Sunday, 26 August 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 is looking for a swim in the Lea

I enjoyed reading Gareth Rees’ tribute to an irrepressible and rebellious River Lea. Gareth searched for the preternatural spirit of the river and shared not so much an elegy but a homage and affirmation that counters some of the gloomy outpourings and discharges which have dimmed the vision of that sibling tributary of the Thames.
In Gareth’s mind the Lee retrieves herself as the river Lea at a weir near Lea Bridge Road, just a relatively short distance before a reunion with the mythic darkness of the Thames at Leamouth, one of many confluences in the great water cycle.
Rivers have a profound place in the human psyche and Gareth comments on his dedication that the river Lea can also be equated with a post industrial psychosis, that is, a severe affectation of the perception of external reality. He publishes via Scoop an online magazine which presents a fantastic discourse on psycho-geography; that discipline and/or un-disciplined study of relationships between mind and place. Much of the scooped discourse is land based. My perception of this has been formed by reading Robert Mcfarlane’s, The Old Ways, in which he describes journeys made via ancient sea and water ways kept alive by uniquely passionate and courageous spirits. Mcfarlane proffers a theory that the predominant land based perception of place comes as a consequence of the Roman Empire’s military conquest and domination by road (across land) – often involving the subjugation of water by drainage, bridging and viaducts. Mcfarlane suggests we can subvert this dominion or ‘terra-centricity’ (my term) by returning to water (the sea) and thus discover new and lost cultures of place and belonging.
Walking is often the default means of psycho-geographic communication or communion. In Mcfarlane’s aqueous return, sailing is a way to be more mindful of places which will not hold any physically tangible sense of a person’s passage. Mcfarlane did come close to walking on water but maintained a grip on some sandy shallows of tidal reality enough to find his way to shore and retell the salty tale. He remembers his friend, Roger Deakin, a visionary proponent of wild swimming who wrote, Waterlog, an account of a swimmers journey through Britain. Deakin suggested ‘dry land is our problem’ and that bathing and swimming can bring about a transformation in us, from Homo sapiens to Homo ludens, from neurosis to playfulness. Sadly, Deakin can also be found weeping while sitting less than playfully by the Bury St Edmunds Tesco on the banks of the Lark, the humiliated ‘Jordan of the Fens’, a river reduced to a dribble and trickle of near irredeemable public convenience.
Is the Lea a convenience? Would you or I swim in it? I wouldn’t because I think it is too polluted, harbouring microbes via effluence which can transmit diseases causing extremely distressing psychosis and physical debilitation – post industrial or otherwise. The same day I started reading the ‘Swimming with Eels’ chapter in Waterlog I’d swum at Stanford Lock on the River Ivel Navigation. The swim of the pond beneath the long gone mill was charming, a gentle flow and tow of a depth I could just about reach standing with outstretched toes before I submerged entirely. The weather was balmy, the scorching sun partially obscured by slowly drifting clouds. Their still flowing reflections were refreshingly cool with each launch into them from the shallow margins to the deeps where I made unpractised strokes of the breast, crawl and back. I like to think some time dissolved and washed away as I relaxed and gently trod the currents. I fear I would not find this ease in the Lea.

Stanford Lock, Bedfordshire, August 2012
Later on, while lost in dead end circumambulations on and adrift from the Navigator and Kingfisher Ways time caught up with me and started rubbing at my sweaty heels and toes promising blisters. I headed home content with my amphibious exploration. Later, after dinner and a cool foot soak, I returned to Waterlog and the multifunctional advice the Environment Agency had given Deakin following the enquiry he made after swimming in the Lark at Isleham – where once river baptisms had taken place. The cool refreshment of the day’s swim and soak then transformed into a hot prickling flush of fear as the advice reminded me of the hazards of swimming in rivers where sewage may be a problem.
However Deakin, to some extent, decried this officially sanctioned lack of faith in a rivers natural and cultivated ability to clean itself. For many rivers and their people water borne diseases are a prevalent threat and condition and much psychosis, disablement and mortality can be associated with dirty water. Deakin’s passionate and embodied knowledge of river histories enabled him to identify industrial pollution by truly synthetic or alien substances as a greater cause of concern. There is shit and there’s shit and the Lark was severely poisoned in the late 1980s by a leak from a sugar processing factory; a bitter sweet poisoning made all the more worse by the concrete containment and brutalisation of the river – a psychotic situation familiar to followers of the Lee and Lea. But this is a gloomy discharge, a fretful immersion in thoughts of water diseased with microbes and their ominous incubation periods – a self concern about a situation which many people make much more practical and outward looking efforts to remedy, truly inspired by the hope a river is rarely entirely lost and that the joy of water can be found again.

Stanford Lock - Reconnoitre

Outdoor Swimming Society tips - here

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