Updated: May 23, 2020
I have been a member of Vinterbad Bryggen for several years, after looking longingly at this bathing platform on earlier visits, so perfectly designed, so well-placed in the city. ‘Better to swim than to regret not swimming’. My niece, Sarah, has a great saying – “you never regret a swim”. She said it as justification of squeezing in time for a swim at Grange Beach, Adelaide, when I stayed with her a few years ago. She didn’t really have the time then, and I was her justification – a visitor, in need of a swim. I say to myself all the time now, especially when Modern Time squeezes every possibility of doing something very life affirming during the working day. “You never regret a swim” helps me find a swim where there would otherwise not be one, find kindred people who feel the same way, find the very beautiful, and sometimes encounter the unexpected. “You never regret a swim” keeps my mind, eyes and ears open. I joined VBB because I need to swim in Winter and it is placed so well, with a view of the city, and the crowned spire of Parliament House rising behind Langerbro, the long bridge that links the mainland of Copenhagen to one of its islands. It is also close by the University of Copenhagen’s Southern Campus, still called KUA (Kopenhagens Universitet A) by many and myself, so the decision is pragmatic. If I am close to a swim every day, I will swim every day. There is something very gratifying about getting out in togs and into the water in the very centre of a city, in this case in the canal that defines the Copenhagen waterfront.
Today is already tonight, and I am meeting Anne Katrine to swim and sauna – “lets meet in the women’s sauna, and discuss the project”. The sauna is a place where meetings sometimes take place – in your togs, you are all equal, this reduces status hierarchies dramatically, because there is only embodied capital to display, and not the symbolic capital of clothing, shoes, bags, laptop, and everything else that goes with the material every day. I sometimes think that Scandinavian democracy starts with the great levelling that takes place when all, or nearly all, material trappings are taken away. There are two saunas at VBB – gendered, but flexibly so. Very Copenhagen. If you are a man and woman together in some way, you can use either male or female sauna. Man or men alone, to the men’s sauna; woman or women alone, to the women’s. There are times, usually in the evening, when talking is discouraged, when the swim-sauna thing leads to introspection, calm, and intimacy without words that I imagine would be what it is like to be on a silent retreat. Other times, indeed most other times, people talk, interact, joke and laugh. Like being in the pub. But without the beer. And without clothes. Anne Katrine have a little work to discuss, to get out of the way before enjoying the evening. I swim longer than anyone swimming tonight – “you are a Viking!” says a woman who is completing her Masters in Philosophy, seeking to do a doctorate at KUA. I have had this comment from a number of people – being a Viking is high praise. Of fortitude, endurance, inner strength. It seems to me that this is what being Danish means to a lot of people, deep down. Happiness, as the World Happiness Survey has it, places people in Scandinavia at the top of the list – this Viking world view places people within a deep history and makes the quiet virtues the important ones. Respect is shown by a look deep into the eyes and a very small nod of the head. I am very satisfied by getting the Viking nod from the philosopher lady, before we start a conversation about phenomenology and everyday experience. This is a conversation I have never had in a pub, so in that way the sauna is not quite like the pub.
This is an ikonic place, the swimming platform at Islands Brygge. The place name translates into ‘Iceland Wharf’, which tells of its no too distant history as part of the docklands of Copenhagen. No dock here now, all gone North, to Nordhavn, to where the ships of the Maersk company and its shipping containers are located. Water, the ocean, are, and have always been, important to this nation. I preen with pride when some says to me ‘you are a Viking!’, always in relation to winter swimming. Iceland Wharf is well on the way to gentrification. In Summer the grassy parkland set behind the serious cobbled dock front is teeming with people, mostly young, mostly loud, mostly half-dressed, some drinking, some throwing themselves in the water. Last June we stayed in Islands Brygge, the district, the weather was properly warm, and the people hot and sweaty and Islands Brygge, the wharf, was partying, as was all of Copenhagen. Work seemed to stop for the week as people were bleary eyed in the morning and off to the beach in the mid-afternoon.
It wasn’t always like this. This area is an island, Amager, linked at this point to the mainland city of Copenhagen by Langebro, literally ‘long bridge’. Christofer Eckersberg painted it nearly two Hundred years ago. It was home to the navy when Denmark was a serious naval power, and to the military more generally, and when the military moved north it became industrial. Then an industrial accident on great scale happened, killing people, at a time when the city was rethinking its options. This part of Copenhagen was to de-industrialise. After years of being neglected, in the 1980s local residents took up the struggle with the dominant soya factory, improvising new uses for old decrepit structures, cleaning up the neighbourhood then demanding the soy factory clean up its act too. The battle was taken up with the council, to clean up the canal. Amazingly, this people’s struggle was incredibly effective. As the city’s busy shipping artery became much less busy, as factories relocated the harbour basin was cleaned up. In 2001 it was declared clean, and the very first harbour bath for many decades was opened. The Islands Brygge harbour bath, swimming platform, is ikonic because it is the first, and is the symbol evoked by planners and politicians about how urban life should be in Copenhagen. Opened in 2003, the harbour bath was so popular among people that it was developed into a permanent feature. Vinterbad Bryggen was to follow – the winter swimming club that opens October to April every year. Swimming is at the heart of the public discourse in Copenhagen about what a healthy city is and should be. After bicycles, of course. But at its heart is the sense of agency that Copenhageners hold precious in their dealings with authority. In the crazy Summer weeks people jump into the harbour waters just about anywhere, it seems to me. Last Summer Pauline and I threw ourselves in front of the National Theatre, seeing others do it. It seemed right somehow – in previous years the city authorities laid out sand and a sunbathing platform right here, and called it Ophelia Beach. A nod to Shakespeare, and a quiet warning to those knowing their Shakespeare (what better way to go to a play than to have a swim first?) that Ophelia drowned herself. Much better than a sign saying ‘WARNING! DEEP WATER!’, the name Ophelia is enough to evoke a sense of care in and by the water. And people like the joke – I have been told that it fits the Danish sense of humour very well. Once out, we saw the harbour police come across ion their launch to quiz the two young men still in the water. “OK” I thought, lets see what authority does here. The police requested they leave the water right there because they were swimming right next to the river bus jetty. “Health and safety” I thought. Since then I have become aware of the various places where yellow buoys have been put in place, ladders into the water erected, a swimming place designated, from informal place where people tend to swim or throw themselves into water, to a space designated by the municipality for swimming. There are four such places now, in addition to the two further formal bathing platforms in the canal, and the beach facilities constructed in recent years. The Danes have a tendency to do great things quietly, usually sensibly, often shaping their world in important and well-considered ways. So it is with swimming and Copenhagen. For the swimmer, Copenhagen is ready, open and understanding. And the harbour bath at Islands Brygge is a monument to swimming, friendship and for the power of human agency in creating healthy urban life.