Alice Roberts swims in cavernous plunge pools, languid rivers and underground lakes to examine the passion for wild water swimming, following the classic swimming text Waterlog.
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'The sun had been shining on the water all day and I set off and swam comfortably into
'the amazing clear water, marvelling at the brightness of everything.
'The swimmer is content to be borne on his way full of mysteries,
'doubts and uncertainties.
'He is a leaf on the stream, free at last from his petty little purposes in life.'
For some people this would be the ideal swimming location -
clean and modern, with convenient changing rooms, big fluffy robes
and, best of all, hot water.
But a growing number of people across Britain are looking for a completely different kind of experience.
To a 'wild swimmer' secluded rivers, lakes and rock pools are where it's at.
And over the last few years there's been a steady flow of books, magazine articles and TV features
feeding a growing obsession with swimming in the great outdoors.
And if one book can claim to have rekindled our passion
in wild swimming, then surely this must be it.
Roger Deakin's Waterlog.
Roger Deakin was an environmentalist, broadcaster and writer
and worked for a variety of papers and wildlife magazines.
In Waterlog, his first book, he recorded a series of journeys
that he made in an attempt to swim in as many British rivers, lakes and pools as he could.
The result was an extraordinary, poetic discourse
on the joys of nature and the delights of swimming in the wild.
'I wanted to follow the rain on it's meanderings about our land
'to rejoin the sea, to break out of the frustration of a lifetime of doing lengths,
'of endlessly turning back on myself like a tiger pacing its cage...
'I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be
'a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.
'I might even learn about myself, too.'
Waterlog is one of my favourite books.
It's this beautiful, lyrical evocation of the importance of water to an island nation.
And it's also a bit of an inspiration and a challenge to me.
An inspiration because it makes me want to swim in wild places,
and a challenge because I want to understand that desire
and to find out more about the relationship between humans and water.
To do that, I'm going to swim in some of the wildest locations the country has to offer.
I'm going to examine the enduring fascination water has held for artists and writers.
And I'm going to look at how water has made its mark on myth and legend.
But, before I do all that, I'm going to have a cup of tea.
I don't actually remember learning to swim, which presumably meant I was very young when it happened.
But I do have some lovely memories of swimming from my childhood
and, in particular, this pool that we used to go to.
It was a friend of the family and we used to go down the garden into this dip.
And hidden away in the dip was this swimming pool with little huts to get changed in.
And it was like going back into the '30s, I think.
I remember really vividly that fantastic feeling of swimming outdoors.
The days of just turning up at the neighbour's with a costume and a towel are long gone.
For this trip, I'm packing all manner of wetsuits, costumes and spare changes of clothes.
And I'm also bringing some copies of radio recordings
that Roger Deakin made for the BBC after Waterlog was published.
Sadly, Roger died in 2006.
But, through his writings and recordings,
I hope to get a clearer insight into the man who's inspired me.
'The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer
'downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.
'Breast-stroking up and down the 30 yards of clear, green water,
'I nosed along, eyes just at water level.
'It was at the height of this drenching in the summer of 1996 that
'the notion of a long swim through Britain began to form itself.'
There are more than 1,000 lakes and 8,000 rivers in the UK.
So, in terms of potential swimming locations, I'm more than spoilt for choice.
So, I've decided to start at one of the oldest river swimming clubs in the country,
the Farleigh and District Club on the River Frome in Wiltshire.
There is Rob.
He's got his towel with him.
'Giving me a guided tour will be Rob Fryer, club chairman and a vocal champion of river swimming.'
-Good to see you.
-So this is the swimming club?
Yes, this is the Farleigh and District Swimming Club.
It's just a field.
Well, yes. It is just a field.
But that's the charm of it.
You've got to...
appreciate the simplicity of the pleasures of swimming in rivers.
Those simple pleasures are down to a pool, created by this weir,
which has given club members and visitors nearly a century's worth of enjoyment.
I don't know what I was expecting, Rob. But perhaps...some kind of pavilion?
Well, the swimming club pavilion, we call that the pavilion.
That corrugated iron shed?
-No, no, no. That's a swimming club pavilion.
I would correct you on that.
