65@65 Swim #32, Coimbra, Portugal, The Mondego River
Birds fly south in Autumn / Winter, people find their break - from short days / beige-brown landscapes / mud / rain-sleet / perceived cold - by flying south too, often as far as the Southern Hemisphere. Pauline came back from Melbourne last week from visiting family, and I flew south to Coimbra for work. Work often takes me to interesting places, although granted, most places in Europe are interesting if you look a little longer and dig beneath the surface. Coimbra easy to like. The University (where I will give my presentation, along with National Academician from Ohio State, Clark) is one of the world’s oldest, the central quadrangle (which hosts the Joanina Library and chapel) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the regional food is fantastic. To start with the University, it is the best in Portugal, has a strong reputation internationally and despite often limited resources, has a biting ambition to improve, improve. So it was with my conversation with Susana, an administrator on a mission to raise their position in the research rankings. I came to speak at the 25th anniversary of the Anthropology and Health Unit, which is responsible for evaluating data on national childhood obesity rates collected since 1990, and which has been collected by them since. This is the baseline work that enables childhood obesity policy to be directed toward the places and people most in need, and for that policy to be evaluated. Cristina is my host – calm, reflective, an enabler, who inspires loyalty among her colleagues. And Daniela, a junior scholar, is coordinating my visit. She is quietly efficient, even-tempered and intelligent in a serious-joking kind of way. When I let them know over dinner on the second night that I intend to swim in the Mondego River, they rolled their eyes just a little before taking control of themselves. ‘We respect him, his work, the support he has given us across the years, but this is crazy’ is what I imagine passes between them in their look to each other. They quickly become serious. They did not reveal their true thoughts, I am sure, keeping it to the practical things. ‘The River?’ I question, “Too cold” – Cristina. Daniela, quickly “Two people died there this Summer”. ‘I promise to be careful’, I pledge. “We don’t want you dead”. Nor do I. I was here three years ago, and from the Institute of Archaeology, a building from the seventh century they say, I could see the River Mondego below, wider than the Thames at the barrier, parkland to the far bank, and I longed to be swimming. This time I plan to swim – once something is planned, it is easier to do. Life can be spent regretting that one didn’t swim in the river, or one can just swim in the river. And be more fulfilled, or risk death. Daniela cuts through my thoughts - “And Winter, do you really swim in Winter?”. Yes – ‘I swim outdoors every day that I can. And I really need to swim’. She can see that, in an admiring / pitying kind of way. Cristina on the other hand (and the other side of the table) was controlled-incredulous. As Daniela continued, she sought ways to normalize it, if not normal for Portugal. I turn the conversation to swimming in Scandinavia, which is not hard for me to do – this is where I was a week ago. Copenhagen. Malmo. I talk of Helsinki, where I would love to go. Jaana, in London, said I must - new winter swimming facilities. Heated handrails… Clark, who is sitting next to me says “maybe I should try it?”, This is his way of responding to the most unexpected turn of conversation, “the heated handrails have sold it to me…” he continues. I don’t really believe him, but it doesn’t matter, we are getting close to normalizing the conversation. I acknowledge to Cristina and Daniela that cultural norms are important, and that my will to swim, swim in Winter, is a transgression. “No”, says Cristina, “we just want to make sure things are good for you while you are our guest”. Of course I am flattered, but say ‘then let me swim!’ Of course, of course. “But let me show you the Joanina Library after you have swum” – Daniela has sealed the deal, balanced the discussion, a normal act to follow an abnormal one. I like Daniela a lot, she should be a diplomat.
The next morning, work at a distance (urgent emails – aren’t they all?) intervenes in the morning and I don’t get out until mid-morning. Very politely (I hope, politely enough) I message Daniela for a rain-check on the Joanina Library. ‘For next time’, I offer, as I am on the plane out that evening. I know I risk unbalancing what was balanced by the end of the previous evening. ‘It is important to have something to come back for” I add. With good grace, Daniela messages back and lets me swim – “For next time. For sure”. So with balance restored I walk steadily down hill and across crooked cobbles to the Mondego River – from a distance it is broad, fast flowing, with many ripples and eddies. Down the hill, on more uneven cobbles, looking down and up, then down and up, walking alertly, I come to the main road, which I cross and then I am on the narrow floodplain, following a path to the footbridge, a recent addition to the cityscape – narrow and elegant. From the footbridge I get a better sense of the river – this will be more a treadmill swim than a swim to anywhere. I go to a jetty, which offers an easy way in. The ramp doesn’t seem to be in everyday use and could do with a clean-up, but I have experienced much worse at places along the Thames. Getting in is like stepping upin temperature and back in time. Back to September, when the water had the slight chill that tells of the end of Summer and reminds of the drop in temperature to come. The water was easy to get into, very pleasant, inviting, until pushing out and onto the Mondego treadmill. I swam around to take in the very beautiful surroundings, monasteries on the hill, University on the peak, I am already pushed about fifty meters downstream of where I started. Head down, crawl – feel the water (swirling and twisting), speed up, catch up, count the strokes. I did a mental kilometre – a thousand strokes I counted, and then a few more. One stroke is about a meter swum, more or less. Slightly less these days. Swim-counting isn’t the most restful way of swimming, but I need the swim. The sun is shining like it should be Summertime, and the ancient city of Coimbra, its University and its Missions/Monastries climbs above me, overseeing my counting-swimming, long enough to earn my cake. Getting out, I took time to dry myself, preferring the touch of the sun, I talked briefly with the lone-soul tourist walking along the bank and taking photographs, then sat in the sun and delayed getting dressed. The flask of tea and the pastry helped to slow down the transition from water to land. ‘Tea and cake will give me more time in the sun’. I wasn’t cold, far from it. Eyes to the sun, eyes scanning the dappling rippling water, up to the city-scape, I mused about the difference between cake and pastry.
