An imaginary journey swimming from city to sea, inspired by Roger Deakin’s wonderful wild swimming book, Waterlog. If you haven’t read it, I would urge you to buy a copy.
The text to the film is all quoted from Waterlog. Below is my longer ‘script’, compiled together from the book.
This was filmed, on one glorious, hot June day, at six different locations heading south from London down to the sea, which lies just an hour from the city on the train. Thanks go to Kev for all his filming help and hard work.
If this film inspires you to head for a river, lake or coast this summer, I recommend these two fabulous wild swimming guidebooks for the UK, Wild Swim and Wild Swimming.
The deep, natural water of the Highgate Men’s Pond is a marvellous place for a swim. The pond is fed from the springs at the top of the hill in Kenwood. A number of impressive 80 year olds swim there every day; indeed the only accident at the pond in recent years was when one of the octogenarians spiked herself on the railings whilst climbing in after hours. There has been swimming at the Men’s Pond for over ninety years, and it rivals any of the London clubs for its conversation, atmosphere and conviviality. In a way, it is one of the London clubs, yet it is the very opposite of exclusive. Entrance is, of course, free, past a bench on the sunny hillside lawn inscribed in memory of a swimmer known by his friends at the Men’s Pond as ‘Goldfish’. All human life may be there.
I went out along the jetty to the pond. It is deep, up to twenty feet, and the water is green, smooth, and cold. It is entirely natural. In summer, when the water is warm, this is a beautiful place to bathe.
The more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with the idea of a swimming journey. I started to dream ever more exclusively of water. I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new. I might learn about myself, too. In water, all possibilities seem infinitely extended. Free of the tyranny of gravity and the weight of the atmosphere, I find myself in the wide eye-ed condition…. [where] “I am only interested in everything.”
You see and experience things when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different from any other. You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land, and your sense of the present is overwhelming. In wild water you are on equal terms with the animal world around you: in every sense, on the same level.
Natural water has always held the magical power to cure. Somehow or other, it transmits its own self-regenerating powers to the swimmer. I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out like a whistling idiot. There is a feeling of absolute freedom and wildness that comes with the sheer liberation of nakedness as well as weightlessness in natural water, and it leads to a deep bond with the bathing-place.
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 or high mountains, still retains most mystery. It would afford me a different perspective on the rest of landlocked humanity.
The whole quality of swimming is akin to cycling; the economy of effort, the defiance of gravity, the dancing rhythm, and the general need to keep moving, lest you sink or topple. As modes of propulsion, both could safely be classified as environmentally friendly. I enjoy the gliding, swooping motion of the bike as I enjoy the grace of swimming. It is hard to overstrain your muscles by swimming or cycling; both are essentially benign forms of exercise.
I wondered idly how many strokes i had so far put in on my peregrinations, and how many more there might be to go, and felt thankful that I was not being sponsored, and not in competition with anybody, even myself. I am just an ordinary man-in-the-pool swimmer of no more than average ability, quite happy as long as i am afloat somewhere interesting and preferably beautiful. W.H. Auden’s line: ‘A culture is no better than its woods’ holds true for rivers too.
Scaling the sand dunes, I ran down the deserted beach, flung off my clothes and waded into the surf.
I felt the sweetness of tired limbs and fell headlong into the waves, striking towards the horizon that appeared intermittently beyond the breakers. When i reached the relative calm of unbroken swell, I looked back towards the shore. The beach shone as the tide fell and the sea grew less perturbed. I turned and swam on into the quiet waves.