January sinks too slowly into February, an altogether more sprightly proposition. With it the succession of drab, mild days is shoved out of the way and replaced with clear, sharp cold mornings, a north-east wind with extra chill and bursts of sunshine to be grabbed when the moment arises. It feels like winter, and the end of winter. The snowdrops and crocuses on the corner of Merton Lane and West Hill are asserting themselves. Daffodils and birthday cards are not far away. First there is ice.
Because all this is happening I have to swim with a little more frequency. So on a Wednesday I escape to the pond. Swimming during the working week is like being on the outer reaches of the tube. It’s quiet, a little dreamlike, with unexpected space and silence. Two lifeguards look out over the water. The water lurks around 4c. The sun feels closer than it does during the darkest months, but the bright air, matching the frigid depths, doesn’t do much for the chills.
Once in, and whooping as usual, there’s the sky to enjoy. It’s huge and blue. Or white. Or grey. A giant A380 climbs drowsily out of Heathrow and flies silently above my head. The sun half-shines down on the green-black water. I can see my fingers slowly turning a shade of pink. The diving board, marked by birdshit, throws me back in again, and then that’s that.
While I’m getting changed a fellow swimmer notes my enthusiasm, smiles and says ‘So, you really like the deep cold. Ha!’
I find on leaving that I can’t quite do what I planned, which was to run back up to Highgate. A combination of legs and lungs won’t go that far today. So I walk-run, looking at everything so familiar yet so often seen through different eyes. I’ll be back twice more this week, chasing the depths, the deep cold.
Friday’s scheduled swim arrives. I wake up to the insistent thumping of rain on the skylight, and run out slightly reluctantly into the rain and the cold, but not as cold as earlier in the week. It’s dry exiting Highgate tube, and I fool myself into thinking things are milder generally, but the tell-tale 4c on the board posts a warning I don’t really heed. Below 5c things get a step harder. I decide to plough on and do what I usually do. At the mid-point of the swim I feel a long way from the jetty. The heron is hunched over in the far distance. No-one else is here while I swim. As I leave the water someone I know arrives. He’s got a great booming laugh and reminds me to smile about life and laugh along with him. It’s funny to keep bumping into him.
Come Saturday the sun is shining bright and clear but the air is even colder. Imogen suggests I take the tube to the pond rather than fuss and stress over getting to kids out of the house. The kids beam at this information and I feign hurt feelings. Maybe I arrive warm. I cross the matting which covered in rime and turn to face the water. My feet feel like they’re slipping in off the icy sideboards and I dive in more slowly than usual. The water feels fantastic all the way round. And then that’s it. Come Sunday the spell is broken for now for a few days. On Thursday, back again, another gent remarks, grinning, that February is ‘the coldest, the hardest. March is pretty bad too.’
The water, the weather, the air, the cold. Winter is blasted away this way.