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In Cold Water

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

I wrote this a while ago. Although activities will be altered by the current lockdown, they will not be curtailed.

During my first pregnancy, my partner and I stood on a beach on Easter Day and watched three people walk into the North Sea at Tynemouth without wetsuits. Crazy fools, we said, laughing.

Fast forward twenty-three years and one of the things I missed most in total lockdown was swimming. For me, swimming is not exercise: it’s meditation, a balm essential for mental health – and this was five months, the greatest gap between swims since I was about six years old. Those summer days without the water were long, lonely, and hot.

A friend who had joined me at Hampstead Ladies’ Ponds a couple of times talked of how she’d got enthused and started buying kit. What on earth was a ‘toe float’? Turned out it was a ‘tow float.’ The thought that you needed to alert other river users to your presence to avoid getting mown down was terrifying. But I was desperate to get into water, so three of us met at Wraysbury Station and walked quite a bit off course, eating wild blackberries and hoping it wouldn’t rain. It was a slightly cool day in July, and I was, frankly, scared. I used to swim in the Teme next to Ludlow swimming baths, after childhood lessons: downstream of the weir, across from a little island. As children we swam all over: in the Bach Howey where it met the Wye, in Dubrovnik harbour, in the Céou as it flowed past our caravan.

Once I was an adult, outdoor swimming in the UK lost its appeal: too cold, too murky. Stepping into this reedy, dark, fast-flowing river was a triumph of need for the water, over fear. There’s that moment where the water goes up your back. But it was not too chilly and, with my friend guiding us, we swam upstream. The water was clean with waterlilies, and the whole experience bracing. Once out, we drank tea from a thermos and, being middle-class, ate quinoa and biscuits. We bonded – the water had loosened us.

I had the bug. But indoor swimming pools were still shut, and though open air pools were bookable by now, the websites had been set up in a hurry and were shonky as hell. I couldn’t wait for the I.T. to sort itself out: the air was at blood temperature. I ventured far afield, driving out to meet a stranger at dusk and swim round Newark priory, meeting people at Ham car park (a fabled dogging site) for a mile swim down the tidal Thames. Chats on riverbanks, biscuits, and then I found my posse and my favoured place and I made a commitment, started a sponsorship page, and arranged to swim through the winter.

So it’s another Saturday lunchtime. I step in – it’s alright. A little cool, but acceptable on my legs. I press the timer on my watch and venture another step, to waist-deep. A line of cold fire round my midriff. I wait to acclimatize. It is tolerable. I’ve learnt the only way from here is to go in chest-first. The cold makes me pant, and I move forwards , swearing lightly. The water slooshes across my shoulders and a spike pierces my spine and drives itself up to the base of my brain.

I’ve reached the first buoy. Fifty metres. I curve around the outside. In early swims I was reticent here. A swan family lives on the lake with their teenage cygnet, and who has seen ‘A Zed and Two Noughts’ and not been left with a fear of swans? And what lies beneath? The lake course is fifty by one-seven-five, and twenty metres deep. Cthulhu coils, somnolent, in the depths – on the occasions when I strike out across the centre of the lake, I imagine his tentacles flexing in the deep as my ripples disturb his rest.

As I reach the second buoy, the point of no return – decision – a whole lap, or just a half – the huffing and panting ceases and I relax into the water. Head up, of course, I’m only a novice. A more elegant stroke will come. Triathletes glide past in effortless front crawl, their wetsuited arms flicking like water wheels. I bob, head up, past the place where a couple were indulging in a bit of al fresco once, past the beaches where dog walkers sometimes come to wonder at our sanity, as I did that Easter afternoon. Here is the far buoy, which at first I would not venture to. So much of open water swimming is about conquering fears – of cramp, of unseen creatures in the deep, of the unknown, of the unpredictable, of one's own courage, of the possibility of simplicity.

Fundamentally, getting into this lake is about overcoming the fear of being out of my depth. I’ve always felt once you were a few centimetres out of your depth you might as well be in the Mariana Trench, so this last one has not troubled me since I sea swam off Tenerife in clear water that was warmer than the unheated swimming pools.

But there remains the metaphor. The water is black, the edges autumn-leaved, a few feathers and leaves floating, reeds occasionally catching on my gloved hands. My feet are starting to numb, my fingers tingling, but my body is warm. I count to ten and back. I am still coherent, hypothermia not yet setting in. Triathletes overtake me again. A coot shimmers past, mummy and daddy swan are teasing swimmers on the other side of the lake. I head round again. The air is still and bright. I could stay here all day.

I know that would be insanity.

I pull myself out of the lake by handrails and switch off my watch. As I walk through the trees to where I left my clothes, the cold starts to bite. I have minutes to get clad. I throw a changing robe over and get help to remove the 5mm neoprene gloves. Kick off the wetboots, throw the goggle to the grass. I am all torso, my limbs pointless, flailing white tubes. I hurl my t-shirt to the ground, unhook my bra straps, and cocoon myself in a changing robe, the wind whistling at my bare ankles. Throw away the bikini, and now I can dress. I have learnt to avoid certain cuts and fabrics that lead to a fight on the lakeshore. Clothing is about expedience, underwear is superfluous. About 6 layers, and as I am getting towards the end of my robing the shivering starts. In the car we guzzle coffee and wolf down biscuits, the heater on 32C. A hot water bottle on my core and my toes are completely numb, my fingers white with cold.

It takes about fifteen minutes until I am ready to drive, the shivers passing through me, I can’t focus my thoughts or speak, I am sweet biscuits and root ginger tea and gradual unblurring. Back home there is a certain amount of sitting on the sofa with hot drinks before I plunge into the most blissful hot shower ever.

Why on earth do I do this? I’ve turned into a lunatic, the kind of person who clamours for the sea in winter. And yet. There is something challenging about this activity – and I love a challenge. There is something calming. In the water I can think of nothing but existing, and this has helped me to embrace the cold of winter and, indeed, all the other challenges that are thrown at me in lockdown. My front crawl at heated pools is way faster – I am a stronger swimmer.

But the main thing is this: when I come out of the lake, I am beaming. Everyone is, the lifeguard tells me. We have conquered a little Everest, each one of us, whatever we wear into the water, whatever time of year it is. We have joined with the elements, and all the cells of our body, after the dousing, are screaming: ‘yes!’

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