9 October 2011
Is this a ridiculous book? Some middle-class bloke has a thing for swimming wherever he sees open water and decides he wants us to know about it. At first I thought, based on the subtitle, that it was going to be a swimming-based version of John Hillaby’s ground-breaking Journey Through Britain, written in 1968 before you couldn’t move for long-distance hikers. And yes, once he leaves his house – sorry, moat – in East Anglia Deakin starts on the Scilly Isles, moves on to St Michael’s Mount near Penzance, and you think he’s going to make his way systematically north to John O’ Groats. But no. He picks and chooses the places he goes to, seemingly at random. And it’s very pleasant for him. And if I was being snobbish about it – as if – I’d complain that the cultural references give the game away. We’ve had Titty from Swallows and Amazons, Deakin’s childhood imaginary Famous Five friends, The Wind in the Willows. Wherever Deakin’s open water is, we know we’re on the safest imaginable territory.
So I hate it, right? Not at all, in fact. It’s like a stroll around, say, a National Trust property, preferably one with a pond or river. And just as, basically, you know where you are with the National Trust, basically you know where you are in Waterlog. There are very pleasant, vaguely familiar-seeming places – I seem to know quite a few of the locations he chooses – but often from a frog’s-eye-view. Or you get the sort of quirky local history you find in most travel writing. Or you get Deakin in deep nostalgia mode, pining for a golden age – an era he has researched carefully – when he wouldn’t have been the only one in the water. You can get a chapter based mainly on one or other of these main threads, but usually you get all three together: Deakin is as determined to be as unconstrained in his writing as he is in choosing his locations or getting his kit off.
Places I recognise: the Scillies – and the unexpected coldness of the sea off islands that otherwise feel almost Mediterranean; the Cam (or Granta or whatever) from Grantchester to Baits Bite Lock – although I’m only familiar with the water from next to it, rather than in it; Ely and the ubiquity of the waterways of the Fens; and those high-up tarns in Snowdonia, only one of which I ever swam in because I was with my brother who is almost as fanatical a swimmer as Deakin. The reason they only feel vaguely familiar is that frog’s-eye-view: the fauna is like something in a David Attenborough film and the flora, in all its precisely catalogued detail, could have been painted by Millais. Deakin likes catalogues.
The history is most engaging when it relates to swimming. In one early chapter Deakin decides to spend pages on the antics of an ancient angling club, which I didn’t find engaging at all, and we get a lesson in eel-catching (in Ely, naturally) that somehow doesn’t hit the mark as surely as Graham Swift’s evocation in Waterland. But as soon as we’re in the swimming culture of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, we’re away. If we believe him, there was hardly a stretch of open water in England that didn’t have its swimming club, its annual races and its traditional midwinter dips. He seeks out old lidos or more informal swimming-holes, regretting how they’ve been ruined by concrete or disuse, or have entirely disappeared.
And he seeks out kindred spirits, either to accompany him on his trips to find Welsh meres and other obscure spots to get wet in, or who have their own places where the old magic has still somehow been kept alive. There’s the outdoor swimming club in Bristol with a waiting list as long as that of an exclusive golf club – and, joy of joys, there’s the family who live like amphibians in a riverside mill where they can keep their feet wet even indoors when the floodwaters rise.
It’s all ok. It’s entirely alien to me, because I was always the kid who wouldn’t get in the water because I was too nesh – a word meaning, where I come from, scared of cold water. Except… Deakin several times compares his brand of wild swimming with cycling and walking, slightly illicit activities that set you apart from most people. This I can identify with. Cycling in some of our more car-bound cities, an activity I enjoy, is as rare as Deakin’s swimming. And there’s an activity he doesn’t mention: running. You’re as outlandish in a vest and shorts among the hikers in our national parks, especially in winter when they are dressed in layers of fleece and gore-tex, as Deakin skinny-dipping in water that most people try to stay out of.
…which take us half-way down Hell Gill, and two-thirds of the way through the book. Our Roger continues to meander his way around the southern half of England – aside from that brief jaunt to Snowdonia early on, he doesn’t go north of the Wash until Chapter 18 – and does the same sorts of things as before: swims in unusual places, talks and swims with other people who like to take a dip, tells us how different our rivers and watering-holes used to be. I have a digital version of this book, so I’ve been able to check out an impression I have that most of the dates mentioned in that wistful tone of his are in the 1920s and 30s. He mentions those two decades 27 times between them. On average, he mentions the decades after that four times each. It’s as though he feels he was born a lifetime too late for the best times.
Usually I’m ok with his rose-coloured glasses: who isn’t nostalgic for a time before all the shit that came after? But one factual error annoyed me, and it’s to do with his blinkered middle-class perspective. He is describing the swimming pool in Ingleton built mainly by miners and he thinks back to how ‘in no other industry was communal, ritual bathing such a deeply essential part of life; there were always showers or baths at the head of the pit.’ What? What? He doesn’t realise that they obviously built the pool because the only alternative was the tin bath in the kitchen at home. If he’d read anything outside of Enid Blyton and Daphne du Maurier he might know that most mines didn’t provide pit-head baths before Nationalisation in (spit) the 1940s.
Anyway. He visits some more engagingly recognisable places. There’s Cornwall, where he sees a water-based performance given by the Kneehigh theatre company who liked to keep it real back in the 1990s. But, like so many of us, they’ve moved on to dry land now: I saw one of their summer productions this year at Asylum, their big-top venue a long way from any water. He also visits Penzance, describing the combination of working town and not-quite tourist hub exactly as I remember it, then other towns not as I remember them at all because he’s always so far out to sea. At Fowey he swims across the estuary, and has fun with that illicit aspect of wild swimming he keeps coming back to: the coastguards force him back, and later give him a mild telling off when he goes again with some sailing friends escorting him. In Deakin-land there are always sailing friends, or people who live close to some of the most glorious places in England.
