A swimmer's journey through Britain
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Roger Deakin is a free-lance film maker and writer who formed the idea in 1996 of taking a swimming journey through the British Isles. This he did, swimming in rivers, lakes, the sea, and swimming pools, returning at intervals to swim in his own moat at his home in Suffolk. As one would expect from this, he is fanatical about swimming and thinks that the idea of an aquatic phase in human evolution is probably correct. However, he describes his swimming ability as characterized by endurance rather than speed; he prefers to swim breast stroke.
Deakin's tolerance of cold water is certainly better than average. At one point he sets up a midwinter swim in the North Sea with a group of friends. When it comes to the point, however, he is the only member of the party to enter the water.
The reader gets to know Deakin pretty well in the course of the book and he comes across as an agreeable travelling companion, with many nice touches of humour. He brings a historical awareness to his descriptions of the places he visits and a recurrent theme here is a lament for what has been lost: the natural meandering of rivers, the freedom to access many sites that were formerly popular with local bathers, the lidos that were a prominent feature of many British towns between the wars. He is scornful of nannyish warnings from water authorities about the dangers of swimming in rivers due to leptospirosis and other alleged hazards.
As a writer, Deakin has a gift for a neat turn of phrase that sometimes verges on the poetic. Of a hedgehog he writes: "he trotted off at surprising speed, the shiny coat of spines rippling like silk above his trousers of speckled fur." And a leech, which he thinks was the most graceful aquatic creature he has ever seen, "kept changing shape, stretching out its black stocking of a body as women do when they're trying tights for quality in Marks & Spencer."
At one point he has what appears to have been a life-changing experience at a place called Hell Gill, where a river plunges down a series of rock pools in a gorge so narrow that it is almost a pot-hole. Deakin went down this chute with little idea of what lay at the bottom; finally he arrived at a pool where the river plunged over the edge into nothingness. He hesitated whether to go over himself but eventually thought better of it and worked his way back upstream, though he had previously been told that this was impossible.
This is an excellent piece of travel writing, of an unusual kind.
31 January 2006
%S A swimmer's journey through Britain
%A Roger Deakin
%I Chatto & Windus
%G ISBN 0-7011-6652-5
%P 357 pp
%O illustrated by David Holmes
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