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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.