Early in 2019, I went to a birthday swim of a friend I had been swimming with on and off for close to a decade. The swim was at Port Meadow, Oxford, and the season, Winter. It was Hywel's 50th. Much fun, new people, a pub in Jericho after, warmth, and cheerfulness abounding. I got talking with Hywel's friend Mike, who had come up from London. He told me how he swam in 50 places at the age of 50 in the previous year, and although finished, keeps adding to his tally. His encouragement do 65 swims at the age of 65 years was the starting point. As he explained - your rules. He included swimming pools; I struggle with swimming pools but have an affection for the lido - outdoor pools that do not totally avoid nature. I love the lake that my wife, Pauline, and I swim in most days; and I love swimming all year round. I also love the River Thames. So 65 swims at the age of 65 years - 65@65 - in rivers, lakes and the sea, but also lidos, especially in Winter. Starting July 3rd, 2019.
Turning 65 leaves pause for thought – traditionally a retirement age, a land-mark of sorts. A retirement age is now a nominal thing in most European countries, and I have 68 to look forward to. So rather than a landmark, I would make 65 a water-mark. 65 at 65, or 65@65, my rules, according to Mike. So here goes with rules – lakes, rivers and oceans all included; lidos too, especially in Winter. Sauna-swims permitted, encouraged even, in the darkest depth of winter – welcoming like the candles lit outside Copenhagen cafes in January. Where would I like to swim? There starts a random walk from my doorstep – ‘swan lake’ down at the sailing club; the Cherwell; the Thames at Oxford; an invited birthday swim in the Thames at Swinford Bridge. That’s the start. Then a swim to work, Eynsham Lock to Port Meadow – Thames again. The River (Thames) will feature large this year – such a varied and magnificent river. If I were German, it might be the Rhine or the Elbe. I have swum in the Rhine twice – in Bonn, and in Konstanz. This year, the Elbe… More than pause for thought, this year lights my ‘swimagination’, every 65@65 a celebration of a life and of swims to be swum. But reflection too, not just swimming but ‘swimaging’ – thoughts on past swims and places, people and ways of looking at the great world we live in. Not planning swims in any more than broad outline, following the randomness of life itself and reflecting on the human urge to put a straight line through a random-ish set of points and claiming destiny when so much is chance and circumstance. Third July is when I was born, and when the 65 swims begin.
The first swim / Swim #1
July 3rd, 1954. That is when I was born. A heavy baby I was told by my mother, much prone to fetal acrobatics until too big for the womb. This must be where my dislike of enclosed pools comes from - fetal constraint, as it is known to clinicians. I much prefer the open spaces now, and suffer from ‘pool constraint’ now – there is just enough time to stretch out, then you have to stop, turn around and start again. I find the process of pool swimming one of repeated disruptions. This is tolerable, until you add the chlorine in the air. The West Oxfordshire Sailing Club lake is far from this – a loop marked by six buoys of over 800 meters (the length has been difficult to standardise), stream-fed by the River Windrush, soft to touch, clear to see. Swim #1 was very easy – just needed to go there, ten minutes drive from the village, as on most other days, with Pauline. July 3rd is my birthday, and the best present I give myself five years out of seven (not adjusting for leap years) is the day off work. Pauline takes the day off too, and we share some beautiful time. This birthday, the sun shone, the air and water were warm, and the swim was lazy and good. The biggest issue we faced this morning was on what to have for breakfast – we fell to burrata on salad on sourdough bread, topped with aged balsamic and a golden Cretan olive oil bought in Richmond. Swimming to and from Richmond is another story.