Cue story – one of many similar ones – of how people who lived near water in, approximately, the 1920s and 30s used to teach their children to swim. In Fowey you had to be able to swim the estuary by the time you finished at primary school, and there was an annual communal event to celebrate this. At other places it was something else, but similar. And he goes to the lido at Penzance, which leads to a catalogue of lidos built (guess when), which were the height of glamorous outdoor living then but now, mostly… etc.
But most chapters are spent in East Anglia. We get more about the industrial-scale Fenland drainage systems of the Bedford Levels and the Denver Sluice, which I know about because we lived in and around Ely for ten years. Ironically, he doesn’t get the Bedford Levels at their best, because that’s in winter when they are flooded or, as in the winter of 1985, iced over to a thickness of five inches or more. A walk on the ice, with the distant embankments an insistent 15 or so feet above surface level, is one of my most vivid memories of Fenland – that and the waters, stretching for miles on either side of the railway viaduct, viewed from a moving train.
But I realise I’m doing what I often do as I read this book: comparing Deakin’s water-bound perspective with a different one I prefer. It happens in Dunwich while he’s still stuck in East Anglia, and it happens again when he finally decides to pluck up the courage to drive north. The first place he visits is Water-cum-Jolly in Derbyshire, which I’ve already been to half-a-dozen times this year, but running, not swimming. The mill pool is at the lower end of Miller’s Dale, my favourite dale anywhere, and the views down on to the river from the valley sides which rise steeply from it are staggeringly beautiful. Deakin, poor fool (I’m thinking), has never seen that. (The second place in Derbyshire he visits is the pool at Hathersage and the café next to it. I go there often – the café, not the pool – because my dad likes it.)
Have I said enough? There are a few chapters in the Pennines in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and sometimes I do begin to envy that extra dimension his wanderings are given when he gets into a beck or under a waterfall. Or, against all the rules – not for him the equipment that make pot-holers look like walking ironmongers – he attempts Hell’s Gill alone without telling anyone. He’s describing a water-filled experience I can hardly begin to imagine, and he makes it extraordinary. This, along with the river-surfing he tries on Dartmoor – inevitably, he knows people who live there – almost makes me want to take it up. I do know someone who likes to swim in the Wharfe at exactly the spot near Bolton Abbey that Deakin describes, so maybe I should think about joining him one time. I have the photo of him in the water, but I was on dry land when I took it. But I’m talking about me again. I’ll try harder to focus on the book next time, honest.
Chapter 22 to the end
Is there anything more to be said? Deakin carries on as before, mainly in the bottom right-hand corner of England. Ok, he manages a couple of chapters in Scotland, one in Somerset… but otherwise it’s more or less all within 60 or 70 miles of London. And I mention London because Deakin does. After – hang on – 31 chapters, and after admitting that he’d ‘never set out to make a comprehensive tour of the nation’s swimming-holes’, it suddenly occurs to him that he hasn’t visited any cities. Why am I not surprised? And why am I not surprised by his decision to correct the imbalance by spending the next two chapters not only within 100 miles of central London, but within five?
At a reading group discussion about the book it was generally agreed that this is a book – no Deakin-style pun intended – to dip into rather than read straight through. Personally, had I not read it all within the past week I would have put it down and not picked it up again. Not that I want to complain too much: in writing this book Deakin lent his voice to the campaign for more access to our wild places. I always think of moors and coastlines when I hear that phrase, but Deakin reminds us that there are a lot of barriers to ordinary people’s access to rivers. You can now get from Baits Bite Lock to Jesus Lock in Cambridge on the south bank of the river, with very little deviation; you couldn’t in the 1990s.
But as I read the final third, or whatever, I kept being irritated. The writing is ok, but pedestrian. In the first paragraph of a chapter referencing Dickens, we get a sentence in which not only is ‘a blanket of mist’ – yawn – ‘hastily thrown back by a burst of early sunshine’ but ‘boats riding at anchor looked like Pooh-sticks.’ This chapter – Great Expectations – might as well stand for everything I find not quite satisfactory about this book. Deakin meets someone for what is clearly a prearranged swim, in which he is going to be accompanied by someone in a boat as he swims to an island in the Medway. There we’ll get some history – a 19th Century fortress, ‘one of the most impressive historic buildings in England, and certainly one of the most neglected’ – and a man he can share an hour or two with, an artist who uses found materials for his canvases and uses a Deakin-style title for his installation: Time and Tide. Can we go home now?
Nope. We get more lido swimming, more cold water swimming – it’s autumn now – and visits to more seaside spots where Deakin can be patronising about the working classes. We’ve already had Jaywick, with its rickety chalets in rows with street signs reflecting ‘the cockney genius… for naming things.’ Now we get Camber Sands, where Deakin must be ‘the only person lacking a dog, and the only man without a bunch of keys dangling….’ Later ‘all’ – that’s all – ‘the mums sat out at white plastic tables smoking cigarettes.’ This is the laziest kind of travel writing: sit comfortably with your prejudices and make clever generalisations about the locals.
I’ve said enough. It’s perfectly ok – and I’ve just remembered one passage in Chapter 25 in which Deakin gives the best description of what’s so good about cycling for pleasure that I’ve read in years…. But as with another rather lazily written travelogue I read for a book group – Narrow Dog to Indian River by Terry Darlington – I feel it would work far better as a series of five 15-minute readings on Radio 4. But don’t listen to me, I’m just bitter. Maybe it’s the thought of diving into those chilly holes and ditches, which is no more attractive than it was before I started.