Don't ask me why a book like Waterlog should appeal in February. The late Roger Deakin decides to swim his way around Britain in a sort of right-to-swim approach to a dip in our many waterways, and to be honest I can't think of anything worse even in a heatwave, let alone in grey chilly winter.
Great mouthfuls of the River Medway...
Ploughing across the Fowey Estuary...renowned as the river that we had gone to for a swim as children, and having just watched us jump in my mother immediately summoned us out again having spotted floating things she didn't like the look of at all...
Swimming through blankets of weed and assorted water growth...
Wondering just how deep it might be beneath...the Tinker famously joined his fellow ship-mates in a swim over the side of his battle ship in the Indian Ocean, only to have a sudden panic about how many miles might lay beneath and was back on board in a flash.
All that undressing and dressing back into half wet clothes...
And the mud.
The sheer unknown-ness of mud, and what might be lurking when feet squelch into it, to say nothing of the furtive pike waiting to sink its teeth into a passing leg....or worse swimming with eels.
But none of this phases Roger...
'I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out a whistling idiot...'
No, I'm sorry, this wasn't for me before reading Waterlog and even less so now, and all making me very happy that Roger Deakin took the hit for the team and went out and did it instead. Maybe that's why I enjoyed the book so much, knowing I just wouldn't.
But nor am I a particularly strong swimmer. Bit of conversational keep-the-hair-dry breast stroke that will see me up and down a couple of lengths of a nicely heated and chlorinated pool is my limit, and I'm not sure I'd even want to retrace the joys of my youth and revisit Tooting Bec lido which was the highlight of our summers back in the day. Mind you, how pleased I am to learn that it is still open and thriving where so many other lidos have fallen in to disrepair and closed.
Returning to the eels...does anyone eat them any more?
Just in case you do I hope you are cooking them correctly...
'The actual jelly's in the skin...all the goodness is in that liquor, and it will set like a jelly. Bring them to the boil, let them simmer ten to twenty minutes according to size, and stick a couple of shallots in too. If you're having them stewed, make some white sauce and have them hot...'
I struggled to type that, jellied or otherwise eels a taste I am unlikely to acquire but it was still fascinating to read as was this entire book. I found myself looking forward to my daily dip and nodding in agreement at this early encounter with a River Keeper...
'But surely,' I said sweetly, 'we should all have access to swim in our rivers just as we should all be free to walk in our own countryside. Don't they belong to all of us? '
And it's a question that Roger Deakin raises in Waterlog time and again, who owns the water when you want to swim in it and there's nothing he enjoys me than a confrontation...
...the truth was I had enjoyed my row with the water bailiffs very much. I had already felt invigorated after a really first class swim, and now I felt even better after a terrific set to.'
There is no doubt that Roger Deakin felt confident in his own swimability and was prepared to take what a swimmer of my delicacy would view as unacceptable risks, which all set me thinking about learning to swim as a child in suburban Surrey where it was for leisure rather than anything more. This compared to the children of Polruan in Cornwall, where there have been a high number of fatalities over the years whilst trying to cross the river back and forth to Fowey by whatever means. The town's children are now all taught to swim strongly over a distance and are tested with a swim across the harbour each summer, most of them capable of swimming up to a mile in sea conditions. Roger Deakin calls it a rite of passage, I can't think of a more sensible one.
The book traverses the country and Roger Deakin includes a swim around London.
Does anyone else remember the Oasis pool?
An open air pool tucked away and overlooked by office blocks right in the middle of London and our salvation in the summer of 1976. So packed all you could do was float like sardines and hope to cool off.
Roger is thankfully slightly more wary of plunging into the Thames. It all reminded me of working in Casualty at the London in the 1970s when a bedraggled jumper-off-a-bridge would be rushed in, accompanied by an equally bedraggled policeman who had valiantly dived in after them to save their life. Poor things (both) would often need stomachs pumped followed by every immunisation known to mankind. Apparently, reading elsewhere this week, the Thames Flood Barrier has worked wonders on the quality of the river water these days.
So a book I can highly recommend, it's not just swimming, this is history, autobiography, travel writing and natural history too, but especially enjoyable if, like me, you prefer to see someone else doing the hard work and getting so cold and wet that they forget they have feet, while you sit under your electric comfort blanket.
My electric comfort blanket quite the best thing I have ever discovered incidentally. I bought one for the Tinker and couldn't resist one for myself.
So...wild swimmers, own up...I know you are all out there..