Swimming is the ultimate escapist activity. This can mean wild swimming in lakes, rivers, even fjords, adventure swim holidays in far flung glamorous spots or simply taking a dip at home. We tackle it differently, some of us immerse ourselves in water with nose-clip and goggles, sporting wetsuits, heads swivelling to the side, breathing timed; the more tentative launch themselves with chin delicately tilted inches above the water’s surface. And then there are ruddy skinned hardcore enthusiasts who brave the depths all year round, swearing the health benefits.
Swimming smacks of freedom, even if rain patters. Diving through waves, we somehow regain our childhood. Our age falls away, electricity fires the system, recharging batteries. Driving down country lanes, with the briny tang in the air hinting at the proximity of the sea. Excitement mounts at the prospect of a sight of the blue yonder. Or we join the sea of humanity in the city, at The Forty Foot, for example. Here on sunny days swimmers jostle to get down the stony steps clutching the rusty rail or rocket through the air to plunge downwards, cries of joy ringing through the air. It’s a democratic space where nobody outranks anyone else.
Some swims stand out. I remember stopping for an unscheduled swim at Inch Strand in Kerry, under steely grey skies, the whiff of cordite in the air as thunder approached, whooping and hollering, diving through the surf, the hint of danger enervating as the undertow sucked at our feet, then dashing up the beach in sudden torrents of rain.
I enjoyed a very different swim in London, bathing at The Hampstead ponds, inspired by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It won the Man Booker prize in 2004, and is an atmospheric, literary trawl through 1980s Tory England, the London gay scene complete with public school boys and sleek young professionals on the make. Young James scholar and protagonist Nick Guest falls under the spell of the glamorous Fedden family; and enjoys, inter alia, cruising at the tree-encircled ponds. Originally dammed-off clay pits, there are men’s, ladies’ and mixed ponds in Hampstead. The water in the latter was chilly, a murky if not unpleasant green. Then strolling back across the heath, my swimsuit and towel bunched and damp in a plastic bag, striking a discordant note in such fashionable environs, noting the quintessential Englishness of the scene. I was reminded of Henry James’ quote, “England always seems to me like a man swimming with his clothes on his head.”
The elixir of a swim isn’t for everyone. Land-lovers might vicariously enjoy the aquatic adventures in John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer. Originally published in The New Yorker in 1964, its wistful tone and razor-sharp language remain startlingly powerful. It’s considered one of the “Chekhov of the Suburbs” greatest offerings. In an affluent neighbourhood of New York, preppy Ned Merrill swims home from a social gathering to prove his vigour. Through the “quasi-subterranean stream” of his neighbours’ swimming pools, he enjoys cold gins along the way, handed out by “caterers’ men in white coats”. He becomes more unhinged as the day ebbs away, as summer bliss turns to despair. The dazzling Haunts of The Black Masseur – The Swimmer as Hero, by Charles Sprawson, includes quirky anecdotes of Byron leaping into the surf at Shelley’s beach funeral, Rupert Brooke swimming naked with Virginia Woolf and references to the works of Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald.
For those wanting to brace the open sea, there is a plethora of races, as the lure of the big blue grows stronger, maybe due to a need in a perennially plugged-in world to experience something raw and elemental. If you’re feeling competitive, swim half a mile in The Serpentine Race, a hugely popular one-day open water swimming festival in London’s Hyde Park, register at www.swimserpentine.co.uk. For a free, more local thrill, don a life jacket, jump into the tidal rapids of Lough Hyne; the seawater lake between Skibbereen and Baltimore. Wear shoes, as mussels line the rocks. Be propelled down the narrow channel with a mile-wide grin on your face, to be shot out where the lake meets the sea. For women looking to enjoy a social swim, check out the Swim Ireland Meet and Swim programme, www.swimireland.ie.
Last word to American poet and essayist, E.E Cummings: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
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