In Waterlog, Deakin chronicles England’s waterways, not as a series of isolated locations, but as a connective system that links the Isles of Scillies to Hampstead Ladies Pool and the Norfolk fens. It was a project that was as much about humanity as nature, charting the effect of the water upon himself, and, of course, vice-versa. In this way, Waterlog is an ecological, conservationist, personal and philosophical work of profound importance today.
There is something intangibly magical about swimming in wild water, in un-chlorinated, freezing pools and rolling tides – perhaps because the experience demands your complete attention. The cold of the Atlantic, even in summer, catches in your throat when the waves reach your chest. It beats the air out of you. All swimmers are levelled by open water. As Deakin himself observed, upon leaving the land ‘you enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.’
Waterlog calls on its readers to resist the narrative of fear surrounding wild and untamed natural spaces, and to reclaim them in an act of defiance. Most of us, Deakin writes,
live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’… It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.
Twenty years after its first publication, it is clear today that Waterlog succeeded in capturing the imaginations of thousands of swimmers across the UK. Its publication has, no doubt, been influential in the rise of outdoor swimming clubs and groups. Between 2017 and 2019, the Outdoor Swimming Society reported that it had seen membership soar to more than 70,000, and, for those true devotees of the book, there have been entire blogs (WaterlogReswum), and books (Floating), dedicated to revisiting the swims that Deakin charted in his writing.
Still, despite the resurgence in open-water, and wild, swimming, Britain’s waterways are drowning under the weight of pollution and industrial waste. This is mostly due to the 17,684 licensed emergency sewer overflows that exist across the country. These are sites at which the Environment Agency has allowed water companies to dump untreated sewage into our network of rivers. Supposedly an emergency measure during seasons of high rainfall, the release of sewage into UK waters has become something of a regular occurrence. What is perhaps more worrying, is that the pollution of our waterways has barely reached the broadsheets. Thames Water’s £20.3m fine, back in 2017, for its blatant dumping of 4.2bn liters of sewage in the Thames, should have created a public outcry in defense of our rivers. It was the largest freshwater pollution case in history, and yet it has changed almost nothing.
Waterways were once the arteries of Britain, an island surrounded and defined by its canals and oceans, dependant upon them for trade and transportation, as well as foodstuffs. Now, it seems, we have lost touch with these pieces of ourselves. However, as Deakin noticed, swimming can change our relationship with the water. Sustained public interest in our country’s rivers, lakes and chalk streams has the ability to instigate water reforms and generate investment in these natural spaces.
This shift in the way that we view Britain’s waterways will come, I think, not simply from swimming in them, but also from sharing these experiences with others. I have swum in a handful of the places Deakin navigates in his book, and walked along the banks of a dozen more, no doubt questioning the sanity of anyone who would jump in them. But his immersive descriptions of these familiar, watery places allowed a flood of others – discreet swimming holes and public baths – to rise to the surface of my consciousness. I have no doubt it did the same for others.
It strikes me that perhaps the greatest tribute to Deakin’s ethos and work would be to curate our own water log – a collective gathering of new swims and locations that would extend Deakin’s project, and encourage conservation of swimming sites across Britain.