Swim #2, The Cherwell River
The Cherwell River in Summer is, at a stretch of the imagination close to jungle. It reminds me of the humidity and warmth of the rivers in the Purari Delta, Papua New Guinea, a vast swampland which becames ever more beautiful the longer I stayed there. This was there between 1979 and 1981, when I worked as a public health nutritionist. These were formative years, when thinking about nutritional health took me to anthropology and ecology, matters that became mine to investigate from my first academic position at the University of Cambridge several years later. Today it’s a short swim upstream and back down again to have lunch in the Venetian craft that Pauline took out from the College Boathouse to row, under her command, to this seemingly remote place. But it's not remote at all, being behind the University Parks, which has its own swimming history. Parson's Pleasure (for men) and Dame's Delight (for women and children) were separate and partially secluded swimming places with facilities - changing rooms, stairs into the water, bathing platforms, along this stretch of the river. Dame's Delight was closed in 1970 and Parson's Pleasure in the early 1990s. Parson's Pleasure was one of the few public places in the UK that allowed nude bathing in recent times. Both sites are long gone, although the memory lingers. Parson's Pleasure is now part of the University Park - close to the rollers that allow punts to be taken above and below the weir. People still swim here, as I have today.
Swim #3, The Thames at Long Bridges
This is the site of a former open air river bathing place on the River Thames close to Donnington Bridge, Oxford. This was one of several public river bathing places in Oxford and was closed at the end of the 1980s. People still swim there, especially in Summer, with a steady trickle in the early evening. .South of the centre of Oxford, safe from river traffic, it offers a very pleasant circular swim around this small island in the Thames. Swimming with care, however, to avoid scraping your body against posts or other objects in the sometimes shallow water. Long Bridges was on the boundary of the city of Oxford from 1485, and there is a marker-stone, inscribed stone and put in place in the 18th century showing it. Feels like it is in the middle of Oxford, however, Oxford having expanded hugely and rapidly since the 18th century. While Oxford keeps on growing, with some luck, fortune, and planning, the city remains beautiful and bucolic, even in Winter, but especially in Spring and Summer, with its parks and gardens, the River Thames (or Isis, as it flows through Oxford), the Cherwell River dividing and twisting like platted hair, as well as the Oxford Canal. The amount of swimmable water in Oxford is isn’t immediately obvious to visitors, because much of the city faces away from it. There will be more about the Oxford Thames (or Isis) as the year goes on.
Swim #4, Joint birthday swim with Kristie at Swinford Bridge, the Thames at Eynsham
Swinford Bridge is where I first started swimming outdoors when we came to Oxford from Australia, twenty years ago. In Oz, I was used to swimming in the ocean and in a nearby river. Oxford couldn't be further from the sea, so the river called. We bought a house in Eynsham and then moved to another 50 meters away - having chosen to live in this village from the start, it has never disappointed. During the Summer of 1999 I saw adolescents sunbathing and dipping in the Thames just on the other side of the bridge, so I found a swimming place upstream of them. When they we not there, I enjoyed their coveted place right next to this beautiful bridge, which opened in 1769. I have swum there on and off ever since. It has become a regular place for a small number of local people to swim during the summer, and a smaller number into winter. Last year, when the snow kicked in in winter and we couldn't access the lake at WOSC, Pauline and I walked down to the bridge for a dip in the rapidly building snow to ease our no swim frustration - it was an amazing experience!
Kristie swims here all the time, and the joint birthday swim was fitting - on Eynsham Carnival day, Kristie in the shirt race, breakfast of salmon and/or caviar on toast. Another fantastic Summer's day.
The river is shallow enough to stand under the arches of the bridge. The clue is in the name Swinford - or before any bridge was built, swine - ford, shallow enough to get your pigs across. On this birthday swim we had no pigs to test the idea that it is shallow enough for pigs. That will be for another day.
Swim #5, Lechlade to Buscot
Lechlade to Buscot is a swim I have swum several times. This is a must-swim swim, for three reasons. To see the beautiful town of Lechlade, and Ha'Penny Bridge. To pay respect to Father Thames, whose statue is at St John's Lock. And to swim around the populars which line the winding Thames downstream of St John's Lock, imagining Monet at every turn.
