Monday, 27 September 2010

Wild Swimming

Apologies for the long gap since my last post, I've been dealing with the autumn blues. There's something about this time of year, the long crawl into winter, that tips me into melancholy. I've lived through enough of them now to recognise the pattern, if not the reasons why. But I'm now seeing signs of recovery, one of them the desire to write this blog again.

I've been meaning to blog since the August Bank Holiday, about wild swimming. For those unacquainted with this term, wild swimming is the art of swimming outdoors, basically in any body of water that isn't a swimming pool. It seems to be an increasingly popular past time, there are books about it (of which more later), and tv shows.

Of course, as my mate Ursy pointed out, wild swimming is nothing new. Indeed said friend and I, along with a couple of other mates, spent a holiday in the lake district the summer we left school. My best memory of that camping trip was swimming in a small lake below a waterfall, splashing around in one of nature's jacuzzis, feeling completely happy, if freezing cold.

I tend to jump into the sea whenever there's an opportunity, there's little to compare with floating on your back in a warm ocean, as the waves rock you gently like a baby in its cradle. But I've seldom swum in rivers. The first time I did this was in the river near Hornby in Lancashire, a beautiful spot bypassed by tourists as they head for the lakes. It was a gloriously hot day, and several of us headed out there from Lancaster, to a spot somebody or other knew about, where there was a little shingle beach at the side of the river, perfect for launching oneself on the water. I can still remember how amazing it felt to pootle up and down the river, listening to the birds and other critters, and getting close to a couple of stately swans.

It's interesting to speculate why the sudden increase in the popularity of wild swimming, maybe it's the word 'wild' itself, that appeals so strongly to those of us living urban lives, of whom there are far more than those fortunate enough to live in the countryside. There is wildness in the urban environment, if you are open to it. Squirrels, urban foxes on the prowl, wild flowers colonising derelict buildings. But are these glimpses of wildness enough for human beings? I don't think so.

To me, the wild is where you can be alone with the natural world, away from all the clamour and fuss of what we choose to call civilisation. So I decided to pursue wild swimming in a more regular way. I got a book for Christmas, Wild Swimming by Daniel Start, which is crammed with gorgeous pictures of ponds, lakes, rivers and the like, all just waiting to be jumped into.

But first, I had to buy a wetsuit. This took me some time to get around to, as there don't seem to be any wetsuit shops in my area of London. Anyhow, I finally bought one from a surf shop in Aberystwyth, and it had its first outing on August BH, when I took a dip in the river Medway. This is a spot mentioned in my wild swimming book, in between Penshurst and Leigh, at Ensfield Bridge.

To get there, we got off the train at Penshurst, had a delicious pub lunch at a great place called the Little Brown Jug, then walked for a few miles through a magical country park to the swimming spot. It was the perfect day, golden and warm(ish), and the walk alone would have been worth the trip.

Arriving by the bridge we searched for a spot to get down into the water. The banks are steep, but we found a place where they'd worn down enough to scramble in. I donned my wetsuit, and feeling as if I was about to undergo a sacred ritual, I edged gingerly into the peaty brown water.

It was bloody freezing! I'd worn a wetsuit before, but that was in the tropical waters near the Great Barrier Reef when we went snorkelling. I hadn't realised that wetsuits don't actually keep you that warm...but of course, as soon as I started swimming about, I felt much better. I can't say it was the most beautiful place I've ever swum, but I did enjoy it, I felt zingy and full of life.

I haven't been out again yet, I'm not that impressed by most of the nearest locations in the wild swimming book, and I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to swim somewhere truly wild. I'm longing to go to the lakes, or Wales, which is unlikely to be possible for some time. But I'd love to hear about any other wild swimming spots readers could recommend, as obviously my book won't have them all.

BTW, I did wonder whether I should included a photo of me in my wetsuit, but really, I don't think my ego could take it!