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Wild Swimming

On the first sweltering hot day of the year, M and I went to a weir for a wild swim. It was one of those long, languid days of summer. Such days are rare, and all the more precious. Days that bear the spirit of summer itself. Like summer has been caught in a net, and with reverence, pressed, dried, and stored in a box of totems. Every now and then, when sentimentality strikes, the box is opened, and the contents laid before the curator, like a moving picture. Perhaps, those long summer days that belong to the past are not so different to today. Time is a charlatan. It casts a soft, diffused light over the past, beautifying even the ugliest memories.

Kate Phoenix sat on a wooden gate overlooking a meadow with yellow flowers
Kate Phoenix's hand, holding a stem of cow parsley against a meadow with yellow flowers

I was lucky enough to have a childhood with lots of truly nostalgic days. My grandparents’ garden was the stage for these particular memories. There were bulging red clots of strawberries, crushed between puppy fat fingers, tall sheaves of corn waving at the sun, carrots pulled up and consumed with salt. Always salt. It was my grandpa who showed me how. 

There were other summers. Summers of sun searing through black nylon school tights, because nobody showed their legs without a tan, preferably fake. White was a sin. Cut grass, the individual stems stabbing through black tights, like tiny javelins. Furious sneezing. A summer of falling for a different him, in a different life, followed by a cruel summer, where we were mocked by a punishing sun.

I’m new to wild swimming, in the sense that I have been doing it since I was a child, but haven’t recently had the dedication needed to seek out the really remote areas. I saw an article in a popular magazine about the UK’s best wild swimming spots, and naively pictured myself as the first to break the surface on a still, solitary expanse of water. Not so. 

Instead, we traipsed through a field that was peppered with barbeque smoke and late teens, clutching bottles of beer and spliffs. The hunger of lust. Of friendships carved in shallow sand. Knowing the tide will flood in and wash it all away. Knowing the tide will wash out, and you’ll be empty, but still young. I felt a small pang for the visceral state of adolescence. It’s rawness. We stop feeling as much, or we start feeling too much. Perhaps, all of our young years are an effort to feel. We eventually ditch the ephemerality, the instability, because the pain of loss is no longer just a pinprick. It evolves into a fire that threatens to consume us. 

As there were not so many people in the weir, I swam out until there was a clear expanse of water in front of me. The current gently yielded to my slow progress against it, flowing past and over the weir. Stippled sunlight on water, trees bending tenderly to the weir’s edge, the echoes of exuberance fading into the background. And all the time, the sound of water rushing, and falling and colliding on the weir below. Cleansing my head. Slowing the onrush of thoughts, until they came orderly, just one by one.

A river with trees on both banks and a weir in the distance
Kate Phoenix wild swimming at Warleigh Weir near Bath.

Wild, cold water brings me peace. It has to be wild. Always wild. The Olympic size lido, a few minutes from home, doesn’t cut it. There is ritual in scrambling down a bank, and making the first intrepid dip with your toe, into gelid water. Sinking deeper and deeper, until the water meets thigh, waist, breastbone, and then the final commitment, spluttering and flailing wildly in an effort to evade the cold. There must be sudden descents and reeds that arrest and detain. A faint sense of peril, of the unexpected. Allowing the river to leave its mark, its token in the memory. Adapting to the demands of a force, not entirely manmade. Communing with the eternal, something bigger than self. Something greater than known. Something more than can be seen.

I like to sit on the edge of the weir and feel the water hurtling beside me, its roar obliterating the world left behind on the bank. It’s how I drown my sorrows, such as they are. The onward force, the rushing, the exploding apart, and the falling together. The sheer constant power of nature, in every corner under the sun. Unstoppable and eternal. I learn from its temerity.

Kate Phoenix walking on a towpath next to the Kennet and Avon Canal near Bath