Anna Deacon is a photographer of considerable repute, her work appearing in a who’s who of UK journalism – The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Observer, The Stylist magazine, in the Big Issue, in Outdoor Swimmer magazine, among many other locations. She is also a wild swimmer, and the idea of location is important to her – where people swim, why they swim, why they keep going to the same place to swim.
It is very important to distinguish between spaces and places. While there are very, very many spaces where people can swim, there are far fewer places, even with the wild growth of books and websites that help people find where they can go swimming in the great outdoors. Take for example a beach. Let’s take a beach on the South Australian coastline – stretching for miles, and miles. You can swim almost anywhere along that beach, but most, most people would swim close to – to the carpark, to the beach house, to the promenade, to the coastguard. In Australia being close to the coast guard makes sense. But while you can swim almost anywhere along a stretch of beach – the open space of the coast – you will usually swim close to a place, that is, a space that people have given some meaning to. In 2001, human geographer Yi Fu Tuan wrote a great book called ‘Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience’. It’s not just a great book, it’s a Great book, which says it all about how humans shape space through their own experiences. That happens in all sorts of ways – building something does it, even putting a fence around some land does it. Swimming does it too, in all sorts of ways. The space for swimming can be as broad as the millions of kilometers of strand/land that abuts onto water – lake, river, ocean. Just think about the fractal coastline of mainland Britain, a coastline that is impossible to measure with any sense of exactness, a coastline estimated to be anywhere between 12,000 and 18,000 kilometers long. That’s a lot of space for swimming.
Even these hugely differing estimates are wrong, way out. The coastline could be estimated to be infinitely bigger than this, according to how you measure it. It’s all down to something called the fractal paradox. Which is - seatbelts on – a piece of math that shows that a fractal curve (the British coastline has thousands of these, Scotland proportionately more than England) diverges to infinity according to how precisely resolved the measurement is. Which is to say that if you measure the coastline of Britain, say, using Google Earth, even with the smallest measure, which is down to one centimeter, you will come to a measurement of the British coastline somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 kilometers. But if you were to measure the coastline by grains of sand, the average size of which is around 50 times smaller than a centimeter, you will get a measurement that is far, far greater (exponentially greater) than measuring it with Google Earth. Which is to say that the space to swim, even within the little set of islands that form Britain, is huger than huge, and the places we swim are much, much, more limited than the spaces we could swim.
The places we swim are created, through structures, memory, history, and with and because of other people - community. What Anna Deacon and co-author Vicky Allan have done in their very complete book ‘Taking the Plunge’, by talking with people about their personal swimming stories, is to gather knowledge for understanding how swimming places in the wild are made from spaces. That is, through people and the meaning they give to swimming and the places they swim at. I have Beach House’s ‘On the Sea’ in my mind – ‘Out on the sea we'd be forgiven - Our bodies stopped the spirit leaving’. In the podcast, Anna talks of Wardie Bay, a previously non-swimming space that has become a swimming place through the actions of people coming to swim and dip here. As more and more swimmers coming to this, by her own account small undistinguished beach, they create swimming-meaning, making Wardie Bay a swimming place, not a swimming space. ‘Taking the Plunge’ reveals the very dynamic place-making that wild swimming is doing in Britain right now.
Anna swims mostly in and around Edinburgh, and she is a well-known part of the local wild swimming scene there. ‘Taking the Plunge’ was published in 2019, and is jam-packed with truly outstanding images, mostly of people in the water, and when not in the water, near the water. Those images speak to me of all the fabulous people I have met when swimming in different places, and continue to meet. Place-makers all. Anna and Vicky have captured some of the many stories that place-making swimmers have. Anna knows that all wild swimmers have their story, even if they say they don’t. Anna took most of the images when in the water with the person who was being profiled. After a short in the water with Anna, everyone has something to say, short, small or life-changing. The book reflects this – in a large number of vignettes. Anna and Vicky allowed the people, the swimmers, the place-makers, do the talking, without imposing their own views of things. Wild swimming people making place out of space. Even recording this podcast, Anna’s infectious laughter made me eager to tell my story. I held back, because this podcast is about Anna and the great swimming-work she does with Vicky - I hope you enjoy it.
listen to the podcast here
Beach House, ‘On the Sea’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qz0IJXQ720
Images courtesy of Anna Deacon