It’s the plunge that counts

Heathcote Williams

  • Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin
    Chatto, 320 pp, £15.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 7011 6652 5

Roger Deakin has swum through England. Instead of a travelogue, he has written a waterlog, and instead of being waterlogged, he has moved around the country untrammelled, and often naked. In this seductive book he gives a rare and visionary account of what it means to feel an affinity with the lakes, springs, rivers, streams and seashores of these islands, instead of the motorways, car-parks and Little Chefs that blight the instincts of the traveller who is eager to commune with what is left of raw nature.

‘In the night sea at Walberswick,’ Deakin observes, ‘I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through neon waves like dragons.’ The more he thought about water and its significance, both spiritual and practical, the more obsessed he became with the idea of a swimming journey. ‘I started to dream ever more exclusively of water. Swimming and dreaming were becoming indistinguishable. I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a new way of getting under the skin of things.’ While such an undertaking may seem bizarre, a feeling for water is fundamental as well as easily overlooked: we came from it, we are largely made of it, it is as likely as not that wars will presently be fought over it, and rising sea levels, thanks to global warming, may finish us off. Yet we take water entirely for granted: it either comes out of the tap or it doesn’t. In the words of the Confucian Analects, ‘it benefits all things and does not compete with them.’

Merlin turns the future king into a fish as part of his education in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, and as a fish ‘he could do what men always wanted to do, that is fly. There is practically no difference between flying in water and flying in the air … It was like the dreams people have.’ Deakin, who comes to think of his journey as an Arthurian quest, comments:

When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born. Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control. This may account for the anxieties every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water. A swallow-dive off the high board into the void is an image that brings together all the contradictions of birth. The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born.

Deakin follows a liquid ley-line map in his head, and automatically overrules notices proclaiming NO UNAUTHORISED PERSON BEYOND THIS POINT. He believes that ‘natural water has always held the magical power to cure. Somehow or other it transmits its own self-regenerating power to the swimmer. I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression and come out a whistling idiot.’ With his trusty snorkel, he stakes out the whole of watery England for his Grail quest.

Like D.H. Lawrence, Deakin is happy, in the end, to remain mystified by the secret of that invigorating power. He quotes Lawrence’s poem ‘The Third Thing’:

Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
but there is also a third thing, that makes it water
and nobody knows what that is.

It is possible that the therapeutic allure of water lies with the wizardry of negative ions – generated by the movement of water – which, despite their name, have a positive effect. For all we know we were drawn to flowing water in the first instance, not, as school geography books would have it, because it was useful as a source of food or trade, but because of a more immediate affinity. Water has a magnetic attraction. Rushing water can hypnotise you. Who knows whether it isn’t this atavistic energy that draws us, as Wordsworth was drawn to the vernal woods which ‘teach you more of man’ and of ‘moral evil and of good, than all the sages can’.

A director of Common Ground, which has done so much to restore a precious sense of place to the threatened enclaves of the English countryside, Deakin believes that:

Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things. A swimming journey would give me access to that part of our world which, like darkness, mist, woods, high mountains, still retain most mystery. It would allow me a different perspective on the rest of landlocked humanity.

He dips his toe in a few East Anglian moats, and then devises a plan for some more wide-ranging plunges. He finds a wetsuit couturier to tailor him out as neatly as a banana-skin, and sets off. Roger Deakin, the human otter, starts his journey in the Scillies, where in AD 387 Instantius and Tibericus, a couple of early Christian bishops, ‘founded a cult of free love well away from the hurly burly of the Dark Ages’. The hippies who have now succeeded them generously offer to equip him with anything else he might need, thanks to the continuing Cornish tradition of looting wrecks.

Apart from his wetsuit, however, Deakin appears to dispense with worldly goods. He inherited a copy of George Borrow’s Wild Wales from his great-uncle Joe (who took it from the prison library when he left Parkhurst in 1892, ‘where he was doing time at the age of 20 on the trumped-up charge that he was a dangerous anarchist’), and had been impressed since childhood that Borrow carried nothing in his satchel on his grand tours – in which he swam as well as walked – except a razor and a spare pair of worsted stockings.

