top of page

Swim #36, New Year’s Day Dip, West Oxfordshire Sailing Club


New Year’s Day and all are dipping after promising, resolving to do dry January. The United States and Canada have their polar bear plunges on this day. In the UK it is far less cold but people usually stay in longer, so the effect is much the same – get in, get out after the right length of time (according to experience, resistance to pain and/or determination), then drink tea/coffee/brandy/vodka/whisky mac and eat cake while and after dressing and shiver-chatting and laughing. In the UK the trend is to avoid alcohol at these things, as people are more aware of the stresses that such swimming puts on the body. And as there are more and more people cold-swimming regularly, so there are fewer people drinking alcohol. It seems to me that swimmers generally consume much less alcohol (or none at all) compared with the general population. Pauline and I provide cocoa and cake at this New Year’s Day Dip as in previous years. We have watched these New Year’s Day events grow in popularity. There are so many dips on this New Year’s Day, I almost feel like saying ‘Thank you for choosing our Dip. We know you have a choice’. But I don’t, but am thankful for the strong turn-out today, old friends and new dippers, members of the sailing club and their guests. This year over 40 people came. Each year it gets bigger, the winter swimmers stronger. We started three years ago, when the turn-out was a very convivial dozen or so. Today there are people waiting at the club house even though we arrive half an hour early to get set up. We get the sign-in book for guests, lay out cake and biscuits– vegan (biscuits), not vegan (chocolate cake and cocoa). People start to get changed, people are arriving. Some say I have “never done this before but I want to try”, some of the children are excited, one of them is vexing his mother, refusing to put on his wetsuit. Neil arrives, quietly staying in the background. He is a genuinely lovely man, quiet, unassuming, but with deep strength and integrity. He has children of his own and he likes to help, so I engage him in briefing a small group of children and their parents as they are getting ready ahead of most everyone else. Neil speaks with a soft authority – children listen, parents watch – “we are going to do this very sensibly” – that is the tone. I leave them to it. Children, parents dip and swim and wade out and scurry-change as the murmur of demand for cocoa grows. Then the next wave of people head into the water – those that dip and those that swim. I am swimming this morning, and as I look out I see Neil is already swimming, has for a while, making sure he gets his time in the water. Those that dip include strong Summer swimmers who quit the outdoor waters late September. They are here because they love the outdoors, and probably run and cycle and do other outdoorsy-things. This is something to try.  Those that swim, swim most days if not every day. “What is the temperature?” goes most days year-round swimmer Kristie. Jeremy – “I don’t know” – where is Anders Celsius when you need him, I think. Jeremy swims then measures the temperature as he swims – “6.1” he declares. “Nice” we agree, first swimming as a diamond of four, then as a pod of nine, back and forth in the hundred meters or so parallel to the front of the club house, as further people arrive. Keeping it safe, keeping everyone visible. Then chatter, cocoa, flasks of tea, coffee, boxes of mince pies appear. “We got the best of the day” – Jeremy. The sun came out and shone thinly through the cloud while we swam then hid behind its grey-white curtains when we finished. A good omen for 2020, we agreed. There was no talk of New Year resolutions – no doubt there were those who resolved to swim more, swim better, swim stronger, longer. Because swimming itself helps resolve things.



65@65 Swim #37, Penzance, Battery Point

I was swept away by the incoming tide of Susie and Philip’s kindness and warm hospitality in Cornwall. Susie invited me to swim some of my 65 in her locality, Porthleven, St Ives and Penzance. Pauline and I arrived the night before, and Susie was straight to the point – “do you want to swim?”. ‘Yes’. “Before or after your cup of tea?” We had just driven from Oxfordshire with a couple of breaks, one to dip in Roadford Lake, just beyond Okehampton, and another to see the fine Victorian Cathedral in Truro. We were car-tired, but Susie did not mess around; even before seeing our room, I was in togs and dry-robe, ready to go down to the very near-by water front. Sand, frisky water coming in, I took a short swim while Susie and Pauline watched. I was dumped by two waves in quick succession coming back in – “welcome to Cornwall” I thought. I felt like my limbs were being torn from my torso, much in the way that some people tear a leg off a roasted chicken. That, and eating sand from the shore-floor. ‘Must be careful’ – note to self; eating sand is not for me. Pauline and Susie didn’t seem to notice, or let on, how I had been thrown about by the water.


