Caught by the River

Remembering Roger Deakin

16th February 2017

Back in September, we posted a series of tributes to the late, great writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin, marking ten years since his untimely passing. The contribution which follows came as a late addition, but we’ve decided it’s too good a piece of writing not to publish. Enjoy!

Words and pictures: Melissa Mouchemore

I was once asked by Roger Deakin if I would like to join him for a swim in his moat at Walnut Tree Farm. I was sitting outside the farmhouse, probably with a cup of tea. I did not know Roger at all well, although I had heard many tales – he was Jo’s friend from way back – and we had stopped off in Mellis en route back to Ipswich, on the off-chance that he was in. He was in (he often wasn’t), and he was excited. He’d just been sent the cover design for his first book – Jo had mentioned that Roger was writing a book. He spread out the watercolour with pride – suggestions of a muddy channel and grassy banks beneath an immense stippled sky, an endless, watery blue. We were impressed and said so.

I already knew that the book was called Waterlog and that it was about swimming, but to make conversation I asked him anyway. I don’t need to repeat his summary but at the end he said something like,

“And it all starts with me swimming in my moat,” as he pointed at the oblong of water near where we were sitting outside – an oblong that in my ignorance I would have called a pond.

And then he added,

“We could go for a swim now if you like.”

To which I replied with a quizzical smile,

“Er, no thanks.”

Which is a bit of a shame, with hindsight. But you see, I gave this response because I had not yet read Waterlog.

I meant to read it when it first came out but didn’t, although I heard about its publication from Jo and later saw copies of it in my local Waterstone’s (the first paperback edition with a different cover).

I hadn’t read it when I chatted to Roger at Jo’s 40th.

And I still hadn’t read it at the dawn of the new millennium when Jo and I rented a holiday cottage on the beach for the celebrations. We invited everyone we could think of in Suffolk and beyond who might be able to come for the day (assuming no one would turn up). We didn’t think of Roger — perhaps because he so often wasn’t in — but we bumped into him on the beach on ‘New Millennium Day’ not far from the cottage. He was out for a long walk on this soft, dazed winter morning and mentioned that he might have a swim later.

I can remember thinking, oh he is still swimming – it wasn’t just for the book then.

“Come back to our place afterwards,” we suggested, “we’ve got a hot shower and mountains of food,” – we had taken the Y2K warnings a bit too seriously. Roger seemed interested but you could see he was more focused on the walk and off he went.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of guests and catering – everyone we knew in Suffolk and beyond DID turn up. As darkness fell there was a washing up situation similar to The Hobbit’s kitchen after the dwarves have left and Jo and I were without doubt flagging. Only a handful of guests remained – all with young children – and an intense parenting pow-wow was taking place in the lounge while the kids watched TV in a warm fug. All was quiet and Jo and I thought, nearly there, let’s just start on a bit of washing up … when there was a final knock at the door. Jo went into the hall and came back with raised eyebrows, followed by Roger, dressed only in a pair of speedos and those wet-suit type socks, resplendently glistening from head to foot having just emerged out of the dark North Sea. Leaving a salt-water trail he made his way through the lounge, silencing the guests — none of whom knew him — and into the shower room beyond.

Blimey, he really does swim, I can remember thinking.

Roger stayed long after the other guests, probably luxuriating in the hormone-rich after-glow of the cold swim and the warm shower that he describes so appealingly in Waterlog (although I did not know that because I had not yet read the book.) He made great in-roads into the food and made us laugh — Jo and I had to leave the cottage several days before the rental period ended because we were both due back at work. A lovely cottage by the sea, empty, paid for by us — what a bummer.

‘Skive off!’ urged Roger.

‘We can’t!’ we moaned.

He offered to fake a sick note for us both – ‘I’ll sign it … Dr. Deakin!’

If only we were more irresponsible.

But something from that evening stayed with me.

When I got back to London I consoled myself through winter nights after exhausting work days, missing that cottage, the North Sea, the company, by curling up and finally reading Waterlog (the hardback edition with the original blue cover). Only one other book I can think of has so transported and delighted me – Old Glory by Jonathan Raban – I can remember reading that in bed and feeling that I really was in a small boat sailing down the Missisippi, the bed rocking gently or violently depending on the conditions. So it was with Waterlog, only this time through Roger’s words I was swimming and in water and scenery that I realised was often very familiar – the Test, Helford River, Walberswick, Hampstead Ladies Pond – as well as plunging into unknown water – Hell Gill, Corryvreckan – and most wonderful of all, discovering new places to dip, submerge and even steam right under my very nose – Ironmonger Row Turkish Baths, the Oasis pool, Covent Garden.

I had to get out there and try these places for real, gliding, bobbing, shivering, squelching, yelping with the cold. And along with Jo, who is even more enthusiastic, over the years I most certainly have…for now I HAVE READ WATERLOG.

It has to be said I have never achieved anything like Roger’s heights (or depths) regarding cold, discomfort and disregard for health and safety – I am a wimpish, cautious, last-one-in-first-one-out sort of swimmer. I could so easily, without Waterlog, have not been a swimmer at all. But Waterlog is so alluring, persuasive and funny about the joys of swimming – I love Roger’s theory that in these days of central heating we are all ‘par-boiled’ and essentially need a bit of toughening up. Jo and I still laugh at the thought of all those ‘endolphins’ buzzing around inside after a cold swim – there have been times when we have seriously needed those hormones to cheer us up through the usual thicks and thins of life.

I swam with Jo at Old Hunstanton this summer on a blissfully balmy warm evening as the sun went down. And took my menfolk back there a few days later for another sunset swim that was so warm even I didn’t hesitate to immerse myself. How dreamy and rare. Several weeks later a text arrived from Jo;

“At Old Hunstanton raising a toast (cup of tea) to you after another perfect swim … my undoubtedly best swimming friend.”

I never imagined anyone would say that about me.

So you see Dr. Deakin, although I never got round to telling you how much I loved Waterlog, we are all still very much taking your medicine.


You can view the previous ‘Remembering Roger Deakin’ posts here.

Melissa Mouchemore on Caught by the River