I was in York last November at the height of the floods, and stood on the bridge upstream of Kings Staith with hundreds of Saturday afternoon shoppers in an atmosphere at once awed and festive as we studied the whirlpools and boiling eddies of the River Ouse, swollen and brown with the waters of its brimming tributaries: the Nidd, Ure, Swale and Foss. Pubs, cafés and houses along the riverside were submerged to their ceilings and the river lapped far up the old streets that lead down from the higher ground occupied by the Minster and Castle. This was Guy Fawkes home city, and as it was 4th November fireworks heightened the sense of occasion, introducing a frisson of rebellion into the rivers uprising.
It was hard to resist the feeling that this river was TS Eliots strong brown god angrily protesting at the years of desecration at the hands of water engineers, planners, industry and the Ministry of Agriculture. I was visiting York, ironically, to give a talk about Waterlog, my account of a swimming journey through Britain. The sudden Old Testament atmosphere provided a dramatic backdrop.
As islanders whose cities, towns and villages originated beside rivers or the sea, we are said to have a natural affinity for water. I have found supporting evidence everywhere from the fenland farming family who have swum in the Cam at harvest time for at least the last hundred years, to the waterside debating societies who swim every morning at the Highgate Mens and Womens Ponds. On the River Frome at Farley near Trowbridge in Wiltshire theres a river swimming club with 2000 members, and another in the Bristol suburb of Henleaze in a flooded limestone quarry. It dates back to 1919 and has 1500 members.
The living river
Yet the effects of modern engineering and the taste for convenience have largely excluded the wet from most peoples lives, confining their experience of it to the bathroom or swimming pool. We have hidden away many of the rivers and streams that were much more of an everyday presence in an earlier, less built world. How many Londoners are even aware of the rivers concealed beneath their streets: the Effra, Westbourne, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy, Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn or Fleet? As Adam Nicolson recently wrote: Water has been suppressed and, now more than ever, has come to look like the subconscious of the landscape, a vehicle for its dreams and a sump for its poisons. The brown god asserting himself in York is not, nowadays, officially acknowledged, yet the entire nation is openly obsessed with the weather and probably spends nearly as much time singing in its baths as the Romans did.
The idea of swimming through the land began as a metaphor: as the most intimate means I could imagine of entering its bloodstream and, as Keats put it, taking part in its existence. Yet I was also indulging an inclination in our species to identify most closely with the aquatic mammals: whales, dolphins, and otters, all of which combine intelligence and playfulness to a singular degree. I was interested in the power of water to transform people into the less anxious, more playful creatures you encounter on the beach or at the swimming pool.
Most of us go through modern life as spectators of nature, watching wildlife films on TV, viewing the countryside through the windows of a car or train, even expressing genuine green concerns by proxy through membership of Friends of the Earth or contributions to Greenpeace or the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Second-hand experience is the order of the day. The divorce from Nature, and hence natural water, is now more or less complete. We glide through the automatic doors of the supermarket into a visual, non-tactile world where the only way to express our regressive longing for a less polluted way of life is to buy 1200 million litres of bottled water each year.
The wild, biologically purified water of an unpolluted natural stream is quite different from the abstract tap water, which is much more like electricity or gas: something you turn on or off, control and pay for. In his book, Reflected in Water, Colin Ward argues that to have turned water into a commodity is unnatural, because water is a gift, like air and sunlight. It wasnt until the 1920s that mains water began to arrive in many places in Britain, and people began the adjustment from the familiar taste of their own living, local water to the lifeless ubiquity that comes from a tap. Water used to be an absolute; now there are two kinds, the living and the lifeless.
Metaphor made real
Our society is in such denial about its trashing of the water-gods that environmentalists are obliged to keep on explaining that nothing in our world can be hidden from water. As a swimmer, you are acutely aware that whatever is in the air will dissolve in the rain, and whatever is in the rain will enter the streams, rivers and eventually the sea via the land, from which it will gradually dissolve the pollutants that are so assiduously applied everywhere by gardeners, farmers, factories, the water industry, lorries, cars and planes. Our tendency to idealise rivers and the sea is part of that denial. Even attempting to write about pollution is fraught with difficulty; so deeply unwilling are we to acknowledge what is done by us, and in our name, to the land and the water.
Pollution is not a fit subject for the dinner table. Like global warming it is so ubiquitous it overwhelms and ultimately paralyses us. In his book The Political Psyche, Andrew Samuels comments on the one-sided view of humanity that is presented by much of the information published by organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The unremitting litany of humanitys destructiveness, he says, may not be the way to spur movement in a more creative direction.
The result of too much self-disgust may be the cultivation of a deadening cultural depression that would interfere with environmental action. This is because fantasies of being all-bad and all-destructive usually lie at the heart of depressive illness. Samuels goes on to recommend the celebration of the more positive aspects of mankinds relationship with the natural landscape over the centuries of tending, shaping, recreating and nurturing. One way of doing this might be to swim more often in the wild. Perhaps if more of us were to return to our former habits of bathing in the rivers and streams, lakes and the sea, we might see more active pressure for change in two problematic departments: the pollution of water, and free access to it.
The right to swim
In just such a positive spirit, you could try swimming the upper reaches of the River Wissey where it runs through the Norfolk Breckland. It rises in a moated fish-pond at a farm in Shipdham near East Dereham and soon runs through the never-never land of an army training ground, forbidden to most of us for over fifty years, left undisturbed for months on end and crucially unfarmed. Thus insulated from modern farming pollution, the upper Wissey is one of the purest lowland streams in Britain, and, if sometimes a little shallow, very fine swimming.