The club was started in the early '30s when a local landowner invited
a group of swimmers to formalise their activities.
What was this place like in the 1930s?
It was very much an important social hub of the whole community. And everybody knew each other.
There were all these events, like diving competitions for silver tea-spoons.
And then there'd be water polo.
The '30s were the heyday of river swimming.
But after the war these clubs went into decline,
as new municipal swimming pools sprang up across the country.
By the early 1990s, Farleigh was one of the few
river swimming clubs remaining - and even they were under threat.
I know that Roger came here, because he writes about it in Waterlog.
-Roger Deakin, yes.
-And he met you as well.
-What was it like when he arrived?
Well, he came...
Quite honestly we were at a low point.
We felt embattled by public opinion and authorities.
And he was like a fairy godmother, giving us a standard to raise.
So he galvanised you to fight for the future of the club?
Absolutely, in a very clever way.
It's just simply the publication of his book.
When he came we just felt inspired and we just changed overnight.
Since the publication of Waterlog, membership of the Farleigh club has steadily increased
and people come from far and wide to enjoy these beautiful surroundings.
It's not contrived.
It's not a part of the materialistic world.
If you can appreciate things that are non-materialistic,
you are then able to live a truer life and get true enjoyment.
Is there anything better than that?
To embrace Rob's enthusiasm and to begin to understand more of Roger Deakin's passion for wild swimming,
-I need to plunge in for my first ever river swim.
-Fish in there.
-Oh! It gets deep quickly.
Oh, no. I've got to get in now.
'The murky water is far from inviting and feels very cold, even through my wetsuit.
'But, despite that, there is a delightful feeling of breaking the rules and doing something naughty.'
This is wonderful.
I don't know. It feels like you're... in nature.
'The river has always been a kind of escape route.
'It's a way into another world.
'And of course there is this secret network of ways into another world
'all over Britain and they are our rivers.'
-Well, how was that?
-I feel as if I've been well and truly initiated. It was wonderful.
-I think I'm addicted.
-I'm really glad you enjoyed it.
-It was lovely.
So, Rob, I'd like you to give me some hot tips on where to go swimming. I was thinking about going down to...
'With Rob giving me advice on promising places to go,
'I'm ready to head off on the next stage of my journey.'
That was a rather wonderful experience, I really enjoyed it.
And Rob's right,
swimming isn't just about the physical act of doing it.
It's what's going on around you.
And when you're swimming in a river, you've got those ripples you're creating as you're swimming,
and you have this world which is framed by the banks and all
the plants and the trees arching over you. It's just fantastic.
What I definitely want to do is to explore some other places to do wild swimming.
To get into rivers and lakes...
and maybe even underground rivers.
That would be fun.
The possibilities are seeming quite endless now.
And I'm going to start looking at maps in a different way.
I'm not just going to be looking for...
roads to places and interesting places in the landscape.
I'm going to be looking for those blue, snaking lines and wondering where I can get into them.
One thing that permeates Roger's writing is his love of wildlife and the environment.
And it's this aspect of wild swimming I want to investigate next.
'I've swum many times up this stretch of river.
'It's very, very deep. It's a lovely place to swim in the summer
'and a great haunt of the kingfisher.
'When you're swimming, kingfishers
'dive straight over you,
'just in a flash.'
I've come to the River Wye, upstream of Monmouth.
It's a stretch ideal for a long swim and
a chance to appreciate the river's renowned diversity of wildlife.
What the Wye not renowned for, however, is its warmth.
And, as I'm planning to be in the water for more than two hours, I need to dress accordingly.
Think of otters, they don't have to think about putting a wetsuit on in the morning.
They just jump straight in.
But then, of course, they've got a wetsuit of their own, naturally.
Their fur traps air and acts as an
insulation between them and the cold water.
'It's not just the warmth of the wetsuit I'm going to be thankful for.
'This will be my first solo swim and along a stretch that's completely unknown to me.
'So the little bit of extra buoyancy it gives me will be also be reassuring as I venture out alone.'
'I tend to swim the naturalist's stroke, breast-stroke, in rivers, mostly, because...
'you just see more and you don't disturb things as much.'
The water is so still.
It's like looking out across a mirror.
