A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain
by Roger Deakin
340 pages, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
I started Roger Deakin’s Waterlog while I waited for a mechanic. It was a frigid January morning, but not a bad one; freezing but fresh, with lots of sunlight. I snapped on a pair of Speedos, tucked in the pants moustache and sideboards, and dived in.
Having a glorious, unbroken reading experience is a rare thing for me these days, and despite the wait I felt blessed to have that early morning all to myself, with no-one else near me in the car park, the mint green grasses glazed with frost and the low winter sun taking its own time to rise.
Drawing inspiration from John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”, Deakin decided to swim his way around the UK – taking in wild places, rivers and the seaside as well as municipal pools and Lidos. His thoughts and experiences were documented in Waterlog in 1999, an instant bestseller.
We must be wary of the term “British eccentric”, but we can happily apply it to Deakin. Aged in his fifties when he undertook his adventure in the 1990s, the writer, naturalist and film-maker enjoyed a life outside the rat race - and it looked f*cking great. As I sat there scrunched up in my treacherous car on the outskirts of industrial hell, I coveted his lifestyle and his freedom. I still do.
The opening swim begins in the moat he’s dredged around his country home in Suffolk, a morning routine of laps in an arboreal paradise. Deakin bought Walnut Tree Farm in the 1960s and renovated the property and grounds over many years, but he was content to allow nature to reclaim parts of it. Deakin is the sort of fellow who hears swallows nesting in the roof of his home in the springtime, and instead of phoning an exterminator, calls a friend to express his delight.
I can appreciate this. In one house I rented, I had a decent sized garden fringed with flower beds. Having grown up in an eight-in-a-block in Glasgow, I’m no gardener, but I decided to sow some seeds in the beds at the right time. I was delighted, then, to see bright flowers appearing the following spring, reds and oranges and yellows and blues. They grew thick and wild, and even though it wasn’t the tidiest display in the world I enjoyed considering that floral riot while I sipped my tea in the morning.
And then someone in the know came to stay with me. “Want me to do your garden, Pat?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at that flower bed. It’s choked with weeds. They’ll all have to go.”
Deakin likens swimming to flying – or those sublime dreams of freedom you get on the first night of your holidays, or after you’ve had a particularly nice, satisfying cuddle. He breaststrokes through his own mind and memories as much as he does physical locations up and down the land. When Deakin island-hops in the Scillies and elsewhere, it’s like he’s going through an old toybox in his parents’ attic. He checks out ancient Pullman carriages he remembers as a boy, left to rust in the sea air – at one time the height of luxury, now subject to that inevitable reclamation by nature that everything must face.
The lost grandeur of seaside resorts fascinates the author. I’ve always loved visiting these towns off-season for the same reason. They’re at the cutting edge of time and inevitability, something under constant attack from entropy even on calm, warm days. You’re watching the destruction of the land, a demonstration of how time washes everything away eventually. Even if it’s a grim seafront, it’s still epic in scope and scale.
Riparian matters follow as Deakin dunks himself in Hampshire – getting into an argument in the process with a couple of Colonel Blinky types who wonder what the devil he thinks he’s doing in the water. This is an almost perfectly-crafted moment of English farce, but it brings the author to a serious point. Deakin’s English whimsy flows through his very blood, but he betrays a keen dislike of petty rules and lower-case conservativism. He fulminates against waterways being closed off to the public for no other reason than ownership (of a river?). He also cannot hide his distaste when beautiful rural parts of the country are exclusively linked to the enjoyment of people with plenty of money, who can afford exorbitant fees for fly-fishing or boating. His anger seeps out over faceless, monolithic big business, and you sense he held in reserve a scalding torrent for firms who skip off scot-free after having polluted waterways for decades to come - with the public picking up the cleaning bill.
Deakin describes himself as a competent swimmer, but no more than that. In these days when we seem to be bombarded with images of friends and relatives putting themselves through increasingly brutal athletic challenges, there’s something refreshing about dear old Roger pottering through streams, brooks and ponds at his leisure.
I’m sure he was better than he let on, but it is fun to imagine him pulling prim old-lady breaststrokes, totally unabashed while bullet-capped human torpedoes gnash their teeth in his wake, unable to buffet him aside.
He’s as happy in a private pool owned by millionaires as he is swimming through greenish soup in remote places which barely merit a blue blob on the map, a drifting human thicket of algae and fronds buzzed by dragonflies. He’s also a lover of the small creatures you might encounter in English waterways, particularly newts.
