December

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Night swim early in the month

A week of dark moments. Three swims. The last on Saturday morning at 7am, on the last day before a couple of months of 7.30 openings to compensate for later dawns. I’ve left the house alone, my family in sleeping silence, only a light under Harry’s door suggesting he’s awake and quietly reading. The roads are near empty and Millfield Lane is still, apart from a fellow swimmer waiting until the last moment in his black cab. An ever-receding part of me still asks what I am doing here. This question is easily enough ignored.

Inside the compound, even though it is still just before seven, three men are already swimming, and I walk through to join them. They must leave the water while I am in but I don’t notice them. The only light is the bright lamps of the compound beyond the reach of which is impenetrable still-night. The lifeguards are eating cereal beneath their own thin illumination. A swimmer looms out of the dark, steaming and grinning. Out on the jetty it is very noticeably not near dawn, and I have not warmed up, but I dive in anyway and puff through the water with no-one else in it. Rain falls and sparks the water into life, and me as well. Things move in the darkness, cormorants, terns, the week rolls past my eyes, hard and testing, the water uncompromising, unwelcoming, compelling. The wind whirls an eddy across the dark surface. Out, then in again, then finally back into the changing area, then out onto the heath.

Shivers all the way home. Still feeling cold at 8.34pm, and thinking about the morning.

12 December

I did not relish the prospect of today’s swim, nor did I enjoy it particularly. But I needed it. The wind is cold, the air is cold, the water is cold. The sun is behind a cloud and not playing today. I arrive in the mood for a scrap, bruised leg from falling off my bike, and get one.

I get out and attempt to stare down the east wind blowing across the water. It carries on and I stomp off, having fought to a standstill and not won, but not lost.

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21-22 December

This has been a magical December, with a clutch of pre-dawn swims curving to and then away from the shortest day.

Winter Solstice itself brings an evening visit to the Lido under a bright full moon, almost the only light on the water. It is wonderful to dive in and swim some lengths with Imogen, who in her gloves and boots looks quite the part. She is a winter swimmer who has effortlessly taken to the water this year and is a much better swimmer than me. This festive occasion is enlivened by a lifeguard sampling a sausage roll dipped in brandy butter. Seemingly thinking the condiment is hummus, we enjoy his very north Londonish confusion.

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The following morning, but before dawn at the end of the longest night I am at the pond again, walking round the paths on the perimeter waiting for it to open. Early Saturdays have become unmissable and I shall miss the dark drives over, the silence and emptiness of the Heath, buying the Times on the way home and relishing the crosswords to come.

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There are only a handful of swimmers at this time. They all seem to know each other well. Perhaps that is what another ten years will get me though I am happy in my own company and probably show it. One other man puffs around, awkwardly front-crawling, head above the water. His slow progress is undeniable though. Mine is of a similar pace, and progress is somewhat shocked by even the marginal change in the water temperature. As ever, the pond is colder and softer than the lido. In the half-light the brightness of the winter snowberries catches my eye.

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Christmas Eve, swimming with a pale dawn starting to glow in the corner of the sky, another shining moon with its distant landscape visible from the water. Sometimes it tries to hide behind bare, leafless trees but remains a sentinel on this circuit. Compliments of this season. The usual gentle flow of morning swimmers fools me into thinking that this is a normal day. It is a shock then at how empty the roads are running down to Kentish Town, and it becomes apparent that I’m the only one in a hurry to get things done this Monday morning. Nothing is open. The Thames still dozes with only a pair of ferries ghosting round below Blackfriars Bridge, the moon still there, a constant companion of late.

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