Roger Deakin’s engaging Waterlog narrates his travels around the United Kingdom in search of “wild swimming.” It’s become a cult classic among environmentalists and swimmers in the UK, and has spawned various clubs and a strand of do-it-yourself travel guides.
Deakin begins with ocean swimming in the Scillies, but the heart of the book is about poaching fresh water spots in rivers and harbors that have been forgotten or browned-over by industry.
In the water, including the moat around his Suffolk, Deakin reconnects to the lived experience of England’s land-and-sea history, from the “contingent” (193) coast around East Anglia to assorted trips to rivers, fens, mountain streams, and coasts. He loves the cold water, and seeks it out as a psychological cure-all:
There is no anti-depressent quite like sea-swimming….I leave my devils on the waves. (74)
It’s mostly a nature book, full of lush descriptions and lively water-folk, but Deakin also engages some larger claims about water and humans. Quoting D. H. Lawrence (on Typee), Normon O. Brown, and Elaine Morgan’s writings on the aquatic ape hypothesis, he strains for solutions in the water:
Perhaps we are simply more at home in or around water than on dry land. Perhaps dry land is our problem. (149)
As a swimmer, I’m struck by Deakin’s persistent choice of stroke: the breaststroke. He swims with his head up, immersed but able to see ahead of him. To some extent, Deakin’s breaststroking reflects the way English men were taught to swim through mid-century — he observes that when he’s breaststroking in Australia, the other men there are shocked, because, “In Australia swimming strokes are deeply gendered” (313).
I’m a front crawl guy myself, with my face down in the water and a pretty small range of vision, though for long open-water swims I raise my head every 5 strokes or so, to see where I’m headed. Deakin givens a nice picture of the arrival of the six-beat crawl stroke to Cambridge swim racing in the 1920s, as well as the previous history of the “trudgen crawl,” with a sidestroke kick, earlier than that (41-2).
What a difference the choice of stroke makes! Deakin’s in the water and the landscape, looking around him while paddling through old English fantasies about the land. I can’t seen far when I’m swimming, only a few feet into the water below and ahead of me. The line on the bottom of the pool, or a sandy bottom if I’m lucky and in shallow water. But I’m the one, I think, who’s really in the water, all the way.
Jenny Davidson says
I had a very similar reaction, when I read the book, re: this question of breaststroke for distance swimming!
Steve Mentz says
I think it’s a British thing, too, or at least it once was: breastroke as more elite / upper class. Pretty slow, though, it seems to me! Some consideration, esp in the 16c swimming manuals I’ve been reading for a future book project, about what sort of aquatic animal you should imitate: a frog, or a dog?