Conforming to a very British stereotype I shall now make an observation on the weather. It’s 9 degrees, and it’s raining, still. How disappointing it is to return from a week on a faraway sun-drenched island, having cultivated a very un-english tan, (nearly all over too!) only to be faced with the depressing prospect of covering up every inch of it under layers of thermals and waterproofs. My husband doesn’t even appreciate my attention-seeking nude displays at bedtime, and so the wynceytte and bed-socks go back on…
Yesterday, in an effort to offset any chance of the dismal weather (not to mention the State Of The Nation) bringing on bouts of ‘a deep blue funk’ as I like to call it, I went for a hill-hike during a rare pocket of dawn sunshine before the clouds descended. This morning, to keep the endorphin levels topped up, once children and husband had been despatched (no, not murdered, what do you take me for?) I headed off through the deluge to one of my Happy Places, Allerthorpe Lake, for an ‘open water swim’.
It all started [wavy flashback effect] when I was about 7 and we moved to the UK, and to a village quaintly named River, near Dover. Our new and unusual home was, (and for my parents, still is) a converted flint and clapboarded granary, beside a Napoleonic mill, where the millpond seemingly laps at the deep windowsills on the ground floor. Long before decking became ‘de rigeur’ in every back garden, my father set about creating a splendid timber deck like a pontoon across the gully between the house and the water, and this is where I spent my summers, (when I wasn’t swinging from the trees in the woods). Here on a big brass cleat, which I think my father must have purchased at his favourite Snargate Street emporium, Sharp & Enright, I moored my inflatable dinghy and immersed myself in Arthur Ransome-esque journeys and adventures. On hot days there was ‘wild swimming’ from the deck, and I fondly recall the oozy sensation of the brown silt between my toes, and being eye-level with coots and dabchicks.
Despite being the busiest shipping lane in the UK, the beaches at Dover, and at nearby St Margaret’s Bay, where my mother was born, were, and still are, beautifully clean, and we often picnicked there. I was usually the only one to venture into the chilly channel water for a swim, (Mother’s Words Of Warning always close at hand). At low tide the swaying bladderwrack that is anchored on the submerged chalk seabed gently grasps at your ankles like beckoning mermaid’s hands.
More recently, following periods of wild swimming withdrawal, necessitated by moving away from the river and the sea, becoming a boring grown-up, working, and having babies, I have dipped my toes in some interesting new waters.
There was that one time I went skinny dipping from a punt on the Cam at Grantchester, as you do, and that was proper wild, because it was a hen party.
Then, on our ‘Camper Van Odyssey’ back in 2011 we swam in the sea at the breathtaking Gower Peninsular in Wales, and also further north at Harlech. There is a superb little salt water pool in the rocks just east of the village of Mousehole, Cornwall, where on a warm sunny day, you can almost imagine you are on the Med. And for a real Mediterranean thrill I jumped in feet first with the locals at Grotta Azzura, Capri, to be lifted and plummeted by the sea swell near the entrance of the cave. A memorable family dip was at the Aberglaslyn Pass near Bethgellert in Snowdonia, when Rose was only 4. Deep chilly tannin-steeped waters, made wetsuits essential, but it was a perfect way to conclude a warm day spent trekking in walking boots, even the dog jumped in to join our swimming party, despite being a bit of a ‘fraidy cat.
Open water swimming offers an impressive pharmacy cabinet of health benefits. Done regularly, it is linked to improved circulation, stress relief, increased libido, (still waiting for that to kick in, TBH) heart health, and mental health. It is also known to boost the immune system by way of a complex science-y process, but I think it’s more likely to be thanks to regular exposure to small amounts of goose poo and rotting vegetation, a bit like homeopathy. Anyway, being less boring than pacing up and down a swimming pool, you tend to swim for longer, building stamina and burning calories. The initial rush of endorphins that comes the moment you are fully submerged carries you along, and the small but present risk of drowning adds to the sense of adventure.
These days I fantasise about trekking on foot to new secret watering holes where I can be completely at one with nature, ‘wild’ if you will. Reading Water Log by Roger Deakin has fuelled this desire further. He writes beautiful passages about the feeling of slipping into the water at the river’s edge or hobbling across wet shingle into the breakers, a recommended read if you still need convincing. And if you really are tempted or if you are already a convert and want to know more, there are lots of cool places to get advice and ideas, here are a few to get you started:
www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com (they sell hammam towels too, how good is that??)
But for now, I satisfy myself with the morning ritual of pouring myself into a wetsuit (remarkably flattering for a tubby like me as it works like a full body Spanx) and taking a tour or two of the 400m circuit of the lake. My fellow swimmers; serious triathletes, in dynamic speedos, plough through the water freestyle, lapping me, the amateur in a pink halterneck, breaststroking merrily and taking time to watch the terns feeding their young or keeping an eye out for the illusive kingfisher. Every now and again my mind wanders, and I imagine myself signing up for an actual Triathlon, in that middle-aged way of needing to prove something to myself and to others about not being over the hill, but I am soon distracted by a fish leaping clear of the water in front of my half submerged eyes.
So, back to British Summer Fashion Must-Haves: Today I’ve sported two infinitely practical outfits best suited to the summer weather: Firstly, a wet suit, with fetching swim cap which, being green, makes me look like I have an actual pea for a head, and then in the afternoon, an elegantly roomy ankle-skimming navy blue Driza-Bone hooded rain coat ( #foundinoxfam ) accessorised with knee length brown leather wellingtons. The second ensemble was necessary for the wet walk up the garden, through the overgrown wild carrot and hogweed that lines the garden path, to my poor soggy hens. They were very pleased to see me, perhaps thinking that I would enfold them in my enormous coat and carry them all home to dry out by the fire, but they were content instead with a quick chat and a full feeder in exchange for a pocket load of eggs.
What will the heavens throw at us tomorrow I wonder, and what ways will I find to make it fun and more importantly, stay stylish?
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