Keeping this episode in mind, we drove to Penzance the next morning to swim with her people there, the Penzance Belles and Buoys. We walked on the pathway around the Jubilee Pool, a sea-water pool open in Summer, under repair in Winter, firmly closed off now, but still looking magnificent in the dappled sunshine and with the ocean in the back-ground. Jubilee Pool is an ocean pool built in the 1920s, and is a beautiful Art Deco ocean-liner fantasy. Also magnificent in the background in another direction was St Michael’s Mount, the twin-not-twin of the Mont Saint Michel in Brittany. The Battery Rocks gets its name from the gun battery that was located here in 1740 as protection from attacks by the French navy. This was between two Anglo-French wars, and are more likely to have been gun placements prepared in advance of the Anglo-French Wars that began in 1744 and ended nineteen years later. Swimming started here in the late nineteenth century, after many decades of peace between England and France. For me it is difficult to work out what was what, since my sense is that the Cornish have an ambivalent relationship with the English, and probably always have had. Nonetheless, the gun battery placement provided the initial infrastructure upon which the sea-bathing steps and rails were constructed and which are used to the present-day by the Belles and Buoys.


There were not so many Buoys this morning, although I was assured that they numbered more than usual this bright Saturday morning. They gather every morning at 11am, and dazzle in the January light with their swim-couture – bright caps and cozzies, lippie and sunnies. These are the Belles; the Buoys are more subdued, but no less chatty and verbally buoyant. Jackie comes over with a great big hug – I know her from the Serpentine in London – she’s looking good, smil;ing and happy. Dressed and ready, Belles and Buoys colourful against the white of the Jubilee Pool wall, I think ‘Susie and the Supremes’, fondly – I don’t know Susie well enough and hope she takes this idea well, I certainly mean it well. But I can’t get the music out of my head once the idea is there and once I am in the water. What head-music do people play/sing while swimming? Juliet, in the Thames, sings under bridges – this is better than doing fly, I think, an established Thames-swimming tradition. Swimming at Penzance? My head-music starts with “Stop, in the Name of Love”. It works to get in, the “Stop” urging caution as I get into the tousling ocean. Once swimming, it doesn’t work – the “Stop” is too stoppy to be able to synchronise a stroke to. What about “Baby love”? I try it out and find that it is really good with breast-stroke. Stretch out with the “Ba” – pull back with the “Be” – finish the pull with “Love” – then start the stretch with “My”. Then repeat, over and over – ‘baby love, my baby love, my baby love’. That works for a short while until I meet up with Tina and start talking. Then we separate, and the Supremes start up again – “Baby love” gets mashed up with “Where did our love go” as I turn into the ocean from swimming parallel to shore and waters get less synchronised and more gentle-choppy – “where did our love go my baby love…’. The Supremes are not my usual music of choice but you can see how this mash-up flows as the water. This is somehow the right mind-worm for these waters. As I continue to develop the Supremes mash up  - “baby love – In the middle of nowhere – where did our love go –“, I meet up with Karen, a supreme photographer of the wild things that live on and with the Battery Rocks. The music-worm fades out as Karen and I talk. She is taking photographs and asks if she can photograph me. I am flattered. Karen is lovely gentle soul with an eye for the beautiful, which she photographs so well, usually small things that most people miss. Here colourful images of sea creatures put in mind the crocheted reef animals that fascinated me at the Venice Biennale last October. It starts to rain – I am told it always does – and Karen says she will stay in until it stops. I stay with her for a while looking out to St Michaels Mount, to shore and the Jubilee pool. Swimming back, mind-music gone, the rainbow over Jubilee Pool is very pause-worthy and marks the end of another perfect swim. Coming to shore, scrambling to dry off and dress, Karen looks gorgeous in her pink and white striped changing robe. I ask her if I can photograph her, and she says “you know what photographers are like”, but agrees and pulls a face. The pink and white turns out to be a motif from the early-mid-twentieth century.


Everyone has been so welcoming, and I thank them, personally as I can before scrambling away for the day, and thank those mentally who have already scrambled away. Susie and Philip lead the way to lunch in a sea-shore-distressed-furniture-and-walls café which Susie promised made “simple-good food”, which it did in good measure. Great décor, friendly, good - all good (words become simple and simply-joined when after-swim-shivering) . From there to the nearby Penlee House Gallery, which impresses with the small but excellent collection of Newlyn School artists. There is plenty to think about here – I ask an unanswerable question - ‘what is it about seaside artists’ colonies?’ It is a poorly formulated question which led to shrugged shoulders. It needs more thought. The coastal colonies were mostly of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Skagen in Denmark, Walberswick in England, Honfleur in France, Provincetown in Massachusetts, Frauenchiemsee in Bavaria, Newlyn and St Ives in Cornwall. The idea that artists were looking for a simple life to allow their expression to flourish doesn’t seem enough for me. However it is enough for now for me to think that they are probably all great places to swim. Next stop, St Ives. 

