Remember when? This question came to mind over and over, on the way to, during, and after the swim in the River Evenlode at Charlbury. Charlbury is a pretty West Oxfordshire town with a train station and a field adjacent to a river (among other charms). Jeremy, with whom I have swum many the year, invited me (or did I invite myself?) to swim at his corner of paradise, which is here. The first “remember when?” was the first swim I did here with Jeremy and Bex, one February evening, 2014. There was snow on the field as we walked across to the get-in place for the swim, this was a very pretty and intimate corner of nature made light by the snow in the winter dark. Bex and Jeremy walked the walk of knowledge, knowing exactly where they were going. Much of swimming open and sometimes wild involves meeting and being with people with local knowledge of swimming, knowing exactly where they are going, where to get in, sometimes how to get in, people in whom you trust and whose trust is never betrayed. Bex and Jeremy, with their quiet assurance, made this seem like perfectly normal behaviour - crossing a snow-laden field in the icy winter to swim from a small weir, in the dark. There was a bench when we got there, there still is. That time we got changed, at that time we all wore wetsuits, at that time it seemed to take longer to change into at out of wetsuits and out of and into warm clothing than the swim itself. We stepped carefully in the dark down to the top of the weir, then sat on its concrete-topped edge, accommodatingly wide enough and broad enough to seat three of more, then gently entered the water and swam upstream then back. Then to reverse the process – from a step in the water to waters edge careful not to slip, then step up, up, across onto solid space and bench. Fleeting torchlight to find which pile of clothes was whose also showed lobster pink emerging from wetsuit black. Then lobster pink against the dim white of light reflected on snow showed flesh briefly on show as we ragged-scrambled into layer upon layer – one more for when you get out than when you get in, the wisdom of Jeremy shining true as always. But before that, Jeremy, unpeeled from wetsuit scrambled down again, eyesight adjusted to the dim snow-light, dropped into the ice-water briefly for his ‘buzz’. The buzz was the thing, the brief sensation of burning, then subsequent burning pleasure, was the drive to daily or almost daily winter swimming. For Jeremy, for me, for Bex, for so many friends.
That was then, this is now. Bex came tonight, this summer night, still daylight, warm and a little humid. We were not sure if she would, and very pleased she did. There was much excitement, much waving of hands, no kisses or hugs, but only Covid-19 greetings and felicitations, mimed air-kisses and embraces.
Then the next “remember when?”. When I met my tribe, emerging from the Thames at Donnington Bridge, in wetsuits, in December, much more trembling than shivering. Bodily tremor at Richter Scale 7 equivalent (major, sudden severe) Bex was the first to emerge, the first soul I set eyes on and the first to ask of “how can I join?”. If swimming at Charlbury in February in the snow is not a usual activity for most, I was ready to join this select group of cheery hardened souls. On that weekend day, I had dropped off my son to go rowing at exactly the place where seal-like souls were emerging from the Thames, very cold, active, determined, one after another, maybe twenty of so, I don’t remember exactly how many, but impressively many. I was much excited, having swum year-round from previous years but on my own at Hardwick Pond. My tribe was now here emerging from the water. It only seemed natural that they should, my mind and body being prepared and able to see who they were. This was the very first Swim the Thames group, I was to find out. I had to stay in touch, I had to swim with them, to become one of them if I could. I asked Bex for her email address, which she scrawled shiver-handedly on a scrap of paper, less an email address than an abstract expressionist evocation of one. She said “see Jeremy”, as her body and soul were struggling to compose themselves into a combined non-shivering state. Jeremy, nearby was also challenged by the cold water, but gave a more steady-handed email address. I could never see Jeremy as an abstract expressionist. So, remember when I found my tribe and swam with them across winter and summer via spring and fall, and even after reaching the end of the non-tidal Thames at Teddington, and continue to see and swim with a number of them to the present-day. The Thames was Swum, in stretches, every two weeks, or sometimes twice on a weekend, or just once a month across winter. Only a handful finished the entire distance, and I am just 13 kilometers short.
Tonight’s swim was a very small pod, August-swimming in a fairly isolated spot, swallows and amazons, the banks of the Evenlode exploding with flowers and foliage. The water cut a slight chill at seventeen degrees, feeling cold to me after weeks of no-swimming, post knee replacement surgery, and swimming at around twenty degrees in Hardwick Lake when I did get back into the water. The cut of the water was good on the flesh, head down to cool off, a memory of my last swim before surgery, at Wallingford. That night I was ready to murder for a swim; tonight I cannot not even think or dream of it – I am in truly remarkable company, to share, remember and be with.