By contrast, swimming near the Dorset army ranges at Lulworth last summer, I had to swerve suddenly to avoid a vigorous undersea sewage outfall as I swam out just beyond the entrance to the famous Cove. Lulworth Cove is a classic example of the idealised picture postcard illusion of unspoilt English coastline, and the contrasting reality. The admittedly depressing truth is that Britain has more towns and cities pumping raw sewage into the sea than any other country in the EU.
Hampstead Heath, and its enlightened management by the City of London Corporation, makes a useful working model of good practice both in terms of pollution and access. The Highgate Ponds, fed by chalybete springs high up in Kenwood, descend the hill and are segregated by tradition into the Womens, Mens and Mixed Ponds. Entrance is always free, there are simple showers and changing sheds, and each pond is maintained and observed by lifeguards. Water samples are taken each week and in the rare case of any impurity, the pond is closed until the source of the pollution has been discovered and the problem solved. At nearby Parliament Hill, the corporation maintains the magnificent 67-yard Lido sheltered within a listed 1930s red-brick cloister. Between 7 and 9.30 every morning, the swimming is free here. There is a café, there is sunbathing, there are fountains and picnics.
At all these Hampstead swimming holes there is a noticeable social cohesion amongst the swimmers along the lines described by Iris Murdoch in her novel, The Philosophers Pupil, set in a fictitious English spa town called Ennistone, where life centres around the swimming pools and the inscription above the entrance reads Natando Virtus (through swimming comes strength and virtue). Yet most of London is poorer in swimming pools than the rest of Britain, and still losing them. You can walk any day past the dusty, padlocked doors of the much-loved Marshall Street Baths in Soho, closed by Westminster City Council. There is only one 50-metre Olympic pool in our capital, 33 outdoor public pools, 6 diving pools and a total of 228 public pools for a population of 7 million: each pool must serve over 30,000 people. We are a long way from Ennistone.
By contrast with the easy access to open-air swimming in unchlorinated water at Highgate Ponds, many of Britains rivers and streams remain in private ownership, and access to swimmers is all too often denied or discouraged. River banks studded with No Swimming notices often unwittingly advertise the good swimming to be enjoyed there. But open-air swimmers certainly face the same sort of right-to-roam challenge as the ramblers did on Kinder Scout in the Peak District.
Fishing for profits
Rivers and river banks in most other European countries are accessible to all. In northern Portugal, where swimming rivers abound, the environment agency post weekly bulletins during the season giving detailed information about the levels of nitrates, pesticides, bacteria, algae and other possible pollutants, giving advice, but leaving the swimmers to decide for themselves about the risk. Here, by contrast, the Environment Agency always advises people against swimming in rivers and lakes. The only exceptions to this rule are a handful of established swimming places like the Serpentine, Highgate Ponds, and Lake Windermere.
The Agencys advice may be reinforced by the threat of a £50 fine for any swimmer venturing within 36 metres of a weir, or letters sent out to riverside householders warning of the dangers of swimming in rivers from pollution, disease and strong currents. Swimming along the water meadows of Winchester College in the beautiful River Itchen, I was detained and berated by the college water bailiffs. But townspeople in their hundreds used to come and swim here before the college fenced off the riverbank. The Wykhamists themselves used to swim in Gunners Hole, a magnificent concrete-sided pool fed by the river through wooden sluices but now sadly derelict, carpeted in duckweed. The Public Schools Yearbook for 1900 describes Gunners Hole as now second to none as a bathing place in England. Here, under the shade of the limes, are the best features of a swimming bath and a river rolled into one.
The bailiffs were deployed to protect one of the colleges most valuable private assets: its fishing rights. Rented out at £800 a day per rod, trout angling is a lucrative trade for the riparian owners along the Hampshire chalk streams with the Japanese and American tourists. The riverbank changes hands at well over £1million per mile. William Cobbetts favourite river, the Itchen, is polluted with pesticides from the big commercial watercress beds in its headsprings upstream of Winchester. The majority of it is selectively managed for a single species alone: the trout. The pike, grayling, millers thumb, eel and other species are electro-fished out of the river, and even the native brown trout is disappearing because, to ensure customer satisfaction, the water is artificially stocked with the slow-witted, farm-reared American rainbow trout and the two species hybridise.
The Itchen is the river celebrated for its natural fecundity in Sir Edward Greys The Charm of Birds. Native crayfish, once abundant, now only survive high up one or two tributary streams because a fish farm introduced the American crayfish which carries an endemic fungal disease, crayfish plague, to which it, but not the native species, has natural resistance. A few miles away on the River Test near Whitchurch, I found the owner deploying over 60 different traps along the banks for weasels and stoats (otters are now extinct on this magnificent river).
What is to be done? When TH Whites Merlin sets out to educate the Wart for future philosopher kingship in The Once and Future King his method is to transform the boy by magic into a series of wild creatures: a perch, an owl, a wild goose, a badger, an ant, a grass snake. In its evocation of the workings of the imagination, of how we learn by our own experience of getting into the skin of things, the story incidentally makes a case for a much closer involvement with nature than most of us enjoy. Not a bad recipe for our government. Where nature and natural water are strangers, little wonder if they arent much missed. WH Audens line, A culture is no better than its woods, holds true for rivers too.
Get our weekly email