Updated: Apr 16, 2021
‘She came in through the bathroom window’- the song welled up from the deep as I stumbled to the bathroom this morning, before any tea was made or drunk. As I stumbled into the bathroom, mostly still asleep soon after daybreak, and saw the snow flurrying in from out there to in here, through the open bathroom window. She came in through the bathroom window – the snow, feminine in French and Italian – la neige, la neve – She. I pictured Juliet Turnbull on her houseboat, probably already up and in the Thames, enjoying perhaps the last snow-swim in the Thames before summer. The day in January when I talked with Juliet and we recorded a podcast together, it was like this – a day of feminine snow flurries, we had both swum and were both warming up, sitting and talking, snug in our dry robes.
I took a picture which I posted on Instagram - ‘She came in through the bathroom window – April (snow) showers’ - while making the first mug of wake-up tea of the day. Juliet was probably already swimming in the snow flurry today, never one to miss the opportunity of swimming while it snows, such a special thing. Never one to wander on the banks of her own lagoon, she would always be in it, her own lagoon, the Thames, probably having dived into it from her houseboat.
Juliet sometimes sings when she swims – she would probably be singing right now, in the Thames, in the snow-flurry. A song I associate with Juliet is Abba’s SOS. ‘When you’re gone – How can I – Find the Strength – To go on?’ In Lockdown Three, the song became the very personal one when even the swimming was taken away from many – Abba’s song to a lost lover reframed as a song to a lost love. Many people found ways to keep swimming, despite the closure of clubs.
This song’s association with swimming started with the Surrey Swimmers, Juliet among them, swimming under Chertsey Bridge. One of her number, probably Fiona, struck up in loud voice just to hear the wonderful acoustic (I know, I have heard Juliet sing under this bridge among several others). The Surrey Swimmers now sing under bridges as a matter of course – it is just what you do. There is a YouTube recording of them singing Abba's 'Thankyou for the Music' under Chertsey Bridge. I heard beautiful singing when Juliet, Fiona, Judy, Adam, Sharon, Heidi and I swam the Thames from Runnymede to Truss’s Island - one of my 65@65. This was under the M25, all 14 lanes of it, close by Heathrow Airport. This is a bridge, in fact, two, side-by-side, bound together like two punts on the River Cherwell. Its under-side is substantial, resonant, made for singing. I can’t remember what she sang that time though.
I once asked her why she sang while swimming, and she gave me the kind of look that an open water swimmer would give to the question ‘why do you swim?’ A little confused, because it’s a question that doesn’t need asking, because it’s only natural. Like ‘singing goes with swimming, like fish goes with chips, sausages go with mash, and rock goes with roll’. Both swimming and singing make you happy, so why not do both? Swimming and singing are both physical, both involving bodily coordination, some thinking, but also some intuition, just going letting it flow. Like ‘She came in through the bathroom window’.
Juliet is a very accomplished swimmer, and an artist who turns ideas that churn in her mind as she swims, into art-textiles and embroider-work, works that evoke the sensorial nature of being in the water. We need blue spaces more than ever right now, in the midst of COVID-19, and Juliet’s art opens up blue spaces in the mind. She is swimming the length of the Thames with Fiona Irwin, having started in 2019, doing down-stream stretches first, and mid- and up-stream stretches in 2020. When I was one of several doing the same thing now almost a decade ago, an arbitrary rule we followed was ‘thou shalt swim fly under every bridge’. I wonder if Fiona and she have a similar rule ‘thou shalt sing under every bridge’? Juliet wants to involve people, to join her and Fiona on stretches of this project. Rules around social group size during COVID-19 have prevented this so far. Juliet and Fiona have not been able to travel beyond their local water until just very recently with easing of COVID-19 restrictions, and hopeful their Swim the Thames project will also ease back into operation soon too.
Her houseboat is on the River Thames between Hampton Court and Kingston-upon-Thames, on the outskirts of London. This is a fabulous rural idyll. I first met her at one of my 65@65 swims – from Teddington to Richmond, and she has kept popping up ever since. She used to swim alone – living on a houseboat on the river gives you no excuse not to swim if you are a swimmer. Then she discovered people who also like to swim in the river, some of them into and through winter. From there a passion grew – swimming year-round with other people. She is usually a quiet person, one of good humour, who, with a remark here and a comment there, brings people together in quiet conviviality. The only thing that disrupts this quiet conviviality is swimming under a bridge, and the promise of a sing-along. In this Swimmingpod podcast, Juliet and were in front of our microphones, dressed in dry robes and warming up after a brief swim in the Thames on a snowy January day. She downstream at Hampton Court, and me upstream at Eynsham Lock. Today’s April snow shower brought this January day vividly to mind. The conversation we had in January was something of a thaw-out podcast – chilling with the wonderful Juliet in more ways than one.
Juliet Turnbull’s social media -
The Surrey Outdoor Swimmers sing Abba (Thankyou for the Music) under Chertsey Bridge -
Beatles - She came in through the bathroom window
Four images courtesy of Juliet Turnbull; image of Wilson 'Snowflake' Benson's eighteenth century photographs of snowflakes courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives, Washington DC.