Plans scuppered by pandemic, seasoned outdoor swimmer Joe Minihane takes a dip in the tarns, rivers and moats of his mind.
I’ve spent the past six weeks diving deep into the well of gratitude. My basement flat on Brighton’s Kemptown seafront may only look out onto a faded yellow wall, but it is no more than a three minute walk from the shoreline, where the waves have dwindled from an impassable February thump to a breathless April ripple. Each morning, before the runners emerge, I take furtive, aimless, five minute dips, sticking close to shore, unsure of whether I’m breaking rules, emerging to find my at–times dubious mental health eased to a point of acceptance and level–headedness.
My need for water and the luck which brought me to this home four years ago are sustaining me right now. I know that for many, a dip is impossible. And yet, like all of those I know who derive their sense of wellbeing from the chill depths and the burning sensation of cold water on hot skin, my sleep has been dominated by dreams of distant swims, of the illicit thrill of sliding into a river and the vertigo–inducing terror of swimming in high tarns beneath near vertical scree slopes.
This is the time of year when I would be laying plans, imagined swims edging towards realisation through the spread of OS Maps across the living room floor, enquiring emails to friends of friends and hours spent trawling Google Earth to get a more intimate knowledge of what lies ahead.
Instead, as with so much at this time, I find myself growing nostalgic. My subconscious has taken me to myriad places in recent weeks. It seems to have a thirst for freshwater, for rivers, for hills. It eschews the smell of algae on the air and the taste of salt lingering on lips and facial hair for something it cannot and will not have this summer.
In the blackness of the small hours it leads me up the wide, steep track from the village of Grasmere, past the youth hostel and up, up, up into the mountains. It dismisses the small, human–sized plunge pools and the loud skittering of white water tumbling off the fells. It demands a wider sweep of water, where hills are smudged out by a grey August sky and there is little summer heat to speak of. It dreams of Easedale Tarn. The banks are high, dropping down to a narrow beach which slides steeply, quickly into cold, green water. Tarn Crag looms above. Arms and legs are at full stretch, reaching for the untouchable, free of the strictures of lanes and lidos.
At the heart of the small tarn, what appears to be a cairn. The lake’s bed rises up and grazes knees, hands scrabbling to help push up to a stand. The ability to do so at Easedale’s centre affords bizarre views, of mountain paths unseen from dry land and sheep-mown platforms deep within the crags. Nowhere else affords the ability to walk on water.
Days later, I am taken from my desk, rejection emails and a pile of notes for a book that may never exist, to Grantchester Meadows, on the scalding promise of a June morning. A kingfisher slips from its perch low in a willow, the deep tendrils of which glide beneath the surface of the Granta. There is the rich scent of fresh cow shit and the nostril itch of cow parsley. The river of Brooke and Byron is a byword for agri–runoff these days, but not now, not here, not in this retelling. Today it is clear, flowing lazily around its deep meanders, through long tunnels of horse chestnut towards the tea rooms in the village downstream.
Slipping in where the channel drops suddenly into long tresses of weed, the sharp fear of pike rising from guts to throat, there is the inescapable feeling of being pushed forward by unseen forces. The gentle nudge of the current.The tumult of the recent past. An immersion into a world that we usually look upon rather than from within. Chaffinches and goldfinches drop and dart through the passing canopy. Rising bubbles prove that I am not alone in the water.
There is something both bucolic and disturbing here. There is fear as well as exuberance on clambering out and walking towards the nettle beds where clothes have been piled neatly and hidden from view.
It is a wet, windy morning by the sea, a swim an impossibility. Black coffee is sipped overlooking the narrow courtyard at the back of the flat. Fledgling sparrows make confused sorties past the fat–stuffed coconuts that hang from the bird feeder. A pair of robins search the soil surrounding the compost bin for subterranean sustenance.
I am sent back again, a passenger in a small car through the lanes of northern Suffolk, heading towards the moat at Walnut Tree Farm. Roger Deakin’s former home. The site of my happiest, most memorable swim. Today the moat is not surrounded by the bare branches of trees in early spring, as it was on my visit, but is in its high summer finery, a rich palette of greens and golds. Newts, tadpoles, swallows diving for water boatmen.
The moat is deep, untroubled by weed. This is clearly not reality. I know this, because the water is warm, bath–like, capable of sustaining an endless swim. Length follows length, until the count is lost and all that is left is breath, movement, breath, movement, breath, movement.
Swims glide across my mind and disappear, contrail upon contrail. Easedale, Grantchester. To the bone chilling kelp forests of the Scilly Isles, the cool skitter of Cowside Beck in the Yorkshire Dales, the peat–tasting pools of Torrin on Skye.
I am back in the courtyard. Coffee cold. Robins gone. The sound of a wood pigeon cooing from the retaining wall above. All of these swims are mine. More will join them. But not yet. Not yet. Not yet.