And occasionally this incredibly
still, mirror-like surface is broken by fish jumping up.
'These swans are very much in their element and seem to treat me with almost complete distain.
'They can glide upstream, apparently effortlessly.
'Unlike me.' It's quite a fast flowing current here.
I think swimming downstream might be easier.
'Around me I catch sight of all manner of life.'
A buzzard! Wow.
I can feel some weeds around my feet, just here.
As the river gets shallower, these luminous plants abound, absorbing the sunlight.
I can feel their tendrils brush my body as I'm borne faster and faster downstream.
Well, that was a wonderful swim.
I saw a lot of wildlife and it's really lovely being at that level, immersed in the river,
feeling as though you really are in that environment with them, rather than watching them from a distance.
And I don't think I disturbed them too much.
I was just sharing their river for a few moments.
There's no doubt that wetsuits are wonderful things but...
but it does form a barrier between you and the...
experience of being in the water, I suppose.
Swimming in the river, when I was moving my hands through the water,
I could feel the silkiness of the water.
But I wasn't really getting that on the rest of my body at all.
I suppose there's only really one way to deal with that, and that's to, um,
leave the wetsuit behind.
Before I discard my wetsuit, I want to know exactly what I'm going to be exposing my body to.
So I've arranged to meet Professor Mike Tipton,
the country's leading expert on the effects of immersion in cold water.
Together with his assistant, Geoff, he's going to monitor what happens
to my body when I plunge into this open-air pool.
-Hello, Alice. Nice to meet you.
-Hello, I'm ready.
-You're ready to go?
OK. The first thing we'll do is take a picture of you using our infra-red camera.
-We'll see your surface temperature.
-I'll look nice and warm against the background.
-I'd imagine so.
Fresh out of the changing room, I'm still really warm
and my body stands out clearly against the cool of the water.
But it won't stay that way for long.
-You'll cool about four to five times faster in water than in air at the same temperature.
So this is why you get hypothermia so much quicker in water than in air?
So any reflexes, any changes in my heart rate or my breathing, that's
a reflex simply linked to what's going on on the surface of my body?
Absolutely. That's where we're sensitive.
We have four times more cold receptors in the skin than we have warm receptors.
And that drives our sensation of cooling.
'As I'm rigged up with a heart monitor, I feel more like a lab rat than a wild swimmer.
'So it's a relief to finally get into the water.
'The relief is short lived.'
'The water is 15 degrees Centigrade,
'the average summer river temperature in the UK. But it still takes my breath away.'
So, my breathings going very quickly. GASPS
-The heart-rate monitor is saying zero at the moment.
Well, that's well over a hundred.
There is goes, there it goes.
So, normally you get it up to about 120, 130.
But you very quickly get over that.
It takes about 30 seconds to a minute to get over from that cold shock response.
That's caused by that sudden fall in skin temperature.
And that gasping? Is that normal?
That uncontrollable gasping? Yeah.
Of course, if you happen to have gone under the water, you've only got to take about a
third of a breath in and you've gone past the lethal volume for drowning.
'As I get my breathing under control I can appreciate other changes happening in my body.'
There's a stinging sensation as well?
Yeah, that's just the response of the cold receptors.
You've got lots of cold receptors just below the surface and you've given them an enormous stimulus.
They're sending lots of information into your spinal cord and brain.
Meanwhile, you're also shutting down the blood to the skin, as the body tries to conserve heat.
And slowly but surely the cold will anaesthetise all those receptors.
So, you end up feeling numb and like you don't know where your arms are.
And that's what affects things like swimming.
So, now would be a good time for you to go for a swim.
Moving would be a great idea.
Go for it. Go for about four lengths.
After sitting still for so long, it's a relief to be moving and the exercise starts to warm me up.
But after experiencing the delights of my first river swim,
these surroundings feel particularly unnatural and artificial.
-How's it feel?
-It feels quite warm, actually.
I mean, I'm aware I'm in a cold environment.
Can I get out?
Yes. Can you manage?
I've got a tingling sensation
on my arms...
No, I can't manage... Oh, that's strange.
'After just a few minutes, the numbness in my limbs has
'made even simple tasks like climbing out of the pool a real challenge.'
