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Swimming together – the new community

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Essay | 16 minute read
A writer found solace in swimming after nearly a decade of living with an anxiety disorder. Here he reflects on the therapeutic power of reading, and writing, about it

‘When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim’ Roger Deakin, Waterlog

‘Why have there been so many swimming books in the past year?’

The last time I was asked this question, my lips parted but no words came out. I took a sip of water and looked out at a sea of blank faces at the literary festival audience I was speaking to. They expected something, however, and I delivered a stream of consciousness answer that did little to satisfactorily answer the question. The appeal of the water to modern swimming writers, myself included, could not be reduced easily to a simple sound bite.

Since publishing my memoir about retracing Roger Deakin’s nature writing classic, Waterlog, in a bid to conquer anxiety, this is the question I have been asked the most. There is a breadth as wide as an ocean to this new swathe of swimming literature. To name a few: Turning, Jessica J. Lee’s memoir about swimming in fifty-two lakes around Berlin in a year; Leap In, Alexandra Heminsley’s fiercely brilliant tale of learning to swim during IVF treatment; Swell, Jenny Landreth’s history of women’s fight for swimming rights; Swimming With Seals, Victoria Whitworth’s powerful tale of sea swimming and finding solace in the waters around Orkney; and Ruth Fitzmaurice’s I Found My Tribe about her ritual dips in the Irish Sea.

There are a series of consistent themes which emerge among them: healing, community, empowerment and escape. Each of these books is imbued with these qualities, all of which have become central to the cultural conversation in recent years. In a world where multitasking, technological ubiquity and social media-induced anxiety have become inescapable lifestyle factors, swimming offers writers a rich seam to explore and readers something they can easily relate to.

HEALING

In this Instagram age, the word healing has been sullied. It is a term now steeped in the idea that healing yourself can only be attained through achieving the ‘perfect’ body and eating ‘clean’. Modern swimming literature is about healing in its truest sense. The water in these books holds curative properties, both physical and mental.

Lee touches on this within the first pages of Turning. Swimming in the lakes around Berlin is an act of defiance against depression and heartbreak. ‘As I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming … I thought that swimming might help me find some new place in the world in a year when I had changed address five times.’

The notion of surfacing is one which Lee turns to repeatedly, as if the emotional waters can breached and navigated like those of the lakes which she fell in love with. She goes on: ‘In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself.’

This is a feeling that I relate to acutely. Finding solace in swimming came after nearly a decade of living with an anxiety disorder, one which I discovered could be ameliorated, although not fixed completely, by going for cold swims in distant places. When I entered the water, I found that my mind – which struggled to separate small, inconsequential concerns from larger ones, leaving me often on the edge of blind panic – was becalmed. The water gave me the ability to understand that living a life of constant worry was not normal and that I could change. It helped me find a way to fix myself, to make myself a better person in my own eyes.

Lee’s healing is achieved through mining reserves of strength, power and presence that only the water can afford her. When she swims, she isn’t escaping her depression, her lost love, the physical pain of a shoulder injury suffered after being hit by a taxi. She is, rather, finding a way to live with those things, of resurfacing, renewed but not remade, through the visceral thrill of wading into an icy lake.

In Swimming With Seals, Whitworth takes to Orkney’s bitterly cold seas to find solace and healing from troubles within her marriage (‘It is no coincidence that the crisis in my marriage coincided with my compulsion to swim in the sea’) and the pressures which she places on herself professionally. The latter speaks to a very modern malaise, where as a society we have become increasingly connected and yet increasingly isolated, without the requisite support structures required to boost our emotional wellbeing.

For Whitworth, the water acts as a pressure valve, a release. ‘My relationship with reality has become ever more tenuous,’ she says about her inability to accept that she is good, worthy and brilliant at what she does. ‘Going into cold water shocks me back into myself and what really exists, here and now. What really matters.’ She does this both alone and with a group, the Orkney Polar Bears. Community, as we shall see, also plays a vital role in swimming’s rise in popular literature.

For Heminsley too, the water is a place of healing. Leap In was initially conceived as a travel book about learning to swim and then taking on some of the more fearsome stretches of water the author could find. But it developed into something more unexpected. Heminsley details, with searing honesty, the struggles she faced during IVF treatment while learning to swim and how the water made her feel as those treatments failed and the emotional toll became almost unbearable.

‘I woke up at 6 a.m., and stared at the ceiling as the tears rolled slowly, sadly down the sides of my face and onto the pillow. What now? Well, it turned out there was a chink of light in the autumn clouds: swimming.’ Her sea swims near her Brighton home bring a semblance of peace, but it is a dip in a freezing Lake District tarn weeks later that captures the water’s ability to bring healing: ‘I couldn’t speak for the existence of any wildlife in that water, but I could speak for me,’ she writes. ‘I had survived the misery of the last few months. I had survived loss more painful than I had ever imagined. But I had survived. And I would survive the almost paralyzing fear of this swim. I was here. I was fine.’

