The day started with two auspicious moments. The first was seeing the sun rising from the infinite mist on the horizon of the M40 on the way to London to swim, Neil driving, Helen and Jeremy in the back. A big fat on-the-horizon golden sun emerging as we were coming to the edge of The Shire, or Oxfordshire. We were four hobbits leaving The Shire on a mission to the Big City London-Town, to swim in relay in the annual PHISH winter swimming event – Parliament Hill Icy Swim Hogmanay – all words that come together to spell an unlikely event when most of the country’s most devoted Winter swimmers aggregate. Jeremy and Karen had been to IKEA just recently, and Jeremy had Swedish Fish lollies to share, very proudly from Malmo, famous in winter swimming circles for Ribersborg Kallbadhus. Jeremy and I had visited there last year, and this is a place I get to several times a year, when I am working in Copenhagen. Fish lollies for PHISH.
The second auspicious moment was seeing and talking with the East German Ladies Swim Team, founded in 2011 in honour the most successful (and most controversial) Olympic swimming team: the 1976 East German Ladies Swimming Team, who wiped the opposition at the Montreal Olympic Games, who also had deep voices and were long-term users of steroids. The Hampstead Ponds equivalent are all men, all very charming, all very enthusiastic. They are the stuff of local swimming legend, so it was a great privilege to shake hands and exchange news – ‘yes, we were going to PHISH – we are Oxford Dodos relay team – we were in the lane next to you last year…’ They asked more about swimming in Oxford, I said I would be honoured to host any East German Ladies to a swim if they happened to come to Oxford.
So we are here at Hampstead Ponds, January 2020, for a pre-swim swim, ahead of PHISH, eight swimmers, two Dodo relay teams, one the Oxford Dodos (the orginals), the other, captained by Alice, the Stuffed Dodos (in recognition of the stuffed dodo in the Natural History Museum in Oxford. This is the dodo that Lewis Caroll took inspiration from when writing Alice in Wonderland). Caroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and he had a stutter – so he was nick-named Dodo by his fellow students at Oxford back in the day. There was some confusion even before we started out today. It was a species-identity-related issue. We are Hobbits, but we are also Dodos. The email correspondence ran thus, in the days running-up to PHISH -
Jeremy set the schedule (he is a fantastic planner) -
06:30 Leave Home in Chippy (Jeremy is a resident of Chipping Norton, west Oxfordshire)
07:00 Collect Stanley from home at Eynsham, West Oxfordshire (00:29)
07:18 Collect Helen from home, in Oxford (00:18)
07:30 Arrive Thornhill Park and Ride, Oxford and park (00:11)
Transfer to Neil’s car – drop of zone / waiting room
07:40 Leave Thornhill Park and Ride
08:50 Arrive at Parking – based on last year’s optimum site. (01:08)
09:00 Register for our relay (10:00 cut off) (00:11)
Wander up to Hampstead ponds for a pre relay warm up swim.
Late breakfast at the café to replace lost calories and stock pile some more for the relay.
13:00 Relay event
16:00 Depart from parking, latest.
17:30 Arrive Thornhill Park and Ride
This seems straightforward. Jeremy even timed in slippage (or was it faffage?), acknowledging that “Times are approx. So maybe +/- 5 minutes or so either way! (The down to the minute time implies a degree of precession that does not exist in swimming circles J! ) Can txt if wildly out”. So, everything was covered. Or was it? Neil found the problem straightaway, something that threatened him deep to the core – “I thought we had breakfast then walked to the ponds for a dip!!!” Apres Neil, la deluge! Me – “I think Neil has it the right way around – we are Hobbits after all…” Helen – ‘Oh no - i am confused now..... I don't know if I breakfast to swim or swim to breakfast or both. Darn it. That must be two breakfasts....one before and one after.....?’ Me – “I think you may share the confusion of the Dodo who is hobbit at heart. Hobbits have habits, like second breakfast, that die hard... This doesn't help the confusion, but it paves the way to two breakfasts...” Jeremy resolved the matter – “Two breakfasts sounds like the way to go - best not take chances. I can, or maybe just think I can, remember having difficulty with a knife and fork and cold hands. But I probably had a cold brain too and it might not have been a PHISH event. Or a second breakfast…” And on it went.
Neil was gracious in accepting a group decision to make for a single late breakfast. Dodos Oxford and Stuffed strutted and squarked up to the Ponds, past the Hampstead Heath Café, past the smell of bacon cooking, a smell guaranteed to break the fast of a hunger-striker. Neil was strong-willed, walked on past the café, as did we all. One breakfast was now on the cards, and we were now more dodo than hobbit. Up the hill, to the fork in the path – the five women veered left to the Women’s Pond, and the three men to the Men’s Pond.
The swim – 7.4 degrees Celsius; Jeremy was keen to validate his thermometer against that of the Ponds. It was out by half a degree, within the bounds of accuracy for his thermometer. We had a thermometer conversation as we swam in the vegetative waters of the Men’s Pond. Once I decided that it was like swimming in cold tea, it seemed somehow both better and stranger. Dodos can at least bring some Lewis Caroll wonderland to London-Town. The conversation turned to the distinction between precision and accuracy. Jeremy’s thermometer was accurate in that it gave the same measure of Celsius when estimating the temperature of a given patch of water at a given time, and it was within the bounds of precision for that thermometer in that it was only half a degree away from a standard measure, if we were to take the life guard’s measure of temperature at the Men’s Pond on that day. I bet Lewis Caroll could flip even more persuasively between wonderland and theoretical and applied mathematics. Charles Dodgson (his real name) researched algebraic geometry, mathematical logic and theory of voting. Dodgson was a practical man, who made recommendations concerning Parliamentary elections, including a rule that no results should be announced until all polling stations were closed (it seems a non-brainer now), and various methods for proportional representation. Neil meantime was half-way around the Pond, having dived in off the diving board and drawn admiration from two men in their twenties going through the Winter swimming season for their first time. The sun shone on cold tea, and it was time to go, meet the lady-dodos and eat breakfast. We met up again, exchanged stories and observations, and tracked back to the Hampstead Heath Café. Busy Saturday morning, every man, woman, dog and child seemed to be there. The line to order was long but orderly, polite efficient. Past the cake, past the fruit, to the moment of truth – the ordering of breakfast. Neil was ahead of everyone, his metabolic needs driving his very specific appetite for breakfast. This clatter and chatter in the café was loud, so I couldn’t hear Neil ordering his food, but the body language of disappointment was clear. “Breakfast orders close at 11.00” said Jeremy. “No full English breakfast!” his body seemed to say. He settled for a bacon roll and a sausage in a roll. I was swim-confused – I was going for the full English too, now what to do? The choice was bizarre, but somehow worked. I relied on my primate brain to choose the things that appealed on the spur of the moment – a bright orange persimmon, a big piece of bright yellow custard and almond sponge cake (trust me, it was good), and a sausage in a bread roll with bright red tomato ketchup. Being a good primate, I used colour signalling to indicate caloric value. It kind of worked, but in the wrong order – persimmon, then cake, then sausage in a roll. Have you ever tried to eat a very ripe jelly-like persimmon without a spoon and with shiver-hands? We ate heartily, but it wasn’t breakfast, not real breakfast… We left for the nearby Parliament Hill Lido knowing that without breakfast, not even single breakfast, far, far from second breakfast, we were hobbits a long way away from The Shire.