This Life - Raffaella Barker on Her Love For Swimming in the Sea
I suppose it makes sense to call it ‘wild swimming’ rather than just ‘swimming’. Like ‘wild salmon’ or ‘wild rice’, it makes the act of swimming in natural water more exotic. It sorts the men from the boys and is shorthand for telling us that we are free, something we increasingly need to be reminded of.
Since childhood, my swimming has been more about rivers, mill ponds and
the sea than diving boards, chlorine and public pools. I learned to swim in the River Bure in Norfolk when I was about six, splashing manic doggy paddle across the hairpin bend on the corner of the river in our donkey’s field. I had mud up my nose, watercress in between my toes and a couple of heavy breathing cows watching from the shade of an oak tree on the opposite bank.
I remember the sense of first propelling myself against the current and the incredible excitement, adrenalin pumping, as my brothers dive-bombed past me and shrieked about a giant fish lurking beyond me. Probably an irritated trout I now realise, but back then I was sure it must be a monster from the deep.
We spent all our summers in that river and the streams that ran into it, with occasional forays to the beach for surfing. My most extreme wild swimming experience in those years was persuading my pony into the mill stream a couple of miles from home. He loved it; he needed little encouragement, and suddenly I was clinging to his mane as he bobbed about in the current, and, aged nine, I felt we had entered a fairy tale together.
The beauty of an empty shore at sunset or a stretch of emerald river on a summer afternoon draws me back. Immersion in water is exhilarating and so much fun
Obviously, in my sulking, silent teen years I didn’t do a lot of hearty swimming, wild or otherwise, but I was lured out of my self-absorption to swim at night. The ink-dark water, the dancing moonlight and the frisson of terror appealed to the gothic teenager that I was for a year or two.
My dark side was rewarded: I was on a late beach picnic a few miles from home when I jumped into the water one hot August night and I became a sparkling, glittering being with phosphorescence glowing all over me. It was the nearest I will ever get to having a halo. Phosphorescence is rare, the conditions need to be just right to see it, and when you do it is unforgettable.
It didn’t quite alter the course of my life, though it did inspire a children’s novel I wrote, and is certainly an element that will keep me swimming in the sea until I am too old to walk.
In adult life it is always tempting to take the easy option. No one is goading you to jump in the sea when you don’t want to, there are usually some children about to create a diversion and it is easy to get away with staying dry year after year, just handing out towels to offspring. But to do this is to miss out on the pulsing, zinging reminder that we are alive which comes when we throw ourselves into cold water and stay longer than the first two minutes of shocking cold.
Recently I have started swimming in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, which is not really wild, but offers the deliciousness of swimming out of doors in natural water. Some might say too natural as it can get a bit soupy in hot weather, but to me it is like swimming through a silk bath compared to the choppy currents of the North Sea in Norfolk.
I am not especially intrepid, although there were a few years in Cornwall when, with a painter friend and her incredibly fit sister, I did a few long swims around the headlands near Polzeath. Half an hour is probably my maximum in the water in the British Isles, and I completely overdid it in Whitby last summer. There the navy blue sea is an altogether icier affair than I am used to, and bravado kept me in much too long. Idiotically, I was waiting for the people who were wisely putting on wet suits, while I bobbed about in my bikini acting as if it was the Mediterranean.
When I came out I was blue, and no amount of tea and cake could restore me to being warm for the rest of that day or the next. It reminded me that the sea requires our respect, and we forget that at our peril.
But the beauty of an empty shore at sunset or a stretch of emerald river on a summer afternoon draws me back. Immersion in it is inevitable and exhilarating and so much fun. Relaxing, uplifting, and for me addictive, I am always looking for a new stretch of water, another place to be free.