In the late 90s Roger Deakin, a BBC film-maker, environmentalist, music lover and diehard east Anglophile, was coming to terms with the end of a relationship. Driven by a desire to do something new and challenging he came up with the idea of swimming across Britain. Inspired by his own passion for both water and nature, and with a nod to John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, in which a man swims home from a party through the swimming pools in his neighbourhood, he decided to swim from the Atlantic near the Scilly Isles, through to the North Sea at the top of Scotland where he swam in as many rivers, lakes and lidos as he possibly could.
And he chronicled this watery pilgrimage in a book, published 20 years ago this summer.
From the moment that I heard about Waterlog I was smitten. I loved not just the stories of his adventures, but also the way he laced the text with snippets of history (he was a big George Orwell fan) and geography, as well as pen profiles of the wonderful individuals he met along the way. It became my favourite book and anyone who’d read it, or was passionate about swimming outdoors, became an instant soulmate.
“It is what the Germans call wanderlust,” he said. “The journey unfolded in an organic way. I went to one place and met a bunch of swimmers and they would say, ‘Have you been up this place, it is fantastic.’ Often it wouldn’t even be a swimmer. I would be in a pub and a person would say there’s a great place miles away, and off I would head.”
“It was like discovering some kind of unofficial folk wisdom. Something that is all the more exciting because it isn’t written down, as it isn’t on the maps.”
Caitlin Davies, the author of several celebrated books about swimming including Downstream: a History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, was another person who found the book a source of inspiration.
“I’ve dipped in and out of it countless times over the past 20 years,” she says, “but I never even get to the end of a chapter before wanting to put it down and go for a swim.”
For Davies, Waterlog has been a handbook. Yet over the years many others have been drawn to it for different reasons.
Professor Alice Roberts says that it was Deakin’s way of describing the natural world – “sometimes quite weirdly poetic” – that enchanted her. “It’s a book about experiencing the elements in an immediate, visceral, raw way, but it’s also about wildlife, geography, literature, science and people. So when I had the opportunity to make a programme about wild swimming for BBC Four, in 2009, I framed that as a sort of pilgrimage, in the spirit of Roger Deakin and Waterlog.” You can find the link to that programme amongst our blog posts.
Deakin’s perspective also inspired Rosie Cook, who named her swimming costume company after him – Deakin & Blue. “Like many of his readers, I loved the idea of casting a landscape anew by looking at it from a different perspective – his ‘frog’s eye view’ of the world. But I also loved the playful mood and joyfulness of his writing, as well as the way he talked about the effect of water on the body and the experience of how that feels.”
For others, Deakin’s eccentricity and determination to pursue his passion has been the catalyst which inspired them. Waterlog has several examples of the author having run-ins with over-officious wardens, who simply didn’t understand his unerring belief that an English person has a right to swim.
“For me, the essential tenet of Waterlog is Deakin’s belief that our right to swim the UK’s waterways should equal the right to roam the lands,” says film-maker Patrick McLennan, whose most recent work is the acclaimed documentary The Ponds, which portrays a year in the lives of swimmers on Hampstead Heath in London. “It hasn’t been achieved, and it’s more necessary than ever, but his iconic book carefully establishes why our rivers, streams and lakes should be accessible to all recreational users.”
“It’s the very real sense of someone casting off the shackles of polite society and doing something because they love to do it,” says the Brighton-based author Joe Minihane. He was so taken by Waterlog that years after its publication he decided to retrace the author’s steps, swimming in the same rivers, ponds and lidos and writing about his experiences in his book Floating.
“At its best, Deakin’s writing makes you want to strip off all your clothes and dive into a cold body of water, to commune with it and understand why doing so can bring you closer to nature and the world beyond the day to day,” he says.
Waterlog and the passion of the groups of people for whom it has become their favourite book has had an impact on the swimming world in ways that may have even surprised Deakin, who died aged 63 in 2006.
In the mid-90s wild swimming was still very much under the radar. As Kate Rew of the Outdoor Swimming Society notes: “The predominant culture of the time was to believe it was ‘unsafe’ to talk about swimming as you could be sued if someone got hurt doing it.”
Today we are in the midst of a wild swimming boom. The society was formed in 2006 with 300 members. Now its social media accounts attract more than 70,000 followers.
The popularity of outdoor swimming is corroborated by Sport England, whose director of insight Lisa O’Keefe says: “We know from (our) Active Lives Surveys that open water swimming is experiencing a surge in popularity. In the past 12 months the numbers of adults taking part has almost doubled to just under half a million.”
And as Rew notes, “there’s a culture-change in inland access, where big organisations such as the Lake District National Park are happy to allow free wild swims, and (we hope) many water companies and councils will follow”.
Did Deakin’s book play a significant role in this revival? Caitlin Davies thinks it did. “(He) brought the romance and sense of discovery back to outdoor swimming. He encouraged others to visit, map out and jump in swimming spots all over the country.”
In my view, Deakin was right: there is something spiritual about diving into cold water and surfacing to be confronted by beautiful surroundings. To me it often feels like we are born again. And while Deakin can no longer be found in any of the swimming spots he discovered or, indeed, the moat outside his own house where he swam throughout the seasons, his philosophy lives on in the thousands of people it has inspired, including many of us here at the Selsey Sea Bathing Society.
‘Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain’ by Roger Deakin, Vintage Publishing, £9.99
Exhibition on at the V&A until April 2020 on our history and love of pools and lidos.