In his upcoming book Floating: a life regained, Joe Minihane pays homage to Roger Deakin by reenacting his wild swimming tour. The book is released by Duckworth Overlook on 7 April. Find an extract below. You can pre-order a copy here.
Cropthorne Water Mill at Fladbury on the River Avon was a private affair, and I’d been invited to swim there by the owner, George, after I’d done some detective work, found his email address and written to him about my trip. His cousin Judith had asked Roger down in the 1990s having seen one of his newspaper articles on wild swimming.
The Environment Agency had seemingly wanted to go to war with Judith’s family for having the temerity to paddle in these waters. A letter spoke of the ‘considerable risks’ of jumping into the Avon and the need to ‘take children to a local swimming pool instead’. It clearly hadn’t deterred them.
George and his son John, who had collected me from the train station at Evesham, led me down to the river from the road, ringing a bell and hailing the punt from the mill on the far bank. Attached to a pulley, it slid across the water, a huge group of fifteen swimmers awaiting our arrival on the other side.
It was everything I had hoped for. In my email to George I’d asked if I could possibly come down, snoop about and perhaps go on a long swim upstream. I had thought I’d be the only one taking to the water, pushing off and turning back for London within an hour or two. But already everyone had changed into their swimming kit, ready to join in. After the briefest of introductions to young cousins, grandparents and spouses, I was ushered into a back room of the mill to put on my shorts, before being led up into the living room on the first floor by John and his brother. I knew what was coming.
Roger mentions that swimmers here jumped out of the window into the Avon far below. But he doesn’t say whether he did it. It seemed I had no choice in the matter. John ushered me forward to look out of the window. I had thought it was a sheer drop out into the river, but there was a four-foot wide path skirting the mill which needed to be cleared first. John clambered into the frame of the window, which stood a few inches from the floor, stretched his long tanned arms backwards and catapulted himself out into the open. A huge splash and the odd cheer told me he’d made it safely. His younger brother James was next. He was fourteen and just a few inches shy of six feet. Gangly but extremely confident, he disappeared and emerged soaked and smiling. I tried to remember being his age, memories of failing to flop into the deep end during school swimming lessons once again resurfacing. If these teenagers seemed fearless, it was because they were.
George watched behind me as I moved up to the window and looked out. By now, everyone downstairs was watching, eying me gleefully for any signs of weakness. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to walk back to the river bank, slip in and swim away as fast as possible on a solo exploration. I closed my eyes, the faces of my old classmates gawping and jeering at my eleven-year-old self haunting the darkness. I couldn’t let my hosts down. I hung back in the frame, kept my eyes shut tight, began counting to three and jumped on two. I felt my legs wheeling and then disappeared into the green water.
I emerged gasping to a round of applause. John took my arm and helped pull me out, smiling. His long curly hair was slick across his face, his board shorts slung low.
‘You made it by about four inches,’ he said. ‘Good effort.’
I imagined my heels cracking on the edge of the path, my body sliding forward helplessly into the water. What if I had been the person to end the halcyon days of wild swimming here in Fladbury? I imagined the paramedics arriving, shuttling across on the pulley ferry, strapping me to a stretcher. I pictured myself with metal pins through my legs and wearing protective boots on both feet for the next year, a short article on the BBC News website remarking on my idiocy. George and his family having to sell up because of my poor jumping skills, never returning to a place that had brought them so much happiness. Years of anxiety had made me an expert at making imaginary mountains out of non-existent mole-hills. ‘What ifs?’ were my forte.
Once I’d let my overactive imagination work through this implausible scenario, I realised I was actually in the grip of an intense adrenaline rush. I had found my rebellion in jumping out of mill house windows.
Floating: a life regained is available in the Caught by the River shop, priced £14.99.