Portugal and pastry are synonymous – ‘can pastry be called cake?’. An easy call – of course. But there is a lot of what I would call cake, in the pastry shops I see. So, how to classify cake? If I over-think swimming, I am at risk of over-thinking cake. Cake – basically flour, sugar and edible fat of some kind. But what about cake without flour – lemon polenta cake? Orange almond cake? Ranging further, is flapjack also cake? For the purposes of swimming, yes, I decide on the side of inclusiveness. ‘Muesli bar?’ Yes. ‘Mars bar?’ A stretch too far. For swim-cake, sweetness is key, as is energy density – it needs to stoke up before swimming, replenish when eaten half-way, and cheer and help conviviality when eaten at the end. There is more to say about sweetness and winter swimming, but I will over-think that another time. Right now, the sun shines, I have swum, I have a pastry in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other. The world is a good place.
Post-script – after the swim, after a brief encounter with Coimbra’s Museum of Water, I took to the street-climb back to my hotel. I chanced upon the Old Cathedral, which dates back to the eleven hundreds. They consecrated a new cathedral in the seventeen hundreds, and it seems that people are having difficulty in letting go of the old one. I would too – it is Romanesquely amazing, with Norman arches (Pauline loves Norman arches) somewhat similar to those at the core of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford. I was leaving and was sales-pitched by a student studying Portugese Literature (a Masters therein, she said) into buying a picture catalogue of the Joanina Library for ten Euros, toward a student hardship fund. I told her I was sympathetic. She asked if I had been to the Joanina Library. Amazing though it looked from the picture book, I had to disappoint her - ‘no I have not. I am saving it for next time’. The next day, after flying back to the UK and Oxford, I had an appointment at the JR Hospital. I took the picture book of the Joanina Library with me to give me something to look at while waiting for my appointment. The clinician bid me enter her consultation room and immediately noted the booklet–“That’s where I’m from” she said “I studied at the University of Coimbra. The Joanina Library – that’s a very famous building” she said. “Did you go?” – again I disappointed, as Coimbra followed me back to Oxford, by saying ‘No… I am saving it for next time..’.There may be no balance in my life until I do.
Museums of Water
From the Mondego River, I walk back across the foot bridge and come to the very small Coimbra Museum of Water. It is a small ex-pumping station, with a postcard, placard and video show-and-tell display of how water has shaped the city, through its aquaduct, fountains, wells as well as through riverine trade and movement. With its early origins and its monastic roots, there is little reason to see it as anything other than a city founded on water. And defence, with high hilltop fortress castle (now gone), monasteries, cathedral and the University, at the top of the hill. A place that values learning above all other earthly things. This makes me feel quite secure. It is very small, with little tangible materiality beyond the ancient jars and bottles, and of course the modern bottles, screens and posters, but it does a good job. My mind turns to the only other Museum of Water I know (although I know of the one in Lisbon), which does a very different job. I know Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water through Amy herself, through swimming the Thames. Amy is a Force for Water and loves swimming. I met her in the water, and was blown away by her works and ideas. She has walked across London with people in their togs, filled an indoor pool with large floats and people floating on them (both art works), has planned an art-swim across the Thames at Tower Bridge (still under negotiation – it took Christo twenty five years to go from negotiation to fulfilment of his Mastaba in the Serpentine in 2018), and an art-swim in Reading, around … Island. When she was offered the entire basement of Somerset House, London, for an installation of her Museum of Water, and series of lunchtime presentations, I was honoured and quick to accept an invitation to give one of these. On ‘Evolution and Water’, the presentation can be heard as podcast (…). Amy’s Museum of Water is about meaning and memory – people volunteer water that is significant to them, and add a brief few words about them. These are then displayed for the duration of the installation, in this case, across the many chambers of the cellar-like space below the court yard. I have a bottle in the Museum, of mundane Oxford tap water, in a use-once plastic bottle. I long rejected the claim of the use-once water-bottle corporations that the plastics leach something into the bottle to make them harmful for re-use – how can they get away with a claim for hazard in their products as a way of persuading people to buy more plastic bottles? They really can’t, it turns out – harm to the planet outweighs harm to the purchaser. I have another bottle on a shelf in my lounge room at home, of water from the lake at the West Oxfordshire Sailing Club – this one is clear, with a wafer-thin sediment of red clay at the bottom. Amy’s Museum of Water now has several branches, in Perth, Western Australia, where sister-in-law Brenda met and dined with her, and has shown in Rotterdam. Most recently, Amy’s work was on show at the Museum of London’s ‘Hidden Rivers of London’ exhibition. The work on show at the Museum of London was ‘Walbrook’, which was a live artwork in which Amy Sharrocks set out to ‘trace a memory of water’ through the City of London. She re-mapped the buried Walbrook by water divining, then engaged a stream of blue-clad volunteers joined by a ribbon, to walk the course of the river from Islington to the beach below Cannon Street Bridge. Did it draw attention – you bet. Art and activism – artivism – is a thing of the moment, in a range of ways, including Extinction Rebellion. It got space and air-time at the Venice Biennale this year. Amy I think qualifies as an artivist, not all of the time, but when it is important. With water, Amy has an art-object that is important and which will only become more so. And one day I will art-swim across the Thames at Tower Bridge as an art-subject/object. I am on her list invite list of swimmers – again, I feel privileged.
