Boxing Day in Devon, when battered, bruised and frozen swimmers on a charity fundraiser were reduced to wounded wrecks, only points up the madness of the modern phenomenon of “wild swimming”. To be frank, it’s hardly surprising that inexperienced open-air swimmers were caught out. Used to balmy (well, relatively speaking) British summertime seas, they were taken unawares by rough and very cold water. Many observers criticised the participants for risking not only their own safety but also that of those who had to rescue them. Some people might say the same about David Cameron’s watery antics this week, as he waded and dived in the Chadlington Great Brook Run.
But isn’t there something heroic, empathetic, even, in these antics? Aren’t we really trying to reconnect with a lost sense of nature? Our lives are generally so remote from the natural world. We live under constant surveillance, forever prey to digital demands, bathed in the pixel glow of electronic screens. The elemental alternative of cold, open water – and all that it represents – is the ultimate antidote to that consuming artificiality. All the more so in the dark days of the year’s end, when those same elements seem both threatening and, yet, strangely evocative.
Indeed, I’ve just returned from my own daily swim in the Solent. This Christmas Eve, I even swam at 6am, before it was light. The cold, the freedom – even the sight of a glamorous, fully lit liner coming into Southampton Water in the distance – all combined to make it a thrilling experience.
Like all addicts, this obsession began on a small scale, all the more so for the lateness of my conversion. I was in my mid-twenties before I learnt to swim. I graduated from inner-city swimming baths to outdoor lidos, then to the open sea; at first in the summer, then into the autumn, becoming progressively more adventurous. I felt a kind of freedom in going in the opposite direction of the temperature, from benevolent spring afternoons to the barbaric sharpness of a midwinter dawn before the sun has even hit the water.
Now I swim wherever and whenever I can. A boulder-strewn Yorkshire river, dark on a midsummer afternoon, the peaty water the colour of strong tea. A New Forest pool, deserted at midday except by electric blue damsel flies and lumbering cattle at the end of its clayish banks. In Plymouth Sound, among long strands of kelp and bladderwrack clinging to the rocks, threatening to entangle limbs.
This November, I swam off Brighton’s urban shingle, under the skeletal remains of its pier while clouds of starlings circled at sunset, the waves so high and deceptively strong that I was pulled inexorably out to sea and struggled to return to the shore, thrown head over heels for my presumption. I remember thinking, in that instant of inversion, how strange it would be to die here, yards from a dual carriageway in a busy seaside town. Out of season in Watergate Bay, north Cornwall, I lingered too long in the surf, and emerged to be told by a friend that I’d turned the colour of denim.
My coldest swim was one mid-February morning on Neck Island off Maine’s drowned-mountain coastline, with its great flat glaciated stones in lieu of a beach and water that seemed to have come straight from the Arctic. The sea was still and clear and intensely cold like an over-iced martini. I swim in storms, in wind and rain. Eventually they’re all the same, because eventually you’re in the state of wetness and some degree of cold wherever you are in the northern hemisphere.
Not that any of these immersions should be taken for granted. At no point can one forget the possibility of something bad, for all the beauty of what might be all around. The uncaring sea gives as well as takes life. Who would be surprised that their fishermen and sailors declined to learn to swim, since to be lost overboard, even within sight of the shore, and to struggle uselessly against the waves would only prolong the agony? You can only be alone out there. But you are also liberated. And that, surely, is a great British tradition in itself – with many honourable and eccentric precedents.
The Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne was wont to throw himself into the chilly waves off the Isle of Wight, sado-masochistically “ pressed up against their soft fierce bosoms and … sharp embraces”. In 1810, Lord Byron famously swam the Bosphorous Straits at the Dardanelles, duly revisiting his heroic deed in his epic poem “Don Juan”. And in 1725, Benjamin Franklin, then a printer’s apprentice in London, would leap in the Thames, “performing many Feats of Activity, both upon & under Water, that surpriz’d & pleas’d those to whom they were Novelties”. (Oddly enough, David Owen – erstwhile leader of the SDP – also used to take a daily swim in the same river from his house in Limehouse.)
The tradition continues unabated. Wild swimming is more popular than ever, thanks in part to the writings of “new naturalists” such as Robert Macfarlane and the late lamented Roger Deakin, and such marathon-swimming celebrities as David Walliams. But for me, it is a meditative pursuit, not a sport. Indeed, in my more monastic moments, I empathise with the Dark Age St Cuthbert, who would pray all night, up to his neck in the North Sea, returning only at dawn – to find a pair of otters waiting to dry his feet with their fur. Sadly, my south coast strand lacks such marine mammals. But I did once find a grey seal pop up next to me. I think we were as surprised as each other.
Philip Hoare’s new book, ‘The Sea Inside’, will be published by Fourth Estate in June.