I dropped Pauline at Heathrow this morning, after a dip in Port Meadow (to put her mind in a good place), after saying goodbye and watching her transition from being here to being in Melbourne and the non-place in between, getting the right seat, chasing for lost keys that happened to be in her pocket. We have all been there. After goodbyes and kisses and texts, I took the long(ish) drive to the Suffolk coast. We had discussing going one Summer, then another, then another, and it never really happened. When we were in Cambridge, the kids small, we used to come to Walberswick as the closest nice beach. It’s very much of the past, the church of flint typical of this region, parts falling in beautiful ruin, romantic. This was a nostalgia day-trip for me, if we were never going to get there as part of a Summer break. The Suffolk water and sky is very special, like the Venice sky is Venice-special, Walberswick never made it to the world stage, but it did attract painters. There was an artist’s colony from the late eighteen hundreds and into the twentieth century, notable members of which were Phillip Wilson Steer and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Charles Keene, also a member, drew cartoons of these London artists and their encounters with the local. Artist’s colonies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not all of them on the coast, are interesting as a way of thinking into the utopianism among some members of the privileged classes.
France had their colonies, and there is little surprise that Walberswick is twinned with Barbizon, a picturesque town on the edge of the Fontainebleu Forest where the Barbizon School found its home between 1830 and 1875. The artists of this school, landscape painters Théodore Rousseau, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny and Jean-François Millet, are far better known than the ones at Walberswick, and I was left wondering when I saw in on the place-name sign how the Walberswick Council persuaded the Barbizon Council to get twinned in the first place.
Walberswick of my children’s childhood – what has changed? There is a pay-and-display cark park (not unreasonable), and the little creek under the foot bridge where kids went crabbing with a piece of fishing line and a rasher of bacon tied to the end was dry. The salt marsh was wonderful as ever, and the tide boisterous. I swam to try and stay in the same place along the beach, but drifted mentally. When I came out I was a long way from my stuff, close to panic, the thought of everything being swept to sea, car keys especially, though not logical (I put everything high up the beach), making me ask a local with his dog if he could see something like a dry robe and shoes. Yes he could – ‘did I want him to go and bring them over?’ – very kind, but no, I can get back to my own clothes. The hardest part was walking back along the stony beach without shoes. But this was good, in the end, because I made a note to get some ‘pickling rocks’ – stones large enough to put into pickling jars, for my home-brewed kimchee and sauerkraut, more of which another time. Meantime, I changed, found a number of beautiful round stones to help with my pickling (they are to keep the contents of the jars fully submerged in the fermentation, and looked up. The sky, the very special Suffolk sky started to put on a show.
Swim #25, Aldeburgh
Getting to Aldeburgh as the sun set, in civil twilight, a burst of red across the low clouds, and the moon, pale and waxing still but up since 3pm, was growing stronger. It was a ‘must get a swim’ drive. To get to swim before the most precious light –twilight with a growing moon and clear sky – disappeared. Aldeburgh is special again. I drove to the water front, in a familiar hurry to see the sea, sky and shingle. I shuffled across the deep shingle, mostly stones the size of a thumb, and settled to change on a ledge of shingle. The time and place were even righter than I thought before – the echo-crash of waves across the beach from right to left was something new – the sea was singing, the water was music, percussive, resonant music. A sound I never knew before. I thought to Benjamin Britten, who was drawn to Aldeburgh, wrote many works, wrote an opera, Peter Grimes, set in the Borough / Aldeburgh really. That is the image at the head of this account – Peter Grimes performed on Aldeburgh Beach. Brittens’ young person’s guide to the orchestra, the percussion movement. Britten could not not have heard this sea music. The explanation for this added wonder – of music to the moon and sky and water came with an engineers way of thinking – how does it work? My best guess was that the tide having half come in was pushing in smaller breakers against the shingle – the size of the waves and the height of the ledge were right to set up a ‘schzzzhhaaa-boom’ echo rippling across the beach from right to left as the waves hit the shingle from right to left. An as an audience of one, I realised that I had the perfect seat. As I changed I moved back away from the ledge, and the sonic beach ceased to be so sonic – more like every day breaking of waves on the beach. This was a very localised music – often you have to be in the right place at the right time… But you also need to be open to perceive something that only takes place at the right time and the right place.
