Between 2011 and 2016, Lynne Roper wild swam (and blogged) with a passion, mostly around Dartmoor. Now, her journals have been published by Selkie Press as ‘Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters’. Jenny Landreth reviews.
Walking on the beach at Aldeburgh last year, I found a stone with a hole through it. “A lucky stone!” I said, picking it up; I can’t afford to leave luck where I find it. “That’s a hag stone” my pal replied. “People put them by their front doors to ward off witches.” I waved the stone around, warding off my pal, herself a hag. Hags and witches, loud-laughed and no feeling for convention. Self-described wild women, like Lynne Roper. Imagine wanting to ward off someone like her.
From October 2011 to March 2015, Lynne Roper wrote a journal detailing her swims around South Devon (with occasional forays into North Devon and Cornwall). Her swimming life was year-round and whatever-the-weather, mostly in rivers, pools and all kinds of sea conditions. And it was cruelly curtailed; Lynne died of a brain tumour in August 2016, aged 55. Her journal is published now thanks to the hard work and sensitive editing of writer Tanya Shadrick.
Those dry details belie a gregarious and playful love-letter to Lynne’s beloved waters, and the people who swam them with her; a homage to wildness, nature, the weather, and her dog Honey, on a perpetual search for horse poo of the exact right vintage. It’s a generous-hearted, funny, evocative, and at times terrifying depiction of how it is to be a wild woman swimming.
Lynne is at the heart of this book, but her interest didn’t lie in her physical self. Her writing constantly looks outwards, to the horizon, the rocks, the sky. Like the wild swimmer she was, she constantly sights on the page. Even at the end, in the addendum taken from Out of My Brains, her blog about her tumour (which she named Jeremy Hunt), at a point when you’d expect her gaze to be entirely inward, she’s still looking up, waiting for the moon.
I call it a love letter but this romance is not slush. It’s undercut by things ‘having the faint scent of a city car park’, by not being quite what you expect. She does the opposite of what we often get from nature writing: she absolutely roots it in ordinary experience. ‘I saw a white shape I assumed to be a sanitary towel’ she wrote, discovering instead that it was a cuttlefish. We see it so many times the other way round, people using arcane words to obfuscate – like that, see? – or trying to create something fanciful from the everyday. Lynne doesn’t fanny around elevating it all into something purposefully transcendent. Instead, she draws the branch down towards us, so we can easily grab the apples. It’s so effective. And in creating a shining clarity, she catches an essence, a sense, a sensation. It looks almost accidental; it’s certainly effortless. It’s often scatological, really funny and sometimes beautiful, the magic in her plain prose. Rocks are ‘layered and striped in shades of bruise’. Swimming through a tricky rock arch, she says ‘we were all high as teenagers at a rave’. She encounters rocks the texture of ‘fossilized Cadbury’s Flakes’. Her descriptions are vivid, but they’re familiar, and often domestic. She’s used the prosaic normal detail of our lives to describe landscape and nature, and the effect is something higher, a kind of magic.
I know, writing about water, how one can struggle for adjectives for ‘blue’. Not Lynne – this book is packed with colour. There are blues, yes – there’s blue black, blue grey, dove, chalky and petrol. There’s greens bright and acid, frog or yellow. There’s ‘weird orangey-turquoise’, and there’s pewter, ginger, deep coppery gleams. There’s bog brown and slate grey and bracken the colour of a fox’s pelt. There’s sand as pale as a bald pate in winter, water the colour of ginger cake made with black treacle (a very precise recipe for a very precise colour), and there’s a slow-worm in shades of taupe and cappuccino – she’s taking the piss, I thought, and I could almost hear her laugh. The sea is the colour of a storm cloud, and then the sky is sea-blue: each one is borrowing from the other.
It’s packed too with references to artists, and ghosts, and alcohol. That might seem surprising, except if you’ve read The Outrun, where Amy Liptrot talks of cold water’s addictive qualities, how it can be like a hit. ‘We pop up through the spray’ Lynne writes ‘like ice cubes dropped in a G&T’. And then one particular November swim was ‘like swimming in a mixture of Guinness, Jail Ale and ice in a pub’s drip tray at the end of a busy night’.
You see? How tangible that is? This is a tangible book. It’s as alive as weather. Everything thrusts outward from Lynne, there’s a physicality to it. It follows the years in great big footsteps and there’s a sense of everything expanding out as the weather warms and then contracting back in again as ice returns. Or it’s like the tide. Sometimes the joy is palpable, but then, so is the fear. Sometimes that fear belongs to me, the reader. When she writes ‘we find another deep cave … we’re pulled in and shooshed back; it’s like being caught in the windpipe of a living creature’ I have to put the book down, take a minute. She’s casually, devastatingly, laid out my own nightmare, and I can feel it, safely here on dry land. She is not immune to fear herself, and knows how to tell it – there are stories in here that have the pacing of a good thriller. Times where it feels really wild, where Lynne dances on ‘the edge of control’, where the water makes her afraid and unsure. Of course you know she survives this one but the adrenaline! Hers, mine! It all adds to the allure of this extraordinary woman, how she faced things some of us don’t dare think of.
And alongside all of this, there’s love. So much of it, again like waves coming in and going out again. That too you can feel on the page, and it’s never cloying, always rather wonderful, actually. For her tribe and for her surroundings, an enthusiastic passion that really only wanes right at the very end, when her certainty is gone.
I don’t want to ward off hags, witches or wild women. I want the opposite of a hag stone, something that will ward them towards me. And I think this book is that thing. I’m going to carry it in my backpack, it’ll act as a talisperson, a signal. And if people mistake me for a wild woman, though I have a tenth of Lynne’s character and daring, I shall be delighted. Yes! I’ll say, I am a wild woman. What do you make of that?
Wild Woman Swimming is out now and available here, priced £8.99.