St Johns Lock was one of the first, built in 1790. Father Thames, the statue, was created in 1851 for the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, Hyde Park. The statue was moved near the river's source at Trewsbury Meads in Gloucestershire in 1936, and moved to its present lodging place in 1974. While Monet almost certainly never came here, he painted his populars from a very low level, and you really get this in a heads-up swim across this stretch - best to savour and not to hurry. I swam it, then swam upstream and swam down again, just to gaze with wonder the changing light on and through the trees. The lock at Buscot offers a lovely pond downstream, where local people gather to picnic and dip on a Summer's day.
I have a collection of swim caps, as anyone who swims regularly, too many to wear, even pulled one on top of another. The crazy thing is I much prefer to wear no cap at all. In open water, caps need to be bright, even if they are really a lousy way of sticking out and being visible. Caps are good identifiers, though – if you know who is wearing which colour hat before going in, and you can identify people, when in the water there is little to identify people by, especially at a distance. They can be good signifiers – wearing my Dart 10k cap signals to people I don’t know in a place I haven’t swum before that I know what I am doing, sometimes a little respect, and sometimes kindred acknowledgement from others who have swum this great swim. Serpentine Swimming Club’s yellow on red is also a great signifier. Sometimes, I will wear it when swimming in non-Serpentine London, and someone will come over, usually in the water, to find out who it is. This year, I have met Vanessa, Boris, Sarah, and a lovely French woman who insists on swimming in places her husband and children do not approve of. There is a winter white on red as of this year. Sydney means Bold and Beautiful – shocking pink, worn at Manly Beach, in the daily Manly to Shelly Beach (and back) swim – start at seven, swum, dressed and at breakfast by eight. Then the Manly ferry to work in downtown Sydney. There are shocking pink togs as well, but I haven’t been often enough to identify strongly with this club. Shocking pink means Oxford Dodos – a recent identity formed out of the December Outdoor Dip Oxford (DODO) arranged by Jeremy at Port Meadow. Registered as Oxford Dodos, we (Jeremy, Helen, Neil and I) relayed at PHISH at Parliament Hill Lido in January 2018 and 2019, and the name has resonance – swimming to extinction. We were in the lane next to that great outdoor swimming institution, the East German Ladies’ Swimming Team from Hampstead.
Swim #6, The Thames at Dorchester
Not a moonlight swim, a pre-moonlight swimjust a little too early for that. This was the birthday swim of Chris Dalton at the small beach a little downstream of Dorchester-on-Thames. I swam my first moonlight with Chris and a number of the Thames Group a few years ago. It seemed (and still seems) like a meeting of the secret club, driving to a lay-by on the way into Dorchester, and waiting for familiar faces to turn up, which they did (and did on that first occasion). I never did raves in the 1990s, but its kind of how I imagine them to start, waiting in a seemingly random place in the countryside, waiting for a signal to start. I think swimming must be kinder on the body than raves, but that is just a supposition. Maybe not quite so in the depth of Winter (note that I capitalise the Seasons, out of respect for the changing turning year).
When all that are known to be attending have arrived, plus the arrival of new friends, there is a walk of around half a kilometer across a meadow to a little beach, a little sandy and an easy get-in to the water. The routine is more-or-less to swim up river until the group (or two groups, faster and slower) somehow intuit that it is time to turn around and swim back. This evening, it was not quite twilight when we finished. That's the issue with seeking a moon swim in Summer - sunset is just so late in England (and in Sweden and all the other Northern countries). But the special thing about Chris's swim was the post-picnic lunar eclipse.
Swim #7, Bull Island, Dublin
Wind and rain, a lot of atmosphere in Summertime Dublin. Getting to Bull Island was easy, North of the city, catch a bus then walk along the narrow bridge to the bottom end of the island, where there is a swimming place. It felt like venturing, as often with finding a new swim, into the unknown. Must get a swim before the tide turns, before it gets too shallow. To get the atmosphere, I have started reading James Joyce - Ullyses, and it is shaping my thinking, into Joycean in-the-moment snips and trips of the tongue. Which seems to me not a long way from the way a lot of people talk and interact here. Very enjoyable.