The comparison between the earlier image from the infra-red camera and
my current one shows the dramatic change in my skin temperature.
But as I climb out of the water, I feel far from uncomfortable.
How are you feeling?
Well, actually, I feel good. My skin feels tingling.
It feels quite warm and glowing.
'That feeling is a result of the contrast when I emerge from the cold water into the warmer air.
'Blood returns to the skin as it warms,
'and that effect is clearly visible, given how bright my arms are, within a minute of leaving the pool.
'And it's this sensation of exhilaration that's probably prompted
'so many people to extol the virtues of cold-water bathing.'
This form of hydrotherapy, which reached its zenith in
the Victorian age, has encouraged thousands of people over the years to visit spas, springs and the seaside
to treat a variety of ailments from arthritis to depression.
Its advocates included such luminaries as Charles Darwin,
Florence Nightingale and Lord Tennyson.
But were they right?
Are they any benefits to bathing in cold water?
Clearly, you get this incredible stimulation to the body.
But there's no evidence to suggest it improves your immune function
or makes you live longer, or healthier.
Even if it's not beneficial, I am going to be immersing myself in cold water quite a bit.
-Have you any advice for me?
Get used to the cold so you take out that cold shock response, the most dangerous of all the responses.
If you get a cold shock response, allow it to disappear before you start swimming.
So you're not trying to swim with your breathing out of control.
If I'm to relinquish my wetsuit and plunge into the cold embrace of a
British river, then I need to prepare myself for this alien environment.
I'm determined to respect nature and take the proper steps to acclimatise.
Which is why I'm doing this...
'Subjecting myself to a series of cold showers.'
Oh, that's really cold!
'But over the next few days, this regime seems to be doing the trick.
'I no longer gasp uncontrollably at the first touch of cold water.'
I'm now ready to recommence my wild swimming odyssey, but this time on the edge of Dartmoor.
'My only purpose was to get thoroughly lost.
'To disappear into the hills and tarns and miss my way home for as long as possible.
'If I could find a string of swims and dips, each one surpassing
'the last in aimlessness, so much the better.'
Dartmoor is a spectacularly watery part of the country.
No less than nine different rivers from the Taw and the Teign, to the Dart itself,
rise from its peaty ground.
But it's not just water that wells-up from this area.
The literary output inspired by Dartmoor's rivers is truly impressive.
Tarka the Otter frolicked in the River Taw.
Charles Kingsley's novel The Water Babies
was prompted by growing up here.
And Ted Hughes' book of poems, The River,
was sparked by the Dart and the Taw.
But there's one piece of poetry that is particularly relevant for my next swimming spot.
Alice Oswald's long poem, Dart,
which paints a beguiling picture of the river from its source to its mouth.
"A lark spinning around one note
"Splitting and mending it
"And I find you in the reeds
"A trickle coming out of a bank
"A foal of a river
"One step-width water of linked stones
"Trills in the stones
"Glides in the trills
"Eels in the glides
"In each eel...
"a finger-width of sea."
The poem weaves together a collection of characters,
from fishermen to lock-keepers and the river's own water spirits,
to create it's own unique vision.
But it's the passages that relate to a swimmer that tempt me into to the Dart's icy embrace.
Oh, that's cold.
"Menyahari, we scream in mid-air
"We jump from a tree into a pool
"We change ourselves into the fish dimension
"Everybody swims here, under still-pool copse on a Saturday
"Slapping the water with bare hands It's fine once you're in
"Then I jumped In a rush of gold to the head
"Through black and cold Red and cold, brown and warm
"Giving water the weight and size of myself in order to imagine it
"Water with my bones
"Water with my mouth and my understanding."
It is extremely cold. I think this water's probably, I don't know, about 10 degrees.
I'm standing up in goose bumps all over, but it's also lovely.
My body's tingling all over.
It feels wonderful.
Looking down at my arms, they look golden under the peaty water.
"Where salmon swim with many a glittering
"And herons flare and fold Look for a race of fresh water
"Filling the sea with gold."
'I'm not the only one to be beguiled by Alice Oswald's lyricism and magic.'
-It's a marvellous place to be. Shall we go and have a look at the river?
-Let's do that.