There are other Museums of Water, and one in particular that deserves special mention – the Ecomuseo Martesana in Milan, which extends the idea of a museum of water to a territory, an ecosystem, a living and working place. Such is the canal Naviglio Martesana, which starts at the beginning (of the canal) and ends at the end (of the canal). Like Sharrocks’ Museum of Water, this is a museum of memory and of history and ecology. Both require more than passive engagement, the require an engaged imagination, of what was and what could be. The Ecomuseo Martesana starts at the Adda river, near Trezzo sull'Adda, some thirty kilometers Northeast of Milan, into Milan proper. The canal is only thirty eight kilometers long, but is the ‘mother of canals’. I am not a canal freak, nor do I like to swim in canals (the one true exception is the canal in Copenhagen, which is as clean as a clean whistle), but the Naviglio Martesana needs special attention, as all good mothers do. Being in Milan, it comes down to the Sforza family, powerful but financial underwriters of humanism (think science and the Renaissance) in Northern Italy, the most progressive place in Europe at the time. The time being 1457. To put this in the context of new thought and ideas, Leonardo came to Milan to work for the Sforzas in 1482. The Sforzas ruled the city from 1450, and had plans. The canal plan was huge, especially if you put it in context of a city of just over a hundred thousand people at the time. Water power and water as resource to fuel industry and urbanisation in Milan, to divert a major river, the Adda for irrigation and to power millions of water and flour mills, all the way up to and around the Swiss border. The River Adda bubbles up in the Italian Alps and feeds Lake Como, skirting Ticino (great lake to swim in, I was told in Zurich, obviously by a woman from Ticino), and meeting the River Po somewhere near Piacenza, south of Milan. The canal plan rolled together geopolitics (linking Milan to Ticino), the economy and urbanisation on an unprecedented scale. Without the Naviglio Martesana, England would not have been able to build the canals that subsequently fueled the Industrial Revolution. The mitre lock, the double-leaf gate which closes by the pressure of water coming downstream, the closure of which forms an angle pointing upstream, was a key technology for canal building across Europe. In the UK, this arrangement is to be seen at nearly all the locks on the River Thames, with variants. Who invented the mitre lock? It is probably obvious as we are in Milan – Leonard da Vinci. It was an obvious challenge for Leonardo. He was fascinated by water, water as energy, the vehicle of nature, as blood is to the human body. Designing something that could make the canal and rivers navigable was more than building a canal to Leonardo, it was taming the most fundamental of the elements. Sure he was up for the challenge. The canal was finished in 1465. Leonardo’s original Lock of the Naviglio della Martesana is now but a remnant or the ‘original’, at the tomb of San Marco in Milan, looking very ordinary indeed. If you want to see a direct ancestor of Leonardo’s mitre lock, go to the Naviglio Pavese, due on the eastern side of the centre, where cafes and restaurants now abound, as Milan has started to rediscover its water-past. Leonardo’s legacy continues, and this way of disciplining water, making it navigable, can be seen easily on the River Thames (and many other elsewheres), lock after lock after lock.
Garbage Patch State
The trouble with the Venice Biennale is that, as a thinking person, ideas stick around and re-surface in the context of other things. In this context, plastic in the water. I cannot understand why anyone would just leave trash on the ground. I regret to say that in Coimbra there were ‘trash gardens’ (I have come to call them) by the sides of major roads, as if people couldn’t care about the place they live in. As with single use plastics, ‘there is no elsewhere’ when it comes to garbage. The idea that re-emerged was that of the Garbage Patch State, which had a temporary embassy at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In short, this State is multicentred, with a total territory (aquatory?) of around sixteen million square kilometres, located in the Pacific Ocean (two areas totalling around nine million square kilometres), in the Atlantic Ocean (two areas totalling around five million square kilometres) and in the Indian Ocean (an area of around two million square kilometres). I was not able to work out how big that really was if it happened to be land mass and not ocean mass, so I looked it up. In total it is the landmass of Russia. Or to regionalize it, the Pacific Garbage Patch is about the size of China or United States individually, the South Atlantic Garbage Patch is 70% the size of Mexico, and the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch is 70% the size of India. Surely such areas should have an embassy, be represented at the United Nations? That was the thinking that led to this art work –artivism, if you will. Bless UNESCO. It is a toothless tiger of an international agency in economic terms, but it carries important symbolic influence. On April 11, 2013, in Paris, UNESCO proclaimed The Garbage State, a State. The declaration goes thus – ‘Today is an important day. This is the day when a State with a surface area of over 16.000.000 square kilometers is finally recognized. The veil of hypocrisy concealing a reality that no one wanted to see is finally lifted. The time has come for the whole world to know that there is a Nation out there, entirely made of objects that each and everyone of us has abandoned because they weren’t important. Each and everyone of us has participated in the shaping of this reality, made of bottles used only once before being disposed of, lighters abandoned in the street, rubber sandals forgotten on the beach, plastic glasses and plastic plates thrown away. But where is away? This is the away state, a Nation in which every single piece that composes it once belonged to one of us. It took us 60 years to build it. In 60 years, we managed to produce a conglomerate of 16.000.000 square kilometers, composed of 5 large islands. We managed to change the geography of Earth. And today, unable to hide this reality from ourselves any longer, we recognize it as a Federal State. Today, on April 11th 2013, I proclaim the Federal State of GARBAGE PATCH’. To much applause locally. But then what? I guess the idea of a place out there that was built by the economic policies of waste should be recognised by all people who love water. Swimmers should do their part in recognising the Garbage Patch State, and seek to reduce its boundaries, however small the effort might be in relation to the overall State that is Garbage Patch. Every clean up is a political act against the Garbage Patch State. So I encourage swimmers take awareness of this growing political eco-menace, a State the size of Russia, and to act, in whatever small way we can.
