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27 June 2024

Why Roger Deakin’s Waterlog will change your life

Published 25 years ago today, the foundational text of wild swimming continues to tempt readers into Britain’s rivers.

By George Monaghan

The second-longest chain of successful successive recommendations I’ve known one book to make is two: the longest is seven. That was Roger Deakin’s Waterlog – the blue paperback came from my uncle to me, then went to my friend, his dad, then three more men. The handover comprises an explanation that “it’s the seminal text of outdoor swimming in Britain” shortly followed by the instruction: “just read it”. 

Waterlog, first published 25 years ago, in June 1999, has seen an extraordinary afterlife. The book was a bestseller upon release, and Deakin – who died in 2006, at 63, from a brain tumour – was respected as an environmentalist, documentary maker, and writer. But he did not live to see wild swimming become a national movement, nor his book credited as its foundational document. 

For his journey around loved British swimming holes, Deakin took inspiration from Richard Cheever’s The Swimmer, whose protagonist is moved to swim home from a party through a series of garden pools: “The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.” The tour starts in Cornwall, at Britain’s southernmost tip, and goes on to chart the island’s rivers, lakes, ponds and seas. 

Across Britain, Deakin exhibits a keen understanding of local communities, and a gift for describing characters and customs. One day every June the village of Polruan cheers all its Year Six primary school students across the harbour then takes them for hot chocolate and cream buns at the nearby tea room, the Singing Kettle. Cambridge resident Jack Overhill is remembered for swimming the Granta every day for 62 years, from when he was 18 in 1921 until his wife’s death in 1983, and always leading the ice-breaking at the Christmas Day swim. The island of Bryher in the Scillies sustains a “wonderfully relaxed approach to tourism, with little children’s stalls outside some of the low garden walls offering painted stones or big pink and purple sea urchin shells for sale for pence left in a Tupperware box”. Bryher is near a cargo spill hotspot and unhelpfully far from the office where you’re meant to report them. Coincidentally the homes all have similar mahogany doors lying in their front lawns or fitted crazily into their cottages.

Between trips, we are taken back to Walnut Tree Farm, Deakin’s enchanting 16th-century Suffolk cottage. He writes up his notes in front of the fire. Garden toads of distinct personality stray inside for warmth. Swallows arrive from Africa to nest in the chimney. Deakin drags waterweeds out from his moat and onto his cherished compost. 

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“There is something generous and public-spirited about a beautiful front garden,” we are told. There is, too, something generous and public-spirited about this book. Deakin refers to his treasured artists; poets (Byron, Pope, Wordsworth, Larkin), painters (Courbet, Millais, Hockney), and authors (Orwell, du Maurier). Now and then he muses on his memories and loves. His politics favour public river access, more nudity, and fewer fences.

Waterlog is the only book Deakin published in his lifetime. Filmmakers strew leaflets around swimming spots asking if anyone knew him. The friend to whom I gave my copy of Waterlog listens repeatedly to an audio recording he made while canoeing. When Walnut Tree Farm was listed for sale last September, I frantically downloaded the pictures. 

Deakin dreams over maps “not to find my way but to get lost” and enjoys that his bee-stung thigh, in salt water, “begins to itch deliciously”; Waterlog offers something like a sensual education. Hockney’s pool paintings, Deakin reflects, are “erotic and innocent at the same time, just like real swimming pools;” a swim’s “essence of intensity can escape into the past or future;” when in the water, “survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” One leaves Waterlog freed of “the continuing British confusion about bodies”, alive once more to the “frisson of nudity”. The passage against wetsuits feels almost dangerously persuasive: 

“The problem about wearing a wetsuit is sensory deprivation; it is a species of whole-body condom. Of course, there are people who like rubber. They enjoy the feel of it; they may even find it aesthetically pleasing. But there is no getting away from the fact that a wetsuit is an anaesthetic to prevent you experiencing the full force of your physical encounter with cold water, and in that sense it is against nature and something of a killjoy… It can make a long swim in cold water bearable, even comfortable, but it cannot approach the sensuality of swimming in your own skin.”

For some, swimming is a physical or mental necessity. Another chronicler of outdoor swimming, the critic Al Alvarez, was a scholar of suicide too. Waterlog isn’t about black moods, but it is the sort of book that will receive you if you are in one – if you feel yourself “an unauthorised person, on the lonely rim of the unswimmable Wash”.

A scene recalled several times by Deakin is from Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Orwell describes Winston and Julia’s furtive lovemaking in the ash glade. They hardly speak because they fear microphones hidden in the trees. That seems a nice analogue for the kind of wordless, emotional congress that can happen between swimmers, and between readers and Waterlog.

It is far from water, though, when out driving on a motorway that Deakin reveals the book’s animating principle:

“I loathed the unending straightness of the desolate, black motorways. How I had longed for a bend in the road – even just a bit of a kink – for some relief from the relentless efficiency of travelling in a continual bee-line… Left to itself, a river will always meander. This is how rivers grow longer, and slow themselves down, and hold more water, and make themselves more interesting and pleasing to the human eye, as well as to the creatures that live in them.”

[See also: The vexed history of British feminism]

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