I made a resolution this year that I would start swimming again. Before Christmas, a friend was staying and I mentioned that I never swam, despite the beach being so near. “I walk,” I told her. “Can’t you do both?” she asked. And I mulled over that as though it was an incredible proposition.
The truth is that I’m a hopeless swimmer. As a child I was told that my father’s cousin was deaf because he’d got water in his ear while swimming. That sank in and stayed with me. And anyway, I was hardly from a family of strong swimmers. The town pool in south Wales where I grew up was a bleak and freezing place and the best thing about going there was getting a cup of hot Bovril and a marshmallow afterwards. A friend had a pool at his house but it always had leaves and dead rats floating in it. When we moved to Yorkshire, the town pool was indoors and stank of chlorine. As an adult, holidays on the Mediterranean just meant playing in the waves to cool down, not real swimming.
I was in my thirties when I decided to do something about it. So I went to adult swimming classes at the Oasis pool in London. There, at last, I conquered my fear of putting my head underwater and thereafter I would swim quite regularly at the old-fashioned baths at Marshall Street, just behind Oxford Circus. When I say swim I mean only breaststroke. Front crawl was beyond me.
And then we moved to Australia and bought a house close to the beach. There are three ocean pools an easy walk away, a large netted enclosure in the bay nearby, and we have the longest beach in Sydney, popular with surfers, although I can’t get the thought of sharks from my mind when I swim in the sea. The other morning I asked a woman who had been snorkelling in the reefy part of the beach whether there was much to see. “Three little sharks,” she said, adding that she’d seen a school of eight the other day and the sight had nearly stopped her heart. Mostly they’re not the attacking kind. It’s that ‘mostly’ that I worry about. (No wonder the collective noun for a group of them is a shiver or frenzy of sharks.)
I swam occasionally when we moved here but it didn’t give me much enjoyment, especially when I was surrounded by such strong swimmers everywhere I went. I asked the council if there was anywhere local that held adult swimming classes, thinking I needed to improve my poor technique. The response was sheer bafflement. A grown man, unable to swim, and living by the beach? How is that possible? And so I decided that walking was my thing. For two decades I have walked along the long beach and walked on the path around the peninsula and walked on the cliffs at the gateway to Botany Bay. I love walking. Walking clears my head, ushers in new thinking, relaxes and inspires me. But secretly I have always thought it would be rather marvellous to swim as well. My partner swims each day before breakfast, year round, winter and summer, and I would often walk past the pool in which he was ploughing up and down and I would think how lucky he was. He would come home so uplifted and refreshed and I wanted some of that.
So, on my last birthday, just before Christmas, as a brilliantly hot summer day dawned, I told him that I would join him at the ocean pool. ‘Lovely,’ he said. And since then I’ve joined him most days. Gradually my technique and my stamina have improved. I can now do the crawl, although I’m slow, and recently I’ve taken to snorkelling, especially in the huge netted enclosure in the bay. There are seagrass beds there and sometimes we have the entire space to ourselves. There are always loads of different fish to investigate, from schools of mullet the size of salmon to a solitary stripy leatherjacket with its pursed lips and spiky body. There are stingrays flapping along the sandy bottom and this morning there was an incredibly beautiful silver fish with long streamers flowing behind it, a blow-in from tropical waters further north. The water temperature is a warm 22 degrees and it’s bliss to float on my back and watch the clouds.
Practically every day I ask myself why it took me so long to do this. The water will get chilly in the next few months and I will stop swimming for the winter, although I could go to one of the heated municipal pools further afield if I fancied. Except I’ve been spoilt by seawater and fish and sitting in the sunshine afterwards, gazing out at the horizon, sometimes spying the local pod of dolphins leaping in the surf.
I rail so often at the ugliness of Australian buildings and the careless way trees are torn down to make way for larger houses, but it is redeemed by Mother Earth. The proximity to incredible nature is Australia’s best feature. I love the colourful birds and the sneaky possums and the skittering lizards in my garden, and now, at last, I am appreciating the watery realm that is practically on my doorstep.Traditionally, the Chinese thought water was a symbol of the flow of life itself. It’s the blood in our veins, the flow of money that supports our lifestyle, the movement of new thoughts and ideas, the tidal ups-and-downs of everyday life. Water is vital.
Immersing myself in it each day feels like I’m connected to a bigger life. It often takes a long time to learn what it is you love. But it’s always worth making the effort to find out.
Are you a swimmer?