A bigger splash

<strong>Wild Swim: River, Lake, Lido and Sea - the Best Places to Swim Outdoors in Britain</strong>

Some of the worst fights I've ever had were with a boyfriend over who got to keep what river when we split up, Windrush v Ruther. God, it was vicious. Completely not in the spirit of wild swimming, but what can I say? Spleen sucks, but we both loved the water. In the end he got all the alcohol in the house and the Ruther through till 2010 (even typing that conjures pain to the brink of catatonia).

Kate Rew's suitably passionate guide to the best places to swim outdoors in Britain is a vital book. Hold it and salivate. Travelling from Cornwall to Skye, from river to sea to pond to pool, she points out 307 open-air swimming spots, some famous (Loch Lomond, Tooting Bec Lido), many hidden. The country she conjures could be one of fantasy. A place where swallows nest in changing rooms and Venetian glass beads from 17th-century shipwrecks dot the seabed. Where you can swim over sunken fields of lettuce and animal bones, watch sandworms continually on the move, and creep past silent fishermen hunkered down in water "shining like mercury" in the moonlight. Where children hurtle off the blackened walls of quarries and float on their backs through fields of unpulled turnips while purple-bottomed pigs look on with disapproval.

She describes a place where there's a whirlpool that calms down for just one hour a day, making it briefly possible to swim across. Where eels shelter in the shade, and the last summer wasps die twitching on the water. Where smelt, bass, flounder, herring, mullet, plaice and sole flourish, and if you hear a splash you'll see the pink open mouth and silver underbelly of a trout. Where families front-crawl past ruined abbeys and a community adores its canine lifeguard, who leads charity swims and patrols his parti cular stretch of the Devonshire coast. Where you can drop into Blackmoss Pot and the Blue Lagoon, or where a dragon once reputedly drank before eating all the local sheep and Wittgenstein skinny-dipped in a bad mood. Where dolphins glow with phosphorescence in the bay, and if you stand up out of the water sparks drip from your body. A kind of Narnia, then.

But this is not fantasy - it's serious shit. Rew (founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society) swims year round, in Yorkshire tarns and Scottish lochs, in wetsuit, cap and gloves, sometimes too impatient to get her clothes off (or on) and flinging herself in, too rapt to realise it's nine degrees and she's weeping into her goggles. Her friends are equally hardy. A conversation: "Don't you just hate it when swimming pools don't have cold showers?" "I can't find water cold enough." "Even the cold tap water's too warm." Rew confesses that "for me the best time to swim in Windermere is when it's pelting down with rain or in the very early morning . . ." but she is no bully, and doesn't necessarily expect any of us to agree.

Her prose is perfect. Helford is a "peaceful, tinkering kind of place" and seaweed hangs off the sides of rocks "like a balding man's last strands of hair". Page after page, she nails things. "Outdoor swimmers look at maps in negative. All we see is lines of blue, the trace of lakes and rivers and streams and shoreline, lochs and llyns and pools and tarns, and the rest is just geographic dead space."

Slowly a picture is drawn of a country of swimming clubs, riverbank societies and pressure groups, where literally thousands of people swim wherever they see water, confounding with each stroke the health and safety prefect and waterfront property developers who want to reduce the world to a concentration camp of dry bodies. The sound and depth, colours and contours of Britain are revealed - as though Rew had flown across the country rather than swam. But then, as T H White wrote in The Sword in the Stone, "He could do what men always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in water and flying in the air . . ."

Wild Swim is a hardbacked book full of lush photographs that will have you hunched on the sofa as though with a stash of love letters. Another new book, Wild Swimming (Punk Publishing, £14.95), is more of a bung-in-the-car manual, with crucial "within 20 minutes' walk of a train station" and "famous for having deep water into which you can jump from a bridge" sections. It, too, quivers with thrills. But neither book, I add with relief, contains my secret swimming spot on the Windrush. My sweet alimony. Just last weekend I crouched in the shallows dangling ham off bits of string to catch a crayfish - and sure enough, several came lumbering up through the dark, waving their too-heavy arms, like drunks hailing a taxi. Just moments away, tourists were sweating up the main street, unaware that you can literally dip out of this world of carbon and into one of waking dreams without parting with so much as a brass farthing. Where is this place? Marry me, and I'll tell you.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.