English swimming in a time of unease

It took an hour to drive to Granchester. The familiar roads leading to kids football venues gave way gradually to flatter and more rural Cambridgeshire, only just in the countryside before reaching the quiet village itself, just a bump of thatched roofs leading to the meadows and the River Cam. The place reminds me of Jeffrey Archer though it understandably celebrates its associations with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Lord Byron more vigourously. Still, we didn’t linger beyond noting that we liked it. 

Grantchester on a sometimes sunny Saturday morning also brought a reconnection with the English countryside after the troubles of the past few weeks, lockdown, lockdown and more lockdown. The water is why we came, arriving exiles from the healing depths of the Fleet ponds. The Corporation of London were, and are in no hurry to liberate us cockney swimmers back to our own water, so we’ve become nomads roaming the land as far as we dare with dense, vague government guidelines and children along for the ride. 

So here was a cricket green, open fields, a church spire and at this hour just us interlopers doing our best to look innocuous stripping off by the water’s edge. Imogen, born in these parts, couldn’t get in quickly enough. I took a few seconds, letting my feet sink into to muddy bank and pondering getting emotional. I wish I really had. Then comes the wonderful familiarity of being submerged in cold water. It only took a second and I felt like a mer-man, even if I don’t look like one. The Cam doesn’t look like much but it has a current and is deeper than me and I seemed to disappear round a bend quite fast which was a bit of a jarring thrill.  

After a few minutes we were out and after flask coffee mooched along the bank, keeping distance from others until we reach the pleasant terraced streets of Newnham. This would be a nice place to live, I thought, as it turns out everybody else who has ever walked past thinks as well. I have yet to think better of the idea.

On our way back we saw three elderly women having their constitutional swim quite naked. They retreat back round a secluded bend – the ladies stretch, clearly. Before rounds of cheese and pickle sandwiches I couldn’t resist another swim, slightly longer this time and just as blissful. Winnie told me I cannot do backstroke in a river. ‘Says who?’ I replied. I felt free. On the way back to the car we threw a ball around a bit, enjoying simple things together. It was nice to feel cold like that and then warm up.  

During the following week a dam broke. Not the pond. We have to wait. But the Serpentine opened if you join the club. So I joined, as did Imogen and Marcie. After an early start it felt like a long way down there and the rewards were so-so – goose-poo and tepid water, but there was the reassuringly pondish hubbub of conversation and it was the next best thing, I tell myself. It felt both too easy a solution to the ‘pond problem’ and too hard in a world turned upside-down. It can’t last, and it doesn’t. As soon as that started it stopped, overwhelmed by swimming desperadoes like me. That was ok while it lasted. 

Better water awaited on Bank Holiday Monday in Oxford. Leaving early again – sorry offspring, again – we drove to Jericho, walk along Port Meadow and swim some widths of the Thames. This is the real thing – kids in as well, gentle current, rowers steaming by and falling in with comic regularity. An egret prodded along the foreshore opposite, a deer made a splash and a swim for it before sprinting off towards the railway tracks, like a very English and crocodile-free version of the Mara River. A walk, a picnic, another swim, the bright and endless early summer sun steaming down.  

The Men’s Pond people sent an email hinting at some version of reopening. I was scared for them and the pond in high summer. We would be better with cooling water and lessening ardour for a refreshing dip. Leave it to us nutters.* 

There’s somewhere else, too, which I’ll tell you about if you ask me very nicely that’s not far from north London’s outer suburbs and where the water is deep and cold even after a rainless Spring, where the current offers the perfect endless pool. Maybe you need to be there at 6.30 to have it all to yourself. 

*This post isn’t about the palaver of getting the ponds back open again. To be honest I think I’d better let the trauma pass a little before going back over that one. Suffice to say you can now swim in Highgate Ponds again, with a little planning and a little paying, neither of which are that painful unless you think they are really quite agonising, in which case they are. Whatever floats your, umm.

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