January and February. A month stuck. Rooted in winter’s icebox, with stubborn unshifting darkness and the deepened dread of endless lockdown. The bastard quarantine of human instinct, spirit and freedom.
There should really be no swimming. No anything. But with small guilt, small thrill I’ve crept out in the Saturday darkness to the ancient church and the river beyond the field.
Each time in the early morning, before light, each time without spectacular dawn or great reward. The roads heading north are dark but not deserted, each Saturday time alone with my thoughts both welcome and unnerving.
The first swim is on a bitter morning, well below zero, with frost on the grass tussocks and a low mist hanging over the water and the bank beyond. Three young swans, sentinel in the water, swim over to see what the fuss is about and seem put out when I jump in next to them. They drift off downstream and leave me to it. A man walks on the other side and we ignore each other. The shock of the water and the cold air stays for the weekend.
The following week it snows, then floods. Cancel the uncancellable. Second swim is turned up mud and me sinking into the riverbank, badly prepared and cursing, fighting myself getting dressed, annoyed that other people are here.
There’s a bonhomie from them at odds with the general air. I feel stupid for engaging one in conversation, confessing where I’ve come from and then reading too much into his reply.
The third visit it is raining heavily, with a biting wind. The heavy flow makes doing very much very hard and though it has its moments it is a force to claim great relief or enjoyment from something that should be a source of both. I wonder if I should just call it quits and stop for now. It would surely not be a defeat to sit and wait for the pond to reopen In the meantime I struggle along, in the water, its riddles and tangled branches, scrapping away for the sake of keeping going and bloody mindedness.
Then dawn arrives, but not instantly. On 13 February the freeze has been here for a sub-zero week, and the car temperature slips to minus three as I park up. On the drive over the sky was pink, rosy-fingered as dawn for Odysseus. I bet he was never this cold. The strong wind from the east took things lower still. Finding small shelter by the blackthorn I struggle out of too few layers and quickly drop in, here for a good time not a long time. The water feels fine but head and shoulders prickle and sting as I edge along towards the overhanging tree, dropping with clear ice. It feels like I’m in the Highland river I once stubbornly swam in every day on a sparkling Easter week in Scotland.
Back to 2021 I’m scared of getting out and sprint from the bank back to my clothes. All decorum out the window I change quickly and stomp uphill, noting with alarm my hand appearing to claw as I stop for a photo of an ungenerous sun. Hypothermia didn’t arrive and on the way home I felt like I mentally left behind what I’d just done. Now back at the front of mind it has some magic about it, but tough. If all this is makes me tougher still it doesn’t feel it, but another week, another week closer and I am still here.
Two days before Boris Johnson sets out a road map out of lockdown that everyone already knows the riverbank has warmed up by around 20 degrees. Dawn is even more spectacular than last week, and I get a little more of it. Spring’s herald is a handsome pheasant pecking round in the undergrowth, not very bothered by my presence. It’s lovely to be able to swim for a little longer and change in warmer air. Downstream I can hear a voice first exclaiming loudly on entering the water, then shouting affirmations of ‘I am grateful! I am grateful!’. I walk past him but leave him to it, happy in the water alone.
Lengthening day outpaces my earlier starts and sunrise plays out in front of me as I drive over for the last swim of February. On one side of the road a vast full moon bobs up and down over the trees as the road rises and falls, like a fast-motion night in moments. Then the sun, vast and orange, ascends through a belt of white-grey cloud. It is quite the start to the day. Walking down to the river it’s apparent how things have turned cold again, and my legs are cold, and that I have somehow forgotten my towel. All these things contribute to a panicky swim, and a feeling of unease and fear that sticks around all day. I can’t help at times like this but feel annoyed at the lengths I’ve been going to to swim, and how I’d like to stop, but almost certainly won’t. I’ve come this far. This is a one-way journey, and there is no going backwards.
On March 31 the pond opened and I went down instead of up on the first morning, the first chance. I was excited and ran the last stretch, anticipating a queue. There wasn’t one, but there was a fair crowd, and instantly the same mix of gentle conversational hubbub, faces I knew well enough to greet and some of whom greeted back. Everyone smiling, laughing and cold, many reunited and keen to get back into routines and grooves.
The water wasn’t quite the release it had been last summer, swimming again after months away. Some of the strangeness of the river was absent here, the struggles to get dressed, unsure if others would come jogging or walking by, or the complete isolation of early on a winter morning with not a soul to be seen anywhere. The fixedness of home after journeys elsewhere. A place so familiar after so much completely alien. Moments in a year swirling like tiny eddys round a half-sunken branch.