'West Country poet and writer James Crowden is another big fan of the poem Dart.'
What she's done is very cleverly intertwined lots of different lives,
different people living by the river, people visiting it.
And it flows from one person's take on the river to another.
And one of them, which I didn't know at the time,
the swimmer was Roger Deakin, and that's magic
because I knew Roger and loved his slightly rebellious streak.
His love of freedom, always wanting to challenge things.
If somebody says no swimming, he'll go in there.
Like it's almost his birthright to go swimming in the rivers.
James, what do you think it is about water and rivers in particular that inspires poets and writers?
I think there are many things. I think there's the...
visual nature of the river, which is what you first see, when you come through the woods as we did,
and you stumble on a river, sometimes literally.
There's a sort of vitality about rivers, they're always moving.
And there's also a sense of not knowing, a sense of mystery.
You see half the river, you don't often see below the surface. I think it's the unseen-ness of it.
What you can't see is analogous to the subconscious, the unconscious.
It's the forces that poets are instinctively drawn to
by not knowing and they want to explore that with language.
Roger Deakin here says, "Water is the most poetical of
"elements allowing of no sudden or awkward movements.
"Even a stone, dropped in, sinks gracefully."
I think it's this gracefulness which
you associate with rivers, and then there are rapids,
and then there's gracefulness, which is like life itself.
And you met Roger. What was he like as a person?
Oh, he was great fun. He was always sort of enthusiastic and very keen.
He just felt there was a freedom about rivers, which he identified with.
He identified with that, not just by watching it, but by being in the medium, in the river.
And that's when you really experience it.
It's no good just observing it from the outside, you've got to go in and experience it.
And it's a very good maxim of life to dive in and see what it's like.
Just a little quote here, which I think is very appropriate.
He says, "I know of few people
"and no poet for whom water is not a first love.
"We all spend the first eternal dreamtime of our lives in the same internal Mother Ocean.
"So even after we have lost our gills and dived into the world,
"we are forever water babies."
That quote of Roger's really captures my imagination,
partly for its eloquence, partly because I'm four months pregnant
and carrying my very own water baby with me on this journey.
And together we're off to that other Mother Ocean - the sea.
This part of the North Devon Coast is noted more for its rocky coves than for sandy beaches.
And this secluded bay is no exception.
What it does boast, however, is a wonderful tidal pool.
'I could think of no better prospect than to enhance the day
'with bathing and walking on one of the best beaches I know...
'One of the great joys is to swim in the lagoons that appear as the tide goes out.
'They can be very warm
'and I once stepped on a Dover sole in one.
'As I swam back and forth in the clear saltwater, lulled by the rhythm of my own breathing,
'I felt myself sinking deeper into the unconscious world of the sea.'
The rock pool is teaming with life.
And as I swim round, I'm aware of all sorts of different colours in the water beneath me.
And the play of light on the water's surface.
It's these aesthetic qualities that have drawn so many artists to use water as a subject.
And I'm no exception.
I like the contrast between the sharp, craggy rocks, which are...
set in stone,
and then this moving element that reflects them,
and is giving back the light from the sky.
It's very dynamic. It's incredibly difficult to capture it.
I don't think I'll do it justice,
but I think that's what draws artists to water -
and particularly to the coast.
It's endlessly changing, it's challenging
and there's always drama there.
Around the end of the 19th century,
paintings like Ruby, Gold and Malachite by Henry Scott Tuke,
which featured young men bathing, became very popular.
They were thought to celebrate the great outdoors and encourage the taking of physical exercise in a time
when industrialisation was moving people from the land to the cities.
These images also provided an excuse to celebrate the sensuality of the human body.
Paintings like Thomas Eakins' Swimming celebrate leisure,
But artists are also drawn to water's more sinister aspects.
John Millais' Ophelia,
one of the most famous pre-Raphaelite paintings,
records the drowning of its subject in uncannily accurate detail.
John Waterhouse's Hylas And The Nymphs has a naive but handsome Hylas
being seduced to an early grave
by a group of water nymphs -
a scene that captures both the attraction and the danger of water.
This contrast, this duality that water has, on the one hand
we need it to sustain life, and on the other it can kill us,
has driven successive cultures to worship water deities since the dawn of time.
