Books: Tales of the riverbank

State killjoys have robbed us of our right to splash. Ken Worpole demands it back; Waterlog: a swimmer's journey through Britain by Roger Deakin Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99, 358pp
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TAKING HIS cue from John Cheever's classic story, "The Swimmer", film-maker and environmentalist Roger Deakin decided to swim his way across Britain in the summer of 1996. Partly to exorcise the hurt of a failed love affair, but equally to indulge a lifelong passion for "wild swimming", Deakin drove and cycled the length and breadth of Britain, seeking out dozens of rivers, lakes, coastal waters, mountain tarns and public lidos in which to immerse himself and reflect upon the state of the riparian nation.

It was a high-risk strategy, not so much for the dangers of death by water-borne disease or drowning, but because it would be difficult to better Charles Sprawson's cult study of swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, published in 1992. There was also the danger that Deakin's notebook could have ended up as just another obsessional confessional. Fortunately, Waterlog is a triumph of topographical and naturalist writing; and where Sprawson's impulses are Hellenistic and Byronic, Deakin is more Anglican and Hardyesque. Sprawson was in his element in the Hellespont; Deakin seems ultimately at home thrashing through the iron-grey waters off Norfolk's Holkham Sands.

There are few pleasures quite as sensual and revivifying than swimming in inland waters, yet decades of pollution, privatisation and official disapproval have reduced the numbers of people who opportunistically take a dip to a tiny minority. The commodification of leisure and sport has not only cut a swathe through the traditional, and environmentally more benign, pleasures of walking, cycling and swimming, but has had literary consequences as well.

There is a strong and vibrant tradition within English letters of writing about "the open air". One of the greatest of such writers, Richard Jefferies, even published a book with that title. For the Victorians, topographical explorations, together with anthologies of hedgerow jottings and accounts of life on the open road, allowed writers to explore an empire of the senses disallowed by prohibitions against personal and sexual explorations (those other inland voyages). In the 1930s, a revived cult of fresh air and natural exercise started out as an adventure in open-air democracy, but ended up in an unhappy melange of eugenics, institutional in-fighting, and nationalist irredentism.

Deakin gives gentle and intricate descriptions of landscapes and waters as diverse as the chalk streams of Hampshire, the icy mountain lakes in Snowdonia, the bracing seas off the Scilly Isles and the broads of East Anglia. They are underpinned by a seriousness about what is happening to the despoliation of Britain's natural waters.

The blandly re-named Environment Agency (until recently, the National Rivers Agency) seems determined to discourage swimming wherever possible. Alarmist notices everywhere about the threat of Weil's disease - statistically insignificant, according to Deakin - have been effective in stamping out the romance of inland bathing. Now that John Prescott has announced that the preservation of the songbird population should be considered a performance indicator of the urban quality of life, perhaps the Environment Agency ought to monitor the presence of open-air bathing clubs (of which there used to be hundreds) as a measure of its success in keeping Britain's rivers, lakes and coastal waters clean.

Yet, in his travels, Deakin still comes across strong local swimming traditions. In an annual rite de passage in Fowey, Cornwall, all local 10-year-olds, greased with Vaseline, swim across the harbour at high tide while crowds cheer on the quays, as a way of ensuring that there are fewer deaths by drowning in this waterside community.

Water, as we know, is not a commodity but a gift, and swimming one of the free pleasures of the bodily life. To weave environmental and cultural concerns so deftly together in this enchanting and original travel book is a real achievement. It is enhanced by Deakin's subtle exploration of the gift relationships engendered by the pleasures of the open air and the bracing waters.

Ken Worpole recently edited "Richer Futures: towards a new politics" (Earthscan)