I’m at home in water. The minute it’s warm enough to go without tights, it’s warm enough to be shimmying out into rivers, lakes, and (dare I say it?) waves. At least, I like to think it is. Sometimes I’ll still wimp out, dallying at the edge, wondering if retreat is better. But often the promise of thrill wins out: the chance to fold up flickering, busy thoughts with my clothes and towel, leave them behind on the grass bank. It’s a way to pitch forward into something very immediate, to emerge again at the end somehow scoured.
That’s what’s so wonderful about swimming outdoors. You are distilled down to a body, a set of breaths, two blinking eyes on a level with banks, boats, and the small battalion of geese floating past. Everything is sensation. Everything is sight. The world is reduced to what’s in front of you. It’s about arms pushing against the current, legs kicking, chin lifted above the ripples. It’s about the sky: whether that’s low, grey clouds, or a perfect blue wash occasionally cut through with birds. It’s about measuring out your own capabilities. When to go further? When to return to shore?
It’s a taste I’ve learned from my dad. He’s the one I’ve been watching dash in and out of lakes and rivers for years, screeching all the way. The guy who used to get in a Welsh mountain stream in January, clad just in trunks, water shoes, and a striped woolly hat. Now he’s a little less keen on the winter freeze, but still loves plunging into (moderately) chilly water. Though these days I’m sometimes the one, err, lovingly coaxing him in: “But you wrote a whole bloody book about it! Call yourself a wild swimmer! Wiiiiiiimp.” (He won’t thank me for this).
The book he wrote is called Dip. Published two years ago, it chronicled his experiences with depression – and the role that swimming played in his recovery. It’s beautiful, lyrical and honest, anchored in those brief moments of revelation to be found in each new swim, each new step away from the depths of his illness. It’s been on my mind again recently because the play I co-wrote with both my parents, titled The Man Who Turned into a Sofa, was re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (see my original blog post here). That’s also about mental health, about him, about our family. It’s up on iPlayer for another two weeks. Water turns up all over the place in that. In fact, my final line is, “I didn’t know if I’d see him swim outside again.” Sometimes I realize how grateful I am that I have done, that I continue to, that it’s now something we share.
Some of my best moments in Oxford have also been watery (or near-watery) ones. Evenings full of barbecue smoke and dips at sunset. Punting on the river. Wandering down the canal and out into the green beyond. Lounging on towels with books and picnics, a river close at hand for cooling off in. Hiding from the heat next to a lake under a homemade canopy strung out of scarves. Solo splashing at 6pm after a day running around London – hopping off the train and onto my bike, frantic to be in the cool. Group swims, all of us fanning out across the gorgeous, gorgeous water. Skinny-dipping after dark, the silk feel of river on skin.
Many of these moments have taken place in Port Meadow: an incredible, vast stretch of fields and water. Apparently the land hasn’t been ploughed for at least 4000 years. In summer the grass is peppered with people: dog walkers, old women reading books, teenagers trying to impress each other, families with picnics and children paddling in the shallows, couples wandering, huge gaggles of students with Sainsbury’s bags full of hastily bought food (and plenty of cans and bottles clinking around too). There’s something slightly untamed about it. Far enough away from the city to feel like you’ve escaped, but close enough to still hear the trains.
I’ve watched shooting stars there in high summer, huddled under a blanket with friends. I’ve stomped along the river’s edge in winter when things were bad, collecting myself back into something more solid as I walked. I’ve danced to ‘Wuthering Heights’ there. I’ve made it as far as the ruined nunnery twice, marveling at the buttercups. I’ve had heart-to-hearts there; laughed there; felt the warmth of good company there so many times.
In fact, despite a few visits just by myself, it’s mainly somewhere I associate with others. Nearly all of these moments are bright and glittery because of the people: a scattered bunch of brilliant individuals. The other evening I hung out with two of them, all of us trying to identify specific memories and specific nights there. They were hard to disentangle. One long round of swimming, cooking, eating, giggling, drinking wine, chatting, reading, lying on our backs with music playing and a huge silver moon above.
On the day my parents drove me to Oxford to begin my degree, leaving me nervously eyeing up everything I needed to unpack, they then took a trip to Port Meadow. Dad swam. Mum, unsurprisingly, stayed on the banks. While I was arranging images on my new pin-board, both terrified and thrilled by all the possible people I was about to meet, they were sitting in a spot I now know very well.
Up until recently, I’d completely forgotten that this had happened. Then a month or two back, I picked up a copy of Dip on sale in Blackwell’s. As I flicked through, my own name snagged me – from the ‘October’ chapter. There my dad detailed that strange day: dropping me off, driving away, going for a swim. I stood in the bookshop, transported back to my first, scary week of uni. I saw myself written about as someone else: younger, less assured, but eager for what lay ahead. I could make a distinction between her and me. It was a good one.
I loved dad's description of the swim best though – the sheer, giddy glee; the synchronicity of him choosing a spot that I would come to love so much; the fact that I’d entirely overlooked that connection, only finding it again as my own time at Oxford was dwindling. It felt right to rediscover at that point. Right to stand and relish it from another vantage point. Right to know I had a few months left to cram in as much swimming as I could while I was still here. So far, I’ve kept to that – though the rain hasn’t helped…
My dad took these pictures back in March when he visited me two days before my dissertation was due in. I was a frazzled ball of nerves and all-those-bloody-footnotes-left-to-do, but walking all the way to Port Meadow and back helped. At that point it was flooded: a lake sitting in the midst of the grass. I was wearing a dress I’d bought at a vintage market in Oxford the week before, and a coat given to me by a friend who no longer wanted it. Only a few months ago, and already a world away.