‘Bin swimming?’ – I thought I was being asked if I had been swimming, now in Lockdown Three. Not so. It was more a quizzical thought about how swimmers were coping with the Third Deprivation since March 2020 - and the proliferation of digital postings of people sitting in bath tubs, and refuse bins filled with cold water, myself among them. This thought connected with my seeing an image made by swimming friend Anette Frisch, in Dusseldorf, of a pond in Germany, inspired by the pond that Virginia Woolf swam in, in her garden in London, back in the day. It is impossible impossible to tell how small or big that pond would have been. It connected with another image that Mike Harris, Serpie friend in London sent to me at pretty well the same time, of a big puddle in Hyde Park, on the other side of the road from Tyburn Covent, Marble Arch. A puddle which Mike called Tyburn Lake, which he deemed potentially swimmable (I think he was joking, although with Mike I sometimes find it difficult to tell). Bin-swimming is a curious phenomenon, but one that is deeply rational to a winter swimmer. People are taking to refuse bins filled with water, so desperate have they become for something approximating an outdoor swim or dip experience. Some elite athletes are known to do this – cold water immersion for recovery after training – but this is different. It reflects something that Anette reflected on wisely when she said that the COVID-19 pandemic is making our worlds smaller, and smaller, step by step, stroke by stroke, lockdown by lockdown.
In Oxfordshire, where I am locked down at present, Hardwick Lake is closed (it is a club, so must be closed by order of Her Majesty’s Government). The River Thames is in flood to the extent that you struggle to tell where the river becomes the flooded flood plain down at Swinford Bridge – any swine that might try to ford the river here would quickly get washed downstream. Down at Eynsham Lock the river has also broken the bank, so the possibilities of open water swimming, or even dipping have gotten smaller and smaller. Deterred from the River today, I crossed Swinford Bridge to return to the village, Eynsham, distracted only by the dipping promise potentially offered by an empty recycling bin near the road. My swimming world has gotten smaller and smaller by nature of the virus and the flooding. A year ago, I would not have found a refuse bin attractive, but now? After Lockdown One, Lockdown Two, and now Lockdown Three in the UK, the size of what is swimmable or dippable has diminished from a lake and a river to a pond and a puddle, one that Mike deems swimmable. I share his longing (sehnsucht in German) to swim. Goethe wrote a poem of longing which Franz Schubert set to music. It is not about the swimmers dilemma in winter Lockdown flooding, but it could be made so. In English it starts something like this - The window pane freezes, the wind is harsh - The night sky clear and blue - I sit in my little room, gazing out into the clear blueness - Something is missing, I feel only too well - My love is missing, my true love. Just add swimming – a love of swimming and a longing to swim. Swim-longing.
If I listen carefully I can hear the song of swim-longing in the fast-flowing Thames. Many outdoor swimmers swim to expand their horizons and to connect with nature. Now we are encouraged, ordered, to avoid nature, to avoid Tennyson’s nature red in tooth and claw, a nature fierce in water and invisible in disease, effective, changing and ever closing down our horizons, our aspirations and dreams. We long to be in the water, to stretch and to push and pull and glide in the water, even as we sit in bath tubs, dip in ponds and puddles, and take cold showers.
Many events have suffered, been cancelled, postponed, delayed, waiting for better times. The Polar Bear Challenge goes on, however, with rules adapted to changing Covid-19 circumstances. The 1,700 or so entrants should thank Pauline Barker for keeping it going - among the few I have met and talked with, it is commitment device that keeps them engaged with cold immersion at the very least, and helps keep them sane when many around them are going cabin-crazy with Lockdown and an inability to get enough physical activity. The rules for January have been ‘swim as usual, if you can do so COVID-19-safely, but if you can’t you can choose a ‘Chilly Challenge’. Such as ‘If you’ve got an outside pool you can swim in, then 5 minutes of swimming counts as 250 metres and 4 minutes counts as 200 metres’ Or an ‘Ice Bucket Challenge - one bucket of ice and water will do’. And most adaptively ‘Hosepipes, cold baths and cold showers count - must be at least one minute of soaking. If you’ve got an outside pool, barrel, bucket, trough, or bin that you can’t swim in but you can immerse in then this falls into this category’. The February rules can’t possibly differ from this very much. I carried on my Polar Bear Challenge with the original rules through to the end of January. I signed up for the Gold, not knowing how my new metal knee would hold up to the cold. I know myself well enough to know that if I signed up for Arctic or Jedi, I would push myself to do it, and I also know that this might not be the wisest after full knee replacement surgery in the summer of 2020. So far, I am well on track for the Arctic, but will be be an honorary one, given that you can’t trade up, only trade down in this Challenge. Before the flooding, I swam in the Thames at Eynsham Lock, a kilometer walk from home in the snow. The river was fast and bobbling around and swirling, so a swim for great care. It didn’t add to my own Challenge because I didn’t get any distance – I stayed pretty well in the same place, a static swim, swam with great care. After swimming I met and talked briefly with Sandy, down by the lock, she the gastronome of the village, she who usually dips her way through winter. She isn’t getting into the river right now, but has a tub outside into which she dips every day. She is among the many now. In the last few days I have joined them, as the Thames broke its bounds and with Hardwick Lake being off limits, and I have taken to taking cold baths and showers, sighing with relief as my swim-longing is briefly appeased.
Among the many is Lucy Ashdown-Parkes, of the King’s Swimmers, who has swim-binned her Polar Bear Challenge. Another is Deya Ward, who turned up in Oxford over Christmas 2019 to get a winter swim (and then came every day), and who has been dipping in her (clean) refuse bin since the early days of COVID-19, in a series of Isolation Dips. Another, Claudia, has been dipping in her green bin for her Mental Health Swims, while yet another, Sadie Coles, has been sitting in a bathtub of cold water having ice water poured over her head for her Chillydipper Challenge. There are many others. The bin-swimming / bin-dipping phenomenon seems to be about appeasing the swim-longing, staying sane and well and acclimatised to the cold, ready for when the world opens up again. To be ready to take on the world, to be out there when the physical worlds of outdoor swimmers can expand and swell again. In the meantime, there is swim-longing - Mike's lake, Anette's pond, Schubert and Goethe, Tennyson, and Pauline Barker's new rules to adapt to Lockdown.
Above all, there is Virginia Woolf, re-posted from Anette Frisch, who said that ‘If life has a pedestal on which it stands, if it is a bowl that you fill and fill and fill - then my bowl stands without any doubt on this memory. It is about lying in bed, half asleep, half awake... It's about hearing the waves break, one, two, one, two, sending a surge of water foaming across the sand; and then break again, one, two, one, two… It's about lying there and hearing that foam and seeing that light, and feeling it's almost impossible that I'm here’. So, while we wait to to be able to fill and fill our bowl of outdoor-swim life again, we should acknowledge the longing and cherish our memories of the water and of the people we swim and swam with. In the meantime, I send much love to all the cold water showerers, tub-sitters, pond-dippers and bin-swimmers. Your day will return.
Sensucht, by Franz Schubert