of times. When the small lake, which I call Hardwick Lake, opened for swimming just a few years ago, my swimming in the big lake stopped. Except that once a year I get up early of a summers' morning to swim both lakes, big and small, 2.2 kilometers before breakfast. So it was today; a specially-red sunrise greeted my approach to the two lakes before the morning settled for a pink-grey tone as the high clouds came in. There was nothing particularly special about the swim, other than the feeling that swimming the length of the two lakes, diagonally the larger, pretty well straight across the middle of the smaller, was like having my own personal swimming pools this morning. The water was warm, the total distance was big enough to be able to stretch out, the two lakes being distinct enough to give each of them a particular feel – open, the large one; more intimate, the smaller one. Oddly, I mused, the small lake didn’t feel that way if you just swam the small lake; it felt oddly bigger. This was another note on the psychology of swimming – so much of it is in the head. This was just an ordinary summer’s morning, finishing with porridge from a flask and pleasant pleasantaries exchanged with swimmers, wetsuiters-all, as they came and went. I wasn’t in a hurry. If this had been a normal summer, I could have been wardening at the Serpentine Swimming Club, taking people’s names as they went to swim, exchanging pleasantaries there and engaging in conversations (always interesting), getting a dip here and there when someone offered to do the job for 15 minutes or so. This is no ordinary year however; Covid-19 has changed so much, including swimming, including these 65@65 swims, which I have reopened, even though I go for knee replacement surgery later this week. This was itself postponed because of Covid-19 (I got to my pre-op the day before lock-down in March) and re-opened just last week in a Covid-19 secure environment at the Nuffield Orthopedic Centre. I don’t know when I will get back to swimming again after surgery, so I will swim every day this week to build a small store of short and sweet memories. In 2012, Laurie Anderson, multi-media artist in the United States, lost her collective work to Hurricane Sandy. She realised that in any confrontation with overwhelming natural force, what survives are the stories.
65@65 Swim #55, The Thames at Murder Central (Wallingford)
The weather was hot enough to want to murder someone. Early summer 2020 was the hottest on record for the UK, and after a day inside of lock down work, at the computer, at meetings, of slow frustrations in a room that was boil-in-the bag hot, I was ready to kill. The last day before self-isolation ahead of my knee replacement surgery. Ready to murder, or to swim. With murderous thoughts on my mind, the evening drive to Wallingford to swim under its historically wonderful bridge seemed about right. Wallingford is where Agatha Christie lived for the last 42 years of her life, in a big house that backed down to the Thames a few hundred meters downstream of Wallingford Bridge. Her home was the model for Danemead, the fictional Miss Marple’s house in the fictional village of St Mary Mead. Wallingford was Miss Marple’ murder-central. About twenty years ago, Claudio and Vita (and Zelda and Marco; and their housekeeper) came to Eynsham while we went to Bologna and the first of several house-swaps. These good friends from Bologna are as cosmopolitan as they come, and Vita now a very glamorous lady of seventy-plus, decided that they should all go to church in Eynsham – they turned heads then, and on their nightly passeggiata around the village. Claudio and Vita love the opera, the old Teatro Communale in Bologna being their local. Claudio swims everyday, but only when in Sardinia. It is good to have a routine, and it is good that their in-laws are in Sardinia. Beyond that, he is a legend of an immunogeneticist of aging, who runs the largest research project in the world on octogenarians. They both have a love of Oxfordshire. Vita still recounts their first encounter with our own hobbit-village of Eynsham – “straight out of Agatha Christie, a Miss Marple around every thatched-cottage corner”. She should have gone to Wallingford, then she would have a deeper story to tell. Maybe for next time, I will suggest it. Vita was Professor of English Literature at the University of Bologna and dealt in topics like primitivism in nineteenth century writing, different waves of feminist writing, but she has fond space for Miss Marple. Agatha Christie was President of the Wallingford Amateur Dramatic Society for a quarter of a century, but most importantly she had been a life-long swimmer, and one of the first women to take up surfing. How could she not resist a dip in the Thames when the bathing platform at the bottom of her garden allowed it so?
