On the June weekend that I finished my first year of university I hopped on the train to Bristol. The Sunday afternoon found me at a quarry-turned-swimming-spot called Henleaze - gaining access via a friend of a friend (the waiting list for joining as a member stretches for years). The initial hit of cold as I slipped into the water was a jolting thrill. Once the shock ebbed, contentment rose; I took stroke after stroke out into the middle. With each stretch of arms and flick of legs I sluiced off the term just passed - rinsing away the exams, the late nights, the intensity. It was a glorious gateway into summer.
I've had several similarly satisfying swims since. In an early summer blessed with the shock of actual sunshine, this meant many forays out and about for further toe-numbing plunges. My dad is the one with the insatiable love for the chill of rivers and lakes. I don't dare Welsh waterfalls in January, but I am more than happy to join in when the days are longer and the temperatures not quite as unforgiving.
Unlike him, I prefer a proper swim rather than a short, sharp dip with added noise on the side. Once I'm in, I don't want to get out. I'll happily kick my way up and down (if there's enough depth to the river), turning on my back to half float, half paddle with my legs crossed at the ankle and my hands to propel. It's a unique pleasure, with nothing to dwell on other than the feel of water and the eye-level view of all that's around.
I think swimming outdoors (or to give its current label 'wild swimming' - one I object to on the grounds that it's actually much more natural than a swimming pool - but understand from a perspective of needing to name the activity concisely) is one of those things where the anticipation and the experience can be very different. It's so easy to say, "oh, not today. I don't want to get changed, get my hair wet, get cold...more excuses etc..." But whenever it's fully committed to, it is always magnificent.
It's also an activity harder to put into words than it first seems. There's a limited vocabulary - only so many synonyms for 'water', 'rivers' and 'swimming' that won't make you sound like a pretentious sixth-former trying to sound soulful ('glistening liquid' anyone? Or 'shimmering expanse like satin'?) One ends up reaching for ever more abstract similes and metaphors to convey the experience. A rare few are master crafters of this delicate art. Roger Deakin's Waterlog is so sensuous in its imagery, so alive in the feelings described - the act of slipping in and out of currents and waves and muddy waters becomes not only ritualistic, but also tangible: a mixture of sight and sensation.
One of my favourite proper swims took place back in July, in the river seen in these photos. With a huge bridge behind and a taut stretch of water in front, it was oh so easy to drift my way along absorbed in the sky and grassy bank. Less pleasant was the sharp shelving of the riverbed, meaning I bashed into a huge rock that left an impressively large lump. But it was an ideal day, composed of reading outside, swimming, food and bookshops. Just what holidays are meant to allow for, and just what I'll recall with pleasure when I'm wearing woolly coats once more.
Everything I'm wearing is, surprise surprise, second hand. I bought the silk dress in a charity shop, thinking it was the perfect 'summer must-have' for swishing around in. I wasn't wrong. These photos were taken by my dad - and you can see me swimming, sans sunglasses (but keeping the lipstick), below.