Swim #34, Dedham Vale, The River Stour
There are many good places to swim in Essex, especially on the coast, being mindful of the high tide to avoid muddy shallow estuaries. Today I am not on the coast, far from it. I have driven to Dedham Vale, Place of Outstanding Natural Beauty (it is official, therefore capitalised), Constable Country. This is also capitalized, to make it a place tourists want to come to, like The Cotswolds. A few years ago the District Council in the area where I live just west of Oxford decided to rebrand itself as the ‘Oxfordshire Cotswolds’ as if that alone would bring in the tourists – you can imagine ‘The Oxfordshire Cotswolds, right next to the Real Cotswolds – be almost in the Cotswolds’. No-one is taken in. Life goes on, and the tourists still go to the Cotswolds. Similarly Constable Country. John Constable lived (some of his life) and painted here (some of his life), and left a legacy of a reimagined English countryside. Not dramatic of itself, but a stage upon which dramas play and play out. His most successful and popular paintings, like the Haywain, are small local dramas which play out in the splendour of the transforming countryside – there are boats, locks, signs of the impending modernisation of the countryside. There are little people, often with a red coat (a painter’s device to enliven a canvas) often at work, sometimes at play, fishing, bathing, their little lives become much bigger, ennobled, on this stage of the rural every-day. Sometimes the drama is the sky – a big sky where you can see the dark clouds, rain and thunder rolling in from as far away as a day’s walk, maybe twenty kilometres or so. This is the everyday drama when I arrive – will it, won’t it rain? “No, you have plenty of time, the rain is veering south and should miss us” says the guide at the National Trust car park at Flatford Mill. The name is made famous by a thousand reproductions of two handfuls of paintings by Constable, and then a thousand reproductions of those thousand reproductions. Probably many more reproductions than that. So you get to Flatford Mill feeling you have been here before, maybe a couple of hundred years ago, in a different season. The weather today has changed from Autumn to Winter, and my mind has flipped centuries back and centuries forward again. I was here a decade ago, when Pauline and I came with my in-laws, Brenda and Phil, to spend a weekend looking for the scenes in the catalogue from a recent Constable exhibition at Tate Britain. The catalogue has maps of where Constable painted to various paintings in the exhibition, we all love art, we all love being in the outdoors, so it made a good project around which to hang a pleasant weekend break from Oxford. Today, it’s more serious. Brenda has recently had some major surgery, and with concern about her, the previous Dedham visit is brought firmly to mind. It had been an excellent trip. Today I would swim the river I had longed to swim then, but didn’t, the River Stour.
I had a conversation over dinner a few years ago, in a restaurant in Darling Harbour, Sydney, about ‘reading the landscape’. Paul, with whom I had this conversation, is an historian and member of the Manley-based swimming team ‘The Bold and Beautiful’. He was instrumental in arranging my first swim there, at 7am, from Manley Surf Life Saving Club to Shelley Beach, and back again. One and a half kilometers before breakfast, into real surf riders two meters high, and then into the ocean proper. Around a hundred people come most days, in shocking pink caps and, many of them, shocking pink togs as well. Very Sydney. Big groups make a swim into shark inhabited waters safe. Enough, just enough to work up an appetite, then back to the hotel to shower off the ocean, change, take breakfast and take the ferry to Sydney Harbour. This is a million dollar commute. Paul is a swimmer, and a bush walker and climber, someone who takes the great outdoors very seriously. Hence the conversation about reading the landscape. And a comparison of Australian landscape with English landscape. I feel I can understand the Australian landscape just a little, in relation to how indigenous peoples read it symbolically – dreamings, and the Papunya Tula dot paintings come to mind. Reading the English landscape seems very gentle in comparison – I struggled to think of an ‘Essex dreaming’ painting to compare with the seemingly barren but very rugged dry landscape of the Australian Centre. Oddly, it was just Constable, John Constable, that came to mind. To Australians, John Constable’s Flatford Mill paintings evoke biscuit tin decoration – tins evoking a colonial past, a link to the mother country, to a time a hundred years ago (and less, strangely enough) when good Australian citizens and their district councils worked hard to recreate many little Englands in Australia. Just this evocation highlights the power hierarchies involved in reproducing the old country in the new – English gardens in an Australia whose population is dominated by the descendants of Scottish and Irish migrants. Add an indigenous population that is disenfranchised and largely scorned by English, Scottish and Irish migrants alike, it appears so very messed up. Even with the public ethos of egalitarian-ness, it seems that people still look to find someone worse off than them. But back to John Constable in the Australian landscape conversation in Darling Harbour. The best I could offer in terms of reading the landscape was the walking from English village to English village that Pauline and I have done, mostly in the Cotswolds, the Oxfordshire Cotswolds too, guided by church spires. The enculturing of the English landscape goes back at least two thousand. Most history in England starts with the Romans – the roads, the towns, the forts, even if less materially visible now, mark places in an organic way. The linking up of the countryside by ancient foot paths and roads that became A and B roads as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries moved along, gives a reading of the present-day road system that is deeply revealing of the past. John Constable’s landscape was the rapidly changing one shaped bythe agricultural then industrial revolution. CXonstable’s family was wealthy enough to permit him to paint what was around him, what was often within a day’s return walk.
In the context of where I am today, that would be Flatford Mill to Dedham, you can see the church spire of Dedham in the distance, a few hours walk away by footpath. This was the country walk I had in my mind’s eye when I linked the Sydney conversation with Paul, to today’s venture, the walk from Flatford Mill to Dedham, with the increased size of the church spire of Dedham acting as guide to progress along the way. With a mind to the walk we did with Brenda and Phil, along the bank of the River Stour to Dedham, and with a mind to the reading of the English landscape and its rivers, locks and church spires, I brought these two layers of my personal narrative history to the multi-layered geography of the Stour Valley, and Dedham Vale. Not to walk, but to swim.