There is an openness and honesty in Heminsley, Whitworth and Lee’s writings about swimming’s restorative and life-giving qualities that is both refreshing and yet completely at odds with the notion of health being attainable through ‘clean eating’ and the search for the ‘perfect’ body as defined by a select group of self-proclaimed fitness ‘influencers’, who have emerged on social media in recent years. The latter, though, does have a large part to play in the emergence of swimming literature, specifically in the community which the authors of these books helped to create and sustain.

COMMUNITY

Swimming is having a moment right now, perhaps because of the re-emergence of lidos as community hubs. Guidebooks such as Jenny Landreth’s Swimming London feature them, and Libby Page’s forthcoming debut novel, The Lido, set at Brockwell in south London. And it is – ironically – places like Facebook and Instagram that have fostered this boom in swimming as a communal activity.

Heminsley learns to swim at a dedicated ‘pool to pier’ course in Brighton, which immediately fosters community and, in turn, becomes a Facebook group for new friends to share swimming plans. In the wake of her IVF treatment, she turns to the social network: ‘When I looked over at my phone that morning and saw that others were planning to take a swim from Hove to Brighton, I knew there was only one place I wanted to be. Only one place that would still my body and mind.’

Companionship develops into an essential component of Heminsley’s swimming experience. Despite being a solitary pursuit, it requires the support of others, both in the water and on shore. Whitworth’s book has its basis in a social media community too, having started life as Facebook posts which she would write in the immediate wake of her swims. The positivity in these posts is inescapable, giving her experience a sense of urgency and vitality that makes it truly magical. It is through social media that the author is able to connect with fellow Orkney swimmers and enjoy her regular Saturday swims with them.

‘Polar bear dips are wonderful, chaotic communal experiences. In some ways we’re a random bunch; in others we’re a distant demographic.’ This line captures swimming’s ability to cut through agendas, age barriers and backgrounds. It plays into the classic phrase from Josiah Stamp, the former governor of the Bank of England’s that ‘when we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy.’ There is something very basic, but very powerful, about being stripped down together in a body of water, equal, with survival in its purest form the name of the game.

Survival through community emerges in Fitzmaurice’s I Found My Tribe. The title gets straight to the point. Swimming is a tribal activity, although not exclusively so. Fitzmaurice’s tribe calls itself ‘The Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club’, meeting regularly to cope with and survive the struggles which life has dealt them. They take to the rolling waves of Greystones in County Wicklow with a sense of purpose, and the ‘rush of the cold’ becomes the perfect panacea to their problems.

Fitzmaurice is dealing with the challenges of raising five children with a husband who suffers from motor neuron disease. The water, and her friends, give her a sense of herself away from the challenges at home. ‘The hurt seek each other out wordlessly,’ she writes. ‘We gather on a stony beach that may as well be a deserted car park … We swap pain silently like illegal contraband.’

Yet this pain is subsumed by the freezing cold sea: ‘Cold water hits you with a head-slam. Don’t fight the cold. Let it go and let it seep in … We climb out of the water back up the steps with numb, pink bodies … Talking, talking, we just can’t stop talking and laughing. We are kings of the world.’

ANTI-AUTHORITARIANISM AND EMPOWERMENT

In Swell, Landreth explores how women have fought for equality in and around the water, returning to the idea of community in her exploration of women’s swimming both past and present. She spends time training with modern day Channel swimmers, who derive strength and skill from each other while practicing for this most audacious of swimming feats; with her friends at Tooting Bec Lido, breaking ice in winter in order to share that magical feeling of emerging from the cold with a sense of strength in adversity; and with the swimming suffragettes whose ‘Water Carnival’ at the Hyde Park Serpentine in April 1914 helped advance the cause of equal swimming, not to mention voting rights.

The description of the suffragettes is an example of the powerful, anti-authoritarian streak within communal swimming. Women were banned from swimming in the Serpentine and, unable to take the boats on the lake and stage a protest as planned, suffragettes banded together and took to the water themselves. Landreth quotes a Daily Mirror report in which five women strip down to their bathing costumes and wade in before being ‘captured’ by the authorities: ‘Obviously, the women’s intention was to highlight the suffrage movement rather than working towards equal swimming rights … it seems apposite that these militants in tights chose this “shocking” act to highlight their cause.’

As well as dealing with the fight for women’s equal rights in the water, Landreth also speaks to a very modern sense of needing rule breakers and revolutionaries to help bring us out of our current malaise. We live in insular, fearful times, where sticking to the rules seems to have become the default setting for many.

Swimming, and especially wild swimming, goes beyond this. It is at times a risky pursuit that is decried by many as unsafe and ‘eccentric’. The latter is a loaded term, used disparagingly, and yet as a society we need such people to show us a different way of doing things.