65@65 Swim #38 St Ives, Porthmeor Beach

St Ives had/has a significant artists’ presence, if not colony any more. The names that have lived here is far surpassed by the names that have stopped here briefly and more longly. Tate St Ives is here, representing the St Ives artists to the world stage, and Tate St Ives overlooks Porthmeor Beach, which is the next of the swims. The weather, rainy, drizzly, turning dry-grey in turn. The swim more of a duty than a pleasure. One person commented on the beach as I made a steady way through the sand to the waters edge “refreshing no doubt” – ‘no doubt’ I replied. A cut-glass accent, St Ives as Chelsea by the Sea. No doubt it brings income, but no doubt it makes it difficult for locals to buy houses. So the young and ambitious leave, and the more moneyed come in, a cycle of people, education and money. We have conversations about this with Susie and Philip, regretful while also being part of it. How to keep people on the land / in the rural areas is an endless and perennial issue, and it is not all bad. Porthmeor Beach has its quota of surfers, ducking and squatting, plunging, and board-paddling back to the wave-crests. Wet-suited, long and short haired, some tatoo’d, these are the Winter hard core. I don’t dare to ask how many are local, but there must be some, the ones who stayed because they can’t leave the waves behind. How do you develop a post-industrial landscape with such beautiful coastline? There is no real answer to this. The swim is short, out beyond the waves, a paddle around, the tide going out, the surfers around me. I don’t want to get in their way, so swim a little beyond the waves. They are all chilled, going about their wave-business, and I am not there long. The return is faster, the water warm to my senses, being acclimatised to six degrees in Oxfordshire. I change on a seat and bench of the downstairs café below Tate St Ives, closed for winter, no-one minds or notices. A South African and his partner ask “what’s 65 at 65?”. I explain; she says he is a swimmer. I get onto Cape Town and the Robben Island swim – ‘it’s about the same temperature as here’ I say. He won’t be persuaded to go in today – “I’m from JoBurg” he says by way of explanation. Land-locked, no ocean, pool swimmer mostly. We part ways; I hope he parts some waves another day, him being a young adult with a strong physique.


Tate St Ives is the next place – it has a focus on internationalism, with a strong local collection highlighted by some of the internationally-great moderns – Picasso, Braque, Mondrian. And an exhibition by Otobong Nkanga, a powerful and thoughtful exploration of extractive economies and how they have shaped African countries. The ‘negative monument’ was the memorable work for me – a hole in the ground in Africa representing resources extracted to make statues of famous white men (nearly always men) in countries still carrying the power of the coloniser – bronze, gold. And ‘bling’, a work that makes very apparent the craziness of extracting minerals and other resources to make often-throwaway jewelry. ‘For what?’ I come away thinking. As I am probably expected to come away thinking. Two light works are pretty, the one in the courtyard enlivened by a punk-haired young women with face piercings. Singing random-ish notes, this becomes a sound and light sculpture, the changing blues and reds setting off the dimming beach light in the distance, as twilight moves from civil to nautical.


“Time to go” – Pauline is on target with the need for tea and cake. We wander the higgle-piggle streets and can’t seem to settle on a café, as cafes are starting to close. We settle on a Cornish pastie, one between two, Pauline chooses the flavour. My mind is still in Angola, with Otobong Nkanga. I saw her work at the Venice Biennale just a few months ago, and it didn’t really register. Not surprising perhaps. Her work needs time and reflection and Venice has so many artists competing for attention, and even when winning attention, there is so much to see that there is not enough time for any one thing. The pasty, broken in half, is the same both ends, not savoury at one end and sweet at the other, main course and dessert. I am not sure how genuine the idea of a two-course pasty is, but it is an interesting one. The pasty has become synonymous with mining in Cornwall – a self-insulated package of relatively cheap ingredients that can be eaten easily during hard physical labour. The tin mines are now no more than romantic follies that give architectural highlights to the rolling Cornish moors. We saw a few on the way across from Penzance just today, and they are beautiful. A small number have been turned into museums. I am sure these give some sense of the harsh realities of mining. The pasty and Nkanga’s work are linked by resource extraction and the transnational nexus in which it takes place and is given meaning. ‘Good curating’ I think – the link is important, Nkanga deals with destruction, ecological change and the colonial present. The pasty is the nostalgic present-day, a food-symbol of Cornwall, detached from the mining that made Cornwall a place in the past, feeding the tourism that makes Cornwall a place in the present. 

