For as long as I can remember, I have had a deep connection with water – in any form. Something about it draws me close to it, encouraging me to stand by it, to watch it and also to get in. This love, fascination and watchful respect has passed to my children, water being fundamental part of any holiday we make.

It has taken many years of careful contemplation to realise and begin to get a little closer to what draws me to the water. It is a similar feeling to how I feel when I see an artwork I love at first hand. Like art, water is something that is central to me, back through memories, time, holidays, family and, more recently, the meeting of and companionship with kindred spirits. Our meetings include lots of: laughs, close attention, talking, care, advice on swimming and life, appreciation of our beautiful environment, its colours the quality of the water through its seasons, temperatures and moods (clear, brown, green, rough, calm, ever changing, balmy, cold, choppy).

These themes and contrasts are ones I revisit time and time again in my drawing and painting – whether it is a landscape of a particular significant location, a memory of experiencing the water or being in nature. Swimming near my home, meeting new people and also reconnecting with those I have known for a long time has been especially important to me. Experiencing the elements and being submerged for periods of time in the rivers or lakes near to our home has made me feel more at home and more grounded – or more watered!

Looking down into the water and seeing the vast array of greens, browns, greys, whites in so many hues, shapes and contrasts is something that has inspired me continuously. Observing the bubbles, splashes, ripples being under, on top and half-way between are ideas I am exploring at the moment. The combination of the physiological effects – the nature in your face and around your body – but also the deep psychological impact that the submersions in warm, cold or freezing water have is what is currently fascinating me. Often shown by the contrast of ordered shapes and lines and then the chaotic, natural and flowing array of colours and layers of ink, paint or drawn lines.

Most importantly, there is a great amount of communication without words – creating in my house. Swimming in the river, being together but apart, swimming alongside one another. The unsaid communication is what connects swimming with my artwork and the way that there is a sense of not having to say anything; an understanding exists. The water unifies and carries us along or, more recently, we charge against the flow towards the Toll Bridge.

The river has become an ever-changing, dark friend of unpredictable nature, but with the predictable rejuvenating, resetting and grounding quality. Temporarily, I exist somewhere else, am only focusing on the present moment and the appreciation of being where I am at that time. With the cold swims and dips, the inward centring required to face the temperatures – sometimes in the dark – has required such a strong focus, so different to the challenges to which I am accustomed.

The swims have created a new sense of worth, quickly followed by a relief and jubilation of getting out, thawing and finding my feet back on land (usually mud), drying myself off, followed by hot drinks, delicious cakes and fantastic company. A feeling that the day or week has been washed away, whatever good or bad it has brought, cleansing and rejuvenating mind and body and replenishing my creative energy.

Words and artwork by Emma Hallmark

Photo by Darrin Roles

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  • Shona

Winter is here and here I am, swimming alone in a lake, eye level to the birds, to the roots of the trees, the blue sky and dark clouds up above. Being in this tranquil space leads me to reflect on my swimming. Swimming is my joy. It is the time when I feel every bit of my body, and enjoy it in a way that is lost to me when I am on dry land. Swimming is a way of feeling completely at one with my surroundings, when my body doesn’t hurt and when I feel fit and alive. And even coronavirus has made me appreciate swimming in another way, having to find different, colder and more adventurous ways of being able to be in water. I have always been a swimmer. Having grown up in tropical countries and heat, I learnt to swim young and was always underwater. It gives me both a calm and an exhilarating place to be, a time to reflect, to write essays, to write letters, to think about problems or things troubling me. And then that moment when I switch off and just enjoy each stroke, each breath, each feeling, of each part of my body. Swimming is so much more than exercise.

The last five or six years have been punctuated by the swimming of other people. I am part of an organisation called Swim Oxford and, with my ‘tea tent’ friends, have provided tea, coffee, hoorays (and occasional commiserations) to the hordes of people who have joined the Swim Oxford challenges. Being part of this organisation is very important to me. Apart from caring very much for the people who run the organisation, and the other helpers, it is also about these amazing riverside community events I get to be part of four times a year between June and September. All sorts, all ages, meeting on the banks of the Thames, and with excitement and hope they throw themselves into the water and swim miles, and at the end together they reflect and laugh, eat cake and enjoy. It is the most glorious time, it is caring and thoughtful, not just for the participants but for each other….

