If I were writing a letter to my beloved outdoor swimming, it might start ‘My dear Port Meadow…’. It would be written long-hand, with fountain-pen, broad-nibbed, black ink, of the sort that takes on a sepia-tinge after a few years of aging. My dear Port Meadow, it was good to have seen you again today, the Thames / Isis that flows through you a little dark of mood, the paths be-puddled after a mornings’ heavy rain. There are a number of letters I can compose to my beloved swimming, and this is the first. It is now four weeks since covid-lock-down, and everyone is a little sombre, but people passing-by the Dodo tree, stray-cat academics with the dishevelled look that intellectuals affect, are smiling and encouraging of our swimming today, Pauline and myself. We cycled the seven kilometers from the village, our weekend ‘treat’, to go a little further, to buy fish at the fish supplier on the industrial estate, the best fish in Oxford, still open and doing good trade, to cycle past the orderly-distanced queue outside Waitrose on the Botley Road, up the nearby Binsey Lane and down a puddle-track to the Dodo tree – to my dear Port Meadow. The Dodo tree, I like to imagine, remembers Louis Caroll, and Alice, in Wonderland, forming in his mind. I like to remember the many swims, short and long, that have started and ended, or started, or ended, here. The Dodo Tree has an obliging seat, a flat surface where one of its big branches was cut, and some short branch-ends upon which to hang your coat, if there are not too many of you.
The river is calm, and warming up to a very refreshing temperature. We walked upstream to come down steadily; I couldn’t resist swimming across and standing on the opposite bank. It is such a silly satisfaction, to swim across to the other bank. A number of years ago, I took part in the swimming part of the Source to Sea River Relay, the totality of which involved taking a small bottle of River Thames water from the source to the sea (obviously) using a number of different water-borne means. The swimming stretch started in Benson, a little past schedule as the kayakers taking it from the previous stretch were delayed. I swam seven kilometers of this, much of the way to Goring, along a fabulous stretch of the Thames, in high Summer. Leslie and I walked back some of the way and we came close to where our cars were parked on the other side of the river, at Carmel College. We saw some walkers who informed us that the nearest bridge was way back at Cholsey, kilometers away. They looked surprised when we said we couldn’t be bothered with that, put our tops and shoes in our swim-bags, and just swam across the river to the car-park. Sorted. Easy.
For this Christmas past, I have another memory, this time of the Thames at Oxford in full-flow, when getting across felt like an achievement. At Port Meadow, the river was in full flood and the meadow was magical and every day was a unique swim-experience. Today, covid-lock-down-day, the Thames is easy to swim across, placid almost, now the floods have gone down, a piece of cake. We didn’t bring cake today, but it would have been that easy. Pauline brought porridge though, in a flask, with fresh apple in the bottom, nicely steamed by the hot oats by the time we came to eat it. We talked about porridge as the perfect swimming food – very sticky, it sticks to the stomach – we nodded knowingly, speaking with clear understanding of the folk-physiology of swimming. Today was a day in which nothing happened, a day in which I was happy to say that truly nothing happened and it was very pleasant, even the grey sky and especially the grey water in which it was reflected.
Then Neil turned up. On the opposite bank, on bicycle, at a distance, with his tell-tale big black swim bag. Waving furiously, we made contact. Shouting loudly, we asked of our respective health and well-being. Of our families. Of swimming past. Of swimming future, when we could all start from the same bank of the river and return there. It was deeply satisfying to see Neil on the other side – “I’m fine, I’ve got the river…” – Neil who has a strong sense of ownership of this stretch of the Thames. And if I owned it, I would give it to him, for his year-round devotion to Port Meadow swimming. Helen would get the stretch below Iffley Lock if I owned it and could give it to her, for three-years-plus of daily swimming, mostly there, in all weathers and seasons. Emma deserves a stretch of nearby river as well, for swimming every single day for well over a year. My dear Port Meadow must of necessity include all those who swim and have swum in her river – named Isis, Father Thames flowing through Oxford incognito. That is a lot of people, past and present, including good friends and Fellow Dodos, stray-cat academics, hippies and hipsters who swim-dip in Summer, some of the great and the good, and many quite normal-looking people. Neil had the grin of the Cheshire Cat as he made contact with water. As he disappeared into it, I could still see his grin. Nothing happened today, my dear Port Meadow, and it was all the more wonderful for that.