Updated: Sep 21
“Are we nearly there yet?” – so spoke the look on Pauline’s face as we were getting closer, but not quite there, in rural Somerset, with place-names usually attached to cheese and cider passing us right and left. I have felt like that about my 65@65 just recently – am I nearly there yet? It is all well and good to defer your birthday by three months to take account of Covid-19 lockdown, but there is a time when time should move on and a boy should too, or be doomed to be forever a child. There is charm to Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, but the need to get there (in more ways than one) seems pressing this morning.
Are we nearly there yet? “Not quite”, I replied to Pauline, who was driving. Then we overshot, turning around at Farley Hungerford Castle just a couple of kilometers along this small country road. The castle looked sufficiently curious for a quick look, a sneek-peek, while asking a gate attendant where we should go – we didn’t see a sign for the place we were going to, nothing. No sneek-peek was possible. You have to book in advance, even for these castle ruins, in this the first year of Covid-19 (it seemed to be dragging on a long time, even for a disease). But the attendant was helpful, a local, who showed us where we went wrong today. We had to go back on ourselves over two little (very) old bridges take the field on the right. “Is there a sign, we didn’t see one?”. “No” was the word-efficient answer. Across the two very old little bridges we went, hump-back, bump back, hump-back, to a gate open to a field with just a few cars parked there, at the far end. There was a sign on the gate, in fact two - small and green, one of them very faded, both prettily camouflaged. This was the Farleigh River swimming Club, recommended to me by the president of the Serpentine Swimming Club in London, Alan. He spoke very highly of it; idyllic was one of the words he used. He doesn’t use this word very often, so it really must be. This is one of the few remaining such clubs since their boom-time in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is claimed that this one is the oldest still in existence. We were here to find the idyllic essence of Farleigh. I hoped our hopes were not set too high.
After parking, to another (close-by) gate we went, where a young women took my details and my money (half price in September but you can swim until the New Year – you can take part in the Christmas swim if you like), and with great enthusiasm, took my photo. It was an enthusiasm worth driving from Oxford for – an enthusiasm that characterised our visit today, we were to find as the morning unfolded. In return for details and money, I was now a member of the club, and I hadn’t yet seen the water – Alan’s word had motivated us to come, and it could not fail to live up to expectation (we hoped). Through the gate we went, to the inner sanctum - field to the left, weir and river, small, rushing, glistening in the morning sunlight, to the right. It felt better and better by the minute – we were there now, nearly there in the water. Towels, togs and trousers in casual but socially-distanced piles on the uncut grass signalled the place to change, even though there was no-one to be seen just then. The get-in was at the weir, the prettiest weir I have ever seen – solid, proper, made of stone slabs and more stone slabs for steps to get in the water. Then a gravel base to the river, shallow to stand waist deep, inviting a plunge into deep water and a swim, heads-up, up-stream in glittering water. Helen, in Oxford, has said more than once that if there is magic in the world, it is to be found in water. I believe that to be true - the water at Farleigh is magical, enticing.
We found our socially-distanced space on the grass and moved to change into togs, when a pod of swimmers came down-stream to the weir, as cheerful as a pod of swimmers in the sunshine. Questions were asked and answered, in the way they are in the Himalayas, where I was a number of times around three decades ago, when my legs were strong and my lungs more powerful than now. On mountain tracks in Nepal, passing Gurung-speakers going about their business say hello by saying “where have you come from and where are you going to?”. Today’s Gurung-encounter at Farleigh involved saying repeatedly “we have come from Oxford and come to Farleigh, then maybe going on to nearby Bath”. But “where have you come from and where are you going to in terms of the 65@65 swims?” From one to 65. “Which number is this?” one person asks. “The ‘are we nearly there yet?’ number of 65, minus one” – maybe too smart an answer, I think, just as I have said it, words which should have stayed in the mouth, galloping into space. I apologise to her. Good cheer and metaphorical slaps on the back follow from these all hearty-and-happy-and-glowing women, glowing skin, but not yet cold enough to glow the pink skin of winter.
The water invited more than conversation, and as swimming pod moved from water to warm tea in flasks, we took to the water with fond relief and in anticipation of joy. The river is quite narrow, and was slow-flowing on that day, with the sun peeking through green and autumn leaves. Magic was in this water today, being sticky enough as you put your arms and hands through it, with the stickiness of water that is cooling down from it’s summer silken flow. Heads-up was the way to go, breaststroke like Byron, watching everything right and left, up and down, not missing a moment. The club lays spiritual ownership of about 700 meters of this river, upstream of the weir. The only way to go is against the flow, upstream in a kind of swallows and amazons outdoors adventure kind of way. The book Swallows and Amazons was written in 1930, and the club here opened in 1933 – is there some synergy? I chose to think so - there is a sense of enthusiastic local venturing, where everyone is challenged just a little, and all go home for tea and scones (or its swimming equivalent). There is huge charm to the club and its location, and it was easy to imagine myself back in the 1930s.
