Deakin: the man, the moat and the legacy

Patrick Naylor talks to Patrick Barkham about his new biography of the Waterlog author

Roger Deakin, proposal, May 1996, ‘The Waters of the Wondrous Isle – Swimming Round Britain

I have been thinking how best to approach a book about native swimming.
I think it should be an aquatic version of Cobbett’s Rural Rides, with a similarly discursive style. I would keep the itinerary as simple as possible, swimming or dipping as cheerfully as an otter in fresh or salt water …
I spent some hours in the Map Room at the University Library in Cambridge the other day, hoping for the same experience as John Cheever’s Neddy Merrill in ‘The Swimmer’: ‘He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country.’
I concluded that although I could certainly swim across Sunningdale or the stockbroker pools of Leatherhead like that, or combine hiking and swimming across parts of Wales, the Lakes and Scotland, where you could more or less draw leylines through the blue marks on the map, most of Britain’s interesting swimming places are more haphazard in their distribution.
I think I should go by car, and my course should meander, like the Severn, with many a detour to visit this or that fen, village bathing hole, beach, waterfall, moat, burn, pool, creek, sandbar, cove, tarn, even the odd interesting swimming pool …
This would be, above all, a personal journey; a kind of quest for a remaining sense of a land and a people with a deep instinctive affinity for water …
I am not proposing an attempt on The Guinness Book of Records. Returning to Cheever’s swimmer, my impulse is essentially the same as his: ‘The day was beautiful, and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.’

As to a title, I’m sure it would come to light in the course of the work.

Is it surprising, based on this proposal, that Waterlog ever got published – let alone become the best-seller which helped reimagine our relationship with the natural world? The book sounds unclear in Deakin’s own mind, as though he came up with the idea “the other day” after “some hours” spent looking at maps. The “discursive style” suggests an aimless and “haphazard” narrative. There is also his blasé confidence that a title would “come to light” in the course of his work. And is there a contradiction, when, in the same sentence, Deakin describes the book as both a “personal journey” and an outward-bound “quest” to discover a “land” of water-lovers? 

Fans of Waterlog will recognise Deakin’s characterful voice, his long digressions and tendency to move between genres, such as travelogue, memoir, social history and nature writing. The “haphazard” route also alludes to the awkward plot. When I meet Patrick Barkham, the author of a new biography of Deakin, for a swim near his home in Norfolk to talk about his subject’s complex personality and the legacy of Waterlog, even he admits, in a hushed whisper: “I still think Waterlog could do with an edit. It becomes a little bit repetitive and Roger just does too many swims”. So I want to understand how this potential disaster became the book we all know and love. In short, what are the secrets of its success? 

Deakin grew up in Hatch End, a small suburb teetering between post-war London and the English countryside. His parents were lower-middle class, but he won a direct grant to a posh boys’ school before studying at Cambridge in the early 60s. Barkham suggests this ability to “cross boundaries” and “resist categories” became a defining feature of his life. Swimming is even described as a “crossing of boundaries” at the start of Waterlog. Deakin went on to have a shapeshifting career as an ad man, English teacher, filmmaker and activist, and throughout his adult life, he continued to move between London and Walnut Tree Farm, his beloved home in Suffolk, as though reluctant, perhaps even unable, to make a long-term commitment to a single version of himself. “He wrote in his notebooks in the 70s about feeling lonely at Walnut Tree Farm,” Barkham explains. “The reality is: he went back to London all the time, and the journey wasn’t as long or slow as it would be for you and me, because he drove incredibly fast – 100mph on quiet country roads.” 

Roger Deakin takes a bath. Photo: The Roger Deakin Estate.

This eclectic and rebellious sensibility presents problems – or opportunities – for a biographer. Barkham began writing a “conventional” account and got 90,000 words down thanks to a writers’ retreat in Switzerland. But he worried the book didn’t properly reflect Deakin’s “fluid spirit”. “I wasn’t in crisis,” he explains. “I felt so familiar with the material, as though I could see it from all angles, and felt now is the time to experiment”. So he booked himself into the Shepherd’s Hut at Walnut Tree Farm (now an Air B&B) and “had a go at writing as Roger”. 

Deakin was a compulsive diarist. His later notebooks have been published as Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. There is also an archive of his writing at the University of East Anglia. But Barkham found even more material, a “treasure trove”, on an abandoned computer in the loft. He began to study these diaries and notebooks, learning how to write like Deakin before realising he could “let Roger tell his own story” – using the first person to add context, link separate passages and write up the stories which Deakin’s friends had shared with him in the process of research. He admits this process is tricky to explain, but says: “If you’re reading a bit of Roger and there’s something slightly boring and factual, then it’s probably me. Later on,” he adds, “when it comes to girlfriends, I can’t risk putting my voice into any of that, so I’m just quoting directly from his notebooks and letters”.  

I ask what are the key features of Deakin’s voice and Barkham points towards his tendency to romanticise, idealise, even fantasise; a tendency which is at the heart of Waterlog. The famous moat is a good example. I imagine this moat, which Barkham suggests is more of a pond, as a dark green swamp. I’ve driven past Walnut Tree Farm many times and always found it secretive, set back from the road, hidden behind overgrown trees. Barkham has actually swum there and assures me the water is fresh, with a green tinge from duckweed rather than toxic algae. But Deakin makes the pond sound otherworldly and divine, with exploding raindrops, water sprites and a calm reflection of the heavens. 