65@65 Swim #39 Porthleven, Cornwall

Past ‘Nauty but Ice’ – an ice-cream parlour on the harbour-front,  past ‘Rick Stein’ – an expensive sea-food restaurant on the other side of the harbour, past the litter man (also on the harbour front), past the people smoking on the harbour’s edge, taking the air plus nicotine. Hurrying, three billowing figures in black dry robes, glimpses of pink, green and blue on each of them respectively, along the harbour, to swim this Sunday morning. I am the blue, Pauline the green, Susie the pink. Philip has nothing to do with this swimming business, and will come shortly. A lovely man, he has many deep interests and a good eye. I don’t ask him what he does - that seems rude - he is a lovely interesting hospitable kind man, and that is plenty enough. I enjoy his company, his slow thoughtful way of expressing his love of the place that he and Susie have half-settled here in Porthleven. Half-settled also in London, but the conversation doesn’t go there much this weekend. Porthleven has two marvellous evocations in Tate St Ives by Peter Lanyon. We are to meet with the ‘Salty Sisters and Briny Brothers’ of Porthleven at ten am this Sunday morning. Not before taking up the offer of a banana from Philip after a very rushed breakfast on my part. ‘Hurry, must be on time’ - my thought seems to be the consensus among us, in action. ‘Mustn’t be late’. But in reality, there is always someone that arrives late, and we know that. The Thames Swimming Group has a name for it, the time between the start-time and the time when the swim really starts – faffing, the verb, and faffage, the noun. It is a very real thing. To this very real thing a law has been made – the Law of  Faffing, which is that faffage increases exponentially as the number of swimmers increases. Do we really have nothing else to do with our time and minds? Obviously not, when we put our minds to it. The Law of Faffing is flawed, of course, because the increase in faffage between a single lone swimmer to two swimmers together is itself am infinite rise from zero to something. Then at some number of swimmers the amount of faffing must be so great that people just turn around and go home. Or anarchy ensues. Usually the latter. The limits of faffing have not yet been investigated well enough to be able to say much beyond it not being a universal law, and there must be special conditions that operate according to circumstances. There is, it seems, a need for a study of faffing, swim group size and time. It seems to me to be urgent work, at least this morning, right now as we rush to the harbour steps that are the meeting place for the Salty Sisters. We three black be-robed figures arrive dead on ten, like three muscateers ready for action, to throw ourselves into turbulent waters… Others are there already, some are changing, some are still rushing to the spot we change, much as we rushed. It is mostly Salty Sisters this morning, with only one other male, the only Briny Brother. ‘I can be your brother’  I think, but don’t say. That would be a spooky thing to say to someone I have never met, swimmer or not. Susie has arranged for us to join this, her more local group, this morning. This promises to be a much wilder swim experience. The sisters are much less concerned with couture, and more with the experience of swimming, out into the harbour mouth. The get-in would be easy enough if the waves didn’t pummel, but they do. I am careful – one slip and I could be in the deep water (good) or tossed onto the rock side (bad). I am so careful that most of the sisters and one brother have gone ahead. I follow and reach them as they are turning back. “Too rough today” one says “when its calm we go right out into the ocean”. But not today. I am glad they are careful, almost despite their salty wildness.


Coming to Cornwall, I had Purcell’s ‘King Arthur’ on loud in the car. Entering Cornwall just before Launceston, I had Tristan and Islode dominating my mind-scape, the long, enfolded love duet. Cornwall as a separate nation, Tristan the Cornish knight and Isolde the Irish princess. This Celtic corner of England we were entering, this deep history, this deep literature that shaped the romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites and beyond. My mind was on rocks in the ocean, shipwrecks and wrecked love, on overcoming against the odds. I was going to swim, but not in a reckless way – “avoid the rocks, avoid the wreckage”. Into Cornwall, King Arthur became oddly Brexit-like. The plot is based on the battles between the Britons and the Saxons, and features a pantheon of gods and characters from across history – Venus and Cupid, Wotan, Freya and Thor. Britain lost than one, I thought, the Danes see England as being half Danish anyway, and the British population of way-back was pushed into Wales, Ireland and Cornwall, while the Angles and Saxons occupied England. I really struggle with the distinctions some people make between the English and the Germans for example – I can see none of any great import. So, King Arthur represented the struggle between these powers. In the end, Arthur gets his girl, Emmeline, and tells the Saxons to go ‘shoo’, as Britannia rises from the water, with celebratory fishermen at her feet. Heady stuff. It’s a lot more complicated now, of course, the Saxons are the English, and the Germans are the Saxons too, and England is no longer an island that can be defended by joyous fishermen. Indeed, there are very fishermen left, as we discussed with Susie and Philip and others. Old industries declined or extinct, identity through hard labour gone, becoming service-providers to the wealthy who travel to Cornwall for its beauty, it is not a pretty sight when the surface is scratched. The ‘Cold Song’ from King Arthur has a deep power, reminding me of past winters in Paris and Amsterdam when it got properly cold – 


“What power art thou? - who from below - hast made me rise? - unwillingly and slow
from beds of everlasting snow - see'st thou not how stiff - and wondrous old? - far unfit to bear the bitter cold...   …I can scarcely move - or draw my breath - I can scarcely move -or draw my breath - let me, let me, let me, let me - freeze again...
…let me, let me - freeze again to death…”


