Updated: Apr 23
The year 2020 was just eleven hours old and I was walking with a friend. I told her I’d been river-swimming a couple of days before, and how refreshing it had been after the sedentary warm fug of Christmas.
‘How long do you swim for?’ she asked.
‘I’m not sure. I’ve never checked,’ I answered. I’d never realised how disconnected I am from time when we’re in the river, and I took a moment to enjoy that thought before I answered. ‘I’ve read that a minute for every degree is sensible when it’s cold. It’s probably about that.’
‘So what temperature was the water last week?’
‘Hold on.’ She stopped, so I turned my gaze from the too distant lake and to her puzzled face. ‘You go all that way and you’re in the water for just five minutes?’ she asked.
I felt bad then – you know, unnecessary car journeys. But it’s only six miles away and we normally pack into one car. Then it came to me; everything she didn’t know about. The minutes in the river are not the point. They’re the reason for going but they’re not the reason for doing it. I’ll explain. These are the first twenty reasons that come to my mind, and like a pebble dropped in the river, you’ll see how everything ripples out from the one moment – even after you’ve lost sight of the pebble.
1. Waking on the morning of a river-swim with a thrill that cannot be shifted from my heart even when I’m faced with: 2.6 baskets of laundry, an obstreperous teenager, a grey dribble that I can no longer ignore coming from the dishwasher, a looming deadline for a manuscript, and my tax return. (You’ll need to read 2 to 19 to understand this.)
2. The drive over with friends, giggling like children at the absurdity of what we’re going to do.
3. Clouds of hyperactive butterflies exploding into my chest when I see how far the river has broken free from its banks.
4. Gasped giggles when we expose naked limbs to the winter air.
5. The flight of all concerns about work, family, chores, politics, existential angst… because forcing myself into the chill, swirling water requires such single-minded focus.
6. The permission to yell. As loud as I like.
7. Immersing myself in nature’s powerful arms instead of observing her from afar.
8. Negotiating the determined strength of the swollen river.
9. Dark witch-finger branches silhouetted against a huge January sky;
10. Hearing my friends’ cries of joyful pain and victory.
12. The sense of achievement for overcoming the exquisitely sharp pain of genuine cold.
13. Such pink skin!
14. Cavorting on the riverbank in a swimming costume and pink skin, feeling warm, and grinning like a mad old bat at woolly-hatted dog-walkers.
15. Heads bobbing across the river on full beam, lighting up the faces of all who watch on.
16. The fascinating return of cold.
17. The single, curiously stubborn white finger on a friend’s hand; preferably wrapped around a cup of coffee at the café.
18. The intriguing return of warmth.
19. Later, at my desk (as I breeze with renewed vigour towards my deadline), the ding from my mobile announcing the arrival that day’s photos and banter.
20. Responding with revitalised enthusiasm for future swimming adventures.
So why do I do it? Simply for the joyful, invigorating, raw, visceral sensation of being alive, on this beautiful world, with friends.
As it’s 2020, I tried also think of twenty reasons why not to swim in the river in the winter months. I began with the reasons I am usually given – the cold (see above), the fish (I hope so), the pollution (there is that…) but there just aren’t as many reasons not to swim. Therefore, logically, it makes more sense to swim in the river through the winter than not. And logic aside, it’s so utterly joyful – nay-sayers; when did you last feel joy?