Updated: Apr 29, 2020
I woke up this morning with the number 888 in my head. On Sunday 19th April, Pauline woke me with a cup of tea and “888”. I like numbers, and placing a number, finding a meaning for it, explaining it is a pointless activity that occupies that part of the brain when the rest of my brain is in neutral, idling in the car-park. “The number of deaths from Covid-19 yesterday” – Saturday, yesterday, the day when nothing happened, and I rejoiced. Well, something clearly happened to 888 people. My mind jumped to other numbers –999, emergency – 111 Covid-hot-line - the inverse of 999 for speed-dial to the devil. My son is praying for us, we are all praying, don’t let the devil prey. The 888 has to be de-fused somehow. With swimming there is always a way of bringing down the level of alarm and stress. The Thames, at Swinford Bridge. 888 – figures of eight through the three arches of Swinford Bridge that run over the Thames upstream of Oxford, just outside my village. I decided that this is what needs to be done, to appease my mind and body. This is not a novel idea for me – last Summer I did this a few times, swimming hard through the first arch, twisting round and being taken with the water through the middle arch, recovering and swimming hard through the third arch, twisting again in the other direction and being pushed through the middle arch again, then start all over with the first arch again. Repeat until bored. Usually this is best done early in the morning during the mid-week when there are few if any boats travelling this stretch of the river, when the traffic is that of the cars accelerating from the toll booth at the village end of the bridge. The toll at Eynsham Lock is an historical vestige from the sixteen hundreds, something that Charles the First bestowed on the bridge owners in perpetuity, by act of parliament. Five pence it costs, cars queuing to cross the bridge at rush hour back-up several hundred meters and you learn to be patient. But not today – it is virtually empty to traffic, and the toll collector has closed his booth, until the end of lock-down. The bridge is beautiful, built in 1769 of local limestone, and is a delight to swim under, especially when the traffic above is on the way to work and I have a little time to spend on this wonderfully pointless activity. Right now, in the covid-year, it doesn’t matter what time I get here, there is almost no road traffic and no river traffic at all. Figures of eight will be done, to settle and to calm.
The Thames at Swinford Bridge was my birthday swim last year, conjoint with Kristie. She is coming down here most days during these-lock-down-days, on her own, in need of her swim. She is a cheerful and happy soul with (usually) infectious laughter, and a determined and strong swimmer, right through winter. I saw her just a few days ago, striding with purpose along the road from village to river, towel and togs in hand. She too lives in Eynsham village. As of this moment, I can count four other regular outdoor swimmers who live within a couple of hundred meters of each other in the village. Kirstie and I spoke briefly, at a distance, of swimming, of people, or places, then wished each other the best – of health, of fortune, of well-being – smiling the tight-lipped smile that wants to be generous but can’t really be so today. ‘We will swim together again’ I say, “before long” she says. Today at Swinford Bridge, Pauline and I cycled down, then took the short path to the foot of the bridge. This is where it’s possible to slip in by climbing down on the roots of a tree, which offer Tolkein-like steps into the water. This is Tolkein-land, The Shire, as my daughter still calls it, where residents are fond of eating and merry-making. But not right now, not in the coronavirus year. I mark the need for Hobbit-ery by bringing a small piece of cake wrapped in a napkin, in my swim-bag. Unlike Tolkein’s hobbits, this Hobbit, me, likes swimming.
And swim I do, figure of eight, figure of eight, figure of eight, until the covid-death-curse is broken. I know it doesn’t work like that, and the heroes who are putting their lives at risk are doing the real work. Swinford Bridge is one of many bridges along the Thames, all beautiful in one way or another. Most are hundreds of years old, all are wonderful to swim under. When I was part of the Swim the Thames group, we had a rule of swimming butterfly under every bridge ‘lest we stir the goblins’. We did this in fun, but if you were to go back even just a hundred years, people took the river gods of the Thames seriously. Thames gods were known to the Romans, all the way up to the source. Doubtless Thames gods were known to people all the way back to the Paleolithic, to the origins of religion itself. Swimming fly seems a small price to pay for making sure what vestigial gods remain in the Thames of the modern world remain undisturbed.
I am hopeless at fly, but struggled along with the rest of the Swim the Thames group, getting water-logged towards the end of some of the bigger bridges closer to London. The M25 was the worst of these –the widest of the Thames bridges, two bridges in reality – and I thought I would drown at the end of it. Last October we swam from Runnymede to Truss’s Island, along the Thames, and Juliet had another take on what to do when swimming under bridges. She sings, with a beautiful voice. Echoed under a big enough bridge, she is almost a small choir unto herself. She sang under the M25 on that Runnymede swim, and her voice seemed to transform the concrete and brick supporting structure into a chapel. My memory of swimming under this particular bridge was acoustically changed forever. Back in the moment, swimming three sets of eight under the arches of Swinford Bridge requires continuous singing, difficult enough to do when swimming even in calm waters – have you tried it? I was not able to sing aloud in my figures of eight, but rather sang in my mind; a song recently added to the repertoire of the Serpentine Saturday Covid-19 Zoom Choir - Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me’… “Lean on me – When you’re not strong – And I’ll be your friend – I’ll help you – Carry on – For it won’t – Be long – Till I’m – Gonna need – Someone to lean on”. Sung for three figures of eight, followed by cake in a napkin, life somehow felt better.