Pulsing rhythm, powerful words, desperate moods. We have all experienced them, these cold-desperate moods. This direct ‘speaking to the heart of experience’ is what makes this hundreds-of-years-old song compelling, drivingly so. Purcell is a genius. But – seductive though it is, the spell breaks when the song ends - this is not in the spirit of winter swimming. I cannot imagine singing this while swimming in icy water – pulsing with each enfeebled stroke ‘I can scarcely move – or draw my breath - let me – let – me – let – me – freeze again to death' – No! Never! 'Here lies hypothermia, low of Celsius’ – I can see the epitaph now. This song is banished from the water, from my mind, when I come to swim in ice or close-to ice. Such a mind-game, swimming cold; through careful swimming, cold is disciplined by gaining body self-knowledge. At least I like to think that. I read a sign at the West Oxfordshire Sailing Club that stated that cold water immersion is one of the most physiologically stressful things anyone can do to their body. So it’s weird when I (and many others) are drawn to it. The Cold Song, I never think of it when I am swimming… In the car now, it is different, the song is like a memory of cold, like a fond recollection of a dangerous friend. I am still driving, driving, thinking, thinking, on and on, through Cornwall, my thinking, thinking, turns to more recent covers of the Cold Song, by Klaus Nomi, Nanette Scriba. Germans both, they know this song, they know the winter, make this song theirs. I start my own version of the Cold Song - ‘I will swim again, again, again - when all around is cold – let me – let me – let me – let me swim again when cold’. Not so compelling, these words, but they work for me.

Swimming through a diamond – Cornwall and Bridget Riley


Bridget Riley is a star of modern art, and although I saw her exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London in November, it was the visit to Cornwall to swim with Susie that brought her to mind. Riley has studios in Vaucluse, London and Cornwall, each for different purposes. The light in Cornwall and the South of France is fantastic in different ways. I don’t know if she still swims; all three locations lend themselves to swimming, in different ways, Cornwall mostly for the ocean, Vaucluse has a number of rivers, and London has the Hampstead Ponds and it’s lidos. I don’t think she is a member of the Serpentine swimming club. Riley is influenced by the painting of Seurat, and Seurat loved painting the water, and painted ‘The Bathers’ now at the National Gallery in London. While it is fun to speculate about Riley’s commitment to swimming now , she is on record as having been a swimmer in her teens, when, during World War Two she was evacuated to a cottage near Padstow, Cornwall. In 1984 she wrote an article her Vogue magazine “On Swimming Through a Diamond” an account of her childhood in Cornwall. She wrote of bathing in the sea: "swimming through the oval, sauce-like reflections, dipping and flashing on the sea surface” she “…traced the colours back to the origins of the reflections”, Some from the sky, some from golden-greens of vegetation growing on the cliffs, some from the red-orange of sea-weed on the blues and violets of nearby rocks, and “all between, the actual hues of of the water, according to its various depths and over what it was passing”. Swimming in Cornwall can be very much like that – I was there for a weekend, and envy the people I met, those swimmer who year-round see the colours changing and flowing from moment to moment and across the seasons, sometimes dull, grey, raining, often bright and coloured and sometimes a flash of brilliance. A flash of brilliance in the Penzance ocean on the Saturday of my visit – the rainbow from nowhere – is in my mind’s eye, and will be in my memory forever. For Bridget Riley – “On a fine day…   …all was bespattered with the glitter of bright sunlight and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow – it was as though one was swimming through a diamond”. The Battery Belles and Bouys, The Salty Sisters and Briny Brothers must surely have their diamond-days, and I long to share one with them before I die.

65@65 Swim #40 Hampstead Heath Mens Pond

The day started with two auspicious moments. The first was seeing the sun rising from the infinite mist on the horizon of the M40 on the way to London to swim, Neil driving, Helen and Jeremy in the back. A big fat on-the-horizon golden sun emerging as we were coming to the edge of The Shire, or Oxfordshire. We were four hobbits leaving The Shire on a mission to the Big City London-Town, to swim in relay in the annual PHISH winter swimming event – Parliament Hill Icy Swim Hogmanay – all words that come together to spell an unlikely event when most of the country’s most devoted Winter swimmers aggregate. Jeremy and Karen had been to IKEA just recently, and Jeremy had Swedish Fish Lollies to share, very proudly from Malmo, famous in winter swimming circles for Ribersborg Kallbadhus. Jeremy and I had visited there last year, and this is a place I get to several times a year, when I am working in Copenhagen. Fish lollies for PHISH.


The second auspicious moment was seeing and talking with the East German Ladies Swim Team, founded in 2011 in honour the most successful (and most controversial) Olympic swimming team: the 1976 East German Ladies Swimming Team, who wiped the opposition at the Montreal Olympic Games, who also had deep voices and were long-term users of steroids. The Hampstead Ponds equivalent are all men, all very charming, all very enthusiastic. They are the stuff of local swimming legend, so it was a great privilege to shake hands and exchange news – ‘yes, we were going to PHISH – we are Oxford Dodos relay team – we were in the lane next to you last year…’ They asked more about swimming in Oxford, I said I would be honoured to host any East German Ladies to a swim if they happened to come to Oxford.

