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Following the example of naturalist Roger Deakin in his classic memoir Waterlog, journalist Joe Minihane becomes obsessed with wild swimming and its restorative qualities. Putting one arm over the other, sometimes resting on his back, he begins to confront his personal demons while rekindling old friendships and forging new ones. Through Minihane’s thoughtful description, the act of swimming becomes both strange and beautiful as the wild water puts him in touch with nature and himself.
From Hampstead to Yorkshire, from Dorset to Jura, from the Isles of Scilly to Wales, Floating is a love letter to different wild stretches of water. But it also captures Minihane’s struggle to understand his life and move forward. Steeped in the anti-authoritarian and naturalistic spirit of Roger Deakin, Minihane celebrates the joy of taking time out to feel better.
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Tooting Bec Lido, London – Highgate Men's Pond, London – River Granta, Cambridgeshire
The dog days of summer were already here when I left my flat and cycled across south London to Tooting Bec Lido. I was starting my mission late in the year, I knew, but still I moved tentatively, despite the fact that were weren't many warm weeks left in the year for wild swimming. No swing down to the Scillies for me, where Roger had started; rather a leisurely stroll to a swimming hole I knew well, and which was one of the last Roger visited in Waterlog. It was a metaphorical toe in the water.
Tooting Bec Lido remains a well-loved south London institution. The 'Rastafarian doors' to the cubicles which lined the sides of the pool, which my predecessor spoke of warmly, were still there, but with an added dash of blue to complement the green, yellow and red of Zion.
A wedding cake fountain sprayed icy water outside the café, which sold tea in styrofoam cups for a quid and two slices of toast for 50p. It was a happy antidote to the expensive coffee and cake culture sweeping this corner of the capital.
I got changed in a cubicle on the far side, with sloppy wet footprints on the concrete where a previous swimmer had pulled himself free of clinging swim shorts. I left my bag on a bench underneath a framed newspaper article which ran with the headline 'Come on in, the Water's Freezing'.
I had visited Tooting numerous times over the previous couple of summers, but despite this, I still found its waters unaccountably cold, even on a searing hot day. The school holidays were well under way, but for some reason it wasn't too crowded, so I had a clear, straight route to the distant shallows. At a hundred yards, it remains one of Europe's largest outdoor pools, and the prospect of swimming lengths was daunting.
I stood looking down into the bright blue of the deep end, leaf mulch stuck fast to the off-white bottom. I readied myself to jump, counted to three and found myself still standing there.
A nervousness washed over me and suddenly I was back at the local pool in Bishops Stortford, aged eleven, on my first ever PE lesson at secondary school. Six fellow swimmers from the bottom ability group looked up at me from the water, three metres deep, each one in a silicone cap, nose clips giving their shouts of encouragement a deep, nasal quality which age had yet to truly gift them. I stared back at them before turning to the swimming tutor in fear.
'I can't do it,' I told her.
'You can,' she said. Standing above the deep end of Tooting Bec Lido, I swear I had the memory of her hand firmly on the small of my back, ready to give me some physical impetus. I was almost certainly projecting that little detail.
The thing was, I couldn't. In front of six classmates and now an entire pool of other students from different groups turning to watch, I was having a very public meltdown. I suppose you could call it a panic attack. Because even at that age, I was a hopeless worrier. If there was something to fret about, I would fret about it. Homework, offending my friends, trying to be popular with new classmates. It seemed normal and everyday then in the way it felt debilitating and tedious now.
Inevitably, the tears came. As they did, I was walked back down the pool and helped to jump in at five-metre intervals, until, finally, I was back at the three-metre mark.
I flopped myself in and an ironic cheer went up. I broke out my best doggy paddle to the nearest steps and climbed out.
I felt a sense of pride along with a deep sense of shame for showing my emotions so openly to a group of merciless peers who at that point I hardly knew. Packing my swimming kit into a plastic Dennis the Menace bag afterwards, one of them articulated what I believed to be the entire year's feelings towards me:
'Why are you such a wuss?'
My mind refocused on the icy water of Tooting in front of me and tried to push that resurgent memory back to wherever it had come from. I could hear Morrissey singing loud and clear in my head. About smiling now, but being mortified at the time.
I took a deep breath, began counting to three and chucked myself in at two. The lido's water completed the necessary ablutions of my anxious mind.
As I surfaced, I looked at my fellow swimmers. Some wore large goggles and wetsuits, swimming stealthy lengths, practising tumble turns, the recent London Olympics clearly imbuing the regulars with a sense of athletic purpose.
Head out, I began my long paddle towards the café and the blessed chance of putting my feet down on the bottom. I wouldn't be doing the seventeen lengths required for a mile today – a distance which my predecessor wouldn't have given a second's thought to completing. My emulation of Roger's feats would have to wait. Instead I let the water soothe my mind of work troubles and help it stay in a single place without wandering. I was lost in the moment when I was reminded where I was by a huge slap of water in the face. The wind had whipped up across the lido's vast surface, creating the kind of chop you'd expect on a south coast beach or a wide expanse of water in the Lake District. I found it amusing that someone would build a pool so big it could emulate properly wild conditions.
