WILD WOMAN SWIMMING: A journal of West Country waters

The posthumously-published diaries of visionary wild swimmer Lynne Roper are a wonder-filled book with an extraordinary backstory…

I met Lynne Roper just once, two summers ago, at her hospice in the month before she died. Her invitation had been frank and urgent.

She had read about me: My lido-side Wild Patience writing project at Pells Pool; a West Country upbringing so like her own. I’d been a hospice lifestory scribe; she a paramedic: we didn’t shy away from lives ending. I was calling for submissions to an anthology perfect for her work – Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers & Wild Swimmers – but she was too ill already to edit and send a selection. Would I find readers for her swim diaries after she was gone? And could we talk together about living wild in the face of death? I was, she assessed with the skill of a paramedic and wild swimmer both, a woman who could go the distance with her in this.

Allan Macfadyen

Just a short read of Lynne’s online work revealed a rare talent: Like Laurie Lee and Roger Deakin, she was a writer of place with a huge capacity for life and friendship, able to travel smoothly between the quietly lyrical and frankly comic. I was made reflective by passages like this (since retweeted many hundreds of times): 

“Why did wild swimming become so central to my life, so cathartic? I think it has to do with needing to feel alive. It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water. Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.”

And then another scene would come along that had me laugh out loud:

“I always feel as though I’ve had six pints of scrumpy when I stand up to wade in from the sea. I’ve a vision in my head of looking like Ursula Andress, while actually resembling in my shiny, black wetsuit a pissed masochist who’s seen better days. But it’s how you feel that counts, and I felt great.”

It took me less than a day to decide. I drove to Devon, ready to let a stranger’s life divert the course of mine.

Wild Woman Swimming

The promise I made in the hospice that day – to find readers for Lynne’s work – has taken two years to keep, and Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters is the result. 

The entries (with only two exceptions) are all place-based. Bel Pool, Mel Tor, Sharrah, Spitchwick, Horseshoe Falls, Fingle Bridge, Bugle Hole, Burgh Island: Like a swimmer’s version of the Shipping Forecast, Lynne tracks through the seasons places few know and less brave — freezing pools in hollowed-out Dartmoor tors, sea caves stuck about with Dead Men’s Fingers, rivers in full spate where bouyancy is lost suddenly in froth and bubbles.

But even in the wildest of swims, her attention sometimes floats a while on still, small moments: crab apples clinging to a branch become ‘fruity tiara on a tipsy granny at a barn dance’; rushes and foxgloves ‘bend like animal pelts’ in the wind; below the falls of Tavy Cleave, water is ‘the colour of ginger cake made with black treacle’. Even after months of close editing and proofreading, I still catch my breath at Lynne’s gift for describing the experience of wild waters and what happens on the edges of it.

“Lynne tracked through the seasons places few know and less brave — freezing pools in hollowed-out Dartmoor tors, sea caves stuck about with Dead Men’s Fingers, rivers in full spate where bouyancy is lost suddenly in froth and bubbles.”

Famous Five

One of the longer passages in Lynne’s diaries that didn’t make the book was a glorious spoof of Blyton’s Famous Five, recounting a Devon & Cornwall Wild Swimmers trip to Dorset. I felt it was just slightly too-much an insiders’ joke. But throughout the journals we encounter many strangers-become-friends who join her in various gleeful escapades: Kari’s ‘Bantham Brollies’ swim where they all floated downstream with wildly-decorated umbrellas held aloft (“I carry my brolly in one hand and swim in side-stroke, swept along by the current like Mary Poppins…”); full moon trips  – named ‘Moon Gazey Swims’ by Lynne – where the only light in the Devon mizzle came from torches; cake-rich post-swim picnics where Lynne’s leggy labradoodle Honey makes off with the food.

Queenie, JJ, Sophie, Allan, Dangerous Malcolm and many more: Together they form a loose and lively group who draw close at times of loss or crisis – JJ’s sudden, shocking death at sea (which Lynne writes of so movingly); Lynne’s terminal diagnosis.

Allan Macfadyen
Allan Macfayden

Ripple Effect

Lynne’s life and work are paid tribute in the book in essays by Jenny Landreth (who included Lynne in the prize-winning book Swell: A Waterbiography), Sophie Pierce (fellow member of Devon Wild Swimmers) and Kate Rew, who – writing of Lynne’s role in developing the Outdoor Swimming Society – says: “You might not have known Lynne, but chances are a ripple she set off has touched your shores.”

In Swell, Jenny Landreth wrote: “For Lynne, passing it down the line didn’t need to end at her death. ‘People can swim and take me with them,’ she said.” On the first page of Wild Woman Swimming I wrote: This is a book to be read outside. May it go waterlogged, sun-buckled and wind-chapped. First readers are already taking Lynne with them, posting photos of the book by lakes, ponds and rivers – her words returned to their element, inspiring wild swimmers on Dartmoor and beyond. A ripple effect indeed.

“This is a book to be read outside. May every copy go waterlogged, sun-buckled and wind-chapped.”

Wild Woman Swimming can be bought from Bookshop. Some of the money raised through the sale of the book goes to St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth.

Tanya Shadrick
Allan Macfadyen