The wild versus the tame: swimming in the Thames and the Seine during Covid-19
In recent years I have been dismayed to find what I think of as real swimming – in ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea – referred to as ‘wild swimming’. But on reflection perhaps it is a revealingly apt term. The opposite would be, after all, ‘tame swimming’ in chlorinated heated water in an indoor pool with artificial lighting. This is now the norm.
The tendency towards a tame risk-free existence has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19 and now seems irreversible. In our new virtual world, who would want to get their feet tired or dirty and experience the shock of icy water running between their toes?
Well, I take heart from the fact that an atavistic, almost anarchic tendency has also emerged from the pandemic: a longing for the real versus the artificial, for the wild versus the tame.
I spent the three months of lockdown with my family deep in the English countryside, with a few days in London towards the end of June and I’m now back in my Paris studio. My London and Paris friends all tell me how much they came to value their neighbours and their garden or balcony during confinement, how magical it was to live in a city without traffic or tourists, and to hear birdsong.
For me the stand-out experience of lockdown was the joy of discovering several bathing spots in the rural Thames, a mile away from our house in Oxfordshire. My favourite river beach was nearly always occupied by a few other people, but as a solitary swimmer in unfamiliar waters I found their presence reassuring. On my first visit I was slightly irritated by the music coming from a little group of adolescents but after a while they turned it off and surrendered to the warmth of the sun and the deep seductive peace of the river and the water meadows. I overheard one youth suddenly say to his mates as they prepared to cycle home, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’ It was.
In mid-June I spent four hours rambling with a friend on Hampstead Heath in north London. My favourite ‘wild swimming’ spot, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, was closed, but our wanderings took us to the Viaduct Pond, a stretch of water I had never seen before. The sight of such a peaceful place in a city of nearly nine million people just emerging from lockdown felt deeply reassuring. It was as if the water possessed magical healing properties.
When I returned to Paris a few days later, a heatwave struck and I spent as many hours as I could in my favourite spot by the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank. To my annoyance my privacy was invaded by two young men who took possession of the bench behind me. Then I saw that they were stripping off to reveal bathing trunks and sent them an amused glance. We started laughing and chatting and they offered me a beer.
They turned out to be Algerian, which might have explained their ignorance of the Seine’s reputation for pollution. But they said they didn’t care, they were so desperate to swim after three months of lockdown. In fact, because of the prolonged absence of river traffic the water was clear enough to reveal the stones on the riverbed for the first time. They gingerly picked their way over these and then launched themselves into a brief but joyous swim. Full of envious admiration, I gave them my paper handkerchiefs to dry off with.
On a sunny Friday evening in July I strolled with a friend along the Right Bank of the Seine which was packed with young people picnicking by the water’s edge. Near the Bastille we came across the unexpected sight of an older couple who had set up a table in a quiet spot overlooking the water, complete with a tablecloth, wineglasses and candles. They were clearly expecting company, as the table was laid for four. We could not imagine what the gendarmes, who were patrolling the riverbank and telling people off for bringing their own alcohol, would say to them when they got there, but I did not envy them that task.
What these experiences have highlighted for me is the importance of spontaneous social contact and of the natural world to people’s well-being. And especially the value of human contact IN the natural world.
The sudden spike in the demand for flats with gardens or balconies in both London and Paris reveals a heightened awareness of this fundamental need, exacerbated by confinement in the virtual world. It seems that ordinary people, as well as the environmentalists, are appreciating the healing power of an unpolluted natural world more than ever before. If, among other things, that will mean cleaner rivers in which to swim, Covid-19 will have had at least one beneficial effect.