"Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“Waterlog” is a rare and extraordinary tour of Britain via the streams, rivers, lakes, lochs, moats and other aquatic features of Roger Deakin’s homeland. It also is the autobiographical story of a restless man anxious to break out from his cramped and routine existence.
The memoir opens with Deakin swimming back and forth in the swimming hole he has swum in for years and feeling an urge to swim through the country until he reaches the sea, “…to break out of the frustration of a lifetime doing lengths, of endlessly turning back on myself like a tiger pacing its cage.”
He begins his trip in April 1997 by running nude into the waters of the Isle of Scilly: ends his aqueous adventure on Christmas Day the same year, submerged in “the intoxication of the fiery cold” waters of the North Sea.
As he freely swims through the network of the island’s waterways, Deakin immerses himself in habitats of salmon, frogs, otters and herons and a host of other animals. Sometimes he treads in dangerous waters polluted with arsenic, E. coli and excrement. At other times he escapes from strong currents and the downward pull of entangling seaweed. He describes a time he panicked: “It was like dream swimming, going so effortlessly fast, and feeling locked in by the current, with no obvious means of escape. I kept on swimming until I practically dissolved, jostled from behind by the swell.”
As Deakin masterfully relates his watery excursions, he depicts riparian life and recounts the history and geography of the web of water paths. He explores the “healing powers” of the cold springs of Malvern, a spa town made famous by the visits of Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin. He fills in the reader on the history of Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon as he floats by on the River Avon and portrays other idyllic landscapes he views from the water, all to connect the reader to the natural world by swimming.
As a part of the international, wild swimming movement, the zealous environmentalist argues that all riverbanks should be public. “The right to walk freely along riverbanks or to bathe in rivers should no more be bought and sold than the right to walk up mountains or to swim in the sea from our beaches,” he writes. Deakin relishes swimming in the wild, making note that “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.”
Many people enjoy hiking, biking, or running as ways to connect with nature. Deakin offers a refreshing alternative—unregulated swimming in the waterways of our world, free of official scorekeeping and rankings.
“Waterlog” is a stimulating, imaginative read. It may lead the reader to a profoundly different relationship to open water. The 1999 publication of “Waterlog” boosted environmental preservation and encouraged the wild swimming movement in England. Although the book has been immensely popular in Europe it has only recently been published in the United States. “Waterlog” is a delightful ode to the wonders of swimming in the outdoors.
About the Author: “Waterlog” is the only book documentarian and environmentalist Deakin (1943- 2006) published during his lifetime. He was co-founder of the environmental arts activist group Common Ground and made a life's work of promoting walking, swimming, and biking.
Tin House is the publisher of this 405-page, thoroughly indexed book.