The complex of buildings and water ways, lock and channels, around Flatford Mill is interesting and revealing of the type of rural modernisation that took place across England in the previous two centuries or so. I look around Flatford Mill, then Willy Lott’s Cottage, both famous because Constable painted them. The trees have changed (of course) when compared to the pictures in the catalogue, which again I bring with me. But Constable did not paint the kind of fantasy landscapes that Canaletto painted in Venice. Canaletto’s Venice is very much a stage set, the people therein characters performing themselves. Constable’s Flatford Mill is very much a working landscape that allows for some pleasure – but people are still performing their everyday dramas. Plenty to think about, this multi-layered geography thing, and I haven’t even gotten to talk about memory, even though it is implicit in everything around me. It seems mundane, but is not at all. The focus on swimming gives me a slightly different purpose to the everyday National Trust tourist, and I engage in conversation with a woman walking from Dedham, who also swims here in the Summer. ‘Where best to..?’ “Just down here” she nods and knows. I cross the bridge, set to start swimming at the small beach that the nodding lady with the dog pointed to. Quite close to the bridge. Then the ritual, putting down my swim bag, and putting my valuables in it, then some clothes and light shoes. Then I look up, attracted to the sound of a crowd – of around thirty school children and their teachers, up on the bridge. They stop, the teacher talks. And talks. And talks some more. ‘Will they go on to do their school outing thing after their teacher stops instructing them?’ I hope so, but no. I wait and watch. Then pooh sticks – they play a game of pooh sticks... For those that don’t know, pooh sticks involves dropping a twig into a river on one side of a bridge, then crossing to the other side to witness ones stick flowing through below. The person whose stick flows through fastest, wins. This is easy enough with two people – often a tightly run race – but with thirty, or more it is more complicated. Pooh sticks, like democracy, takes time. Maybe it is democratic pooh sticks? Everyone’s a winner? They stay on the bridge, with sticks, some have one in hand, some two or more, suggesting to my over-thinking mind that there will be heats, semi-finals for the winners of the heats, and finally finals. Pooh sticks finalists presumably get prizes. I watch the first round of pooh sticks, and there is a false start – some people jumped the gun. Start again. I am not so taken with pooh sticks that I want to wait for the finals, however riveting it is to watch twigs float down the river. ‘If is not your twig, you are much less invested in the game’ I thought. ‘Unless you gamble on it’. Overthinking. Best to stick to swimming, with cold water swimming, there is less inclination to think, leave alone over-think. I walk upstream toward the village of Dedham, looking for another little beach out of sight of the pooh sticks championships. Seeing the church tower in the distance, as in Constable’s paintings is, admittedly, a thrill. I find a beach away that is sufficiently from people, even in this flat landscape, a beach with some stumps of deteriorating wood, hopefully enough is solid down there to get a foot hold. Yes, I can get in, sort of – I quickly became glad that I put some swim shoes on. It is muddy and my feet sink, but not too far. Then I am stuck, and the only way to work this now is to bend knees and push out into the river, which is flowing, but not too much. The bite of the water is not severe, and it is good to get out of the mud, which washes off quickly. I swim upstream with a view to look at the view, which changes with each gentle turn of the river. I can see why people swim here. Especially in Summer, which is the time of year we were here with Brenda and Phil. Then downstream to where I got in and another three hundred meters or so, to the first chosen get-in place. It is easier to get out here than at the place I got in, and the school children have gone, pooh sticks winners decided, prizes awarded, medals and commendations given out. I didn’t swim in the River Stour last time I was here, but have made an important shift in my life. I spend many years looking at open water longing to be in it. Now I have less longing, more swimming. My parting thoughts satisfy me, as I dress and drink tea from my flask – again I think ‘It is better to swim in the river now, than to spend a lifetime regretting that I never swam in the river’.
Ode to Celsius
When in Uppsala this Summer, I knew of Linnaeus, Carl von Linné, the ‘father of modern taxonomy’ – everything we do in classifying nature into kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species comes from him. For human, think ‘animalia, chordata, mammalia, primate, hominid, homo, sapiens’. This is how we continue to impose order on biology, and in this way, he remains a ’hidden hand’ of the modern world. The Linnaeus Garden, a botanical garden planted by... him continues to grow and be maintained according to his principles, and is a tourist attraction in Uppsala. During this trip I was interested to learn that another hidden hand was also Professor at Uppsala University. This was Anders Celsius, whose name is a real give-away, especially when swim-thinking turns to winter swimming. Anders Celsius was an amazing practical and theoretical mind - astronomer, physicist and mathematician, and Professor of Astronomy at Uppsala University from 1730 to 1744. He founded the Uppsala Astronomical Observatory in 1741, and in 1742 proposed the Celsius temperature scale which now bears his name. Ice and steam are two forms of water that Winter brings – ice swimming (I have been asked many times at what point in Winter do I stop swimming outdoors, and my answer is always ‘when the water is too solid’), and a steaming cup of tea afterwards. The Celsius scale is intuitive, and related to water, the most important molecule on the living earth. At zero it freezes (usually, if it doesn’t flow, doesn’t contain much in the way of minerals or salt), at a hundred it boils – liquid, solid, gas. Ice, swimming, tea - the complex made to seem simple.
