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Waterlog & literary inspiration of a different kind

A confession: this time last year, I couldn’t swim. Not a single stroke. As a child, apparently, I could manage not to sink, but as an adult, whenever I got in the water, I’d not be able to swim at all. I’d flail around, or become one of those people who simply hang around the shallow end creating the impression they can swim but they just can’t be bothered. It was embarrassing, but I reckon I’d get away with it.

Roger Deakin’s book, Waterlog, changed this.

When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born. Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control. This may account for the anxieties every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water. A swallow dive off the high board into the void is an image that brings together all the contradictions of birth. The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born.

Deakin was one of Britain’s finest writers. (His posthumous book, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, is one of my favourite pieces of literature.) Waterlog is Deakin’s exploration of British waterways, from rivers to coast to distant hilltop pools, and it has become the defining book of wild swimming; his rich descriptions map an utterly unique relationship between people, water and swimming – but particularly the natural world. Not indoors, not especially paddling on a sunny day on the beach: but more those remote gems, that hidden bend in a river, where a swimmer becomes part of a natural cycle.

There was much here I envied. Waterlog creates a yearning to escape to such places, to immerse oneself in them and discover something rare. I certainly felt that way, at least. Here was a relationship with nature I had never experienced, and one I badly wanted to.

I had experienced that mild sense of shame that I ought be able to swim for some time; it might not mean much to some people, but it did to me. It was really only because of Deakin’s book that I decided to swallow my pride and receive proper swimming tuition. I was amused at first, watching the toddlers in the class before me splashing around, only to realise that I was actually not much better (at least there were no tears with me). Humbling wasn’t quite the word, but soon enough, I began to form the correct, precise movements.

I can swim well enough, now; certainly the backstroke (my favourite) and a decent enough front crawl. My breaststroke leaves a lot to be desired, but I might get that right in a couple of months. I’ve made the move to going swimming on my own quite a few times at the local pool in addition to the lessons. I wouldn’t be here without Deakin’s words. And now I’ve reached that stage where I can frown at others and wonder how, with such eccentric strokes, they don’t sink. Old ladies in particular amuse me when they drift by with apparently no effort whatsoever, as if they’re privy to some swimming lore lost to the younger generation.

But I’ve still not quite reached my goal of wild swimming. Later this year I hope to venture out somewhere interesting – even if it’s just the sea, though I’d prefer some distant tarn. Only then can I see if Deakin’s descriptions hold true.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

8 replies on “Waterlog & literary inspiration of a different kind”

Fantastic news! I’m proud of you.

I’ve been swimming since before I could walk – literally. Born in sunny California I grew up around either the sea or within sight of the glint of a swimming pool. My earliest playmates were the blond girls and suntanned golf pros who doubled as life guards at the local country club, and I can recall being only about three and tracing every whorl and pattern that tiled the blue-green bottom of the pool, showing different States of the Union with their icons and mascots.

In university I was a competitive swimmer until my shoulders gave out, and I gave up at 5’10” trying to keep up with giants. Before that I made it as far as the junior olympics, back when I was still at the top of my age-group growth curve.

I still dream of motion in water, endless laps, days, nights, even breaking off the ice or scooping up handfuls of snow from the edge, holding it cupped in my hands to see it drift away becoming a diminishing miniature ice floe. Wait until you have a chance to try night swimming.

But the best of all was my recent trip to Crete and beyond, to the empty beaches and coastline of Gavdos which sits between it and the coast of Africa. Everyday I’d strike out as far as my endurance could take me, until land was a line and then I’d drift a bit in blue water before working my way back. The finest of all was on the southern side, within sight of the arching rock formation that terminates in the southernmost point of Europe. There’s no sand just a maze of rocks and channels, a pebble beach like nothing I’ve ever seen, and absolute desolation.

Swimming through the water beneath the three arches as the sun was getting low, beams like searchlights dropping into the deep water was more than just inspiring. It is frightening and thrilling and ultimately so engaging with the elements around you both alien and familiar, that you feel like you’ve slipped, for a while at least, into a new skin, or at least a new way of seeing the world, and which lingers with after you return.

Find those places and put on your swimming togs (or not) and enter the water. You’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for sharing that. I’m very jealous of anyone who learned to swim as a child and continued to do so, let alone someone who made it to such high standards. Junior Olympics as well? Impressive stuff.

Those descriptions of Crete are wonderful. The psychology of fear, I find, is a very interesting thing with swimming. There’s an element of danger and of getting over those concerns – perhaps it’s down to being so vulnerable, I’m not sure. 

I’ve still much to learn, which is why I’m hoping by the summer I’ll be a strong enough swimmer to head for the wild places. 

Have you read Waterlog, at all, by the way? 

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