65@65 UNLOCKED – MID-SUMMER MORNING SWIM #53, DEVIL’S QUOITS, OXFORDSHIRE

Updated: Jul 20

As with lock down, there is not a right time to unlock. An epidemiologist at Harvard recently compared epidemics with house fires –the flames that engulf and devour accelerate and rage quickly, while the embers that have the potential to start a new fire take a long time to go out. In the UK it feels to me like we are at the early ember stage of Covid-19, so unlocking the 65@65 is to be done within the guidelines – stay apart, social distancing, do not share cake, use hand gel, wash your hands for at least twenty seconds. All this was obeyed on mid-summer morning, as we met in separate cars at a lay-by, in anticipation of a swim, but looking like people in search of a rave. Or of druids in search of a henge before sunrise. My alarm went off at 3.45, enough time to make a flask of tea; I threw on my dry robe over a tee shirt and togs and got in the car. Kristie and Judy were already there at the lay-by when I got there, just a few minutes drive from home (I apologize for using the car – it was twilight, my brain still in bed and my body saying ‘why?’). I chose the line of least resistance, wouldn’t you? They were excited and waiting. Christa wasn’t coming, although she and Kristie had scouted the swim a few days before, in the pouring rain, in search of places to get in. Today, now, the sky was slightly cloudy, if still twi-lit. we greeted and waited, me the only one in a dry-robe, the closest-dressed to druid. Jeremy soon came, and we drove in convoy to the henge – the Devil’s Quoits, not far away, down a winding road next to the tip and the recycling place – Dix Pit. The scene was set, an odd scene – to a car-park opposite the recycling, down a track which opened up to the henge, behind which, the land-fill site. I hadn’t seen such industrial waste-land pit swimming since Berlin a few years ago. But industrial waste-land pit-swimming next to a henge – that was new. And on the day of the summer solstice, the longest day, at sunrise, when the sun gleamed above the horizon, that was new and worthy of reopening the 65@65 – 65 swims at the age of 65 years.

We found the Devils Quoits easily – a Neolithic site of some importance, back in the day – the day being around four and a half thousand years ago. Why ‘Devils’ Quoits?’ – it comes from a myth of formation, literally, how a place came to be. I heard a lot of those when I did fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, totally fantastical, even the people telling the myths didn’t really believe them, although it was important to them to remember. As it is in West Oxfordshire – I was talking to my daughter Lexa about the swim, and it happened so that her friends living locally to Devil’s Quoits knew the myth, even now. The myth, in short - the devil was playing a game of quoits one Sunday (how, you ask, does the devil know about quoits?), and along came God, who told him off for quoiting on day of rest. The devil threw a paddy, a wobbly, a temper-tantrum and tossed his quoits away like a toddler. One landed here where we stand now. My nerdy side makes me want to work out how tall this devil would have been, in this medieval myth. I have seen wall paintings of the devil from this time in Italian cathedrals, and he can be huge, and totally frightening. So I looked it up. If a quoit is generally 19 centimeters across, and an adult man is 170 centimeters tall, then a quoit is one nineth of a person. Going to Google Earth, I measure the henge at Devils Quoits to be 79 meters in diameter. Using a scaling factor of nine, that would make the devil around 700 meters tall, or the size of a small mountain. This was an extraordinary feat of the medieval imagination. Not far away from here there is the Uffington white horse, and chalk figure carved into the Ridgeway over a hundred meters long between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. The names, the monumental earth works show an ability to think and act big back in the day – this is nothing new.

If you scratch the surface, people’s deep ancestry often shows itself in stories, songs, place-names and local words, even in the heart of the modern world, even now. ‘What, no druids?’ – Kristie was the first to express a very gentle dismay – mid-summer’s day, and no druids. Jeremy was a little surprised too – according to him, Covid-19 precautions had seen the closure from public assembly of some of the major henges – Stonehenge, the Rollright Stones, Avebury, Glastonbury – this mid-summer’s morning. It was possible that the Devil’s Quoits would be a popular place to observe the rising sun today if you were a druid or a Watcher of the Old Ways. But apparently not so. I checked online later – apparently this year it was going to be an online summer solstice, a camera observing the rising of the sun, and broadcasting to all those worshippers and onlookers being told to stay away today. We had observed the rising sun with cameras too.

We did swim, after much distraction by the henge. in the adjacent pond / ex-gravel pit. Undressed and scrambling into the water, we were joyous and socially distanced. We swam as a pod to the island at the far edge, and then around it. The smell of landfill wafted across from time to time, and Kristie commented that it was like swimming in cabbage-water, such was its green-hue. ‘But cabbage water is good’ she qualified immediately. Kristie is one of the very-most positive jump-for-joy people I know. Jeremy and Judy too, but a bit less jumpy-uppy. The pond was shallow (I scraped my knees on the bottom, stood up in places) and the water was warm. The swim was memorable - Kristies idea of swim-henging on mid-summer’s morning was stroke of genius - the sunrise, the odd juxtaposition of unlikely things, the joyous company (as ever with these lovely people), and picnic breakfast within the henge after. At which Kristie’s home-baked blueberry muffins were, I swear, the very best ever made since prehistory.

Many thanks to Jeremy for images 1, 2 and 4

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