Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s ever-reliable contributors and friends old and new take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months.
In 2014 I went swimming. All year I’ve not stopped listening to that Frank Ocean track where he sings “I’m a try to swim from something bigger than me” and that’s what I’ve kept on doing. At the beginning of the year I was on the small Orkney island of Papay, staying in a cottage 500m from the sea to both east and west, and I had no idea I’d be living 600km from the sea, in Berlin, come the end of the year.
On New Year’s Day, I had a solo dip in the bay near my house on Papay. It was brief, chilly and glorious and, on the way home to a hot shower, I spotted a rare bird in a field – a glossy ibis. In February I moved back to the harbour town of Stromness on Orkney’s mainland and continued regular winter sea swims with the Orkney Polar Bear Club: at Warbeth beach swimming out to Hoy and the Atlantic; at the Bay of Skaill with hazy bluesky and geese overhead; in the village of St Mary’s where I climbed up rusty ladder out of the sea and ran the length of the pier in my swimming costume in gale, driving home elated with car heaters blasting.
In Stromness I found a regular swim spot off a slipway behind the museum, overlooked by the house where George Mackay Brown used to live. The water was getting warmer by Easter Sunday when I swam there, through water like silk, right up to a tystie (black guillemot), calling out ‘happy easter!’ to surprised people on the pier. I often swam with my friend Sam, who is part-selkie and dives for lost balls from Stromness golf course.
In the middle of May, I celebrated news about my book getting published with a sea swim accompanied by three women, two eider ducks and one seal. In June I swam at 11.30pm on the solstice, out toward the Brough of Birsay lighthouse. There was enough light to see hundreds of small moon jellyfish in the water. The next evening, a group of us left a midsummer party and swam at the Bay of Skaill, joined by my Dad who drove his 4×4 down onto the beach, blasting music, and stripped off his Moroccan jalabiya to get in the water. Another summer evening I swam with my brother Tom and his wife Peggy at the rockpools by the farm where we grew up, and we felt like kids again.
The outdoor swims have become increasingly important to me as both celebration and stress relief. The cold blast is the perfect antidote to tension. They also help to observe and mark the changing seasons (in spring I swam among eider ducks’ mating calls and in the summer with their ducklings) and the fluctuating weather and sea state. These dips are the shimmering crests on the waves of routine and unremembered days, they are my refreshment from work and anxiety and planning and frustration. With seaweed and Atlantic on my skin, up close to anemones and limpets, I am alive. I always feel more awake when I get out, my skin and my brain tingling, with the fresh perspective you get from being at seal and duck level.
In July I was in ‘training’ and managed, for the first time, accompanied by my Mum, to swim all the way around the shipwreck at Inganess bay. I was working up to the annual ‘Holms Race’ where we were taken out of Stromness harbour on a small ferry, jumped off the back, then swam back to the town. It was exhilarating, the adrenaline meaning I didn’t notice the cold, and us Polar Bears all reached the finish line buzzing.
Undoubtedly my best swim of the year was on July 25 when I went back to Papay for the weekend. I was alone and it was raining but the water temperature was comfortable enough to stay in for a while. The island was half hidden in fog and sea and sky were indistinct. All was hazy apart from the sharp black shapes of tysties on the water. As I swam, arctic terns were diving nearby. I saw two lions mane jellyfish pulsing below me and it was magic.
I took a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and joined, via twitter, a group of about twenty people at Portobello for a swim organised by comedian Josie Long: an urban, showbiz swim, noticeably warmer than Orkney seas.
Over the summer I’d come to the decision to leave Orkney and in my last week there, after a sunny day getting warm and dusty repairing a drystone dyke at the farm, I went down and swam in the rockpools, naked, in sunshine and with a butterfly, feeling like a mermaid while big Atlantic waves crashed just beyond and I wondered what I was doing leaving such an idyl. On my last day in Orkney, I took the boat to the small island of Flotta with visiting filmmaker Florrie and we swam in a huge WWII bomb crater.
I spent September in London and swam at the ladies pond on Hampstead Heath with my friend Shiraz who I hadn’t seen in years and at London Fields Lido with Leonie. At the end of the month, I gave my first ever public reading of my writing at the Branchage festival on Jersey, and the next morning swam in the sea with old friend Luke at a beautiful bay looking over to Guernsey.
Now I’m landlocked in Berlin but lake swimming is popular here. Although I arrived at the beginning of winter, I have managed a couple of outdoor swims with new friends: in a tributary of the Spree and in Teufelsee (literally ‘Devil’s Lake’) in a forest on the outskirts of the city, overlooked by a Cold War listening station. Now the lakes will begin to freeze, a little too cold for swimming even for this Polar Bear, but I have many aquatic plans for 2015.