Updated: Aug 22
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.