Where I swim, in Färskesjön Lake in Sweden, the birches come right down to the water, except where the granite banks curve lazily down into the clear green. Färskesjön is not a wide lake, maybe a kilometre, but deep apparently, bottomless some say. On a bright sunlit day, the water flashes in the breeze, with patches of darkness as clouds scud over to the south and the Baltic at Torhamn. Today, there are tall thunderheads barrelling lazily upwards in the distance.
The slight trepidation comes with the liberty to wade out, deepening till it shelves. You dive and resurface fresh, waves slapping their awkward rhythm, you sink into the breath and the pull of the water, watching the sky and the trees in their slow progress as you move across the lake. There is little that is like this. This is the free space.
The Swedish have a concept, enshrined in law, “allemansrätten” that means the freedom to roam, on land or water.
As long as you are not encroaching on the direct space of someone’s home, you are free to roam. In the UK, though this right exists in places, it is still fragile. Our free spaces remain contested.
Free spaces are not just a question of physical access however. How free are we to access them as we wish to, whether alone or in groups, suited, or in skins, or skinny? The free spaces we have need protection from those who would enclose them, shutter them, regulate them and bring them “indoors”.
There are many of us who roam now, free spirits who share these spaces, build friendships around them, and we don’t need much, we share advice, information, support each other, come together to swim as a group at times. We are not an army, not incorporated, and we don’t really need organising, or accounting for.
We are a looser thing, a collection of collectives, tenuously joined by the open sky, sharing something nebulous, the way the rain feels from the water, and sunlight through the green, and the spray of the chop, or looking up to see ragged columns of rain drifting over the bay.
Or the exhilaration – or not – of the “whale monster’d sea bottom”, fathoms below. And sometimes, cake. But we do have a society (The Outdoor Swimming Society), which as it ought to be, is free to join and participate in. A society that aims to defend our spaces, and our rights, and support our activity.
But the society appears to be more than that. It is a social space too, a nexus for people, places, and swims. Spots are shared, tips are discussed, swim-training methods analysed and high elations communicated.
In a late 60s radio interview Timothy Leary, one of the “leaders” of the counter culture at the time, was asked “So what do you do after you ‘Turn On’?” His reply: “Find the others”. Once, like Leary, you encounter something that you connect with, in our case our free spaces, swimming under the sky, the next step is, for some at least, to connect up with the others who share that connection.
The OSS provides a framework for that sense of connection. It is not there to direct, control or regulate outdoor swimming, though it may help us to resist attempts to do so. What it does most of all is help us to “find the others”, and it helps us swim together.
For most that is all we want, and most of the time it is all we need!