As a youth, I loved Black Adder. In the 1980s, if you wanted to watch something on TV, you had to wait for it to be broadcast, sit down, watch it and really concentrate – for the entire time it was on. No series record, no pause and rewind, no streaming, downloads or box-sets. Be there to watch it, or miss out.
I really miss those days of nurturing reward from a patient life. I could fill this page bemoaning our modern world of instant gratification in which waiting is becoming an obsolete concept, but perhaps I should move on to why I love open water swimming.
Along with a surprising number of wonderful and interesting people I do most of my swimming at Clevedon in the Severn Estuary. This is an uncompromising stretch of water. It has a tidal range of about 12 metres. An hour either side of high water it flows faster than any of us can swim. It is brown and silty; underwater visibility is six inches at best. We all emerge from the water bearded, regardless of gender. It’s hard to say what lurks in the depths, but we sometimes get bumped from below and the local fishermen often hook out some sizeable congers. There are limited places and infrequent, narrow windows of time in which you can enter and exit the water; get it wrong and you’re stuck waist deep in mud watching the incoming tide rush to greet you.
You don’t swim in the water here when you feel like it; you swim when, and only when, it lets you. If you want to swim here you have to patiently gain knowledge and respectfully heed the wisdom of those who’ve spent years doing it before you. You have to acquire skills. If you would like to increase your opportunities for swimming then you’d better learn how to cope with rough water and how to swim in the dark. You need a basic understanding of relative velocity and must be able to quickly gauge your movement against landmarks, recognising when and how to work with the flow. There will be constant, awkward negotiations with your family as the tide pays no heed to your finely crafted domestic routines. If you want to swim for longer in the cold of the winter you had better have put in the months of effort to acclimatise. There are no short-cuts, no magic bits of modern electronic kit or downloadable ‘apps’ to help you swim more and shiver less, only your own patient effort. Read all the ‘expert’ blogs if you like, but don’t expect that to be a substitute for gaining experience in the water. If you want to swim here, you really have to love your swimming. You can, however, be absolutely certain that any company you have for your swim feels the same way about it as you do.
Much like hunting Black Adder episodes among the pages of the Radio Times, a careful scouring of my little yellow tide tables reveals a couple of Sundays every year when high water, sunset, moonrise and friends just happen to align. The anticipation of these swimming episodes obliterates the usual dread of Monday morning. The calendar ticks over, the evening arrives and friends gather. Hobble off the pebbled beach to swim under the pier with the flow. A mile up the coast we turn with the tide and start the journey back. Be sure to do some proper head-up breaststroke to watch the sun set below the pier. As it gets close to dropping off the edge of the world marvel at how the surface of the water seems oddly blue. Concentrate, don’t miss a moment, there’s no rewind button. Roll back on to the beach, twist the top off the flask and gratefully accept a slice of something home-baked from a reassuringly familiar silhouette against the darkening sky.
In my mid-innings years, as the world accelerates away from me, these are my Black Adder moments and I have invested time and effort to make them possible. This is how I know I love open water swimming.