He seems perfectly comfortable in his own company, but that’s not to say he is a loner. Deakin seeks communion with fellow swimmers, getting to know people who enjoy recreational dunks in Britain’s great, and sometimes neglected public pools. It’s nice to imagine him bobbing at the side of a Lido, having a chat with some elderly ladies who’ve come to the same place for 40 and 50 years for their daily exercise.
There’s one part that really resonated with me, where Deakin and a friend head up the hills in the Lake District in order to find remote, icy tarns to splash in. After a brilliant day with a mate, rounded off with a few pints and a nice dinner, he describes his child-like sorrow that his companion has to leave and go back to work; that the fun time is over.
Another part which will strike home is when Deakin describes that paranoia we all have when swimming across gloomy water, where we can’t see the bottom. He has some big fish stories, particularly regarding pike, which can occasionally grow large. There’s one chilly moment in a dark run where monsters are reputed to lurk. Deakin grows paranoid, wondering if he’s been nudged by something large under the water. That fear of a big fish is imprinted on our DNA.
I’m not sure I get what Deakin describes as the erotic import of public bathing. I’d blame the swimming pools and beaches of my youth for this, places where you were less likely to obtain sensual experience than you were to be dragged to your doom by swarms of detached sticking plasters, cotton buds and used tampons. I remember the swimming pool at my old school (subsequently shut down over asbestos, health fans) with our PE teacher encouraging us all to wash our feet in the little bath prior to jumping in. The surface of this greenish swamp – supposedly to help with hygiene - was carpeted with dead silverfish.
Anyway, back to eroticism. A couple of times, Deakin bobs past nudist beaches, describing oases of flesh pocketed in the sand. He never says as much, but you suspect he half-fancies joining them. Certainly there’s a sense of liberation in taking one’s clothes off prior to bathing, linked to the trans-dimensional freedom of cheating gravity in the water itself – your body hidden, your weight neutralised, your mind free. Deakin himself never gets wet, so to speak, but he is keen to recount other people’s stories, and is curious about the link.
Deakin delves into the history of local bathing spots, too. Many of them are closed off or barely used bar the odd faithful patrons. He uncovers the champion swimmers and record breakers, the high-board divers thrilling pre-wartime crowds with their acrobatics; the local heroes.
There’s also some derring-do as Deakin tests himself in remote or dangerous places. He gives Hell Gill in Yorkshire a go, marvelling at the bampots throwing themselves into the water from a great height. These include spelunkers and bikers either on a dare, taking part in initiations, or simply having no regard for their own safety.
The books leads up to a final big effort in Corryvreckan off the Isle of Jura in Scotland, a wild stretch of water with a whirlpool like a monster out of antiquity. It’s the place where George Orwell nearly killed himself and his family after getting his tidal timetable mixed up. Deakin is keen to swim this raging torrent… but decides not to at the last minute. This didn’t seem anti-climactic to me, more an affirmation of Deakin’s sweet, easy-going nature. There’s no need to go crazy. Some waters are fine to just look at.
This is a strange book – gentle and bucolic, but also thoroughly engaging. Deakin was a man after my own heart. So I was saddened to discover that Roger died in 2006 after the sudden onset of cancer – just four months in between diagnosis and death. He was 63. I was sadder still to discover that the house with the moat now belongs to someone else, and was (perhaps understandably) changed from the semi-feral state its famous incumbent preferred.
Walnut Tree Farm as it was - like the author - has gone beyond the physical realm. But with this book and two others he left us, we can dip into that wet, green paradise whenever we like.
As he swims in the Cam, Deakin imagines nymphs and dryads sharing the lonely places with him. He reflects on how many of the great poets were swimmers, and enjoys following in the wake of Frost, Byron and others. If their shades do haunt these drenched spots, then Deakin has surely joined them.
Roger Deakin enjoys cult appeal and famous admirers – to mark his 70th birthday two years ago, many of them gathered to celebrate in several public events. Many of his adepts, such as Robert Macfarlane (his literary executor) are working in letters today, contributing to what I feel sure is a golden age of British nature writing. As financial uncertainty hobbles the western world and the global environment seems throttled by nefarious human agency in pursuit of profit, it’s fitting that our thinkers and poets increasingly turn to nature for succour. Deakin’s name must be included in the pantheon of great English pastoral voices.
He left us two other books to enjoy, which I’ll get to sooner rather than later. But if I’m granted the time, I’ll return to this one, and hopefully in more pleasant circumstances than those in which I found it. It’ll feel less like a life ring, and more of a jolly paddle by the seaside on a lovely day.