Dr Alice Roberts, with her quirky hair colouring and ‘early 90s never quite got over Grunge chic’ and obsessive interest in shells is not someone that I would ever imagine that I would share a hero with. But tonight I found out that one truly exceptional man had been an inspiration to us both. His name is Roger Deakin.
Just under 15 years ago Deakin was a BBC film-maker, environmentalist, music lover and die-hard East Anglophile who was coming to terms with a divorce that had certainly made him re-assess his life. Driven by the desire to do something new and challenging he came up with the idea of a swim across Britain. Inspired by his own love of swimming, and with a nod to John Cheever’s excellent novel The Swimmer, he vowed to swim from the Atlantic near the Scilly Isles through to the North Sea at the top of Scotland taking in as many lakes, rivers and lidos as he could along the way.
And he chronicled this pilgrimage in a 2000 book called Waterlog.
From the moment I heard about the book I was smitten. I was inspired by such a wonderfully romantic idea while eager to find and swim in the places Deakin swam. After pestering the publisher for a freebie (and failing) I managed to crash the book’s launch (held appropriately enough at the Oasis outdoor pool in London) grab a copy, spend a few minutes with the fella himself and get a promise of an hour or so of his time.
I remember not being able to put the book down. I loved not just the stories of his adventures but also the way he laced the text with snippets of history (he was a big Orwell fan) and geography as well as pen profiles of the wonderful individuals he met along the way. Waterlog soon became my favourite book and anyone who’d read it or was passionate about swimming outdoors, became soul mates.
When I met Deakin at his flat in Kentish Town he was utterly charming. He reminded me of a cross between an inspirational history teacher, a slightly bonkers Victorian vicar and the editor of The Guardian in the way that he could speak so passionately and knowledgably about so many different topics. During the hour we covered the huge amout of ground from the spiritual aspects of swimming (I was thinking Church Times for that part) through to his top five tips for outdoor swimmers (that was for Maxim).
Sadly while bits of the interview ended up in a variety of places the planned double pager with the Ham and High never got published, so much of our discussion is still only on that tape.
What Waterlog, and the interview, did was to rekindle a dormant affection in me for outdoor swimming. It reminded me of the hours spent splashing in the dirty old river Ouse as child and of sea swimming in Morecambe as a student and how much fun it had been. Within days I was off round the country and Waterlog was my handbook.
I wasn’t the only one either. Since the late nineties outdoor swimming, or wild swimming as it hard core adherents call it, has become increasingly popular. Perhaps as we get more and more cosetted in our daily lives, so the appeal of doing something that really takes us away from others and brings us so close to nature, becomes so appealing. Maybe Roger Deakin was right – there is something spiritual about diving into cold water and surfacing to be confronted by beautiful surroundings. In some odd kind of way maybe we are born again.
Sadly Roger Deakin died way too soon in 2006. But his books are still championed by the likes of me, and, in a rather more high profile way, by Dr Alice Roberts who used Waterlog the basis for her wild swimming programme on BBC4 tonight – it is on the iPlayer, so what are you waiting for?
It is not often that one man’s ideas can have such such an incredible impact. The fact that so many Lidos have not just survived but prospered in the last ten years is down to small groups of individual campaigners many of whom were inspired by Waterlog. And if you want to go wild swimming now you don’t just have to don your Budgie smugglers and hit a nearby reservoir. There are now tours and courses where you can swim in lakes and rivers with others. Wild swimming is becoming fashionable.
Waterlog actually finishes with a tale of a Christmas day sea swim in Suffolk. It is a beach I know very well and swim there at least a few times a year. And when I do think of Roger Deakin and how this unassuming charming man became a hero to so many.