My wife thought it was a bizarre thing for me to do, but then she correctly says this of many things I do. My sister-in-law said I was at risk of hypothermic shock, and technically this was correct. So off I went.
Amy Sharrocks had organised an outdoor swim in the Thames in Reading. I was keen to try it, you know, for fun. I’m not a regular swimmer, but I’m confident in my abilities, and know my limits. Before I even got there, I knew I was there to ‘try’.
The invitation, as part of Reading on Thames Festival, was presented as a celebration and reclaimation of outdoor swimming, it also formed part of Sharrock’s long engagement with water.
On arriving, the weather was lovely and the river beautiful. People gathered for the swim, getting dressed, and waiting eagerly to get into the water. Even I, having never swum in open water, felt excited at the prospect of the flash-charge of cold water on my skin. I remembered the experiences of snow bathing in Austria, a month of cold showers as a student, running in freezing winds. This would be another to add to the list.
While we waited I chatted with Chris, an architect who is working to build an outdoor Lido that would float on the Thames. That idea was enticing enough for several questions on water conditions, cost, placemaking, wellbeing and the various examples around world of outdoor pools. I thought briefly of Gary Oldman playing George Smiley in ‘Tinker, Tailor’, swimming in the Serpentine…
Then we were suddenly all there at the edge of the river for a speech from Amy, a safety talk, a group photo, and then everyone was going into the water, a crowd of well disciplined swimmers setting off while I cautiously approached the edge. Then I plunged in.
The water was cold, but not shockingly so, to begin with. I started swimming straight away to stay warm, and settle myself into a rhythm. It was fantastic. The smooth glide of my body and limbs through the water. The supportive swimmers around me. The landscape of water’s surface, edge, riverbank and blue sky. The slight burning chill of the water.
Then after a while I noticed my breath getting short, and I measured my swimming, too fast? I slowed, and breathed deep. My arms and legs were strong, but something felt different. I slipped onto my back, and kicked for a little while moment, swimmers behind me smiled, I smiled back unconcerned. Nothing to report, I rolled back into a breaststroke. Then my lungs tightened palpably. That wasn’t good. The rest of my body was fine, but my lungs had started to take a distinct aversion to the cold.
At that point, I sensibly waved for a lifeguard passing on his board. I grabbed hold and we discussed how I felt. He asked if I wanted out, but I thought I’d just let my body adjust and carry on. So, after a few moments I tried again. But no, after a short distance this time, my lungs shrank inside my chest and gave me nothing to work with. So on the lifeguard’s board I went and to the shore. A good point here to stop and thank the Lifegaurd and all the safety team. Thank you very much.
Out of the water I was congratulated for trying, commiserated with for not getting further, and I told the story of my shrinking lungs with chilled wonder and enthusiasm. I felt great for having done it, and my body was on high alert, blood pumping as the cold from my swim set my skin on fire, while the sun warmed me. A cup of coffee and a piece of cake rounded off the experience perfectly.
I was told I was unwise to do it, before, and after. But by people who don’t swim outdoors. So where does one start? Sooner or later you have to get into the outside water, and this was a perfect place to try. If I was he least experienced and weakest swimmer that day, so be it, I won’t be next time… Clearly a lot of work had gone into the safety of the event. It’s true I was at personal risk, but I very much supported and cared for, I was never ‘in danger’. That is the critical distinction, risk can be mitigated, danger cannot. And risk is desirable, it is part of life, learning and being in the world.
In her speech beforehand Amy had spoken eloquently about how the swim could be transformative. Perhaps not for the experienced outdoor swimmers, but for the institutions that can enable these activities, and for me, absolutely. If the event had not been arranged I would not have been able to engage in that risk taking activity so central to my wellbeing. Not would I link that sense of myself to that place. Reading is now the place where I swam in the Thames, where I became an outdoor swimmer. The place I want to return to, to try again.
A criticism often levelled at art ‘about’ wellbeing, or placemaking, is that it is dull. This was anything but; it was risky, exhilirating, embodied, communal, and transformative.
In her opening speech Amy quoted a poem by Mary Oliver ‘The Summer Day’ (I include the poem at the end) . She said ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life’?
Well now there is something new that I want. Now, I have a reason to develop my swimming. A reason to come back to Reading. I want to be able to find myself in the river amongst the fish and the dragonflies. I want to talk to the other swimmers and compare notes. I want my body to accept the cold, so that I can swim and drift, and immerse myself in another way of being.
Now, two days after, all that keeps coming back to me is a favourite song ‘Find the River’ by R.E.M. (Do find it and have a listen). The tune, the lyrics, and the feeling of the song are now going round and round in my head. ‘I have got to find the river…’ ‘I have got the find the river…’
The Thames in Reading. The first river that I have swum in.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?