In the past four years I have been stunned by losses; of a dear friend, a sister, a beloved young friend, a father, and then another friend. Swim Oxford has not personally known all these people, but it has been a place of continuity, of community, a place to be supported and appreciated and thought about, and it has had that quintessential ingredient of the water, swimming, the rhythm that the swims and the river and the seasons provide. This year, I took the plunge into outdoor cold waters, having usually restricted my enjoyment of this kind of swimming to warm summer days and holidays at the seaside. Inspired by the lovely Fra (a lifelong, all weather outdoor swimmer), I have braved the muddy, the dirty, the freezing waters. Fra is my friend, and my family, and her birthday is in January and last year, also having suffered terrible losses, we met to celebrate. She and all her lovely young friends and her partner plunged in, and I shivered and watched at the side. I wanted to be one of those people but told myself I suffered from the cold and I wouldn’t be able to manage it. But I really, really wanted to be one of those people. I decided then that next year I would join them for their New Year’s swim to celebrate. In May (deciding this was a sensible time to start), I started getting into various bits of the Thames and have carried on every week since then. This morning, stepping into the lake, feeling the icy chill around every part of my body, looking at the beautiful clouds across a pale blue sky, daring myself to stay in for a couple of extra minutes, swimming near the cormorants and around the seagulls sitting on the buoys, I reflected on the last few years. I thought about why this ice-cold water is such a pleasure and what that sense of really wanting to get back in, even though it’s freezing, is about. And I thought about how it helps me feel alive, in a way that is shocking and skin-tinglingly delightful. Ashes of some of my loved ones are in the sea, and the sense I get of being at one with nature and with myself in water makes me feel like I am touching them, and I am enfolded by them in some small way. This is a comfort and a catharsis. So thank you water, thank you swimming, thank you seasons, and the challenges of friends, thank you Swim Oxford, and all the influences that you bring. I know that in January I will be in that water.

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Updated: Jan 4

Crow happened one day to watch as a fish was snatched up from the river by a small grey bird.

‘Who are you?’ Crow demanded of the little fisher.

‘I am Kingfisher,’ the small bird answered proudly.

Crow was not impressed. He stretched out his wings in the breaking light of the day to show off his iridescent plumage in the sun’s first rays. ‘No, no, no,’ he cawed. ‘I am far larger than you, and my feathers are far more opulent. It is clear that I am king.’

‘Your size is greater than mine and your plumage more striking,’ admitted the small, dull-coloured bird, ‘but I am king of the fishers,’ he insisted.

‘King of the fishers? Hah! I am also the superior fisher,’ declared Crow. ‘That grayling you just caught was tiny. I can do much, much better than that. I will show you.’ Crow told Kingfisher to meet him downstream. ‘Give me five minutes to change out of my feathers,’ he said. ‘I will be with my friends but I’ll let you know when I’m ready and you can watch me in the river.’

Dragonfly flashed past Kingfisher. ‘Pay no heed to Crow,’ she whispered. ‘All he ever fishes for are compliments.’ But her words were whisked away by the wind.

Cunning Crow flew down to where the swimmers were changing into their black neoprene wetsuits. Five minutes later, the sceptical Kingfisher flew downstream and tucked himself away in the reeds. To protect the modesty of Crow and his friends, he politely directed his gaze across the water while he waited for them to finish getting changed. Although he did not look at the corvids, he was certain that he recognised them by their crowing:

‘I swam five kilometres last week,’ cawed one.

‘I swam by moonlight,’ said another.

‘I swam skins when the water was just five degrees,’ a third one crowed.

Kingfisher then heard the birds enter the water with a splash that would scare off every single fish in the realm. He shook his head and laughed at Crow’s ridiculous notion.

Crow was perched in a tree that had fallen into the river, the tangled branches concealing his warm, dry and feathered body. As a neoprene-clad form swam directly beneath him, he threw his voice to make it appear that he was the oily, black swimmer. ‘Watch me now, little fisher!’ he called.

Kingfisher peered out from the reeds and sure enough, he saw the sleek, black, shining Crow swimming along the river. He appeared much bigger in water. The little bird was surprised that Crow was swimming but nonetheless, he was sure this pretender possessed no skills to match his own. ‘You may be able to swim,’ he said, ‘but you’ll not catch anything like that! I am still the king of fishers.’

‘Wait and see!’ called Crow from his hideout.

Before long, Crow called out to Kingfisher again. ‘Don’t look! I am going to get out and when I am changed back into my feathers, I will show you what I have caught.’

So Kingfisher waited in the reeds until Crow invited him to look – while Crow waited in the tree until the swimmers were dressed and their wetsuits tucked completely away.

Dragonfly flitted brilliantly around Kingfisher’s head. ‘Look! Look now, Kingfisher! Crow has caught nothing but your attention!’ But the reeds shushed her words away.

‘Come see what I caught, little fisher!’ Crow called. ‘I have no use for them so I set them free but look! Come quickly before they go!’

Kingfisher was shocked. Crow was flying above his catch: three enormous humans, coated in a magnificent array of colours, who were heading off across the land.

‘Do you see, little fisher? My catch is much larger than yours!’ Crow boasted. ‘I am the biggest, the most colourful, and the most talented hunter so I am truly king of the fishers!’

The poor duped Kingfisher, ashamed of the pride he had expressed in his skills, hid himself away in the reeds and vowed, henceforth, to be humbler.

This might have been the end of it but Dragonfly, saddened by the little fisher’s loss of spirit, determined that the conceited Crow should be outshone. She waited until the sun was at its highest, then she struck out on her delicate wings, round and round, until she had drawn a hundred sparks in the air about Kingfisher and set fire to his grey feathers.

The small bird, shocked to find himself alight, darted into the water to put out the flames and when he emerged, he found that although the fire was doused, his feathers still blazed most gloriously. Most regally.

And so it is that we all hear the jealous Crow’s angry cries from the treetops but only a lucky few ever catch a glimpse of the most spectacular, most modest Kingfisher.

Illustrations by Kath Fotheringham

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