Deakin has an Army-surplus rucksack filled with bread, sardines and Power Bars – with their ‘try-your-strength plastic wrapping’ – for which he finds mussel shells useful as openers. He camps in some deserted railway carriages in Marazion and then swims to St Michael’s Mount – he invariably takes the toughest route ‘to restore some sense of adventure’. Then he promptly ‘scents water’ in Stockbridge and swims his way through the town, the tributaries of the River Test forming ‘a riot of small rivers, a rural Venice’. He is ecstatic: ‘the gurgling of fast-flowing water is everywhere, and mallards wander the streets at will, like sacred cattle in India … How marvellous to find a place that values, uses and enjoys its river like this, instead of tucking it away out of sight, corseted in a concrete pipe.’

A day’s sport on the Test now costs plutocratic fishermen £800 a day, or a million pounds a mile if they wish to set up shop permanently with their maggots, umbrellas and fake flies. But Deakin is able to share the depths of the balmy chalk streams with brown trout – ‘no greater connoisseurs of fine fresh water’ – for nothing, together with the pike, water voles and crayfish that become his companions in the bullrush pools. ‘I swam right up to a frog, which eyed me, but didn’t dive or even blink. As every member of the Special Boat Unit knows, you are pretty well hidden when you swim, and aquatic animals are relatively unconcerned about you once you, too, are submerged. You have become, after all, one of them.’

He explores the River Itchen – there were few spots in England ‘more fertile or pleasant’, Cobbett wrote, ‘and none, I believe, more healthy’ – ignoring a Private Fishing notice, vaulting a fence along the bank, and leaping in, musing mouth-wateringly on Cobbett’s description of a strawberry garden further upstream at Martyr Worthy, where maids supplied him with cream from a nearby milk-house. He is wakened from his 19th-century reverie by an irate porter from Winchester College with an alsatian, and an officious College river keeper, who angrily strut up and down beside him on the bank, affronted by the sight of his rubber-blubbered body in their watery patch. They shout out repeatedly: ‘Does that fence mean anything to you?’ Deakin insists, between continuing breast-strokes, on his self-accorded rights ‘as a free swimmer’, and ignores the warning that he is ‘scaring away the trout’ – exclusively reserved, it transpires, for Old Wykehamist fishermen. He surges on, having temporarily established an aquatic right to ramble, though, as he later observes, the freedom to swim is constrained by property owners’ bye-laws (in contrast, across the Channel in Normandy and Brittany people have unlimited access to their rivers), and by the depressing commodification of the landscape by trout fisheries.

What were once richly varied trout rivers have been allowed to become highly manipulated leisure enterprises capable of delivering a more or less guaranteed catch of four or five fish to the people, often tourists, who can pay to fish there. Trout fisheries also persecute the pike, culling coarse fish by electro-fishing, even removing such essentials to the ecology of natural chalk streams as brook lampreys and bullheads. Besides all this, they cut and remove the weed that would naturally hold up the flow and maintain the depth of water, as well as harbouring the invertebrates that provide vital food in the rivers’ ecosystems. On one short stretch of the Test above Whitchurch, the owner deploys over sixty different traps for stoats and weasels along the banks, which tend to be manicured of their natural cover with strimmers to accommodate the fastidious new breed of angler. What is at stake is the very resource that, left alone, would create and sustain the wild trout: the natural chalk stream.

Temporarily saddened that the Itchen is no longer the ‘famously clear water’ of Cobbett’s era, the ever-buoyant Deakin swims further afield and makes for Gunner’s Hole, where ‘one of the legendary sea-swimmers of our times evolved his style’. Sir James Lighthill, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, became pre-eminent in the field of wave theory and fluid dynamics partly by analysing the patterns of the currents around the Channel Islands. He was the first to swim the 18 miles around Sark in 1973, in a peculiar swimming style of his own devising that imitated the stickleback, and died during his sixth island gyration in 1998, aged 74.

Deakin’s journey takes him on to Cambridge, where Jack Overhill, the author of 33 unpublished novels, was the first person to promote the previously unknown style known as the ‘crawl’, having seen someone doing it in the Granta. Overhill noticed that the swimmer was outpacing a racing punt, and that instead of the then more common swimming style known as the ‘trudgeon’ (the ‘gut-butting stroke’, which involved windmilling the arms and frog-leg kicks, imported apparently by a Mr J. Trudgen who had observed it among the natives of South America), the distant stranger was proceeding far more rapidly by ‘kicking his legs up and down, like someone walking backwards. The bathing sheds were on fire with inspiration.’

