Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Joe Minihane

Joe Minihane | 13th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Joe Minihane:

I have spent 12 months reliving the past, retreading old ground for new clues, eyeing the future, looking for a way to finally let go of the thing that has defined me since 2012.

Three years to the day I swam in the moat at Roger Deakin’s former home at Walnut Tree Farm, Floating came out in paperback. This was a joyous time, one of immense pride. With a new cover and a new collection of ego–stroking reviews, I made new friends as I travelled across the country to read from its pages, sneaking dips in misty lakes and hidden becks with people I’d known for a matter of hours.

One swim in particular stands out. The cloying heatwave of July had given way to something a lot more visceral by early August and the rain teemed across Grasmere, skittering onto the windows of the cafe where I was reading, turning the summer evening a dark shade of autumnal grey. And yet afterwards, four of us made for the lake, waterproofs pulled tightly around our necks. Disrobed, skin soaking, we waded into warm water off of a small beach in the lake’s southern reaches.

The slick pebbles slipped away to nothing and in the gloaming only the lights of a nearby hotel gave any sense of the horizon. The tussocky warrens of Loughrigg Fell had disappeared behind us. A deep smell of resin emanated from the pines which fringed the shore. Despite having spent six years swimming around the UK for Floating, this was my first swim in a Cumbrian lake. We stayed in for too long and parted shivering in the continuing downpour, promising to do it all again some time.

Much of the year was passed in and around bodies of water, often ones I had swum in alone for Floating. This was all thanks to Ben Cox, a Brighton–based filmmaker with whom I had teamed up to make a short film about the way I use wild swimming to ease my anxiety. In April, I directed Ben to a weir pool on the River Wissey in Norfolk, the dappled sun of early spring setting through freshly adorned ash, a tawny owl eeicking in the high reaches of the wood as we waded in and swam against the current. We dodged the dead trees of Covehithe and swam in deep water off of the coast of Suffolk. And, most magically of all, trussed ourselves up in neoprene and spent twenty minutes beneath the iridescent whirl of a starling murmuration in the water off of Brighton Palace Pier. Nothing had steeled me for the way the birds’ collective wings would slice through the frigid February air. They flew within arm’s reach in choreographed perfection.

The resulting film, Waterlog, is something I can only marvel at. I feel honoured to have worked with Ben, a filmmaker with an astonishing eye for the oblique and an obsession with story. It’s hard to believe that a small swimming blog I once conceived of as a way to break out of a never–ending cycle of anxiety and depression could lead to something so incredible. Ben won The Good Life Experience’s inaugural film award for his work. My gratitude towards him knows no bounds.

And yet for all the happiness that the long burn of Floating’s success has brought me in 2018, I have been looking for an escape. I needed something new. My anxiety has been eased tremendously by the water, but it never truly leaves me. Forging ahead always makes me feel better, as much as stripping down and running into the crash of the waves. For all that, ideas have not come easily. I have tried to force them while sitting at my desk. While swimming against the azure currents of the summer sea in Brighton. While building Lego with my son.

Finally, while on holiday in Spain in September, I sat down with a fresh new notebook, and the words came. 1,000 a day over the space of a week. Then an outline for something bigger. A sequel of sorts to Floating, but with more than just swimming at its heart. I have been travelling again, these past two months, meeting people looking to foster an intimate connection between the landscape and the mental health of themselves and others. Questioning whether such ideas are being overplayed. I feel reenergised, ready for what’s next. But I can’t deny it: I will forever be nostalgic for the joy that Floating has brought me and full of thanks to the people that have helped turn my passion for water and the outdoors into something life-affirming and all-consuming.