Swirly-whirly windy shower-rain start and stop. Must find the place, Pauline and I move with purpose. The woman in the water to the right of us, walking not swimming, up to the waist. So still swimmable, maybe breaststroke, not crawl, do not want to scoop up gloops of dark Dublin Bay mud as the tide goes out. Breast stoke then, and maybe mud-skipper later, we'll see. Found the bathing changing 'rooms', women's and then men's, shelters not rooms, away from eyes. Women in the men's shelter, men too, makes it feel like the changing room at the Serpentine Swimming Club. Very welcoming, modesty and friendly small talk layered like lasagna, very comforting. Very chit-chat, change and talk, don't mention Brexit, very polite that way, people going, some coming, young Slovenian couple intrigued and interested. I manage a non-mud-skipper swim, getting out I see the Slovenians wading in in their underwear, cheerful, waving. Must be something about Dublin I think. Get out and change-shiver, talk talk with Joseph who comes every day. Tells how good it is, especially in Winter. He can tell by looking at me, he says, that "I am not a young man. Nor am I old". It must be the water he continues. Must be the water. The best of the evening, we exchange respectful politeness, the best of the evening, and we go our ways
Swim #8, Sandycove, Dublin
Joycean joy of ocean water out at south Dublin – look at the sea, what does it care about offences? Something that drives me to swim when the urge is there, even if the signs say no. Except if signs say no, and my risk assessment says no, which it sometimes does. Sometimes it says ‘adjust what you want to do’, which is sensible. But there is no ‘no’ today, but good folk, interested and interesting, life guard on Summer job from Uni – Engineering, Trinity, loves it.
Then a voice, sweet and sustained, called from the ocean. It called again, a sleek brown head, Labrador of the ocean, a seal, far out on the water. I didn’t notice first off. Then at lovely lovely Sandycove, a steady coming and going of swimmers and cloud-bathers, dreamers, a place to change, to talk and watch and look out across the bay. ‘Isn’t the sea a greysweet mother?’ The snotgreen sea – not today though, grey-blue, changing with the changing light. Will it sun, will it rain? Will it be blustery, or still? Yes to all – all oppositions united at Sandycove. It is indeed a good day to be alive.
Swim and swim with the seal – as first a worry, then and anxiety, then carefulness, bring the puppy back with you, hope he doesn’t leap all over me. Swimming with seals, at once exhilarating and threatening – they can swim much faster, stronger, it is their half of the two elements, water and air, more than mine. Swim on, steady pace, no speeding up or slowing down. Steady back to the 40 Foot Drop. "Thought you were going to take him home with you", comment from sturdy gent on shore "they can get enthusiastic, and he is only a puppy". Good to know. Know for next time, must come back
The water flowed full, rising, chafing against low rocks, swirling, passing. In cups of rocks it slopped, bounded like in barrels, writhing weeds lifting and swaying, lifting up their petticoats, whispering water swaying and upturning silver fronds. Clouding over, black clouds, seals, “anon”. Time for lunch.
Swim #9, Lough Corrib, County Galway
A stormy day on the Republic of Ireland's Largest Lake, strong winds and waves giving it the feel of an ocean swim. But without the possibility of getting behind the breakers. What to say about Lough Corrib? Pauline arranged accommodation at the Northernmost tip-top of the lake, just south of Clonbur, with a view from the bedroom second to none. Good wholesome Irish food, various versions of Guinness tried, one a night, to keep the taste-testing standard. Ireland is good – for the people, for the goodness of what is eaten, for the many seasons in one day, for the cheery nature of the place. Happy even with the changing weather – at 16 degrees, the water is declared “warm” by our hosts. And warm it is, exhilaratingly fresh, too, it is. A lot of Wilde’s live here, lived here too. Not Oscar, nor his father, but his father, Sir William, wrote a book about Lough Corrib (its islands and shores…). And Cong Abbey.
