I was waist deep in the River Isle, the A303 thundering above me, when I finally accepted that Waterlog wasn’t a reliable guidebook. It was over two years since I had started retracing Roger Deakin’s seminal book, first published in 1999. In that time I had found myself descending into dangerously narrow gorges, jumping out of mill house windows and swimming in canals, all in the name of finding what had changed since Roger’s time, while using the water to help soothe my issues with anxiety.
I had found the places Roger swam in through a combination of obsessive rereading, a newly found habit for OS Maps and blind luck. Many of the places I visited were just as he said, from beautiful Bryher, in the Iscles of Scilly, to the harsh majesty of Jura. But often I discovered Deakin had something of a habit when it came to pushing his perceptions of bucolic Britain beyond reality.
He talked joyously of a hidden swimming hole in the Yorkshire Dales, where local daredevils jumped from on high and swimmers lounged on the banks. He made no mention of the river being on a path, which had been private for over 100 years, and that you needed to pay for access.
In Suffolk, his description of Eye’s Abbey Bridge made it sound like an idyllic swimming spot. In reality the sound of cars and the steep slide down a concrete wall gave it the air of something a lot more grubby.
I thought about these swims that day in the River Isle. It was the apotheosis of a realisation I had been coming to for some time: that Roger Deakin loved the English countryside so much that he often forgot to mention modern life. His lines about the Isle make it seem like the most perfect stream, winding through meadows and copses. It does, but it also runs so close to the A303 that you can see high-sided lorries swaying as you swim, something he fails to mention. And the A303 has been there for decades.
On the same day, I found myself just a few miles away in a grim ditch near Hambridge in Somerset, wondering why Roger had chosen to swim here and why he hadn’t been clearer in his analysis. At the time, these swims seemed like depressing stuff.
His lines about the Isle make it seem like the most perfect stream, winding through meadows and copses. It does, but it also runs so close to the A303 that you can see high-sided lorries swaying as you swim ...
But once I’d dried off and allowed my annoyance to abate, I began to reassess. Deakin wrote Waterlog when “wild swimming” was deeply unfashionable and considered eccentric in the extreme. His mission was not to point his readers to specific locations and tell them to swim there. Rather it was to portray another England, one steeped in subversion, beauty and a perpetual sense of joie de vivre. I doubt now that he ever imagined wild swimming would become as popular as it is, that people would look to swim in his wake.
I only had a handful of swims left on my mission after that day in the Isle, but I never again looked to Waterlog for specific guidance in the way I had done before. Instead I tried to imbue my swims with Roger’s spirit and not become disheartened when his descriptions didn’t tally with my experience. Twenty years had passed after all.
I took the very same approach when writing Floating: A Life Regained, my book about retracing Waterlog and how swimming helped me face up to and conquer my anxiety. I wanted to write something that captured swimming’s essence, pointing the way for swimmers to create their own journeys while not being overly obsessive about geographical detail. It is not a guidebook, but if you want to use it as one, you can. You just need to find your own path through it, much as I did with Waterlog.
You just need to find your own path through it, much as I did with Waterlog.
Floating: A Life Regained, Joe Minihane’s wild swimming memoir, is out on 6th April. To pre-order a copy, click here.
To explore Joe Minihane’s swims, visit the Waterlog Reswum Collection on the OSS Wild Swim Map.