Words by Maureen McCoy, Photos by Paul McCambridge
Neil arrived in the café, casually dressed in jeans and a shirt, he immediately spied us across the room and approached with a smile. I was relieved as we had arrived late due to the horrendous traffic and a staff member had told us that Neil had had to go on to take his brother to the airport, but that he would be back if we would wait. Of course we would.
As Neil shook Paul’s hand he introduced me saying,
“This girl swam the Channel…”
Neil shakes my hand and seems intrigued, he pulls himself a chair as I launch into the reason we asked to meet.
“I believe you are also a keen swimmer.”
“Yes.” He confirms, “I swim in the sea every week, all year through.”
I explain the concept I’m working on, this diary of swims, writing how I feel during the swims and of others who swim, what they gain from it, why they do it. Is it meditative? Does it clear the mind? Is it for the health benefits?
Neil thinks for a moment then looks intensely at me, smiles and says
“I do it for fun. There is perhaps an element of the rest, I’m sure there are health benefits and it’s certainly become a habit, but mostly I do it because it’s fun and I have done for forty years.”
It’s refreshing to hear such a simple explanation, something so in line with how I feel, it is fun, and that’s the point.
His face becomes more animated as he talks of his regular swims with his friend, Henry French. He clearly does love this, it’s written on his face, and he seems pleased to talk to a couple of like-minded folk who understand.
I think of how many of the poets and artists of the past who also enjoyed the freedom of swimming in the sea, rivers and lakes. Of course, then, that was where one bathed – swimming pools are a fairly modern phenomenon – but it seems sea swimming is now done by a growing number as simply an enjoyable thing to do. It’s not seen as a workout, performed for some future goal of health, fitness or weight loss but rather for the pleasure it brings at the time. That strikes a cord with me, being ‘in the moment’ is something I strive to be aware of and I catch glimpses of it. Swimming can be one of those glimpses, the watch is discarded time is forgotten and so, briefly, stands still. Of course later, after I dress, or perhaps it’s during that dressing, time has to catch up again and suddenly I am brought back to the fast world with a bump.
Neil is quite right, it is fun.
Since that first encounter, I have been able to meet up with Neil and Henry, Bob and Dougie many times to join them for this fresh sea dip. There is no ‘Hanging around.’ With these guys! My usual tentative, halting, walk in means I am put to shame. They will drive up, jump out of the car and nip behind the nearby wall to quickly strip into swim shorts then, with a childlike exuberance they race across to the water’s edge, walk straight in and begin to swim – no fuss.
I am left standing, marvelling; how do they do it? I know standing there and waiting will not make it any easier to take the plunge but for some reason I simply cannot will myself to dive straight in. Once I do stretch forward and move out into the deep water to join them my body tingles with the cold and I giggle with the joy of a swim for no other reason than pure pleasure.
The current is strong here so we will look at the boats moored a little way out and decide which direction to swim, the aim each time is to get in and allow the water to assist, sweeping us down towards the slipway. In the warmer weather we might take two of these trips, or begin by pressing up against the flow, working hard to gain a little ground against the strong current and then stop, lie on our backs and drift lazily back to our starting point.
Over-coated onlookers gaze down at us calling out; “Is it cold?” We reply; “It’s fabulous! Lovely! The water feels beautiful!” Surprise in our voices even though we do this every week, each time feels new… a tiny little adventure.