On swimming

Summer in London is languishing under a white cotton sheet, sipping warm water from the glass by the bed. Writhing through sleepless nights, with windows wide open and street noise roaring into the room. An oppressive heat fuelled by pollution. Summer is a dull headache, insect bites and sunburn. Heat rash. Wearing the same loose-flowing jumpsuit three days running because it’s the only thing that keeps you cool. Dehydration no matter how much water you drink. Summer is sitting inside with the curtains closed.

The tube is hell. The central line is a furnace packed with sweating bodies in fainting heat. Irritation at being looked at as you walk down the street, your legs inspected by men wandering around shirtless and sunburnt. The office which has no air conditioning heats up like a greenhouse, fans churning fruitlessly.

On these hot days I long for water to cover me and steal the stickiness away. The thing to do when it’s too hot to stay in the house is to choose a place to swim. The only time I wished I lived in north London is on burning days, when the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath is the most sensible place to be – but the hour-long journey in the heat is unappealing. This time, my local leisure centre will have to do.

Over the past few years I have developed a taste for wild swimming, away from the bustle of a chlorinated pool crammed with children or lane-hoggers. I’m not yet a hardened swimmer like Jessica J. Lee whose recent book Turning describes swimming in German lakes all year round, even in midwinter when she has to chip away the ice from the surface. My dips tend to be in the summer season.

There is something deeply thrilling about jumping into an unknown body of water. I get a buzz from surrendering myself. Seas, lakes, and rivers all offer a different sensation: the exciting crash of waves in buoyant seawater, the unfamiliar stillness and unnerving depth of a cold lake, the freshness of a flowing river.

A hot day without a dip feels wasted. I’m gripped by a feeling of emptiness and disappointment at having failed in my mission to plunge into a new pool. I long to leave London and run into a lake somewhere quiet. What is it about water? It has an endless appeal to the imagination, its scale and possibility stretches below and beyond us, irresistible.

I was born in a town on the north-east coast of England and took my first steps on holiday at a beach in Fort William. When we moved away to a city, my parents had my bedroom walls painted with a sea scene, complete with sand and shells. When I said I missed the sea, my dad would hold a conch to my ear and tell me to listen to the waves.

I recently read a beautiful piece in The Guardian by writer and daily recreational swimmer Philip Hoare, who is haunted by Shakespeare’s words from The Tempest, sung by the spirit Ariel: ‘Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes, / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / into something rich and strange’. I too was proccupied with the wonders of the water depths.

At school, I performed the role of a spirit in a production of The Tempest, and later composed a song to Ariel’s words for my GCSE Music coursework. I was bewitched by the romantic potential of water, even in death. In Shakespeare’s song, the body of a drowned sailor does not fade, but is transformed into something beautiful and unusual. And so I became aware of the power that water holds over the collective imagination. It wasn’t just me who was under its spell.


I thought I’d end this post by recommending some related reading for those who need some watery words to distract from the summer heat (although, as I write this it is admittedly raining – finally):

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Turning: A Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee
Leviathan by Philip Hoare
The Waves by Virginia Woolf



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