As a child I swam with an almost religious dedication. I hated swimming club, (competition and people were not my thing), but I loved the zen of doing laps and would look forward to the afternoon or morning routine of diving into a cold pool and losing myself in following the black line. In those moments I could be both totally alone and totally present. Swimming for me was a total physical and mental experience, a meditative experience. Time would cease to exist and all I was aware off was the sensation of being in and one with the water.
It is a strange experience to reflect back on, I can remember feeling both totally present in my body but also very much at one with the watery environment. Aware of the wonderful liberating feeling of flowing through the water and every muscle working in coordination to create that liberation; breath, movement and total calm presence in the moment.
I memorised a lot of poetry doing laps, I used to find myself mentally reciting lines of Yeats like a mantra as I went up and down the pool:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Yeats stands out in my memory as my main poet of choice for joining me on laps, could have picked any one of a number of Yeats poems but Lake Isle of Innisfree was the first to spring to mind. Funny the lines that spring to mind. When Bronte was an infant and a particularly unhappy one at that, I can remember picking her and reciting Stolen child to her as the first thing that sprang to mind, she just needed to hear my voice:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
All that poetry was largely imprinted in my memory by mentally reciting it as I went up and down a pool lane.
After a few days at a favourite wild swimming location I find myself reflecting on swimming and just how much I miss it. I largely stopped swimming due to shoulder injury that has seriously impacted my range of movement and left me with a susceptibility to dislocation. I miss the ease with which I could once so confidently move through water. I have allowed myself to become unfit and no longer feel so at home in an aquatic environment. Every time I swim I feel a desperate longing to get that old feeling back, to again feel so totally free in the aquatic environment and lose myself in that moment. I used to feel as sleek and in control in the water as a dolphin, these days I am more like an injured seal. I love the water and yet I have allowed myself to become so alienated from it.
In our dry and drying inland environment we have few opportunities for wild swimming now, our local dams/lakes are all currently closed to all water sport due to low levels and associated algal and bacterial issues. It is not just swimming I love but wild swimming especially. So I find myself making lists of places where I can still swim and plan camping weekends that involve access to water. On my recent weekend excursion I briefly had one of those communing with nature moments when I realised I had a large ray swimming about twenty feet from me. I envied the rays grace and control. There is real magic in being close to the wild.
In the meantime I plan to get reacquainted with my local public pool. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get back into swimming but from now on I plan to try and swim at least three times a week. So if you see someone gracelessly doing one arm freestyle or a clumsy breaststroke in the local pool it might be me.
Swimming in our warm summer sea, I also found myself missing the thrill, the endorphin rush of easing into cold water, perversely I love winter swimming. Here in Australia winter swimming is never really cold but it is certainly colder in the winter months and it is those times that are my favourite times for swimming. I never feel more alive than when I have emerged from a cold sea. It is not that I don’t feel the cold, I do, a winter swim usually involves an extended period of slowly easing myself into the water, there is no brave rush into the cold water, rather a timid, slow, breath stealing process but gee it feels amazing once you are in. It can feel hard to believe that a high this good can be legal.
I have been watching with interest the rise of wild swimming in the UK, associated with pandemic lockdowns and the closure of public pools. When you can’t find a nice heated indoor pool, a wild lake, river or ocean is a fantastic option. I wonder how many regular pool swimmers will go back to tame locations for a swim once life goes back to normal? Will they become addicted to the endorphin high of cold, wild swimming?