It could have been very different if Celsius had his original way. His own centigrade scale had zero degrees for the boiling point of water and a hundred degrees for its freezing point. Linnaeus (and Jean-Pierre Christin of Lyon) turned it around to what we know now - zero for freezing water, a hundred degrees of boiling. Before the French Revolution, when many of the disparate often local metrics of the European world were standardized, this zero to one hundred, freezing to boiling thermometer was known in France as the thermometer of Lyon. Meanwhile, in Uppsala, they knew how to have a good time annoying each other. Linnaeus is known as the temperature-flipper in there, while Celsius was the guy who did the real work. I am so glad we have degrees Celsius now, and not degrees Linnaeus. I can imagine deeply spiteful discussions about which way it should go, flip and flop back again. Not until Celsius' death did it flip for a final time. It would have made his blood boil - or freeze? I am not sure which it would have been any more, I guess it depends on which way the thermometer was hanging at the time.
Continuing with the Uppsala-France connection, another unit of the physical world important to swimmers is the meter, which was formalized in Paris in 1790, and the kilometer, also formalized in Paris, in 1875. Before that, the myriametre (10,000 meters) was the standard measure in everyday use in France. Imagine then, the Dart 10K renamed the Dart Myriametre, and all swimming distances - the 4K Lock to Lock in Oxfordshire for example, the 0.4 Myriametre Lock to Lock. We have the Dutch to thank for the earliest national formalization of the kilometer. Going in the other direction of length measurement, another hidden hand at Uppsala University was Anders Jonas Angstrom, who in the nineteenth century introduced the unit for light wavelength, later internationally adopted as the angstrom. Anders Angstrom was one of several scholars responsible for the field of optical spectroscopy, which is key to making physical measurements without which we would not understand the universe, the physical world, or biology anywhere near as well as we do. For we who swim, spectroscopy is the central means by which water quality is assessed, from dissolved organic matter, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and even markers of bacterial and viral contamination. How much that influences what we do, I don't know though - but it is always better to be informed than not.
Do cats swim?
Cats can swim, and some big cats have to from time to time, when hunting. Smaller domesticated cats can, but prefer not to. If they get in, they get in for a dip, and then the water needs to be close to body temperature, so there is no cold shock. Most mammals, including cats, have brown adipose tissue, so they can cope with the metabolic effects of the cold, so that is not a reason. Cats like comfort. Cats, not even the mighty lion, would not swim the channel – they wouldn’t get out of bed for the training, let alone the doing. Of course, cats hunt at night – our Caius is a small black hunting package with a white smudge on his chest (so that we can tell him apart at night from all the other black cats) who brings home a mouse and drops it in the kitchen/lounge/on the stairs for us to delight in first thing in the morning, as we get tea in bed as preparation for the most-daily swim at the lake or local Thames. But it is rare they will swim for their supper. So what is it about cats and the English? Cats are well loved, a big cat is the animal symbol of the nation, and the (don’t mention it in polite conversation) brexit debate has brought out cat metaphors and analogies – there is the ‘cat that dreamed it was a lion’ (delusions of empire), and the French ‘cat called Brexit’ (who wants to leave the house, but stays and looks around when the door is opened for him), and the invocation of Schrodinger’s cat when discussing Parliamentary Sovereignty in the debate. Marc Johnson of the University of Bristol Law School, uses the Schrödinger’s cat analogy to suggest that “sovereignty can be present in multiple places and remain intact, allowing the normal operation of both the UK Parliament and European Parliament, without offending a nuanced view of sovereignty. In order to do this, one must cast aside the orthodox views of sovereignty and start with a pragmatic and philosophical approach to Parliamentary Sovereignty as it today. Brexit is akin to lifting the lid of Schrödinger’s box to observe the actual state of sovereignty at a specific point in time, but in doing so it reduces the observers to that of a quantitative measurer, and asks ‘is it dead or alive’ – when, in fact, reality is far more complex than this”. Indeed more complex. Returning to cats, they can seemingly be in multiple places at the same time, want be inside and outside at the same time, dream of being bigger than they are, but don’t really like swimming.
Launching into Christmas
All Souls Day has lost its meaning for much of the British population, not celebrated with a mass migration to graveyards across to honour dead relatives as it is in Poland. So it is to Christmas Time when people are remembered. This Christmas approaching the slide show at the Serpentine Swimming Club remembered those who died that year, as well as events to mark the progress of the year, and achievements – one of the ways in which people are remembered. This Christmas Time has been extraordinary so far, with as many invites to swim celebrations – swim-abrations, to swim anniversities – swimaversaries, and to everyday swims. Kristie and Judy have a swim-thing going at Port Meadow this December. As it rained and rained, so the rivers filled and flowed and the River Thames swelled and rolled and broke its banks, not once but in many, many places. At Eynsham Lock, the flood plain is a lake land glistening in the morning sun, scary for some living close to it. At Port Meadow, the River Thames I imagine as the Amazon broad and majestic flowing seriously and with strength. I imagine also that this Amazon should have flamingos – pink in the pink Winter morning light. Flocks of them, Neil disturbing them, as he emerges from the water pink as a flamingo, flying in a unified flap of the big bird. None of this is real, but I do see a heron, and that will do for my imaginary flamingo this morning. This morning, I am at Port Meadow, by the Dodo Tree, with Pauline, as Kristie, Judy, Jeremy, Neil, then Christa flock to our own flamingo gathering. We discuss the collective noun we become when in the water, flowing swift down the Thames to our get-out. “A pod”, suggests Jeremy. A pod it is, and a pod we become, after walking upstream to the Perch jetty, then carefully finding our individual ways in. The water is probably six degrees Celsius, and deep just at the jetty – don’t fall/flop in without intention. “Do not breathe the water; do not drown!” semi-serious and joking at the same time, but it has the right effect, that of care as getting in. The River Thames is on Red Boards, which means there are no craft on the water, which makes it safer than usual, at least from this perspective. Then in and flowing more than swimming, but swimming out enough to be clear of objects in the water, but not too far not to be able to swim in again when the time calls. It is a short swim/swoosh. I call it a sluice when we get out, and Judy agrees it was probably more a sluice than a swoosh. Thus new words and meanings get invented. Judy works at Oxford University Press, so she is probably right, at least much righter than the rest of us.