The Greeks worshipped Poseidon and Triton, the Celts had individual river deities,
and even today Hindus hold rivers sacred,
none more so than the Ganges.
But no civilization better encapsulates the veneration of water than the Romans.
Right along Hadrian's Wall, the largest example of Roman remains in the country, one can find buildings,
statues and carvings that attest to the spiritual importance water has had throughout human history.
To understand water's mythological significance, I've come to
the Chester's Fort Museum to see at first hand some of the evidence the Romans left behind.
My guide, on this showery day, is one of the country's leading experts
on folklore and mythology - Professor Ronald Hutton.
Please come this way.
The museum is home to a range of pieces collected from along the wall.
But the most significant one for my purposes comes from a nearby spring.
It's the carving of a Roman water goddess, Coventina.
Coventina, this is Alice. Alice, this is Coventina.
The introductions are important because the Romans would believe she'd look after you.
If you were nice to her.
Coventina's actually reclining on a pitcher and the water's flowing out.
That's the water which becomes the spring itself.
So, would they make offerings to her?
Oh, good grief, didn't they just!
13,482 coins are known to have been found in that spring,
all thrown in in order to get Coventina on your side.
That's largely because the water up here is so moody,
you can turn from a normal stream to a flash flood within a few minutes.
And to have the spirits on your side was extremely important.
So, this is much more than just a wishing well, then?
It's far more, it's a matter of life and death.
If you're going to swim in this neighbourhood, she's a useful friend to have.
The ancients' belief in the power of water can also be seen in the buildings they constructed.
Water is purifying. It washes away sin, it washes away guilt, it washes away care.
Cleansing yourself spiritually is one of the greatest single ritual acts of humanity,
known right across the ancient world.
And that translates into ideas of baptism as well, I suppose.
Absolutely so. You are washing away your old self.
Talking to Ronald, it's clear that water's significance
goes far beyond religious symbolism, even now in the 21st century.
Water is the moodiest of all elements and the most ubiquitous.
It comes from the sky and it rises from the earth.
It connects Heaven and Earth in a way that nothing else quite does.
And throughout the world's languages, so many of the terms we
use for emotion, for fury, for hate, for pathos, are related to water.
Pouring out your heart,
going with the flow, welling up with emotion.
It can change in a moment, from being smiling and cheerful
and embracing and playful, to being angry, turbulent and lethal.
Water is the mirror of our soul.
It's with some trepidation that I leave Professor Hutton behind
and head west along Hadrian's Wall.
My destination is one of the remote loughs that lie within sight of the Wall -
bodies of water the Romans themselves must have used.
Now, if it was a gloriously sunny day, I would consider going into this lough in a swimming costume.
But it is cold and it is windy, so I've opted for a wetsuit.
Nevertheless, it is an auspicious day to be communing with the ancients because, as Ronald Hutton reminded me
this morning, today the hours of daylight equal the hours of darkness.
It's the Autumn Equinox.
'You might, if you wish, imagine as you dive in,
'that you're encountering millennia of human experience, of hope, of fear, of passion, of reverence.
'That you could be entering the source of life itself.
'You'd be entering the entrance to the realm of death.'
I'm not sure if I've come out of the water a different person,
but certainly as I was swimming around I couldn't help thinking about what Ronald was saying
about water as a gateway to another place.
And again this water has this wonderful peatiness, so that as your hands go through, they disappear.
You almost lose sight of yourself in its depths.
The idea that water is a gateway, a route to another world,
is a particularly enthralling and romantic one.
It's especially relevant when I consider my next swim.
I'm in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, and I'm really excited about today
because I'm going to be doing a wild swim that's quite unlike any that I've done so far.
I'm expecting to meet my fellow swimmers...
Oh, there they are.
Wearing quite unusual gear for swimming.
-Is it Alice?
-Hi, I'm Daniel.
-Hello. And Joe?
-Here to do a bit of caving, then. And cave swimming?
-I need to get proper caving gear on?
-Probably a wetsuit as well.
-OK, lovely. I'll do that, then.
-See you in a minute.
This part of Yorkshire, close to the border with Cumbria and Lancashire,
is one of the country's principle areas for caving.