This took me to the memory of singing water elsewhere. I discussed what the music of the shore at Aldeburgh had been, on a skype call to Melbourne (Pauline was visiting family), and she said ‘was it like the sound of the wind whistling on the top of very thin ice when it buckles as you swim” – yes, in a way, a very similar thing. A very singular thing too – being at the level of the water, looking across the ice, watching it ripple and crack, watching it flex and listening to the very eerie low whistle which only you can hear, at water level. I am in mind of other composers, each making their own sonic sculptures in concert halls, often site-specific. Sibelius, for example, is as big as the Nordic landscape, or a small and eerie as the scraping on the ice. I listened to the Sibelius Violin Concerto in the car yesterday,as a mental preparation for Winter. The opening bar close to silent, bleak and beautiful, the wind on the ice, I thought of bleak January when the first ice settles on the lake and it is my task to break it. The first tentative steps, “how thick, how strong, will it give easily?” Then the breeze in the blue morning light, the first shimmer and scrape, the tentative voice seeking a place in this dry cold landscape. This is how the Violin Concerto starts. And I am close to tears with memory of Winters past. I once saw Elina Vähälä play it, Sibelius, smart and elegant she was. The music restrained initially, then building, swelling, building a sonic landscape. The final movement, a pull at the reins, then full throttle, the dual nature of Finnish people open for all to see and hear. Vahala was neat, composed, collected when she came out for the contest with Sibelius. Like the calm, restrained, polite, but practical and honest character I have come to see in people from Finland. But then wild, racing, cutting, jabbing, left and right, eyes up, down, to the right, twist of upper body, a boxing match; alert, stealthful, hunting, seeking clues, then, racing, the hunt. How to be both, that must be how to be Finnish. Hold on to the saddle, the reins, stay with her. Then it’s over somehow, exhausted, neat air now in a tangle, audience on their feet. This is one landscape
Aldeburgh is not Sibelius, and England not Finland, but I have Sibelius in my mind when the season turns to colder and lesser light. Aldeburgh is Takumitsu, Knussen, Debussy should have come here if he didn’t – this is his English ‘La Mer’. Shingle waves crashing and rippling along the beach in minimalist overlay, wave over wave. Philip Glass has had much bigger concerns in his composing, but I am certain that if he were to come to Aldeburgh (I don’t know if he has) he could set notes to the beach as I hear it now.
There is one thing that links Damien Hirst to Walberswick and the Suffolk coast – he stayed here when he was an art student to come and learn from mentor and former St Ives artist Margaret Mellis, who by this time lived locally. Hirst shot to fame with his pickled shark entitled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. In my mind the title should be something like “The Impossibility of Thinking Serious Thought by an Upstart Art Student”. I think when you are in your late teens and early twenties, you really can’t imagine death. In my sixties, I have been exposed to many forms of death, and have had chance to think about them, so the shark-death-think-piece by Hirst is easy to comprehend. Pickled shark. Very dead. Sharks and death are starkly related, especially where ocean sports are related. They add the frisson of additional unseeable risk in some ocean waters. Thus today I was attracted to a news item. “A British tourist killed by a shark was snorkelling in a designated 'safe' Indian Ocean lagoon when the sea predator ate him - and was identified because his severed arm, hand and wedding ring were all found in the beast's stomach, it was revealed today”. Richard Martyn Turner, 44 years old, from Edinburgh, was staying in a posh hotel “on the paradise island of Reunion” to celebrate the 40th birthday of his wife Verity.”The civil servant was reported missing by Mrs Turner and she identified his remains through his wedding ring reportedly found in the 9ft-plus shark's stomach still on a finger attached to his severed hand. Mr Turner was swimming in a lagoon used by tourists deemed 'safe' because a coral reef separates it from the Indian Ocean. But it has emerged today that four sharks were found swimming inside it on Sunday, including the one that ate him”. This was the Daily Mail. I am not sure how close I have been to sharks across my life. Quite close on a number of times I am certain. I am not eaten, I have respected coast guards who ‘don’t want to stop me swimming’, but who have seen a great white out there (a beach in Adelaide). I used to swim at North Cottesloe Beach (North Cott to the locals) where sharks have been seen to take people from time to time, and take a substantial bite out of a sea kayak. And of course in Kerema, Papua New Guinea, where I swam several times a week, a black sand beach minutes walk away from work. Journalists who write ‘paradise bites back’ kinds of stories can really talk it up, ‘paradise lost, husband lost’. But there is no such place as paradise on earth. The criteria for paradise on earth - white sand beach – tick; posh hotel – tick; warm sun – tick; time to waste – tick; calm azure-blue ocean – tick. This list could go on, but the downside of paradise on earth –sunburn – tick; noisy opinionated people trying to get away from it all – tick; biting insects – tick; diarrhoea – tick. Sharks that eat people – optional. True, it doesn’t happen often, and therefore worth a mention in the news. Sharks are just doing what their evolutionary job description says – they swim and kill, nearly always things smaller than themselves. I think of them as muggers – the more people together, the less likely they are to go for you. Just don’t be at the back of a group of people swimming… When in Adelaide, I count my strokes to the words ‘shark-bait, shark-bait, shark-bait…’ Metronome-steady, this paces my swimming and keeps me alert – the swimming is fantastic, but the ecology clear – I am a fish out of water, in the water. So just keep swimming, but not too long – the simple equation ‘risk = hazard x exposure’ also comes to mind. I am crazy enough to swim, but hopefully not stupid enough to die swimming.
