Image: Devil’s Bridge, The River Lune, waterlogreswum.com
In 1999 nature writer and documentary maker Roger Deakin made swimming history. Although the quintessentially eccentric English gent with his rambling Suffolk home (complete with its own moat) didn’t know so at the time, his epic book Waterlog would go on to revolutionise open water swimming.
For a generation stuck behind a desk whose only experience of swimming was in the dark, smelly, overly chlorinated pools of the 1970s his message was simple: swimming is an immersive experience to be enjoyed and savoured, much like it was back in the days before indoor pools were around!
Sadly, Roger couldn’t be around to witness these changes. He died in 2006, only four months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
But he hasn’t been forgotten. In his excellent blog, Waterlog Reswum, journalist Joe Minihane swims the rivers, bays, streams and lidos Deakin originally visited in Waterlog.
“My mission is to experience the waters as Roger did, writing about and photographing them,” explains Minihane, “exploring how they have changed and how attitudes to outdoor swimming have shifted since Waterlog’s publication.”
We caught up with Joe Minihane between swims to find out what he thinks about Roger Deakin and the legacy he left behind.
There seems to be a much greater appreciation of the outdoors than there used to be. People want to spend more time outdoors and there seems to be less stigma attached to throwing yourself in a river, lake or pond.
I’ve been working on this project for two years and the appeal of open water seems to have grown even since I started doing it. Roger’s book undoubtedly has had something to do with that and probably writer Robert Macfarlane too (author of The Wild Places).
People just tire of the indoor leisure centre and the sweaty pool. For example, my local pool is a beautiful public baths but they heat the water to 30 degrees centigrade. It’s nuts. You do one length and your forehead is dripping with sweat!
Do you think people look at you and think you are a bit mad when you tell them you are going to swim in a nearby river?
When I first started this project I would tell people I was going to swim in a river or a lake and most people would look at me like I was a little bit unhinged.
Now I’m finding that all the same people who were looking at me two years ago saying ‘I don’t fancy that’ are saying how much they want to swim with me. That’s great. I’m finding more and more people are willing to do it.
Swimming is so immersive. I love going out walking and cycling but there’s something about going for a wild swim that’s a bit extra.
My favourite bits in Waterlog are the bits where Roger’s IN nature rather than looking onto it. You can be very stealthy when you are swimming. I’m much more attuned to the wildlife around me now. I notice more.
Did you swim much when you were younger?
I hated swimming as a kid. I wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer. I’ve only really got into it in the past few years. I noticed this morning when I was swimming in Hampstead Ponds that I swam a bit of front crawl but then for the last few lengths I took my goggles off and swam head up breaststroke.
Normally I’m not a big fan of doing that because it kills my back but it’s good to experience nature and it’s handy when you need to keep an eye on the swan that is swimming too close! That is for me the great thing about it. You can just spend a long time and see so much while you are in the water.
Where do you like to swim?
Roger had his own moat and Hampstead’s Mixed Pond is my moat. I like Tooting Bec Lido a lot too but it takes a lot of stamina to get up and down that thing. I think the most I’ve ever managed is 11 lengths, about 1km, and even in the height of summer it’s cold there. But there’s something about Hampstead that is very special. I liked The West Dart too. It’s spectacular – just so clear. The more rivers I swim in the more I notice that we seem to be taking better care of them perhaps than when Roger wrote Waterlog.
Have you had to deal with any difficult situations while you’ve been swimming?
I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve not had to deal with anything too dicey while I’ve been swimming. What I’m finding is that Roger had an incredible amount of stamina and he was also incredibly brave throwing himself into different situations. Like diving off 10m boards and letting the current take him through the rocks. However, I’ve finally kicked the habit of wearing a wetsuit. I found there was a temptation to wear it the whole time.
I’ll still wear the wetsuit in the winter and it’s good if you want to stay in for a bit longer, especially around March/April time when you want to go swimming but the water’s not really warm enough to be in for more than five minutes without catching your death in a pair of trunks. Anything lower than about 13 or 14 degrees and you really start to feel cold very, very quickly without a wet suit.
What do you think about plans to turn out city’s into public spaces too?
I’m fascinated by the Thames Baths Project (to create swimming pools in The Thames). I’ve also seen Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water at Somerset House and she’s talking about a plan for a mass swim across The Thames next year. I think those kind of things are great. The more people want to get into open water the better.
Obviously The Thames has its problems but it’s not as filthy as it was even when I was a kid. I go to New York quite regularly and I know people are talking about swimming The East River which surprised me greatly because it’s not a river that I would want to swim in particularly.
Chris Price is the Editor of swimming blog, Goggleblog.com