The limestone rock that gives this area its distinctive look
is riddled with miles of caverns and passageways.
And attracts cavers from across the UK.
Daniel's interest isn't caving.
He's one of the country's pre-eminent wild swimmers,
having written not one, but two guidebooks on the subject.
But even he hasn't tackled a swim like the one that awaits us.
I kind of think this is where water begins its life.
It percolates down into the mountain, and then collects down under the hills.
And we might as well go down and see where it all begins in the dark, very feral, maybe Gollum-like.
-So, I think it'll be quite an exciting experience.
We head down the gorge here, don't we?
Joe and his caving colleagues have set up this whole expedition.
But even though I've been caving before, I still feel a slight nervousness.
Lights on. Check like that.
As we crawl in, I'm aware of the insidious presence of water.
Whether it's falling as rain, flowing as a river or seeping through rock,
it occurs to me that water seems to permeate every aspect of the world around us.
'Geologically, the tunnelling of the limestone
'probably began at the end of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago,
'when the melt water from above
'burst down a weakness in the limestone layer
'and bored out the gorge by dissolving the rock.'
The surroundings are both oppressive and inspiring.
It's quite deep here. Bit of a cavern.
Not too far, though.
It's a relief to be able to walk upright,
but it occurs to me that this cave must flood completely at times.
When it rains, the stream must swell into torrent of water -
not an encouraging thought.
-It suddenly gets deep.
-Look at this!
It's like a river of silver stretching down there.
-It's like something from fairy tales.
'Enchanting it may be, but crouching on the edge of the pool,
'there's also something unnerving about the prospect of a swim here in the bowels of the Earth.'
Are you going to go first, Daniel?
Well, I was going to say ladies first, but I'll give it a go.
You go first, Daniel.
This is real wild swimming.
It is so beautiful. I mean, the way the rock is all rippled,
as well as the water.
This is the entrance to the Underworld you're now entering, Daniel.
-Woo! Here I go!
As Daniel slips away from me, I don't know which of us is the more uneasy.
I can't help but wonder just how deep it is beneath me.
I'm too scared to go all the way down.
I'm just going to stay closer to you.
It's like swimming down inside the belly of a whale.
Up at the top, where the water droplets are shining, it's like little silver stars.
'I can't put it off any longer.
'It's my turn to sink into these inky black depths.
'My heart thumps in my chest and I fight back thoughts of monsters rising from the deep.'
This is that strange mixture of being scary and beautiful at the same time.
That's really spooky.
I'm not thinking about what's down there.
'Concentrating on the beauty of the moment helps keep my fears at bay.'
'There is something atavistic about all swimming.
'But this was so intensely primitive it was visceral.
'It was like a dream of being born.'
'The shining stream beckons me on and I'm drawn further and further away from my companions.'
Don't go too far!
I think the cave continues underwater.
It's so deep! I can't feel the bottom at all.
'Swimming here in the darkness with just the odd shimmering of light playing on the cave walls,
'it feels like I could carry on -
'right into the centre of earth or into the Underworld.'
It's quite strange because I'm not entirely sure I believe this is real.
Swimming down towards the end, you just think, "Am I dreaming it?"
Wow! It was like you disappeared into another world down there.
It felt like it.
I think that more than anywhere I've swum, felt like what Ronald Hutton was talking to me about,
when you enter water and it takes you from one dimension into another.
I mean, that just really felt like I could carry on swimming into the darkness.
-It's chilly, but amazing.
-Totally surreal place, isn't it?
Yeah. Really, really beautiful.
The dreamlike feeling stays with me, and even the damp glade we return to seems to retain a peculiar magic.
It's very difficult to make these choices, but I think that was my favourite wild swim so far.
It was a really intense experience and stunningly beautiful down there.
And it really felt as if we were going into another world.
How did you find it, Daniel?
Oh. It was mesmerising, wasn't it?
There's no other words for it. Otherworldly.
It's the most amazing place I've been wild swimming, for sure.
As I've made my odyssey from one swim to another,
I've developed a deeper appreciation for the soggy British countryside.
I'm sure Roger, whose environmental concerns put him years ahead of his time, would have agreed.