Neil’s new car has everything, including the ability to talk back to him. When struggling to use voice recognition to get to Parliament Hill Lido, I swore back at the digital direction finder, and it replied with “I won’t reply to that…”. 

‘Let me explain something that doesn't seem complimentary…’ Why when someone mentions Hampstead Ponds, I think ‘Hampstead Piss-pots’. It isn’t obvious why, so stay with me. Across many years, I have given a lecture on disease ecology at the University of Oxford. Broadly, this is about how environmental and cultural issues shape disease patterns and our understandings of disease; you can find the podcast on Oxford Apple Podcasts easily. I used to talk about the cleaning up of the Thames in the nineteenth century, and how that was a prime mover in the decline of diseases link cholera and diarrhoea, and how without this clean-up would London be a much less lovable, liveable city. Part of this lecture focused on Thomas Crapper, and the flushing toilet, and how this single invention made life better for the citizens of Hampstead and Highgate (I am getting there, please be patient), but less so downstream of their affluent / effluent discharge, which eventually found its way into the Thames. Chamber-pot design had come a long way by the early nineteen hundreds, with wry decorative features such as the open eye in the centre of Arthur Woods’ “Thunder Bowl” (with patent anti-splash technology). But the flushing toilet transformed everything, the first of which were to furnish the wealthiest homes from the 1840s.. There were many, many variants, but the one with a water-trap, the Beaufort, on the market in 1884, was the forerunner of modern and contemporary toilet design. It’s designer was Edward Humpherson of the Beaufort Works in Chelsea –a very important hidden hand of the modern world.

As always, my prejudices get in the way of the facts, which are that there was a shed-load of s*** coming from the much more numbersome poorer residents living in the rapidly expanding London-Town of the nineteenth century. And that Hampstead Ponds were probably not nearly as contaminated as the River Fleet (now buried and a sewer) which fed into the Thames from this part of London. The Hampstead Pond still drain into the Fleet Sewer. Very wisely, the rich in the nineteenth century, when offered a means of removing their waste, no longer had to, well, s*** in their own back yard. It is an unfortunate link in my mind, but persists despite the facts that the ponds are stream-fed from the source of the River Fleet, and that they are probably pretty clean enough (although Michael Phelps didn’t think so when he came to swim in the Men’s Pond in 2012, after the London Olympic Games). 

So we are here at Hampstead Ponds, January 2020, for a pre-swim swim, ahead of PHISH, eight swimmers, two Dodo relay teams, one the Oxford Dodos (the orginals), the other, captained by Alice, the Stuffed Dodos (in recognition of the stuffed dodo in the Natural History Museum in Oxford. This is the dodo that Lewis Caroll took inspiration from when writing Alice in Wonderland). Caroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and he had a stutter – so he was nick-named Dodo by his fellow students at Oxford back in the day. There was some confusion even before we started out today. It was a species-identity-related issue. We are Hobbits, but we are also Dodos. The email correspondence ran thus, in the days running-up to PHISH -


Jeremy set the schedule (he is a fantastic planner) -

06:30  Leave Home in Chippy (Jeremy is a resident of Chipping Norton, west Oxfordshire)

07:00  Collect Stanley from home at Eynsham, West Oxfordshire (00:29)

07:18  Collect Helen from home, in Oxford (00:18)

07:30  Arrive Thornhill Park and Ride, Oxford and park (00:11)

Transfer to Neil’s car – drop of zone / waiting room

07:40  Leave Thornhill Park and Ride

08:50  Arrive at Parking – based on last year’s optimum site. (01:08)

London NW3

09:00  Register for our relay (10:00 cut off) (00:11)

           Wander up to Hampstead ponds for a pre relay warm up swim.

Late breakfast at the café to replace lost calories and stock pile some more for the relay.

13:00  Relay event

16:00  Depart from parking, latest.

17:30  Arrive Thornhill Park and Ride


This seemed straightforward. Jeremy even timed in slippage (or was it faffage?), acknowledging that “Times are approx. So maybe +/- 5 minutes or so either way! (The down to the minute time implies a degree of precession that does not exist in swimming circles J! ) Can txt if wildly out”. So, everything was covered. Or was it? Neil found the problem straightaway, something that threatened him deep to the core – “I  thought we had breakfast then walked to the ponds for a dip!!!” Apres Neil, la deluge! Me – “I think Neil has it the right way around – we are Hobbits after all…” Helen – ‘Oh no - i am confused now..... I don't know if I breakfast to swim or swim to breakfast or both. Darn it. That must be two before and one after.....?’ Me – “I think you may share the confusion of the Dodo who is hobbit at heart. Hobbits have habits, like second breakfast, that die hard... This doesn't help the confusion, but it paves the way to two breakfasts...”  Jeremy resolved the matter – “Two breakfasts sounds like the way to go - best not take chances. I can, or maybe just think I can, remember having difficulty with a knife and fork and cold hands. But I probably had a cold brain too and it might not have been a PHISH event. ‎Or a second breakfast…” And on it went.