Midsomer Murders is also set, in part, in Wallingford, one of the locations of composite-fictional Causton, home to main character Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, who in the series is sometimes seen wandering around the central Market Place or driving across Wallingford bridge. Looking across the river, I imagine a body floating down, under the bridge, Barnaby accidentally breaking down in his car at rush-hour, traffic piling up at each end of the bridge, Barnaby looking over the bridge casually while waiting for the AA to come, seeing the body, floating down. I look up – no Barnaby. I look across the water – three dark forms floating under the bridge, one after the other. Three – the usual number of murders per week at Midsomer. Reality displaces my imagination as the three dark forms turn out to be wetsuiters swimming back down the river with the flow, finishing at this very beach by this very Wallingford Bridge.
As I muse on Agatha Christie (Miss Marple, Poirot), Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, Endeavour, all set in Oxfordshire, or Oxford, it seems surprising that there are any people left living in this The Shire of Tolkien (who had a thing for it too). Decade upon decade of murder, singular, plural, serial, should have depopulated this fair and beautiful county, homicide as primary risk of death. Wallingford seems to be Murder Central then, by a close edge over Oxford, largely because there have been so many more fictional serial killings there. This evening, now, in hot, sweaty murderous mood, I have come to swim at Murder Central, because if I don’t, quite simply, I might murder someone. Perhaps in a novel way - not by poisoning, or blunt instrument or sharp instrument, but by tow-bag. The tow bag gets tangled around the legs, which stop kicking, while the swans in breeding season, no longer deterred by the flapping-kicking of a swimmer take the tangled swimmer as a perch, like a log in the water, and sitting there, three swans in a row, cause the hapless swimmer to drown. Or maybe it takes a little alcohol to get the swimmer tangled in the first place. This is getting too complicated, too unlikely, even with a novel and unlikely bright orange murder-device. I put this in my back-pocket, the one marked 'murder mysteries yet to be written'.
As is oft said, “you never regret a swim”, and the sight of cool Thames water alone brings down the risk of murdering someone, while growing the impatience to get into togs and into water. Here at Murder Central, Pauline and I went from the car park by the river, by the bridge, to a well-trodden well-used beach where there were people lounging on the grass, paddling with toddlers, swimmers gone upstream and down, many murders averted just this evening, just by the coolness of the water. It was warm, it was humid, and the water called, cool, gently flowing from Bridge to Miss Marple’s house. It’s a classic scene, this beach by The Bridge, a biscuit-tin image. Wallingford Bridge was built and rebuilt and reconfigured between the eleven hundreds to the eighteen hundreds, St Pauls Church was built in the seventeen hundreds and completed the sky-line perfectly on the other side of the river. The Thames was welcoming, calm, and steady. Swimming under the bridge, dunking my head, cooling it and making it sane again, stroke after stroke under the central arch, cooing out for the 'echo – echo – echo' of bridge-arch acoustics, looking right and left to the historic banks of this great town, once known for so much more than fictional killings.
William the Conqueror, no less, chose Wallingford in 1067 to build a castle here, one that gave the town royal status across the Middle Ages. The bridge was the first major public work here, documented in 1141. For over 600 years, Wallingford was a hub of England. Now the castle is a beautiful ruin, with fine gardens and tightly-clipped lawns. What else remains? The curfew bell rings every night at 9pm to the present day, the curfew it marked being put in place by William the Conqueror to quell sedition against the French colonisers. And The Bridge of course, having undergone several rounds of building, rebuilding and restructuring; still as beautiful as ever. The fictional murders in and around Wallingford and The Shire and City of Oxford abound and multiply, the fictional bodies pile up, but the water of the Thames keeps flowing, stays just as delightfully swimmable as ever.