'I climbed into the river where it ran through a miniature ravine
'full of the heather, bracken, stonecrop, thyme, and gorse.
'A little further on, a solitary sycamore
'stood sentinel over a sheep-nibbled lawn of buttercups and daisies.
'Here I made delicious tea with the river water,
'devoured pennywort leaves, and fell into a deep sleep.'
In the years since his death, Roger's legacy seems to have grown
in importance and his books have sold all over the world.
His last book is a collection of notes from his diary.
It was put together by one of his friends and his partner, Alison Hastie, who shared
many of Roger's concerns about the environment and his love of swimming.
I can't ask Roger what he thinks of my journey, so I've arranged to meet
Alison to see what she makes of my own Waterlog.
Alison, what was Roger like?
Well, he was fantastic fun. Yeah, really good fun. He was very energetic.
Every day was an adventure, there was no doubt about it.
It was a wonderful time that I knew him and that we spent together. It was great, yeah.
And had he always enjoyed swimming or was that something he particularly got into in later life?
I think he's always liked it. It was a passion for him.
And it was just a way in which he immediately was able to transport
himself literally and change his mood and made him feel good.
And I think that's why people love swimming.
It shifts you into another dimension, just instantly.
And then also has that fantastic reverb afterwards when you come out.
I loved reading Roger's books.
It made me want to get out and go swimming in wild places.
Why do you think it's had such an inspirational effect on people?
I think it's Roger's writing.
I think it was from the heart, it was very genuine and the way it's written is so infectious,
he would be encouraging anybody and everybody to have a go at swimming.
It's not something that you have to have a special gift or have money or be in a particular place.
It really is available to everyone.
I think that's the sort of exciting secret adventure that you can have.
As a relative newcomer to this, have you got any advice for me?
Well, I think you've definitely got to go skinny dipping.
-I'm sorry, Alice. It's got to be done.
Because then that's such a secret adventure.
The water just licks around you and that's a beautiful, beautiful sensation.
And it's a lovely, lovely thing to do.
And you'll do it more than once!
A skinny dip has been at the back of my mind for a while and Alison's advice has convinced me to do it.
The only question has been where.
I want to go somewhere as wild as possible, a secret place,
somewhere that is remote and beautiful.
I'm drawn to one of the wettest places in England, the Lake District.
'Searching the map I had seen some promising upland streams, a waterfall and a tarn.
'So I hiked off uphill through the bracken.
'I went there to be a long way
'from all those powerful stimuli Wordsworth said prevented us
'from doing any proper thinking.'
Wow. That looks beautiful.
Well, this is it.
This is where I've chosen to do my ultimate wild swim.
It looks beautiful. It may not be the best weather,
but what a fantastic place to go for a dip.
As I dive in, I feel a tingling on every part of my skin.
It's partly the cold water against every inch of me and
partly the excitement of indulging in a truly illicit pleasure.
The gentle currents from the waterfall eddy all around me.
The feeling of freedom is intoxicating.
Cares and concerns are washed away.
It feels like it's just me and the water.
That's really intense.
I'm just bathing in the afterglow at the moment.
The adrenaline is rushing round my body. I feel glowing.
I feel really warm, fantastic.
For me, the last two weeks have been immersive, literally.
I've had some quite other-worldly experiences.
But as several of the people have said, that sense of going to
another place is at the heart of wild swimming's attraction.
Whether the journey has involved looking at the world from a different perspective
or completely forgetting about my usual pre-occupations,
the swims I've experienced have all transcended the simple physical pleasure of the act itself.
And then finally -
getting to swim somewhere like this, so beautiful and wild,
you don't just feel close to nature, you feel part of it.
And it's a world away from swimming in a man-made pool.
I feel as though I can understand what it is about wild swimming
that so inspired the man who set me off on this journey, Roger Deakin.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Alice Roberts embarks on a quest to discover what lies behind the passion for wild swimming, now becoming popular in Britain. She follows in the wake of Waterlog, the classic swimming text by the late journalist and author, Roger Deakin.
Her journey takes in cavernous plunge pools, languid rivers and unfathomable underground lakes, as well as a skinny dip in a moorland pool. Along the way Alice becomes aware that she is not alone on her watery journey.