The ‘crawl’, born in a backwater near Grantchester Meadow, became a craze. The advantages of this novel style of turbocharged swimming, with the familiar ‘water-spout’ thrown up in its wake, were extolled in magazines like Chums and The Boys’ Friend Library, and the crawling craze led to a great outburst of mass swims, marathon swims and ‘roving bands of wild swimmers’. Diving-boards were gleefully nailed to every available vantage-point to accommodate what became a kind of South Sea Bubble for carefree investors in unregimented fitness and impromptu adventure. People would gather at the water’s edge and call out excitedly: ‘Look, he’s doing the crawl!’ A rash of exotic activities and clubs were thrown up in the wake of the new aquatic style, such as the Prickwillow Gala and the Walberswick Shiverers. ‘By 1931 there existed in England alone about 1400 swimming clubs; a five-fold increase over two years.’ Crawl-mania would warrant a chapter to itself in any new edition of Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Daredevil feats of kamikaze diving would often precede demonstrations of the new stroke: Deakin mentions that ‘Jack Overhill’s son, also Jack, used to perform 50-foot swallow-dives from the top of a tree at a point in the meadows where the river was 20 feet deep.’

At the remains of Aristotle’s Well, where Pepys once slaked his thirst, and which is reputedly the coldest spring in England, Deakin experiences the shock value of cold water, and thinks about swimming as a natural psychedelic. ‘For many people,’ he writes, ‘parboiled and half-dissolved in daily hot baths, the ecstasies of cold water … must seem a long way off, probably bracketed with S&M,’ but in the search for the transforming mixture of ‘vertigo and exhilaration’ that he prizes, an aversion to the cold is easily overcome. Through endorphins ‘the body has a hundred ways of protecting itself from the cold, and will anaesthetise itself from the discomfort of long exposure’; ‘our cosseted, overheated way of life may have robbed us of a natural ability, evident in most mammals, to enjoy both extremes of the spectrum of warmth and cold.’ He remembers with affection the story of the feral boy raised by wolves who was found in the woods of St-Affrique in the Aveyron in 1800 (dramatised in Truffaut’s film L’Enfant sauvage) and who loved to get out of the clothes imposed on him by his tutor and would fervently streak, though the temperature was below freezing.

While the merits of cold water have long been dismissed as a sadistic Victorian torture prescribed by Mrs Grundy, cold water decreases blood pressure and cholesterol and stimulates the immune system (as soon as you leave the water your white cells and lymphocytes will show a measurable increase). In addition, it discourages blood-clotting by furthering the production of plasmin, ‘a powerful enzyme which dissolves blood-clots before they can build up to cause heart attacks or strokes’. Many of the fifty or sixty regulars who come daily to Highgate Men’s Pond, winter and summer ‘are in their eighties and look sixty. They all put it down to the cold water.’ The supervisors at the pond, Terry and Les, swear to Deakin that ‘it’s the plunge that counts.’

The supposed anaphrodisiac effect of cold water is a myth: a NASA research programme, conducted at the University of Miami School of Medicine, apparently showed that cold water was ‘discovered to enhance the production of testosterone in men, and oestrogen and progesterone in women, improving fertility and stimulating the libido.’ ‘It is ironic,’ Deakin comments, ‘to consider that all those cold showers, at school or in the Army, were actually heightening desire and increasing fertility among the nation’s youth.’ The English libido, long thought to have been safely exiled to the Antarctic, was surfacing in home waters, prancing around in Jantzen trunks. Lido mania, and the rampancy of the wild swimming clubs were to lead to a baby boom. In 1724 Daniel Defoe noted that in Bath, where there was mixed bathing, quivering and shivering love-making would regularly round off the day’s exercise at the ‘Cross-Bath’ before the sedan-chairs were summoned.

The hydrotherapy in Malvern cured both Florence Nightingale and, in part, Tennyson, ‘who came after a nervous breakdown, and declared he was “half-cured, half-destroyed” by the place’. Charles Darwin ‘arrived depressed and unable to write, but was so persuaded by the effects of his treatment that he returned three more times’. (Darwin was to have his own douche-bath fed with Malvern water installed at home.) The boom in water cures led to the creation of about two hundred spas in England in the 19th century for the treatment of despairing Victorian souls: ‘after the Asylum Acts of 1828 and 1845, people could no longer enter asylums for voluntary psychiatric treatment without being certified, so they turned to the spas, and water cures.’ The spas, in other words, were liquid versions of ‘care in the community’ for those who were not quite so dangerous to themselves or others as to require institutionalising. These open asylums seem to have been just as successful as their modern counterparts, though Tennyson’s feelings, of course, remained mixed, and, in the end, hydrotherapy may have been little more than a genteel version of witch-ducking. But doctors have yet to discredit Pindar’s succinct advice from the fifth century BC, inscribed above the Pump Room in Bath: ‘Water is best.’