Barkham points towards [Deakin’s] tendency to romanticise, idealise, even fantasise; a tendency which is at the heart of Waterlog. The famous moat is a good example. Barkham has actually swum there and assures me the water is fresh… But Deakin makes the pond sound otherworldly and divine, with exploding raindrops, water sprites and a calm reflection of the heavens. 

This tendency to idealise and exaggerate continues throughout the book. Listen to how he gets in the water: “I plunged”, “dived”, “leapt”, “threw myself in”, “I woke to the beginnings of a fine day and bathed in the lake”. There is no friction or resistance in his experience of water or the natural world. Yet Deakin was travelling back to Suffolk after each swim to look after his mum, Gwen, who was very ill and died while he was in Northumberland. He doesn’t let this reality alter the fantasy world of Waterlog, despite the “personal journey” he promised in his proposal. Nevertheless, Barkham suggests you can “feel the melancholy” in this part of the book. Deakin stands in a phone box, sheltering from the rain, and describes a rainbow which appears above the “heavenly castle”: “It was absurdly magnificent and sad”. 

Barkham believes Deakin’s voice is also full of “metaphoric dazzle”. Recall his famous “frog’s eye view” of the world; mallards “wander[ing] the streets at will, like sacred cattle in India”; the moorhens which “walk like little girls at parties in their mothers’ high heels”. Barkham’s favourite chapter, A Descent into Hell Gill, is already metaphorical before Roger even begins his perilous descent. 

Barkham suggests this talent for metaphor can be linked to Deakin’s love of nature, the ability to spot links between a wide range of flora and fauna which co-exist within the same ecosystem. “To think metaphorically is to think ecologically,” he says, before pointing to another example where Deakin likens weeds at the bottom of a small river to the experience of flying over a rainforest. He connects big and small nature, he recognises the riverbed is a complex system, “a miniature world”, of equal value and fascination to the rainforest.

This need to romanticise and idealise seems at odds with the idea we have of Deakin as a man who made bold, even selfish decisions to live as he pleased, and suggests instead someone who felt isolated, frustrated, dissatisfied with life. Barkham points to a surprising absence in Deakin’s diaries and notebooks: “I’m lacking material on his relationship with his mum, because he just doesn’t write about it anywhere” and he describes this relationship as the “root of pain and sadness in Deakin’s life” after the sudden death of his dad in 1960. Deakin felt responsible for looking after his mother and “installed” her in a cottage close to Walnut Tree Farm. 

“To think metaphorically is to think ecologically,” Barkham says, pointing to an example where Deakin likens weeds at the bottom of a small river to the experience of flying over a rainforest. He connects big and small nature: the riverbed is “a miniature world” of equal fascination.

Just as Deakin crossed boundaries and resisted categories, so he struggled with these intimate relationships which required long-term commitment. He never settled down with a life-long girlfriend or wife, and when I ask Barkham which chapter was the hardest to write, he doesn’t even pause: Chapter 10, Deakin’s “abusive” relationship with Serena Inskip, who lived at Walnut Tree Farm during the 1980s. Barkham wrote this chapter in collaboration with Inskip. He says: “She wasn’t sure initially how much she wanted to say and so we were back and forth a lot, before she finally got to a point where she had worked out what she wanted to say which is amazing because of how it fits with Roger’s notebooks.” 

We get onto discuss whether this need for space and control is relevant to Deakin’s love of nature and conservation. After all, as Barkham suggests, “it’s much easier to live with a toad on the threshold and swallows in the chimney than a long-term partner and kids”. But he’s keen to clarify this isn’t either/or: Deakin could be selfish and singleminded, while also extremely loyal to his friends and compassionate towards the natural creatures who lived alongside him at Walnut Tree Farm. You can see both sides of his personality when John Farley (a friend and neighbour) recalls Inskip “in pieces, anticipating [Roger] getting really angry because she’d lost a hedgehog he had kept in a box on the Aga and she knew this was really gonna be fireworks time”. 

So what about his legacy? 

Barkham paraphrases Deakin when he writes that Waterlog “frog-kicked” a revival in wild swimming. I try to pin down exactly what this means – if Waterlog is an example of good timing or if the book had a more profound cultural impact. Barkham suggests a “compelling story” is essential for any widespread behavioural change, but he also points to the role tech and media have played to help make outdoor swimming accessible – from wetsuits to Facebook. He suggests Deakin’s most important success was to “reimagine Britain for the purpose of swimming” – to prioritise rivers, lakes and coastline as places where we have both rights and responsibilities, as valuable spaces which need protection from society’s worst instincts.

Deakin died in 2006 at the age of 63. A brain tumour the size of an orange was found four months before his death, but had already been affecting him, perhaps exacerbating the tortured process of his second book, Wildwood. This early death means we can imagine him still alive and active in the current political moment and Barkham is sure he’d want to play a leading role in Extinction Rebellion, the Outdoor Swimming Society and Right to Roam: “I wanted to do something practical to stand up for nature in the face of the unprecedented onslaught of pollution and casual degradation of the world.” There is no doubt he would have loved the spotlight, the chance to do more TV, radio and festivals. Barkham laughs as we imagine Deakin becoming “a white-haired grandee” of these activist circles: “he would have been patron of this and ambassador for that. He would’ve been marching. He would have helped organise how to get busloads of people down to London to be part of XR protests.” But we can also be sure he would have championed these causes with the same optimism and persuasive power which first captured our imagination in Waterlog.