Like her swimming foremothers in 1914, Landreth steals a swim at the Serpentine: ‘Things forbidden and snatched can feel delicious in themselves, but the warm water and sunshine combined with that thrill to engender a real sense of daring and freedom.’ It gives us insight into how these renegade women must have felt when swimming in men-only lidos and lakes, searching for a sense of freedom denied to them by the patriarchy’s rules. Such restrictions are thankfully consigned to the past, but in stealing a swim and flicking two fingers to authority, the suffragettes show us a quality that needs to be cultivated in the modern age.

In Waterlog, Deakin constantly evokes this anti-authoritarian spirit. He has a love of trespassing and steals swims in private rivers and locked up lidos at any opportunity. As early as 1999, before the grip of the internet and social media had taken hold, he wrote: ‘Most of us live in a world where more and more things are signposted, labelled and officially “interpreted”. There is something about this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, swimming and cycling will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands.’

Lee, meanwhile, breaks through a padlock in her quest to explore Berlin’s lakes. She heads to Heiligensee on a wet, cold autumn day with her friend, Anne: ‘Around the eastern side, there’s a small beach, but it’s padlocked and lined with barbed wire. Heiligensee is a private lake, with access restricted to those who won lake-shire property. I ask Anne if she’s OK with trespassing, and she laughs. “Of course, that’s why I’m here,” she says brightly.’ Lee’s short swim in a black, clear and clean lake is made all the better for being illicit. Rules are not for her.

It is not in my nature to break rules yet often I found myself in situations where I had no choice but to bypass them while on my swimming odyssey. I hopped fences to swim in the River Itchen, a protected body of water preserved for trout fishing. I jumped out of the window of a mill house into the River Avon. And I slipped into the depths of a pot hole on the Yorkshire/Cumbria border with little regard for my own safety (the latter was perhaps somewhat over the top). Like Lee and Landreth, I began to take great joy in breaking the rules, either real or imagined. There is a perception that getting into open water, rivers in particular, is wrong. This is a rule imposed by society and yet it holds powerful sway. Breaking that taboo feels very apt in these turbulent times. It is a small act of rebellion.

As Whitworth says of her first solo swims: ‘Am I allowed to do this, to take these steps across the sand and heaps of storm-torn daberlack and walk into this water, alone, in the gale, in the cold, in the dark? Am I letting the side down? Who’s going to be angry with me?’

No one will be: she swims, she rebels, she flourishes.

‘NOWNESS’ AND ESCAPE

Getting into cold water not only allows the authors to escape daily stress, but also lets them tap into a feeling of being present, which is virtually impossible to sustain in any land-based activity.

This ‘nowness’, the ability to stay present, is an elusive feeling, one which so many strive for in this smartphone era of perennial distraction. Being here ‘now’ is not easy. Unlike running, with its growing world of tracking devices and apps which I find stress-inducing, and meditation, from which I find I can easily be distracted, swimming is very elemental. Kick your legs, move your arms, breathe, and you survive. Forget to do those things, and you’ll struggle. Put them all together and you can enter a flow state that, from my own personal experience, is hard to replicate on dry land. You can get distracted, but your breathing, your limbs, will always bring you back into the present moment. It is this that Deakin invoked, the idea that swimming gives a need for survival which overrides any ambition or desire.

As a writer, Deakin takes that feeling of being in the present moment in the water and brings it into his everyday. In Waterlog, the passages when he isn’t in the water are reflective of this, whether it’s during a ‘terrific set-to’ with security staff at Winchester College after trespassing, or tending to the woods around his farm in Suffolk. The water becomes part of who he is and how he approaches life.

Whitworth also captures this when discussing the appeal of cold sea water: ‘my sense of who I am withdraws deep into the core of my body as my blood leaves first my hands and feet, then my arms and my legs, the heart beating the retreat, commanding a strategic fallback of the troops to protect my brain and spinal cord, my vital organs. In the water, there is only now.’ In her ‘now’, Whitworth finds a meditative aspect in its purest sense. She escapes into herself through the cold water.

In contrast, Heminsley’s experience of this ‘nowness’ is less about meditation and more focused on discovering relaxation. Having learned how to swim front crawl and become adept at taking to open water, she writes: ‘It turned out that the water, the views, the sense of achievement were not the only pleasures of swimming: it was that the act of swimming itself did not create relaxation as much as demand it of you.’

I could easily relate to these ideas of being in the moment, of being able to relax and look deep into yourself. The sense of relaxation that swimming demands is what kept drawing me back to the water. As someone suffering from anxiety, the water’s pull was addictive. It brought me into the now in a way that nothing else could. When I sat down to write, this was the first thought that passed through my mind: ‘In the water there was nothing. My mind was empty and I floated without thinking.’

Joe Minihane’s book, Floating: A Return to Waterlogis out in paperback in April. Read an extract from the book here