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Updated: Jun 30

‘I am the walrus… I am the walrus…’ kept circling in my mind on the way to Clevedon Marine Lake, across the other side of Bristol, on the Bristol Channel. Pauline and I were going to a swim session organised by the Walruses here. Some swimming groups have an animal identity, like the Berlin Brandenberg Bears, the Biarritz Polar Bears (Paris also has it’s Polar Bears, as do St Peterburg and Coney Island), or indeed the Oxford Dodos. The outdoors swimmers here at Clevedon have at least two (I suspect more) animal categories of swimmer - walruses and orcas for sure. The Beatles song put me in a surreal frame of mind – ‘see how they run like pigs from a gun see how they fly’ – yesterday was very wet and windy as Storm Francis lashed the UK, and my son saw an (empty) pair of trousers billow out and fly over a neighbour’s house. If pigs were to fly today, I would be ready for them. More Beatles-walrus ran around my mind as we drove, got closer – ‘Sitting in an English garden waiting for the son; if the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain’ – it has been a mixed and contrasted summer with sun and rain and sometimes both, and this week is no exception. Yesterday saw a day-long storm and gale-force winds, trousers flying. Today another Beatles song seems right - ‘here comes the sun…it’s alright’.

Pauline and I got to Clevedon bang on 10am, when the walruses meet. I was mindful of the surreal, and was ready for them – and for any ‘elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna’ – you never can know, especially when there are already Walruses and Orcas. The song ‘I am the Walrus’ was John Lennon’s take on Lewis Carroll's ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. Carroll was an Oxford mathematician, and in mathematics, strange things can happen, beyond the comprehension of the ordinary mind – I am not a mathematician, but am open to strangeness.

The Marine Lake was easy to find. After parking we walked up to it’s concrete lip, beyond which you could see the ocean, in front of which there was another lip, a horizon dividing the lake from the ocean, separating culture from nature. I scanned right-left and there were yet few people, but swimmers aggregating and changing at the southern end, which is where we went. I met Jo, introduced myself, asked about Head Walrus Tim (whom I met at Lake Bled in Slovenia in February – a lovely, warm and kind man). Jo looked right and left, no Head Walrus in sight, but she introduced me to Steve, a towering man in his forties, whom I also met at Lake Bled. The Winter Swimming World Championships there had strong UK representation, and Clevedon was one of the most numerous clubs. Tim arrived and was warmly greeted by all around, and he in turn warmly greeted Pauline and myself. We had brought cake, which quickly disappeared in return for warmth, gratitude and good-will.

We looked across the sea, Tim and Steve and me. The sun shone upon the sea, and the sea was as wet as wet can be, to paraphrase Louis Carroll – ‘The sun was shining on the sea, Shining with all his might: He did his very best to make, The billows smooth and bright’. Yes there were clouds, billowing white ones; no inflated trousers in flight, it wasn’t to be that sort of day, which I thought can only be a good thing.

Zoe and Jo were changing by the rocks, and I dropped myself there too, getting a little warmth from the roughly hewn stone as I changed. Jo asked me if I did much of ocean swimming, and I kind-of dodged around that one. Probably unfairly of me, it seemed at first bite to be the sort of question that fell into the category ‘do you play chess?’. Now ‘Do you play chess?’ questions are seemingly innocent, but play to the advantage of the asker. A question-trap for the unwary – say yes, and you are up for a very short humiliating game (if the question is really about playing chess), or if the question-asker is a psychopath, you are up for a longer, more humiliating game. This is because they play with you and tell you when you make a wrong move (most humiliating is when all of your moves are wrong, and they tell you of all of the times they have ‘spared’ you). The key to such questions is to spot them and answer ‘no’ straightaway. No room for indecision, no opening for cat-and-mouse. I was wrong about the nature of the question. Walruses are above cat-and-mouse, especially Jo-Walrus – a truly lovely person, as was everyone I met this fine morning. She loves the place, the people. I was wrong about her, and fortunately didn’t shut down the question this morning, but nor did I need to. How did I answer? Well, I love ocean swimming, that’s what I tried to say, without committing to it. I shuffled from foot to foot, and Jo put me out of my ambivalent misery. It was quite straightforward – in the afternoon a small group Walruses would be swimming a mile to the pier in the distance and back again; did I care to join them? I guess what did for me was that Jo didn’t smile much when I just met her, so I couldn’t tell whether this was a ‘do you play chess?’ question. I am used to non-smiling with Russians, who do not waste emotional energy on people they don’t know or don’t yet know if they like, but Jo isn’t Russian or didn’t seem so. I very politely declined the ocean swim, as my mind and mouth said no while my body clearly said yes. We had to be back late afternoon, much as I would have liked to have stayed. Next time.

Moving subjects, I asked a now-smiling Jo about the swimmer-art-tiles by the ladder into the water. “Nancy Farmer”, she said – they were familiar to me, and I said so – they capture the spirit of outdoor swimming very, very beautifully, and especially outdoor swimming here at Clevedon. A fraction of smile formed as Jo warmed up to the conversation, awkward goose-bumps disappearing. I went to look – at those, but also later the other tiles Nancy Farmer had done for the Lake. Jo was among those that commissioned them for the Marine Lake, and was keen on the history and heritage of the place. She had helped negotiate the various plaques and explanations in place around the concrete lip of the Lake. And poetry, we had this in common, she liked poetry – there was a swim-poem in tile-work, surrounded by the work of Nancy Farmer, which we had to see, she said. Which we did, after lunch.

Before lunch, there was the swimming, which was good, cheerful and polite people enjoying the morning or doing workerly laps of the 250 meter-long Lake at its longest. The shape and depth of the Lake was determined by nature, the cut-off line was straight as only culture can have it. I swam close to the edge, on the edge of culture and close to nature, four laps. With a kilometer under my belt I felt I had earned some food. Zoe and Helen came to greet me along the way, broad smiles under swimcaps. We were asked if we would stay for lunch – “for sure!” I said. At the nearby restaurant, we sat outside and overlooked the Marine Lake and the ocean beyond. We talked of distances swam today, of animal species of swim-groups, that sort of thing. I had done four lengths, Helen two. Zoe had done two lengths and a mermaid. My anthropologists’ antennae poked out - “What is a mermaid?” I asked. Whereupon the conversation turned to a little more history. The Lake was opened in 1929 and thrived. When cheap package holidays from the 1960s enticed people overseas for their summer holidays, Clevedon Marine Lake went into decline, only to be revived and renewed in the 2000s, most recently with significant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This year, now, the Lake was thronging with people, families, swimming, dipping, diving, paddle boarding, a friendly lively scene. And the mermaid? There used to be a mermaid statue in the lake, and this became a marker for swimming, a local non-standard swimming distance. When the mermaid was removed, a buoy was put in its place. People still swim the mermaid now, a symbolic one, and sometimes the swim not the standard non-standard mermaid but a wide mermaid. A wide mermaid - what could that be? I felt the ghost of Lewis Carroll tap on my shoulder – be ready for strangeness, I thought.

“What is a wide mermaid”, I asked then, I couldn’t resist. The risk of question with a self-evident answer is that the answer is self-evident, which it was today. Sometimes it isn’t, and that can be interesting, or even strange. Which is one of the reasons I love swimming – there is so much to know beyond the swimming as well as with it. It is perfectly enough today to see people at this wonderful place, Clevedon Marine Lake, clearly proud of it, happy, friendly, swimming. What more can I ask for? Thank you for everything, Walruses.

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