Climate change has done little, so far, to make the waters of the Lake District or the English Channel any less numbingly cold. But, to judge by the recent publication of two new books on the subject with near identical titles, we are increasingly drawn to the idea of swimming in the open air.
“Wild swimming” is a reaction against the suburbanisation of life with its soulless procession from car to office, supermarket to gym and back to the sofa for reality TV and a microwave meal. Wild swimming pushes this response to almost pagan levels.
But that’s only half the story. Neither Kate Rew’s Wild Swim or Daniel Start’s Wild Swimming would have existed without Roger Deakin, the writer and broadcaster who died two years ago. His 1999 book Waterlog describes a swimming journey through Britain – a meditation on nature, modernity and the senses, which became a cult favourite. Both writers pay homage to Deakin but their content and approach is quite distinct. For Start, wild swimming means inland natural sites, such as waterfalls and rivers, whereas Rew, who founded the Outdoor Swimming Society, allows it to be pretty much any form of open-air swimming in river, lake, lido or sea.
Rew’s book is a beautifully designed hardback full of self-consciously arty photographs, with her first person narrative treating each swim as a form of emotional journey. Incorporating just over 100 natural and lido swims, with a section listing a further hundred outdoor pools, it is crammed with information for the keen swimmer.
Start’s book, from the publisher of the Cool Camping series, gives good background on the history and wildlife of the 150 featured swimming holes. Unlike its rival, it is definitely more of a guidebook than a manifesto. And whereas he focuses on places to have a cooling dip, Rew’s book is about serious swims, some of them quite demanding. As a basic guide, if you like wearing shorts or a bikini choose Start, if you’re partial to speedos and a wetsuit opt for Rew.
In the foreword to Rew’s book, the nature writer Robert Macfarlane says that Deakin, his late friend and mentor, would have approved of Wild Swim. I’m not so sure. Although evocative, Rew’s almost religious devotion to the powers of immersion and the fellowship of wild swimmers at times comes over as self-indulgent and overblown. In any case, Deakin’s celebrated text was really an anti-guidebook about the joy of discovering somewhere for yourself, summed up in the phrase: “My only purpose was to get thoroughly lost; to disappear into the hills and tarns and miss my way home for as long as possible.”
That is not to damn Rew and Start’s efforts. These guides are both labours of love, the culmination of years of swimming around Britain. I just hope that, with the sudden move to categorise and market wild swimming, we won’t all have to form an orderly queue on the riverbank.
Wild Swim by Kate Rew; Guardian Books Â£16.99
Wild Swimming by Daniel Start; Punk Publishing Â£14.95
This piece appeared in the Financial Times on July 19 2008