Swallows and Amazons was set in the Lake District; this draws my attention to the very present-day fact that the Lake District and its very many lakes big and small didn’t make it into my 65. The real Swallows and Amazons will have to wait now for another project, since there is no space between now and my new birthday to get up to the Lake District. Lakes in the Lake District will be swum, but not just yet - I fancy the intimacy and excitement of winter swimming there.
The swim today, of 700 meters upstream and then back in water refreshing but not yet particularly cold was long enough to be chilled slightly by it, very pleasantly. It was long enough to see water dappled by sunlight through overhanging green leaves and branches, to see water flow sticky and bright through my fingers, to see ever-changing scenery with every turn and small bend in the river. To find enchantment, then turn again around another small bend and find more enchantment. Again, and again, and again, new scene, new beauty, more enchantment, trees hanging over the water, short open stretches of water, then wider-narrower-wider and narrower again, the river flowing under and around me, sticky and bright through breast stroke fingers pushing out then pulling. Alan’s idyll. Green-turning autumnal brown trees, branches, leaves, river and me.
Are we nearly there yet? Closer and closer with every stroke. Autumnal leaves bring autumnal thoughts - getting past 65 years of age marks autumn for me in some ways – is it any surprise that I have clung on to Peter Pan this year?
When the time to turn came, I turned back, the return to the weir in the Swallows and Amazons River was equally rewarding. Going back always looks different to going out (it is not just a different perspective on the scenery, it also comes during a thought-process that started with the swim and was not yet completed – how you see things is reflected in how you are thinking at the time). My thoughts turned to ‘now we have arrived, is it worth it?’ thoughts. Definitely yes, definitely idyllic, definitely Alan advised well. It was well worth the drive, we were clearly there now, today, in the moment, worth coming again. The moment drew distant kookaburra laugh-chatter of swimmers in nature, somewhere ahead. Around a small bend and around another I swam upon another swimming pod, more-or-less floating and bobbing, enjoying just being right there in the water, this water, the River Frome in September. Where else would you prefer to be today? Laugh, Kookaburra, Laugh (a primary school song) bubbled up inside me. Thoughts of school choirs, those of my children, falling down long socks, scraped knees, forgetting the words and happiness and smiles at the end of the performance.
I swam past the pod (somehow kookaburras didn’t describe them so well, now I was among them, the river’s narrowness not allowing space to pass at a distance) with a polite smile and a hello. We did not talk just then, but met again while changing. This was a lively group of women, they were in their element. Or rather they had just come out of their element, and were chatter-kookaburra-chatter on the riverbank, changing, some shivering just a little, smiling and laughing. Laugh kookaburra laugh…
I met Teresa, a kookaburra getting changed among several, the conversation turning from ‘where have you come from’, to winter swimming, how to do it. “Any tips?” she asked, she who was doing a hundred swims in a hundred days, genuinely wanting to know. “Brava”, I said, well done for the hundred swims. One of the great joys of outdoor swimming is learning of the various informal swim-projects that people have, all challenging of the person in some way. Diverse. Interesting. My tips for winter swimming came down to three things - “listen to your body; shorten your distances; concentrate on breathing as you get in when it gets really cold”. There is so much more to say, but that was enough for now. I am told most people can't remember more than three things, so I stick to three. The conversation turned to the turning of the seasons, and how to keep the good swimmy feelings of summer in mind and body for as long as possible. I met Gail Gallie, standing next to Teresa, who was helping Teresa with her hundred daily swims. Along with Kate Rew and others, Gail was one of the movers and shapers of the outdoor swimming renaissance in the UK. Thus it had turned into an auspicious day, with the kookaburra-chatter people, wonderfully warm at heart people, chat-laughing and gently shivering on the riverside, the very essence of outdoor swimming. Laugh kookaburra laugh… I was laughing too, with the joy of Farleigh this fine morning.
Reflecting as we drove back (in the end we didn’t go to Bath – Farleigh was our destination after all) – it was well worth the drive to see this wonderful seemingly ageless club and its Swallows and Amazons River, to meet and chat-shiver with some of its members, of which I am now one. ‘We should come back in winter to see how the mood shifts with the seasons’, I thought. The club is always open, rain and shine, summer and winter, subject to becoming a member. Given that it is always open (and not limited to a daily time-slot), I hade wondered, before arriving, if that meant that swimmers didn’t really bump into each other very much. Not so today, not so this Saturday morning in September. In summer it gets packed, I was told. It is a good thing, I had said in response, people swimming. “Always good to see people swimming”, Gail had agreed. But in winter it becomes the place for those of faith, the winter-water faith. I long to share something of this magical place with the Farleigh Faithful later in the year once the temperature has dropped and the leaves have fallen. I imagine that it becomes a very intimate idyll.