A few years ago in the Christmas week I had a mini adventure in my lunch break from work. I had never swum in cold water before but a friend said I’d like it. He saw I was completely messed up in my head. He knew how to get it sorted.
The life guards at the Kings Cross pond were caring and suggested that I sizzle my skin in the tiny gypsy caravan of a sauna. There was just me and him. The sizzle made the entry to the water so much smoother. It was 8 degrees. I loved the pain of the firing synapses in the skin – my body’s interface – as much as pleasure. I swam around in the reeds – got out – warmed up in the sauna – got in again and after 20 minutes rinsed off in the cold – seeming hot – outdoor showers and we went back to work.
I thought – I’m good at this. I don’t think many people are. It’s a very quiet and calm extreme sport. It’s a secret. Can I cut off all interfaces be inside myself be myself again?
I like to use my body as a sensor. I’m a scientist.
On and off I’ve slowly been drawn to colder and colder water. On holiday in Portugal I like swimming across the bay in the mornings in the cold sea of the western Algarve. Even more – the really cold waters of the Silver Coast near Lisbon. Locals say the summer temperature is 14 degrees. The winter temperature 18. I keep meaning to Google to find out the science that makes the currents do that.
The nearest coldest water to me is on Hampstead Heath.
As the winter progresses and the Parliament Hill Lido times contract – I find that it’s the Ladies pond and the ritual dunking I like best.
I didn’t decide in advance to keep swimming all winter outdoors – it’s just that now I am addicted to it. Sometimes I feel emotionally overheated and need to be chilled. It works every time. There is no drug that does it so efficiently and without side effects.
I’ve come this far (9 degrees) so I might as well go on. I already know I’ll be fine.
Sometimes I’m in the company of my angry Catalan friend who needs the soothing water – sometimes an ice breaking veteran Belarusian.
I never miss an opportunity. I’m sharp and the cold water keeps me that way. On the way back from a conference in the River Great Ouse I managed a few circuits of a cold pool in the company of crayfish. And a disapproving local pointing out the obligatory Health and Safety sign – danger – deep water – no swimming – as I graze my knees on a shallow part of the gravelly river bed. My body sensor says it’s 13 degrees.
A 20 minute adventure before I drive home via the North circular to my other life. This distraction is becoming my real life now though. The French call it their secret garden. Their inner world.
A fortnight later I get an autumn sunset swim at Lyme Regis on the fossil beach (15 degrees) after finding a haul of ammonite impressions in the shale falling from the cliffs.
My bemused – but for once tolerant – teenage daughter looking on. The last thing she would ever do at her age is join me. But at least she now knows it’s possible to swim in the English sea in winter – and she can’t unknow that. So I know I’ve infected her with a long dormant virus she’ll pass it on.
And now – amazing luck – I have been posted to Worcester. The Teme, the Severn. I’m told by the locals that Upton is the place. They’re much more worried about water quality than us Londoners. Maybe with good reason.