I continued regardless, taking the occasional mouthful and eventually dipping my head, surfacing with my hair slick across my forehead, the sting of hair product and chlorine in my eyes. I wiped my face and swam on with my eyes and nose peering out of the water like a periscope. I managed a measly three lengths before the shivers came on. The backs of my arms pricked with goosebumps as I clambered out at the shallow end, pulling myself up over the side – soaked, happy and no longer aware of my school-age hopelessness when it came to taking the plunge.
In the spirit of keeping up with Roger's approach to London swimming, his dips all completed in one short burst, I decided to stick within the M25. I wanted to stay on safe ground, without the need to check OS maps out of the library. My toe-dipping continued at Marshall Street Baths in Soho.
Much had changed here since Roger visited and played a game of water polo with the locals. It had closed in 1997, not long after that match, and did not reopen until 2010, as part of a private leisure centre which charged hefty fees for members and non-members alike.
On a late August afternoon, a cold shower presaging the onset of autumn, I forked out £5.65 and made my way through the beautifully refurbished changing rooms and into the stunning space in which the bath, first built in 1850, was housed. The barrel-vaulted ceiling created a great echo as swimmers chatted on the narrow sides, where once there had been bleachers for excitable spectators to cheer on gala participants.
The rebuild had ensured that these had gone, along with the training pool out the back. The whole thing was now run by Better Leisure, a company operated as part of the GLL social enterprise, and while the Friends of Marshall Street Baths had succeeded in getting this beautiful building reopened, it had come at a cost. This was not the council-run, community-minded centre it once was.
The decimation of affordable facilities for local people got to me. I believed strongly that such places should be open to all, regardless of wealth. It felt to me that this was indicative of London as a whole, a marvellous pulsating city which had been repackaged and sold back to those who could afford it with scant regard for those on the margins. Social cleansing is a strong term, but it felt as if this was what was happening here.
The pool could no longer be seen from the narrow footpath which ran along Marshall Street, and it was office workers and media types who came here, not local residents. Paying almost £6 for a swim, just a few pence less than the minimum wage, was surely not what was intended when the baths opened more than a hundred and fifty years ago as a place for the public to swim, wash, relax and clean their clothes.
The whole place felt like a commodity. Something for 'consumers' rather than somewhere with society's well-being at its heart. While GLL said it reinvested any surplus it made back into its service, loftily dubbing its own work 'fair trade leisure provision', it felt as if the poorer residents of Westminster were being squeezed out.
But I was here and wanted a swim badly. I plopped in and slowly began to breaststroke my way to a kilometre. I followed the neatly tiled black line along the bottom, my arms aching as the metres passed by.
Marshall Street was stunning. But I couldn't help but feel that its rebirth had been handled incorrectly. That those who had written to MPs to complain of its continued closure in 2001 had been cheated out of the baths which they so clearly loved. I left frustrated, ready to find a swim that was less restricted by the ways leisure centre managers seem to think we should exercise these days.
Across town at Highgate men's pond the crowds were sparse, despite it clearly being one of the last warm days of summer. Perhaps it was because it was midweek. I loved swimming at the mixed pond across the other side of Hampstead Heath, but I was determined to stick to Waterlog dips only. Roger's decision to opt for the single-sex pool, coupled with the fact that the mixed was now shut for the season, had forced my hand.
An older gent towelled off in the corner of the metal changing shed as my friend Joe and I nudged open the wooden door and got ourselves ready for a cooling immersion. Joe was a good friend, former colleague and fellow freelancer, not to mention a highly skilled, barrel-chested swimmer. He was always willing to leave his desk behind for some kind of adventure. Previously that had meant the two of us going to the pub, but he didn't need much convincing that we should maybe take a bit of exercise before guzzling a few indulgent pints. After a few solo swims, I was glad of some company.
I had told Joe about my plans to retrace Waterlog, but I hadn't told him why. I made out that it was just a project on the side, a small something, a hobby to provide light relief from the regular work that I had come to resent. Sharing my anxiety, even with my closest friends, was not something I felt ready to do.
Scrawled in chalk on the blackboard was 19°C, next to the arrow pointing to the 'Nude Sunbathing' area. Not feeling brave enough to bare all, we both emerged from the changing hut out onto the long concrete jetty. The water temperature hadn't dropped sufficiently for the lifeguards to bring the ropes in close, as they had been when Roger came on a cold November afternoon. There was no coconut matting to warm our feet either, the ground sharp and rough on the soft balls of my feet.
We reached the cold metal steps which descended into the green-brown water. There was only one other swimmer, dragging himself along the far perimeter rope. Joe lowered himself in first, screwing his face up as his balls hit the surface. I felt like going back to my bag, wrapping up and heading straight to the warmth of the nearest saloon bar.
Geeing myself up, I followed Joe in. I had little idea of how to gauge temperatures, but there was no way this was 19°C. It felt far colder, especially as low scudding clouds now obscured the sun. I had read Roger's description of Highgate that morning and remembered his advice: swim fast between buoys. I set off in my smartest breaststroke, my goggles steaming up within seconds. I managed a single, long loop of the lake, before draping myself across a roped life ring. After a short breather, I headed off again.