Swim #26, Lake Zurich, Tiefenbrunnen
I arrived in Zurich bright and early – certainly early, and not really so bright, having left home at four in the morning to get to Heathrow, to fly into Zurich in time for the working day. I love Zurich. It seems a hugely liveable city, very friendly, efficient, clean with the trappings and furnishings that make a city liveable for me. There is enough here to engage both mind and body. There is the art, the opera, the history, the trams, everything being sensible. Then the lake, the gardens, the Alpine back-drop, the clean air.
I love it, and it’s not really about the weather. Many places have better weather, although there is a clear and distinct Summer and Winter here, and days in the in-between seasons when it feels like it should be Summer, and then people turn out to enjoy the outdoors, knowing that tomorrow the sleet and rain and drive them back into their (very nicely appointed) shelters. The lake is the centre-piece to the city, from the water front to the Alps in the distance. A city in nature, even if not of nature.
There is always a swim, of course. Today it is Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen. This is the place for me that makes Zurich so open, so good – there are other places, of course, but this is the first place I ever swam in Zurich now 45 years ago, and I choose to think the lake has a trace of the shape of my body. Coming back, I think nonsensically that if I try to keep my body in shape, Lake Zurich will remember me, and be a friend. It can so easily be not a friend, when the wind and rain push and drive up the lake to the ground-end of Zurich the city. Today is a friendly day. A lido was established here at Tiefenbrunnen in 1886, and the extensive water front with gardens, changing rooms, café, and bathing platforms and off shore pontoons came in 1939, when the Fourth Swiss National Exhibition was staged in Zurich. Teifenbrunnen was the site of this hugely successful show, and its legacy was this landscaped complex of buildings and structures to promote healthy living. I am enjoying the legacy of this National Exhibition today, as also in the past. I step across the lawn up to the shore - a little boggy today, careful where you tread - to a landscaped rocky front, which is where I change. Right next to some steps into some of the clearest and cleanest water. On a clear day you can see the Alps, but not today. I am framing them in my mind’s eye as I step in, slowly, taking the measure of the water – how cold? Therefore how long? Entering the water gives a pleasant chill, not biting, not cold, pleasant. Enough to clear my head, be awake and in this nature of clean air and clear water. Out to the pontoons, beyond, to the markers which designate the swimming area. A kilometer today is decent, long enough to feel the chill, earn some cake.
There are a few people swimming today, swimming into the Autumn, one of them into the winter. I speak to her once she is changed, comfortable and in her seventies. This is Belle Vue, an old established area of lakeshore Zurich. Some people walking here have the look and the stride of people who are calmly in control of the world. “They probably are” she says. This is Bellevue, and this is Zurich, where it simply isn’t cool to shout your wealth or your worth. What is cool is to earnestly tell me of the swimming she has done in her life-time. In Zurich she did the annual marathon swim once – 26 kilometers. Too much she says, too far… “But I did it!” Today is just an ordinary day. She tells me she is from Ticino, on the border with Italy, where the lake and the water are so much nicer than here, she says… I struggle to imagine it to be so, but agree it must be so. Mental note – must visit Ticino. This time, the closest I got to Ticino was to buy some red maize polenta grown there, and on sale in a lovely store in one of the new food markets here. This bag of maize meal got me pulled up at airport security when leaving Zurich. The fine grain made it look like liquid. The young security guard turned out to be a foodie, loved Ticino, loves her swimming, but… But Lake Zug is better. She comes from Zug. I struggle to imagine it, but again, I agree it must be so. Mental note- must visit Zug too. Perhaps I have hit upon a Swiss form of rivalry?