The central issue gnawing away at me was ‘what is the primary allegiance of an Oxford Dodo when in London, as hobbit or dodo?’ It seemed to be resolving itself around ‘hobbit’ – it left me thinking ‘old hobbits die hard, but dodos are extinct’. Neil was calm in saying that he did not know if he could last until late breakfast at the café – this was not usual for him. Neil is tall and muscular, so has larger than average calorie requirements. Add to that his dedicated cold water swimming which is certain to have activated his brown fat production and activity – so additional maybe ten percent energy expenditure due to non-shivering thermogenesis. How do I know about non-shivering thermogenesis? I worked for a year in the 1980s with the scientist who identified the role of brown adipose tissue in humans (up to then it was thought to be a tissue found mainly in rodents). My job, I kid you not, was to cool down babies to see if they activated non-shivering thermogenesis, that is, producing  body heat without shivering. This was all conducted in observance with ethical practice. I didn’t end up in that field (as a young scientist I had a precarious livelihood which was interesting but which did not guarantee long-term employment). So Neil – he was patient and accepted a group decision to make for a single late breakfast. Dodos Oxford and Stuffed strutted and squarked up to the Ponds, past the Hampstead Heath Café, past the smell of bacon cooking, a smell guaranteed to break the fast of a hunger-striker. Neil was strong-willed, walked on past the café, as did we all. One breakfast was now on the cards, and we were now more dodo than hobbit. Up the hill, to the fork in the path – the five women veered left to the Women’s Pond, and the three men to the Men’s Pond. I asked Helen to ask a question for me. Ever since I saw the movie ‘The Ponds’ I was fascinated by the Kenwood Slappers – they would be great to swim with, they came across as intelligent and fun. The question was simple – “are the slappers a Thing?”, the answer was a disdainful sniff of a Hampstead nose “no – this is from the film – there are two women who like to call themselves this, but no they are not a thing. Now the East German Ladies Swim Team – they are a thing!”. Sniffy-nose or not, this was new information, for which I thanked Helen greatly.   

The swim – 7.4 degrees Celsius; Jeremy was keen to validate his thermometer against that of the Ponds. It was out by half a degree, within the bounds of accuracy for his thermometer. We had a thermometer conversation as we swam in the vegetative waters of the Men’s Pond. Once I decided that it was like swimming in cold tea, it seemed somehow both better and stranger. Dodos can at least bring some Lewis Caroll wonderland to London-Town. The conversation turned to the distinction between precision and accuracy. Jeremy’s thermometer was accurate in that it gave the same measure of Celsius when estimating the temperature of a given patch of water at a given time, and it was within the bounds of precision for that thermometer in that it was only half a degree away from a standard measure, if we were to take the life guard’s measure of temperature at the Men’s Pond on that day. I bet Lewis Caroll could flip even more persuasively between wonderland and theoretical and applied mathematics. Charles Dodgson (his real name) researched algebraic geometry, mathematical logic and theory of voting. Dodgson was a practical man, who made recommendations concerning Parliamentary elections, including a rule that no results should be announced until all polling stations were closed (it seems a non-brainer now), and various methods for proportional representation. Neil meantime was half-way around the Pond, having dived in off the diving board and drawn admiration from two men in their twenties going through the Winter swimming season for their first time. The sun shone on cold tea, and it was time to go, meet the lady-dodos and eat breakfast. We met up again, exchanged stories and observations, and tracked back to the Hampstead Heath Café. Busy Saturday morning, every man, woman, dog and child seemed to be there. The line to order was long but orderly, polite efficient. Past the cake, past the fruit, to the moment of truth – the ordering of breakfast. Neil was ahead of everyone, his metabolic needs driving his very specific appetite for breakfast. This clatter and chatter in the café was loud, so I couldn’t hear Neil ordering his food, but the body language of disappointment was clear. “Breakfast orders close at 11.00” said Jeremy. “No full English breakfast!” his body seemed to say. He settled for a bacon roll and a sausage in a roll. I was swim-confused – I was going for the full English too, now what to do? The choice was bizarre, but somehow worked. I relied on my primate brain to choose the things that appealed on the spur of the moment – a bright orange persimmon, a big piece of bright yellow custard and almond sponge cake (trust me, it was good), and a sausage in a bread roll with bright red tomato ketchup. Being a good primate, I used colour signalling to indicate caloric value. It kind of worked, but in the wrong order – persimmon, then cake, then sausage in a roll. Have you ever tried to eat a very ripe jelly-like persimmon without a spoon and with shiver-hands? We ate heartily, but it wasn’t breakfast, not real breakfast… We left for the nearby Parliament Hill Lido knowing that without breakfast, not even single breakfast, far, far from second breakfast, we were hobbits a long way away from The Shire.