In the short December 23rd morning after daybreak swim, the sky is pink purple turning to gold – we managed to swim at exactly the right moment. Musing-swimming-sluicing the mind turns quickly as if chronological time, watch and clock time were expanded. I think to Berne and sluicing in the river there, Einstein lived there, worked there, has a Museum in his honour there, and if time can expand anywhere while sluicing in the river, it has to be Berne. In the expanded time of Oxford, a minute becomes ten, what is noticed? The landscape, the broad lake-fields, the thin pink clouds and the blue blue sky, the people with you, around you, fluid, floating Oxford dodo pod. And this time, Christmas Time, the people not with you, including those elsewhere. Social media helps with the occasional intersection – the website ‘Did you swim today?’ bringing daily contact with similar-minded kindred souls/spirits who found solace/comfort/pleasure/ecstasy in water today. And the several pages where daily notifications spread news that I was mentioned, tagged, spoken of or with. On Saturday, it was Helen’s third swim-aversary, celebrating her swimming outdoors every day for three years. All-weather, all seasons, rain and sun, even on one occasion when water was not forthcoming in a river in Italy, rolling in the mud that would be river once the rains returned and the water flowed. This was not a proud moment for her I am sure, but she can take pride in the fact that she made the effort every single day for three years, even when the odds were against her. Helen is one of the sweetest, toughest people I know, always kind, sensitive, she is a privilege to know and have befriended. On that third swim-aversary, we swam to the log on the side of the Thames where she started this particular venture, the log was really on the bank of the river, but with the flooding, was a lone object in the Amazon-Thames, bathed in the sharp blue light of the Winter sun. We swam hard against the current to get to the log, then sat on the log, in the sun, bathing in the sun, laughing. The photos taken, five swim-souls sitting on a log in the winter sun – me, Federica, Jeremy, Kristie, John, quickly spread on social media, and was much-liked on Facebook. A unique morning, among many unique mornings. That’s a reason to get out of bed – you never know what you will see or you will do or think. This flurry of posting and liking brought pleasure among the daily roll of emails and messages that form the mundane back-drop of present-day life. Saturday’s swim-aversary was very special.
On this Christmas Time, people not with you includes those not thought of across the entire year – to catch up, to invite, to go and see in the New Year. It includes those ill or dealing with difficult circumstances. Lots of those among swimmers, “memo to self – must get in touch with… …to see how they are”, even if they don’t respond. Even if they don’t respond, when they show up again, there will be a catching up, a life lesson to share sometimes, sometimes not. Sometimes just silence, and a getting on with the job, with life, with today’s swim, short or long. Sometimes more communion than communication – “great to see you!”, a shake of the hand, a slap on the back, a kiss, two kisses cheek to cheek or a hug according to disposition and what seems right on the day. Sometimes pure joy at seeing someone again after a long silence – shared experiences and memories. Some of these people I would trust my life to – we have shared some hard experiences in the water – nothing you can’t recover from though. Nothing a cup of tea and a piece of cake (always cake!) can’t help remedy, the pleasure of simplicity, life stripped back to essentials. People not with you includes those dead or dying. Not many of those yet, but this number will grow. But there are so many people swimming now, I am mostly surrounded by people who are much younger than me, or people who have never really aged – Peter Pan-like they just keep swimming. The Serpentine’s Peter Pan Challenge Race on Christmas Day always brings eternal youth through swimming to mind. Rod looks great, and I wouldn’t dare ask how old he is – my 65 years is young for him. I have an intention to swim the Serpentine Christmas Day Race perhaps next year, perhaps the year after, but certainly in a year when I need to remember to stay young.
Concerning people not there, I sometime imagine me not being there. Not as a mental thing, but as really not-there anymore. Sometimes as I do this I play my memorial music in my head. I am arrogant enough to want a memorial service after I die - hopefully in Pusey Chapel, Oxford, where the Warden, George, is a very balanced and wise earthly ambassador to God. On the subject of being dead, Pauline has asked our son Peter what he thinks how I would like my earthly remains disposed off. ‘Scattered in the Thames, mum’. Dead right, Peter. Ashes scattered in the Thames, at Swinford Bridge. That is my current thinking. The memorial music – Bach Cello Suite Number One (too long for a memorial service, but maybe I could have a memorial play list?); Wagner – the Master Song in ‘Der Meistersinger’, sings of love and paradise. It makes me cry when I don’t want to, as the electricity rises like the tide my spinal cord up to my brain, bathing it in emotion. The play list for my death bed is another thing, less developed, but certainly Wagner’s Ring Cycle – long enough to go on a fifteen hour loop. The Rhine is evoked in so many different ways, the songs of the Rhinemaidens evoking the swirling, looping and eddying of the Rhine – did Wagner know that water by being in it? I would like to think so. To continue with the memorial service - Strauss’ Four Last Songs (for the play list surely) brought me to tears when I felt (rather than knew) that Peter, having been diagnosed with leukemia, might die. Peter didn’t die, he is fit and healthy, but the music, as memory of death stays – I was listening to it in the car as we drove back to Eynsham from ‘Swam Lake’ one autumn evening shortly after Peter was diagnosed. The play-list is a work in progress, and water pervades the music, its inspiration. Water is magic, it is life, and death, and it also heals.