Of the two hundred 19th-century spas, only Droitwich and Buxton remain functional – Deakin samples the ‘amazingly dense water’ of the brine baths of Droitwich, which bubbles up from former salt-mines beneath the High Street – although the therapeutic value of water is still being exploited in the current bottled water fetish (first started by Jacob Schweppes, who wanted to trap the wholesome Malvern genie and peddle it). Bottled water is susceptible to the same quackery as the worst of the spas. For the water, standing in serried ranks of translucent plastic on supermarket shelves, can be entirely lifeless. Cobbett gave the spas a wide berth on his rural rides, excoriating them as the sulphurous dens of confidence tricksters: ‘the resorts of all that is knavish and all that is foolish and all that is base.’ He would have thought the bottled water racketeers and their inflated claims beneath contempt, just as Colin Ward has more recently argued, in Reflected in Water, that to ‘have turned water into a commodity is unnatural, because water is a gift, like air and sunlight’.

But none of the superstitions that attach to water is likely to go away: Deakin finds that former holy wells in the West Country still flutter with votive offerings from pagan pilgrims. A well in Madron is festooned with as many trade cards – for osteopaths, iridologists, psychotherapists and New Age soothsayers – as a London phone-box. At the Castle Mill shopping centre in Norwich, ‘which hardly looks like a pagan shrine’, the indoor fountain has to be cleared of a mass of coins every week; and the continuing decoration of the wells of Derbyshire with flowers – ‘in annual ceremonies that hark back to the Roman Fontinalia, the flower festival in honour of the nymphs that inhabit the springs’ – show that ‘these residual beliefs die hard … not to mention the symbolic holy wells that we call fonts in which babies are baptised in church.’ The water of life is an enduring notion.

As Deakin strikes north, mounting the cliffs and precipitous gorges of the Yorkshire Dales in order to glide down its rivers and becks, he decides to follow up a report from an Aysgarth caver of a continuous flow of white water that rapidly drops two hundred feet, like an angled waterfall. The hidden canyon, Hell Gill, on the remote moors near Garsdale Head just below Wensleydale, is a deep gash in the limestone, a cracked-open pothole in which Deakin is gathered up by the cascading waters and hurled against the rocks. He recuperates in the more tranquil lagoons of the Black Isle, where he takes his bearings from lowing seals, and makes for the turquoise waters of Belnahua, the source of the slate which roofed Edinburgh, Glasgow and some of New York. It is empty now, a desert island atoll quarry.

Bits of derelict machinery lay everywhere: cogs and pulleys, shafts, spindles, wheels, gears, cranes, pitted bollards and rusting fragments of narrow-gauge track. The beaches were all silver, black and grey, with fine black sand and all denominations of the island’s slate coinage, some flecked with a starry night sky of fool’s gold, others striated with the finest white pencil lines of quartz, the doodling of mermaids. The tides had sorted and screened them by size, stacking them like books end-on in flowing lines and whorls that traced the eddies and turbulence that clamoured over them … a mass of warm, black paperweights … a hoard of slate money combed into watery patterns.

Just as London looks different and dreamier when you see it from the Thames or from the basins of the Regent’s Canal, so England, from the myriad watering places which Deakin explores, is transformed. He has an antiquarian’s instinct for quirky, memorable detail, and is a passionate entomologist, describing waterboatmen, sandhoppers and dragonflies. He sees the country from what the Greeks called agrafa, the unwritten places, and understands that people’s dismal efforts to regain health – squeezed together in their living-rooms to watch aerobics videos; or half-asphyxiated in fetid and overpriced health-clubs where they learn to be muscle-bound hamsters by rotating themselves on a selection of treadmills; or obsessing, at second hand, about mercenary and self-indulgent sportsmen, all run a paltry second to the riches that are so readily available.