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Top five classic swimming books


Who said that books and water don't mix? Immerse yourselves in the pages of these wild-swimming classics until the warmer weather comes along

Despite the admirable if intimidating example set by a few hardy individuals around winter, and the occasional "anything goes" Christmas exception, I have to admit to being a bit of a fair-weather wild swimmer myself. (By pretty inclusive British standards anyway – 12 degrees in the March drizzle? Absolutely. 3 degrees in the January sleet? No thanks.) The truth, though, is that I've missed the water during the dark months. I miss the visceral thrill of it, slamming you out of the routine of daily worries and straight into the colours and sounds of the moment. I miss the distinctive smell of open water, a barely-there hint that pulls you in nose-first. And I miss the soft slap of Cornish waves, and the fizzing gurgle of moorland waterfalls.

So when the siren song of the water chimes in with the lure of the sofa and the central heating simultaneously, what's a water baby to do? Here are five of the best books with a watery fix to tide you over (pun intended!) until spring arrives next month …

Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain – Roger Deakin

If wild swimming has a bible, then Roger Deakin's Waterlog is it. The renowned environmentalist documents his journey through the watery liminal spaces of Britain, from the obvious (rivers, lakes and the sea) to the more obscure (tarns, quarries and lidos). This is no mere guidebook, though: the poetry of Deakin's language itself seems to flow like water, and the book defies genres. It's part travelogue, part autobiography, part impassioned call-to-arms for our right to swim in the waterways that surround us. Deakin is an aquatic Ulysses of sorts, exploring places as far removed from the mundane as any sea witch's cave. Most importantly, the writing makes me pine, quite intensely, for some rain-calmed pool on one of those cloudy golden days in early May, and if you don't finish it with a hundred ideas for new places and ways to swim, you're probably reading it wrong.

To the River – Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing's To the River is a love letter to the Ouse in Sussex, as she walks its length one lush midsummer, swimming as she goes. But it's also an imagined dialogue of sorts with the writers who have loved it before her – Virginia Woolf in particular, whose ghost hangs over both the river and the book. (It was the scene of her suicide.) Like Deakin, Laing interweaves history, geology and literature with musings on her own life, and in doing so she captures the spirit of a river that must captivate any wild swimmer.

The Prelude – William Wordsworth

Of course, it's not just prose with the capacity to conjure up watery landscapes. In fact, poetry is often more effective when it comes to capturing the ever-changing charms of such an evasive medium. Just ask pretty much any of the romantic poets, whose shenanigans included swimming the grand canal in Venice (Byron) and insisting on submerging themselves in any handy body of water regardless of an inability to swim (Shelley). It's Wordsworth, though, whose words in The Prelude most perfectly capture both the allure of open water and the instinctive loveliness inherent in a summer's day bathe. This is poetry to tempt the most cynical indoorsy type to dip a toe, so if you're already a convert, it will inevitably send you to bed dreaming of the Lakes.

The Story of Swimming – Susie Parr

For a book that concentrates less on the scenery of swimming and more on the act itself, Susie Parr's The Story of Swimming is full of hidden delights. Not least among these is the way it somehow connects you to a community of historical and current swimmers – creatives, eccentrics and nature lovers who make a remarkably convincing case for both the attractions and the benefits of a swim. Alongside Parr's obvious personal love of the water, here is swimming in its cultural, historical and political context. Yes, this book will give you fun facts with which to impress your friends, but it will also give you back a sense of wonder and respect for your own hobby – this bewitching, challenging, ever-so-slightly-bonkers pastime.

Tarka the Otter – Henry Williamson

This one might appear to be a bit of a curve ball, as it involves the swimming exploits of an animal rather than a human, but Tarka the Otter is a book beloved by water wallowers everywhere regardless of their species. (OK, I made the last bit up – otters can't read.) Henry Williamson's meticulous research into the book's north Devon setting is legendary and in the otter's eye view you glimpse a secret already known to swimmers: the world looks different from the water. Despite some questionable political views, Williamson describes the gorgeous watering holes that frame Tarka's adventures with a clarity that will leave you aching for your own "joyful water-life" to restart, whether within the tumbling crossroads of Watersmeet or the moody beauty of Pinkworthy Pond. And don't be put off by the "children's book" label. Roger Deakin called it instead a "mythic poem", which to my mind is far more accurate.

So which books do you reach for when an imaginary swim is far more practical than a real one? Let's share the vicarious swimming love and bathe from our armchairs! (At least until the middle of March …)

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