Built in the early 7th century, a church reputedly by Saint Feichin, a figure important for the spread of monastism but shrouded now in mystery. The Abbey was founded, burnt down, refounded, rebuilt, refounded, all in the 12th century. In the 13th century the Normans attacked it and thereafter the damage made good again. In the 13th century it was reconstructed, and in the 16th century suppressed, thereafter falling to disrepair. Looking at the rocks and beautiful ruins, it is difficult but to imagine it as a piece, all together as a place of harmony and hard monastic work and prayer. The fishing lodge is particularly fine, on the Cong River itself – catch a fish and tug the line to the kitchen to signal fresh fish on its way. Cong Abbey as a piece - that could have been for about 200 to 300 years before suppression; without documentation, there is no sense of discord or strife, the scars that do not cut into rock. I have thoughts about originality, and the urge for people to see ‘the real thing’. These rocks and ruins feel physically real, but what is really real, of the period, and when? Restoration makes this more complicated – the Japanese have a thing about ‘the real thing’, but also about ‘real imitations’, always have. Maybe that is why they seem ahead in all sorts of modern ways, in the time of appropriation, borrowing, sampling, and reinvention?
The Cross of Cong, earlier kept at Cong Abbey, now in the National Museum of Ireland, is a reliquary, with a piece of the ‘true cross’, the cross purported to have been used to crucify Jesus Christ. The piece of true cross was brought to Ireland from Rome in 1123 and was enshrined in Roscommon, where the cross was made. This made Cong very important, in an age where pilgrims came to pray to and pay respects to saints and the Christ, mediated by relics – of materials associated with them, or their tissues, especially bone. Travelling in Italy, seeing relics, sometimes relics upon relics upon relics, has become a very familiar thing, like worshipping the important ancestors in Papua New Guinea.
Swim #10, Lough Mask, County Mayo
Lough Mask was a short drive from where we stayed at the top of Lough Corrib – wise choice to find accommodation between two huge and wonderful lakes, on the border of two counties – Galway, and Mayo. Today, Mayo is wet, very wet. And windy. The day I put my passport in the swim bag, to be very safe. The water chopped and pulled, pushed and spat. I am glad to not be in a hurry. In much of life I strive to be not in a hurry – to avoid mistakes, to avoid going back again and re-doing. The clouds very dark cloudy, my ability to think and reason limited. Gusts pulled me back, then pulled forward, swim-bag, old and seasoned, patched with strips of dead wetsuit and black witch, experienced and well-travelled, my bag for all seasons. Ripping. With passport, wallet, glasses. At the handle, where the cord is attached. “Must swim. Must get back”. Thoughts turn to missing the plane, getting to Dublin and explaining to High Commission officials how I lost my passport. Honest. Really - ‘really?. In a lake?’. 16 kilometers long – how do you find a swim bag at the end of a 16km lake? In the end, the bag was not lost, my swim more troubled by potential loss than the conditions. The conditions, they were just conditions. The passport, on the other hand, was a passport.
I once lost my passport after clearing the border control at Copenhagen Airport. Good old Copenhagen, someone handed it in, but not before I was turned away from the flight. Heading back from a denied flight late at night, going backwards through the airport is to see the dismal side of things. Good old British Airways, re-booked me for a midday flight the next day, but I had to find accommodation, back to Copenhagen, with nowhere to stay – everything booked, everywhere. I asked in desperation after several phone calls, what might be possible, as a night on the airport floor seemed to loom large. “Go to Sweden” he said. Seemed a surreal, or even callous thing to say, I thought. He was being helpful, truly. He meant take the train to Malmo, across the Oresund Bridge, where there was less going on that night.
So, that is why I get troubled by a potential loss of passport. Getting back to shore, I met with Pauline bringer of a thermos-cup of tea, talked with some fishermen, who didn’t think I was crazy. Fishing is what Lough Mask is known for, and I learned something of fish and fishing. Monks did it, the Celts did it (and still do) – salmon and trout are the thing – symbols of wisdom and fore-knowledge. I was lacking in both on this day.