My thoughts turn from pollenta to cake. The place I want to go to I have never been to before, but have passed, looking in, looking at the images of people who have taken coffee there, hot chocolate perhaps, cake for sure, maybe schnapps sometimes, champagne when there is something to celebrate. The names and the faces - Vladimir Illich Lenin, Albert Einstein, Frank Wedekind (who wrote the Lulu cycle of plays, which formed the basis of the libretto of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu – I love the cool savagery of this opera), Somerset Maugham (he worked for the British Intelligence Service in Switzerland during the First World War), and James Joyce. I imagine James Joyce to have swum at Tiefenbrunnen – how could he not have? While Sandycove is featured in Ulysses, much of Ulysses was written and was finished near Tiefenbrunnen. This, the Café Bar Odeon, was no light-weight place, and the cake should therefore be good, I thought. I briefly played with the idea of these great minds frequenting the café more-or-less at the same time –who would say what to whom? Who would get on, who would clash? I can make guesses, be entertained by them, but really it’s impossible to know. Perhaps it would be the making of a sit-com, or a drama series? Perhaps its already been done? The café was all it promised to be – warm, welcoming, friendly, chatty even. I was placed by the window where the lone souls seemed to be placed, and within minutes was talking with a very engaging young lady with a warm smile. She was visiting Zurich for the first time –from Colombia, following the revolutionaries, political history, learning, learning, avid for learning. Doing a doctorate – how long along? The fieldwork stage, gathering resources, doing the Zurich libraries. And drinking coffee, spooning the froth from her cappuccino in the here and now with mindful care. This brief encounter, pleasant and kind, made me think about this, the Odeon Café, as a place of importance in the history of ideas. A place for chance encounters, for meeting and not meeting people, a place to be on one’s own but not be alone, a place for quiet companionship and also for introspection. Yes, the cake was good, a Swiss apple cake with a garnish-string of red currents, each mouthful a pleasure and a future memory.
Swim #27, Lake Zurich, Strandbad Mythenquai
Strandbad Mythenquai is on the other side of the lake to Teifenbrunnen, and closer to the centre of Zurich, easy to get to. I wasn’t sure initially, because this is a place you pay to go in to during the Summer, and in a lot of places they close them for the Winter. I came here after an aborted trip to swim in the River Limmat. The Limmat flows out of Lake Zurich, and pretty well through the city. There is a ladies only swim bath on the river in the centre of Zurich and another North of the central train station. I took the tram to the one at Letten, North of the centre and close to the old Lowenbrau brewery complex, now undergoing considerable gentrification via art galleries, train tracks turned cycle tracks and a top-end food market (where I got my Ticino pollenta). Across one of these bridges took me by the swimming baths, firmly locked for the season. I asked earlier about swimming here, and was told “Don’t,you’d be crazy now”. In the Summer they hold a two kilometer swim / float down on the Limmat. It’s a city thing, a family thing. People have their floats and enjoy the bright August weather from an even-then fast flowing river. The Swiss don’t seem to have a problem about fast flowing rivers – just do your risk assessment, do it at your own risk. In Berne they sluice down the River Aare, which loops around this small city much as the River Wear loops around the small city of Durham in the UK. In Berne, there are steps and hand rails so that sluicing has a sense of regulated risk. Sluice and run back. Sluice again. Run back again. Keep doing until cold, bored or in want of food. The Limmat right now is belting along, and the water is swirling and whirling. Having come and conducted my risk assessment, I say no, not without a little regret, but it just looks too strong, with no obvious and easy way to get in and out.
After pulling back from the Limmat River, the only thing to do was to retrace my route, back on the tram, and then down to Lake Zurich., to Mythenquai. This was opened in 1922 as a lido, when many such places were opening across Europe and elsewhere. The facilities are again excellent – and open. Walking into the spacious garden area, the first thing to be strucken by is the view of the distant Alps, unveiled for the afternoon. Then the sandy beach, then the deck and diving board. I walk up along the deck and say hello to a women in her forties, getting changed – “you too?” She says. “I have to swim every day, or I get depressed” she carries on. Quietly, we get changed, each in our bubble of respectfulness, exchanging words, like nice day, the temperature is good. I nod in agreement to that last comment – I don’t know what it is in numbers, but last time it was good, and I cannot imagine how that might have shifted, deep Lake that Zurich is. Then onto more serious matters – where are you from? “Oxford! I loved it when I visited” as she finishes her touches to her bathing suit. “Do you have any illness?” Arthritis, both knees. “Me too, my hand. This must be good for it, no?” Yes, of course it is good. It would take a strong argument to stop me swimming. And her too, I imagine. We are ready, on the steps, a pulling in of breath, a dipping in and testing, a breathing out and easing in, and we are swimming. She goes her way around the marks, me, mine. In separate spaces in the same water. I head towards the Alps, watching their veiling descend, locking this sight in my memory. Swimming in Switzerland is special.
