OSS Summer Books 2023

Seven books for swimmers


The River Lea is perhaps best known as one of the most polluted rivers in the UK after Hackney Council warned people against swimming in 2020, but in her latest book, Freya Najade makes a captivating photographic argument for the importance of this much-loved wilderness in East London. 

I found myself trying to keep track of various themes. There’s movement, with green parakeets in mid-flight and weeds swept along by the current. There’s also stillness, abandoned orange peels, clothes hung up on tree branches, alluding to stories taking place somewhere else, out of shot. But I soon gave up on this approach and let myself enjoy the surprising twists and turns of these mysterious photographs. 

The Hackney Marshes also has a strong political subtext. In one photo, for example, Najade finds the word ‘UTOPIA’ stencilled across the side of a wooden bench, and in her Introduction, Rosalind Jana discusses the importance of this wilderness during the pandemic years, when Londoners came ‘looking for freedom’ from tower blocks and terraced streets. 

The Hackney Marshes by Freya Najade, Hoxton Mini Press, £30

THE TIDAL YEAR by Freya Bromley

You may already be a fan of Freya Bromley’s podcast, The Tidal Year, where she talks to all sorts of aquatic people about the reasons we swim. Her debut book recounts a year spent exploring the UK’s tidal pools with her friend, Miri, while learning to live with the loss of her brother Tom. 

The Tidal Year is about much more than tidal pools. This is a fast-paced, honest and characterful memoir which avoids cliches and laboured description in favour of Bromley’s spiky and grief-torn relationships with her mum, sister and possible love interests. Bromley captures the heroic and often ridiculous lengths we go to in search of a swim, such as one particularly desperate example in a children’s paddling pool ‘with my belly brushing the bottom’. She also takes joy in the small pleasures of ordinary life, made all the more compelling because her brother Tom will miss out on ‘the small joyous moments of becoming a young adult’. 

As a tour across the UK, from London lidos, to Grantchester Meadows, Margate, Bude, the Blue Lagoon and St. Monans, The Tidal Year will also give you plenty of ideas for where to swim next. 

The Tidal Year: A Memoir on Grief, Swimming and Sisterhood by Freya Bromley, Coronet, £16.99

UNDER WATER by Claire Walsh 

Is freediving the world’s most extreme sport? Even many experienced sea swimmers are terrified by the prospect of descending to these dark and lonely depths. But Under Water is a passionate memoir about personal transformation which in turn helps transform these dark and lonely depths into a symbol of strength and empowerment. 

Under Water starts with Walsh’s life before she discovered freediving – aged 32, back home with her parents, living out of a suitcase and struggling with depression. Desperate for change, she travels to South America where she meets fellow backpackers who can hold their breath for minutes at a time. 

Walsh starts to spend as much time as possible at the Blue Hole in Egypt, where she rediscovers a sense of joy and purpose (and also meets her future husband), before becoming the first person to represent Ireland at the World Championships. There are also some much more familiar scenes as Walsh learns to embrace the power of cold water with sunrise swims at Greystones. 

Freediving isn’t like a skydive or bungee jump. There are technical skills you first have to learn. Most important, you have to be able to equalise your breath to cope with the increasing pressure as you swim down below the surface. Walsh resists the characterisation of freedivers as ‘death-wish, thrill-seeking, underwater cowboys’. Instead, she focuses on the meditative qualities of breath control and the collaborative team spirit, or as she puts it: ‘NEVER DIVE ALONE’. 

Under Water: How Holding My Breath Taught Me to Live by Claire Walsh, Gill Books, £17.99

THE DRAW OF THE SEA by Wyl Menmuir

Published with a splash last summer, The Draw of the Sea is the latest from Booker-longlisted Wyl Menmuir. Here he discovers fascinating slivers of life in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles which help explore the everlasting question of why we’re drawn to the sea. 

There are some amazing stories here, from ‘wreckers’ still searching for small Lego men after a cargo spill in the 90s, surfers who travel 600 miles, coast to coast, on the strength of predictions about where and when US storms will reach UK shores, to artists who create vast works of beach art, only to be washed away by the next tide. 

My favourite part is where Wyl leaves Cornwall to join a traditional wooden tall ship on a voyage through the fjords of Svalbard. Wyl evokes the camaraderie on board (‘Which one of us is going to wake Shackleton, then?’) and describes the extraordinary wildlife as he spots beluga, minke, fin and even a ‘lone blue whale’, which are ‘like the glaciers’, he writes, ‘immense’ but ‘delicate’ and ‘in retreat’. 

The Draw of the Sea also recreates the sea’s calming effects, even long after you’ve finished it, perhaps because of the dreamlike present tense, but also because Wyl himself is such a light and generous presence, always more interested in the people he meets than his own personal experience. 

The Draw of the Sea by Wyl Menmuir, Quarto, £9.99


Karen Eva Carr is a classicist at Portland State University whose ambitious history of swimming seeks to challenge Renaissance ideas about the origins of swimming and move the focus beyond Europe.

Shifting Currents takes a chronological approach to the history of swimming which can feel dizzying in places as we jump between continents, all at various stages of either ‘learning’ or ‘forgetting’ how to swim.

The best moments come when Carr discusses historical artefacts, from ancient mosaics and folk stories about mermaids to satirical sketches which depict swimming as an ‘upper-class fad’. Her light touch, fast pace and short chapters help ensure we glide across the surface and don’t get stuck in the murky weeds of academic debate.

Shifting Currents will surprise and shock you as Carr explores how racism, enslavement, misogyny and class have shaped the history of swimming. There is an extraordinary amount of love and research here, along with an excellent reading list so you can continue to explore the themes and periods which speak to you most.

Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming by Karen Eva Carr, Reaktion Books, £25

THE SWIMMER by Patrick Barkham

Roger Deakin is a modern legend whose book Waterlog continues to be celebrated as a manifesto for the Right to Roam movement. You can read our full interview with his biographer Patrick Barkham here. 

Told through a mixture of Roger’s own words and interviews with the people who knew him best, The Swimmer explores the surprising editorial history of Waterlog and dives into the strong friendships, complex relationships and shapeshifting career which characterised Roger’s life on dry land. 

The Swimmer also describes the tragic circumstances of Roger’s early death in 2006, which got the OSS team wondering – what would Roger have done about the state of our rivers and coast today? 

The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin by Patrick Barkham, Penguin, £20

THE GREEN HILL by Sophie Pierce

Sophie Pierce first wrote about the importance of wild swimming after the loss of her son, Felix, for the OSS, which you can read here. This article is a mini version of The Green Hill, which explores the relationship between wild swimming and grief in a series of letters to Felix, who died of epilepsy at the age of 20.

I began reading The Green Hill with a packet of index stickers to mark the pages where Pierce describes a swim, but I quickly ran out as you can turn to almost any page of this intimate memoir and read about her adventures in the River Dart. 

The significance of water and swimming change throughout the book. Much like music, water and swimming can mirror and exaggerate our mood, so Pierce describes water as ‘comforting’, ‘cleansing’ and ‘restorative’, ‘alienating’, both an ‘absence’ but also ‘a point of connection to life itself’. 

The Green Hill is not always an easy read, but there are fantastic passages of nature writing where Pierce describes being out on the moors, looking for nightjars and swimming through bioluminescence.

The Green Hill: Letters to a Son by Sophie Pierce, Unbound, £18.99 

Patrick Naylor