Swim #41 PHISH, Parliament Hill Lido, London

PHISH time – the now almost-annual event of the winter swimming brother-and-sister-hood of the cold water. We arrived in London in good time for registration, singing Abba’s “Super Trooper” with Helen. Or a ‘dum-de-dum’ version of it on my part – I still don’t know the words, even though it burrows up like a worm in the lawn in Springtime when I am mindlessly, wordlessly happy. Happy morning. Helen says we need a Dodo Song. I’m not sure if Super Trooper will cut it, but we stumble-trip-try to find dodo swim words to it. The song came to me this morning, after days of sitting silent in the back of my head, or rather the broom cupboard of my mind. The Police – ‘do do do, da da da’ does it for me. I was thinking of Zurich, and the art movement Dada, which was started in Zurich at the height of the First World War. I looked to the bookshelf and fixed on the catalogue of the only Hannah Hoch exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery London in 2014. Hoch was the only major woman Dada-ist artist. There it was – Dada had its Dada-soph (as in Dada philosopher) and its Ober-Dada (or Head Dada-ist). Dodo has its Head Dodo, Jeremy. In Zurich he would be Ober-Dodo. It is just a quick slip in the shower singing ‘do do do, da da da’ for it to morph into ‘Dodo Dodo Dada Dada’, and a quicker slip of the towel while drying off for it to become ‘Dodo Dodo Dodo Dodo…’ Is all I want to say to you… Seems right somehow, at least for now. Emma has suggested something along the lines of “Ola-di-obla dodo swim goes on, bro, lala how the swim goes on”. This seems persuasive. Maybe Ella Fitzgerald’s “Lets Call the Whole Thing Off..” might work – “You say Dada and I say Dodo…” – but this can wait for another day, as we are at the head of the queue. It’s great we have three dodo songs with just a shake of the Dodo Tree. Perhaps there are the makings of a Dodo Songbook…

Once, registered, still in search of a song, we met with all the Dodos, Oxford and Stuffed, decided on cap colours – pink for Stuffed Dodos, Black for Oxford Dodos - found old friends from Thames swimming – Raf, and the Serpentine - James, then made our way up to Hampstead Ponds. What followed was fabulous in most ways, except for breakfast, which didn’t strictly happen. But we ate, and I got to eat cake for ‘breakfast’, and all was good, all were fuelled up. Back at Parliament Hill Lido, the individual events had mostly taken place, we saw Craig, an individualist Dodo did most events, and mostly won. Later in the day after our relay and in the hot tub we met the lady who beat him (was it the first time ever?) – very strong and modest – as is Craig himself. I have a view that women are much more resilient than men, and her was another example. Craig did brilliantly as ever, winning event after event after event, and we all unreservedly congratulated him. Our event was after a new innovation, the complicated-seeming Double Dipper, which involved swimming two lengths, sitting in the hot tub for ‘at least six minutes’ then swimming another two lengths. Hearing the routine involved in this event, I thought that this might turn out to be like natural selection in action. Those that have the fastest times in the first two laps get the longest in the hot tub, longest time to recover, and therefore most likely to get the fastest times in the second set of two laps. I am sure that was the point, but we discussed whether it was really wise to do what the organisers suggest. But then how often is winter swimming aligned with wisdom? It seemed to work, and people seemed to find it an acceptable event – I asked Ben, from the Serpentine Swimming Club how he found it – not bad at all. Maybe they will have it again next year. When the double dip mayhem quelled, it was time for the relays -we were on at 13.10 (ish) – black caps (Oxford Dodos - Emma, me, Helen, Neil), pink  caps (Stuffed Dodos – Nikki, Federica, Jeremy, Alice), in adjacent lanes, and in the next lane, Three Lovely Ladies and the Fabulous Raf. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Other teams with great names included The Floaters, the Publically Hated Ice Swimming Homosapiens, the Shiver Club Penguins, Hot Pants, Team Pants, the Wet Kippers, the Furry Blue Boobies, the Arctic Chimps, Pesce Phace, and I Got Chills. No Northern Fishwives this year, no East German Ladies Swimming Team. But life, and the race goes on. We vow to be slow, but vows disappear when in the water and all are thrashing around you. Did we win? Not by a country mile. Craig was the very modest star from Oxford, Nick from the Serpentine did the endurance event as did Hywel, Raf and Craig. Not all had prizes, but Craig added to his collection of gold caps, and everyone had a great day out. The PHISH organisers threaten every year that this will be the last, as they threaten again this year. I hope, we all hope, this is an empty threat, and they manage to pull it off again – it has a lynchpin event for Winter swimming in this country. 

penzance 92.jpg
st ives 5.jpg
lanyon porthleven.jpg
bridget riley.jpg
bottom of page