Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Since October last year, greeted by a confused head-shake of a welcome from the lock-keeper, a neoprene-clad group of us have met up one morning each week beside a stretch of the Thames. Week by week, like assembling Avengers, we added accessories to our kit and bravely battled the cold to swim through the winter solstice. Then in February, the river got me.
It had been snowing. Not so much near us but further north, and the river was swollen with snow melt from the hills. We pulled ourselves up along the bank then pushed out to the middle of the river and rode the snow melt back down to our launch spot. Then we did it again. I was on my back, facing the blue sky. Floating. Riding the snow! There. I. was. Right there, right then. Nothing else. The river cradling not just my body, but my mind.
Late March, the UK didn’t leave Europe. Outside, it was getting warmer so the river was less cold. There wasn’t much rain and the river ran more slowly. Further upstream, at the bottom of a garden, upturned terracotta pots blossomed on bamboo canes. The woods and the hills on the other side stretched out like sunlit uplands. A Brexit deal came, a Brexit deal went, and it rained again so the river pushed gently against us as we swam upstream. Further and further up the wind-wandering, weed-winding banks we front-crawled. The country was tearing itself apart; a civil war of bitter words. Should we remain in wetsuits or leave them at home?
Now the dog-walkers on the bank were less puzzled by our antics. We weren’t mad, after all; that was everyone else, everyone who didn’tdo this. A new prime minister promised to do or die, and the cygnets grew bigger. We came some evenings too when the surface of the water glowed golden in the setting sun.
October brought with it the heaviest of rains and another new Brexit deal. The surface of the river spun in eddies, swollen almost to breaking point. The water lapped over the sides and submerged branches rode the current, forcing the boats to stay at their moorings. Three very happy high-speed ducks encouraged us in, so in we hopped, wetsuit-free, in a safe quiet corner and just for the shortest of chilly, mud-swirling, exhilarating dips.
Wet weeks around Hallowe’en both treated and tricked; the river pushed against the lock then bounced back off the wall so we could swim with the current round and round and round… although all we really wanted was to move on, upstream. (It is all everyone wants, isn’t it? To move on.)
The surface of the Thames is etched with wild patterns that warn us to enter with caution. You cannot tell what lies beneath our message, the whirling runes tell us, nor know the power of the hidden forces below. More rain is forecast so who can tell what Christmas and the new year will bring. Until then and after then, every day, I will turn away from the news to gaze at the weather and consider the mood it will have put the river in. We might only be there once a week, but I give the river my attention every single day. I need to. The cool water, the rural scene, the changing skies – not only do they refresh my soul but right now, it is their truth and honesty that is holding me together, cradling my body and my mind.
Fiona Undrill, February 2020