Swim #28, Zurich, Seebad Enge
Seebad Enge at the top of Lake Zurich, and is set in a beautiful location, Zurich-Enge. In the late 1800s the city of Zurich extended and modernised extending South to the Lake shores. The arboretum and ornamental gardens were designed and planted during this development, and the mature trees and well-tended gardens that I walked through to get to Seebad Enge are the legacy of this far-sighted project. So, feeling good, even before getting there. Pauline and I visited this bathing facility earlier this year, in March, and enjoyed the swimming, if initially surprised by the no-clothing-at-all policy in the saunas. We were reprimanded immediately when we sat in the mixed sauna in our togs – “no, no, no!” we were told. I have heard that there is a very strict adherence to rules and regulations in Switzerland. I have never really experienced it, but have heard it about people being told off for using the washing machine out of hours / out of turn in the joint utility room of an apartment block. It isn’t a ‘tut-tut’, or a ‘tisk-tisk’, but an outright Moses Descending From The Mountain With The Commandments – “thou shalt not”. Covet thy neighbours’ lawnmower; eat shrimp on a Saturday; wear garments not made with linen, that sort of thing. In this case “thou shalt not wear thy togs in the sauna, lest thy un-hygiene the fine smoothed Swiss pine wood of the sauna bench”. And we did not wear togs thereafter. We responded immediately, apologised profusely for wearing clothing, laid towels and stripped immediately, taking care, on my part, to place my cold-shrivelled flower arrangement in a discrete way. Rules are good, of course, they help everyone know how to behave, to be on the same page. This way leads to comfort and security. The sauna at Seebad Enge is about comfort and security, and it is good to feel secure when you are stark naked. Thinking this through and in this way makes it a little odd – we were scalded for wearing togs because by breaking the rule, we were making other people there feel uncomfortable.
Anyway that was then, in March this year, and this is now, November, and I am ready. I know what to do, I know what type of bodily disposition is needed, to behave very modestly, silently. Coming in, I noticed the first set of rules. First of all, the word ‘sauna’ means wooden room, in Finnish. The sauna rules were thus in two languages, German and Finnish. Then the main rules, those that apply to everywhere else – the inner deck and shallow pool, the outer deck and steps into the lake. Rules are rules, and I will keep them. No togs. And do the swim-sauna thing in the order they do it here – sauna then open water, then back in again. Usually I prefer to swim before the sauna, as a treat in a way, or so that I can push myself a bit further than usual. But -when in Zurich, stick to the rules -sauna then swim. Shower before you do anything else. Wear a towel between the sauna and the outer deck. Having showered, sauna’d, I took the slow walk to the deck, taking a recyclable plastic beaker and filling it with lemon- water. Surprised how good it was – almost sweet (question to self – ‘does the hot-cold thing affect other senses, like the taste buds?’) At the out deck, the Alps and the water look very inviting. I am so warm I feel it could be Summer, so I take my time. I put the towel to one side, noting that I am naked in the middle of Zurich (as is everyone else around me), about to launch into the wonderful Lake Zurich again. The water doesn’t bite immediately – too warm from the sauna. It takes a minute or so for my mind to work out that yes, my body is in cold water. From relaxed and warm to cold and contracted to relaxing and stretching out from the initial cold muscle / can’t move so quickly / the water feels heavy, to feeling comfortable and enjoying just being there, senses alive. Then back into the sauna, then out again and swim, then sauna again. Then swim again, I always like to finish cold, although there are mixed views and conversations to be had about this. I have had these conversations, in Copenhagen, where I am a member of Vinterbad Bryggen, the Central Copenhagen Winter Swimming Club. In free-wheeling Copenhagen, improvisation and a certain amount of creative rule-breaking is allowed and even enjoyed. But not too much… In Zurich, no. Stick to the rules, sauna then swim.
The whole process is a slowing down of the mind and body, and I think I swam all told around a mile, but it took two and a half hours to do this. If this isn’t slow swimming, I don’t know what is. There is a winter swimming club that meets regularly here, who put more emphasis on the swimming, but I didn’t manage to connect them, and after all, this felt good in itself. I could be a happy Zurich-er. This all took time, and it was night time by the time I finished my routine, went and stood by the lit brazier on the inner deck and chatted with others, dressed in stripy Saunabad Enge towel or bathrobe . I showered and left, somehow reluctantly. Feeling good is the term I keep coming back to, and I couldn’t improve on it - felt so good! I felt I had a (perhaps mistaken) understanding of why people in Zurich seem content – there may well be other things beyond the sauna-swim-sauna-swim-sauna thing, but for me everything comes back to the water.