Sharing swims in the wake of Roger Deakin
Joe Minihane, author of Floating this month's Adventurous Ink issue, dives into one of the experiences that became a series of 'mildly hapless adventures' swimming in the wake of pioneer wild swimmer Roger Deakin.
One by one we descended the steep bank, cautious through the brambles, mindful of the sharp nip of young nettles. The six of us emerged onto the creaky landing stage, the Waveney riffling beneath us.
It was July, the temperature close to 30º and delirium was beginning to set in. I went first, pulling off my T shirt, dropping it onto the wooden platform and stepping into the cool waters of this most quintessentially English of rivers. The water was shallow and young chub darted across my path as I half waded, half waddled over the slick stones towards a swirling eddy, where the it deepened and widened into a perfect pool.
My fellow swimmers were now all in states of semi undress. One was pulling on a Victorian bathing costume, another clambering back up towards the road to investigate a spot where he could jump from a high retaining wall and enjoy maximum immersion.
We were six in total, a wild swimming gang formed as part of my somewhat ambitious undertaking to reswim Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. Deakin’s former home, Walnut Tree Farm, was not for from this spot in the Suffolk countryside and this was his favourite river. It felt wholly appropriate to be having a celebratory dip with friends here, much as he had done throughout his years as an advocate for a wilder, more authentic approach to the British countryside.
At this point I had been trailing Deakin for a year, often swimming alone in his wake, throwing myself into cold water in an effort to soothe the anxiety that had come to dominate my life. In water I had found a way to fix myself, while retracing Deakin was a way of paying homage to him as well as exploring the country and its hugely varied waterways.
The many solo swims I had enjoyed before coming to the Waveney had been extremely special, from slipping into the Granta near Cambridge to ploughing across the bay at Lyme Regis. But it was the social swims in East Anglia that I loved the most. This was the third of my trip and every time I came back there were more people willing to brave the cold and become part of the adventure.
As three of us swam in short circles, the most intrepid member of our party let out a shout and dropped the six feet from the high wall into the depths. He emerged beaming, splashing us with abandon. Meanwhile, two of our group had waded downstream into the shallows, where willows kissed the water’s surface and water crowfoot swayed beneath the current.
The shared experience of a wild swim is powerful. Stripping down together, egging each other on to brave the cold water, finding simple pleasure in slipping your head under or watching birds flit between branches and fish flopping out onto lilies in the heat. There is a sense of everyone becoming part of the scene, as Deakin put it. The concept that getting into a river, bay or lake allows us, as humans, to get a frog’s eye view that isn’t possible from up on dry land.
This particular swim was very special for other reasons. My swimming journey had brought me back in contact with old friends from the area, where I had gone to university. It was the first time I had seem some of them in years and was the catalyst for more swims, more time spent in the outdoors rather than behind my desk. They all became part of my reworking of Waterlog. Every time we see each other now, a new swim, a new to explore, is always on the agenda.
I felt that same camaraderie with a different group of friends the following year on a very different swimming mission. This time I was battling the strong winds of the south coast, on a bike ride across Dungeness. There were four of this time, all former colleagues who had stayed in touch and spent time together regularly in London. This, though, was me sharing my love of swimming outdoors with mates who weren’t always so keen on a dip. It was fun and joyous, made all the better for the slumping, salty waves of the English Channel that greeted us after our exertions on two wheels. Sharing it with them was every bit as special as reconnecting with my other friends in Suffolk.
Swimming alone in rivers, ponds and lidos across the UK will always retain its power for me. I focus solely on survival, my mind entering a flow state. I am contemplative, calm.
But with friends the game changes. I am doing something I love in the places I love most with the people I love the most. Being outside with them, enjoying that time together, with nothing to distract us but the water itself, holds a deep appeal. Friendship and the outdoors are two things that are always improved by each other.
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