Swim #35, Christmas Eve, The Thames at Iffley Lock
This one was unexpected, but should not have been. Emma had a swim-aversary, she had swum every day for a year. Every single day, outdoors, rain, wind, shine, snow and shower. Sleet and hale, sun and moon. You get the idea. This is a difficult thing to do, and Emma is a super athlete, triathlon, iron women, and lovely lady all in one. “This is one of your 65 isn’t it?” she quizzed as she opened her door. ‘Yes, of course’, in truth I was into the spirit of Christmas and had taken my eye off the ball. Emma got me focused very quickly, “do you have your sign?”, my 65@65 sign. ‘No, forgot, sorry’. “We’ll make one”; ‘put your swim-a-day on the sign too…’ Which she did. So I am honoured today to be linked with her swim event, swim-aversary, truly honoured. Emma lives a short walk a little downstream of Iffley Lock, Oxford, which winds its way South of the city, out of the city. Every day, when not swimming elsewhere, this is where Emma swims, this is her patch, her territory, her aqua-tory. I have swum here before, but an anniversary is special. Today (and on previous days), the Thames is high and fast, and walking down, through mud and across puddles we sight it in full flow, fast and narrow, racing, careering down. ‘Each cubic meter of water weighs a tonne’ I think to myself. I will do the calculation later – how many tonnes will have shifted in the short time we are in the water. A lot. A whole lot – respect the water, especially today. Neil is first in, as always, arms and head first, and across the river, pulled downstream as he swims a vector to get across. I swim upstream with Emma, Federica, Deya, Alex, Crista, Kristie. Neil gets out on the other bank, and we are photographed by a posse/pelleton of fit lycra lads who stop to take in the scene. Neil calls for others to come across – first Kristie, then …, then Federica. I bottle it today. Deya agrees, is it too fierce. By the time I think and decide to swim across, they have walked upstream to swoosh back down to our side of the bank. I feel like I have cheated myself, but this is today, and tomorrow there will be another swim, another swoosh, and even without getting across to the other back, I do not regret this swim.
Emma is immensely hospitable, has tea and cake at her house afterwards, her teenage children coming down to share cake and chat. She offered me a shower – I have to get poshed up (at least a little) for the Service of Nine Lessons at Christchurch Cathedral, and don’t have time to get back home to make the transformation from swim-rags and robie to jacket and good shoes. The bowl of warm water in which to wash my feet is magic, though. Emma is lovely, and she jokes about the posh boy (me) that has emerged from her downstairs toilet, We hug, wish each other a happy Christmas and I leave after hugs and goodbyes and salutations to all, feeling that the best start to Christmas has just taken place. I am in a frame of mind to leave consumer Christmas behind and to be embraced by the river of tradition old and new that is Christchurch.
A Christmas Carol
It starts in light and ends at night , the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. The carols vary, so do the readings, but not too much. Words, lines, and music instructing of the mystery of faith. The ritual too – beautiful old building, spanning centuries, kingdoms and regimes, styles in architecture and art, the last great style washing the surface of Christchurch being the Victorians. So with the music, seeking sky and heaven on earth, as light evaporates and dark descends. No water here, except that which is frozen – ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’. Frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron. Water like a stone. Carols sung from line beginning to end, pause for breath and then again. And again. And again. Pause for longer breath and time to look up. Sung not for sense but for ritual. ‘Water like a stone’. Beautiful evocation of the season, the shortest day, the least light. The Order of Service declares the words to be by Christina Rossetti (1830 – 94), and thus starts the thought. Was it really so? Uncle Google’s platform helps me with meteorological information – published as a poem in 1872, In the Deep Mid-Winter’ got public acclaim in one of the mildest winters of her time. She wrote a poem called ‘River Thames’ that suggests she is writing of a a smaller calmer Summer river than that at London, where she spent most of her life. It starts ‘There are rivers lapsing down lily-laden to the sea; Every lily is a boat, for bees, one, two, or three’. She knew the Thames outside London and at Kelmscott in 1871, when her brother took out a half-lease on Kelmscott Manor with William Morris. In that year, happened some things at Kelmscott that were shocking to Victorian society, and quite tabloid in their way, in their time. William Morris go, Danter Gabriel Rossetti shack up with his wife Jane, draw her face, paint her portrait, and much more. We swam to Kelmscott a small number of years ago, took tea and cake at the café of the Manor, toured the Manor. Jane Morris was everywhere. Did they swim? Surely during the Summer; it was the age, and they were the bohemians.
While clearly a work of fantasy, ‘Deep Mid-Winter’ must have been based on something. Did the Thames freeze in the years before Christina Rossetti published it? In her lifetime, is turns out that the River Thames froze twice – in 1837/8 and again in 1840/1. Otherwise the South of England was much as now, with December a cooling down but rarely below freezing for more than the overnight period. Going back to the hundred years before she was born, did it freeze? It turns out to have frozen five times, in 1816, 1811, 1788/9, 1775/6, and 1739/40. So she knew a frozen Thames twice in her childhood, and knew water like a stone. In the present-day, in Christchurch, the words are a deep and solemn comfort, bedding down for Winter. But. But this flies in the face of the earlier part of the day, when Thames was roaring and flooding and swimmers were rushed down and across, when water was far from stone. And it flies in the face of my expectations from Winter, hopes of solid water and of ice swimming. “The crunch of ice is what I long for…” I set these words to the first line of the next verse of Deep Mid-Winter, singing more mentally than physically, none notice this, amid the dis-synchronised rote carolling-mumbling around me. I long for the deep mid-Winter, when water turns to ice.