The other day I heard the writer Philip Hoare on the radio talking about the First World War poet Wilfred Owen. As well as discussing his fascination with Owen’s life and work, Hoare described a passion of his own. He described how, living on the UK’s south coast, he regularly goes swimming in the dark. That very morning he had taken a 4 o’clock dip. The connection Hoare was making with Owen was twofold: Owen was also a keen swimmer; and, in the last few days of the war, he died crossing a canal in Ors, northern France, which the writer had recently visited.
The way that Hoare talked about how he perceived Owen’s relationship with water brought to mind my more recent swimming adventures. Over the last year or two, I’ve swum in cool rivers and ponds in France and England, unheated lidos in London and in the chilly English Channel. This is despite having been wary of cold water for a long time since a scare when, after bathing in the sea off Cornwall, I became chilled to the bone. The only way to warm up was to get in a hot bath on a scorching summer’s day.
In the radio programme, Hoare said that he felt swimming had been a sensual activity for Owen. I hadn’t consciously thought of this word for my own encounters but certainly the vitality that I’ve felt immersing myself in cold water and emerging from it has a sensual quality. It is true that the physicality of the experience is punctuated by the mind loudly demanding warmth, safety and retreat. Yet this is repeatedly pushed away by the curiosity of the body seeking a kind of knowledge gained only by surrendering to the delicious discomfort of the moment. It is as if the body knows there is a wisdom to be discovered, an intimacy with self to be developed, through such a visceral experience.
In spite of this recent happy and insightful acquaintance with swimming outside, a vow I took when the days were longer and warmer is being tested now as winter approaches. My fear of cold water resurfaces more easily as the ambient temperature drops and I haven’t achieved the commitment of the year-round bathers that I’ve heard about amongst both city and coastal dwellers the world over. But a seed has been planted, a cell memory formed which I plan to cultivate, perhaps by extending the period of the year during which I swim outdoors. Just thinking about it now has enhanced my mood, as if the endorphins released by swimming in cold water are rising up through my body, bubbling up in to my consciousness. It crosses my mind I could take a dip in the River Dart as I walk to the cinema later on today. It’s a wild and wonderful thought.