This time I looped my goggles around my wrist and swam head up. I was joined by a great crested grebe, its shock of Mohawk feathers standing brightly against the greying sky and murky water. Pootling along together, it made me realise why I loved wild swimming. It wasn't just about finding a cure for the anxiety which dogged my mind, but steeping myself in nature and the outdoors.
I'm no naturalist. What knowledge I have of birds comes from the RSPB's online bird identifier and an ability to bullshit around those who don't know as much as me. But I wanted to learn more and spend more time with these creatures, to get to know them intimately, developing some true knowledge in the process. Plus there was no way you were ever likely to swim with wildfowl in a Fitness First training pool. The grebe took one last look at me before spinning itself around, swimming off and taking a dive after some unseen prey. His disappearing act made me wonder just what else I might be sharing the pond with.
There is a silky quality to the water at Highgate and at the Hampstead mixed pond, which makes these two unlike any other swimming hole in the capital. The large lidos are all shot through with chlorine, meaning there's always the whiff of schoolday swims, a stench you can't flush from your nostrils. The ponds on Hampstead Heath lack the serious feel of the Serpentine too, where triathletes and competitive swimmers go to train for long-distance swimming assignments. Delightful as the fresh water of that Hyde Park lake is, swimming in water that is often overlooked by pedaloes laden with gawping tourists is not quite as relaxing as spending some quality time with some of Britain's most beautiful waterfowl in London's finest park.
Joe and I climbed out of the men's pond after an ample twenty-minute dip, a slight shiver juddering through both of us as we made our way back along the jetty. Joe was desperate for a hot shower and wondered aloud if the basic cubicles here might have one on offer. The lifeguard nodded with a smile and waited to hear Joe's yelp as he stood under the inevitably icy blast. Joe blinked in shock as he emerged.
'It's good for you!' said the lifeguard, returning to his small hut with a chuckle.
By now Joe's shivers had reached shuddering point and we dried ourselves quickly, repairing to the pub to plot swims outside the city. I felt happy in the moment, my anxiety temporarily alleviated, swimming my only concern.
Following Roger's footsteps in the rest of the UK was going to prove challenging. And not just because of the extreme nature of some of the swims (descending into Hell Gill in the Yorkshire Dales and negotiating the Fowey estuary in Cornwall were just two dips I planned on leaving until the very last opportunity). My lack of a driving licence was clearly going to be an issue in getting to the most remote locations of Roger's journey and I knew from the start that I was going to be reliant on the kindness of fellow wild-swimming acolytes, of whom at this point there seemed to be very few.
I could, of course, learn to drive. But my urge to swim Waterlog was too great and learning would take up precious time. I just knew that getting behind the wheel was going to prove tortuous. I hadn't done so for six years, since I spectacularly failed an intensive driving course while working for a well-known car magazine, my first proper job in journalism. I could still hear the intense road rage of the instructor, belted out heartily to fellow drivers in a broad Norfolk accent in exasperation at their lack of patience.
His hectoring of other drivers only served to turn me into a nervous wreck, wildly stomping on the clutch thinking it was the brake, swerving through traffic or stalling on roundabouts. He would smoke roll-ups as soon as we were out of sight of his office, wafting his inexpertly assembled creations in front of my face in the tiny car. I didn't have the heart to tell him to stub it out.
After almost crashing into a parked car, he broke the inevitable news that I wasn't up to taking my test that week. I let him drive us back to the centre and never saw him again. The thought of turning to one of the activities that made me most anxious of all in order to complete a quest to beat my anxiety seemed absurd.
Anyway, my inability to perform this most basic of tasks also made my Waterlog challenge that bit more interesting and a lot more social. I decided it was an obstacle to revel in rather than rectify. Working alone from home and with many of my oldest friends not living in London, part of me hoped this would be a way to rekindle friendships and enjoy the simple social buzz of old times, when we'd skip lectures and hang out. Everyone had responsibilities now, but swimming together would be a way to subvert them, for a few hours at least.
However, for my first non-London swim, I decided that rather than find a willing driver I would choose somewhere close to a train station that wasn't going to require an overnight stay. Cambridge, and Grantchester in particular, seemed like the perfect place to start.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Floating"
Copyright © 2017 Joe Minihane.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: Jumping in, Feet First,
Chapter One: August,
Chapter Two: September,
Chapter Three: October,
Chapter Four: February,
Chapter Five: April,
Chapter Six: May,
Chapter Seven: June,
Chapter Eight: July,
Part Two: The Break,
Chapter One: August,
Chapter Two: September,
Chapter Three: October,
Part Three: Surfacing,
Chapter One: January,
Chapter Two: March,
Chapter Three: April,
Chapter Four: May,
Chapter Five: June,
Chapter Six: July,
Chapter Seven: August,
Chapter Eight: September,
Chapter Nine: October,
Chapter Ten: November,
Chapter Eleven: April,
About the Author,