Earlier in the year when we first discussed with Kevin of the Dedham River Swimmers, good dates for a project swim, September was decided on as we’d still be in the throes of an Indian summer and water would have had all year to warm up and be at its peak before cooling down through autumn and in to winter. Kevin swims all year round so certainly has experience of swimming in all weather conditions and at many varied places, and after the solstice swim that we did with him in June and a few swims in the Stour of our own in July and August, we felt full of enthusiasm the project swim. That was until the week before as summer seemed to disappear and the temperatures came tumbling down. Then came a few emails and text messages from ticket holders saying that other things had cropped up and that they wouldn’t be able to attend. We were the first to admit it, the weather forecast was certainly making us think that we should have maybe chosen a date earlier in the year.
But the date was set and most people were still remaining positive and so we arrived early at the meet point to greet James Ravinet, who filming the event for us. Kevin was already there and keen to get going, and as we talked through tech with James everyone else arrived and prepared themselves to get into the water. Though we have tried to have a gender balance throughout the project most of the people we have spoken to have been male, so we were pleased to note that most of the swimmers were women. Some were seasoned swimmers, having completed long distance swims around the country and some were novices at wild swimming and Kevin is very mindful of accommodating everyone in his events. In fact, the group as a whole were positive and supportive and before long we were heading into the water.
The best way for me to enter the river is to get the initial shock of it over quickly so I usually get under the water as quickly as possibly. I find the longer that I think about it the more time I have to resist and develop thoughts of backing out. Ruth on the other hand usually gets in to the water slowly, acclimatising more gradually. The temperature of the water in June was 22°C but today it was 12, and that certainly gets your attention. I have recently bought a wetsuit, but it is more suitable for surfing than swimming and I think I certainly would have benefitted from the correct kit. Two of the more experienced ladies set out at a fast pace ahead whilst most of us progressed more slowly. A lady who had never swum in the river was really affected by the temperature and even though Rachel from the Dedham River Swimmers stayed and helped her she decided to get out and get back into some warm clothes.
Even though I was a strong swimmer at school, and have done a bit of scuba diving over the years, I am currently pretty unfit. In the past year or so I’ve also had a few issues which affect my energy levels which vary quite erratically. The faster swimmers would shoot off and then stop to let us catch up. Ruth and another lady are slow-but-steady swimmers and made good progress along the river at their own speed. I would start to swim but run out of energy pretty quickly and have to stop, resting by standing or supporting my weight on the bottom of the shallow river. I was wearing gloves but these quickly became heavy and burdensome and I threw them off on to the bank. Ruth, who usually has a lot of stamina was affected by the temperature and found her breathing getting rather shallow so decided to get out after around 15 minutes. I pushed on for a few minutes more but in the end the cold and tiredness became too much and I too climbed up on the bank and jogged back to the car in order to get dry and dressed.
At around the half mile point, the others split up with Kevin and Rachel continuing a fair way further before turning round and the faster ladies swam back at their own speed. Everyone made it back safe and sound and after drying and getting in to some warm, wintery clothes and big coats we all came back together to share some lovely pear cake that Rachel had cooked and brought along and have a chat about the swim. As with all of the walks there is something primal and fulfilling about people sharing time and experiences with other people. There is always something to be learned about a way of life, someone else, oneself or a place. That connectivity and sharing recognises, reaffirms and reassures us of who and where we are, and does this in a way much more nourishing and wholesome than any virtual version could. Yes, we have used social media in this project as a way to spread the word, document and connect, but it’s those real life connections with people and place that mean so much to us and form the basis of our very existence as artists and human beings.