Cook books: a reading and eating list

I am not a natural cook. While my husband can throw back-of-the-fridge ingredients together and create something delicious and knows instinctively what flavours go well together, I need the guidance of recipes. Which is perhaps why I love cook books so much.

I love the inspiration cook books bring, showing me dishes I’d never have thought of myself. I love flicking through their pages and feeling my mouth start to water at all the possibilities, and I love the calming reassurance of being told what to do, step by step. When life feels overwhelming and things seem out of my control it’s nice to spend an hour or so following someone else’s directions in the knowledge that if I add the right ingredients and cook for the right amount of time, things will turn out OK.

Like many people, during lockdown I’ve turned to cooking as a way to unwind and find comfort. I didn’t quite tackle sourdough (I can barely keep plants alive so don’t fancy my chances with a starter) but in the spring I baked hot cross buns and banana bread and on low days whipped up cupcakes and scones to be slathered in cream and jam. Now with the days getting shorter I’m finding myself wanting to spend more time in our little sunshine-yellow kitchen making stews, roasts and hot chocolate from scratch (this is my go-to recipe).

I start each week with something of a ritual: taking down a pile of cook books from the shelf and picking recipes for the week. I then head to the supermarket to stock up on what we’ll need. I used to find supermarket shopping pretty anxiety-enducing – the endless aisles, the endless choices and too many people in an enclosed space. But with the help of cook books my food shop has become so much easier. And when I’ve chosen a recipe I’m excited to try cooking becomes something to look forward to, not just another chore. Here are the cook books I find myself reaching for again and again…

My favourite cook books

The Roasting Tin, by Rukmini Iyer

If you flicked through my copy of The Roasting Tin you’d come across endless pages splattered with sauce or smudged with mucky thumbprints, which is testament to how much I use and love this book. All the recipes require just one tin and are real bung-in-the-oven dishes that still somehow taste totally delicious. I often use these recipes when hosting friends (pre-lockdown of course!) because they’re so tasty but so easy that you don’t have to spend your time in the kitchen while your guests are chatting. I also have two of Rukmini’s other books, The Green Roasting Tin (veggie and vegan recipes) and The Quick Roasting Tin and they are equally as loved (and splattered). I’d describe these books as books for people who enjoy eating more than they enjoy cooking (that’s me!).

Favourite recipe: crispy baked gnocchi with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and pine nuts (the easiest but cosiest, tastiest dish)

Honey and Co, Food from the Middle East, by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

My friends and I have become super fans of Sarit and Itamar. Our favourite place to meet is their restaurant Honey and Co, where the Middle Eastern food served is so delicious we all bought copies of their cook book after our first visit. We used to have an informal cook book club where we’d cook food together from the same cook book at each other’s houses. The idea was to use a different book each time but we ended up going back to this book about three or four times we loved it so much. We also all went to a signing of theirs together so we could meet them and get our books signed and it was difficult to reign in our groupie-like excitement. The recipes are a little higher up the ‘faff’ scale, but always worth it for the wonderful flavours.

Favourite recipe: peaches and goats’ cheese salad with roasted almonds

Bazaar, Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes, by Sabrina Gayhour

Another favourite from our cook book club is Sabrina Gayhour. We’ve made things from several of her books but this is my favourite. The veggie recipes are so tasty and include a mix of smaller dishes designed for feast-style eating as well as heartier mains.

Favourite recipe: lemon, black pepper, pecorino and cabbage rice

Fireside feasts and snow day treats

I discovered this book when house sitting for a friend last month. Yes, I am that house guest who can’t help but go through your bookshelves… It was pouring with rain while I was there and this book jumped out at me like a big cosy hug. I’ve since searched out my own secondhand copy and I can tell it’s going to be a book I return to regularly in autumn and winter.

Favourite recipe: spicy pork stew with sweet potatoes and beans

The Happy Kitchen, Good Mood Food, by Rachel Kelly

I love the concept of this book. Rachel worked with a nutritionist to develop recipes designed to aid good mental health. They’re based on research surrounding the link between what we eat and our mood and the recipes are split into chapters based on a different aspect of mental health such as good sleep and beating the blues.

Favourite recipe: kale and butternut squash salad

Midnight Chicken, by Ella Rusbridger

This is a beautiful cook book, a book to read just as much as a book to cook from. The recipes are designed to bring comfort and joy and are written with such gentleness. I particularly enjoy the odd instruction to pour yourself a glass of wine at crucial stages of the preparation, just because.

Favourite recipe: midnight chicken (this has become my go-to roast chicken recipe)

Bosh!, Simple Recipes Amazing Food All Plants, by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby

I recently asked for cook book recommendations on social media and this was the book that came up the most – so I bought it! The all plant-based recipes are hearty, tasty and easy to make.

Favourite recipe: satay sweet potato Bosh! bowl

Leon, Happy One-Pot Cooking, by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent

Like The Roasting Tin, this book is full of tasty but simple recipes that are low on the washing up. I particularly love their ‘cosy and warm’ section – perfect for this time of year.

Favourite recipe: sausage, brussels and tagliatelle

Cook book reading list

These books are on my list to buy and try. Lots came to me via recommendations on social media so thank you if you shared one of these!

  • Simply, by Sabrina Gayhour
  • One Pan Pescatarian, by Rachel Phipps
  • River Cottage Veg, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
  • East, by Meera Sodha
  • Dishoom cookbook, by Shamil Thakrar
  • Mowgli Street Food, by Nisha Katona
  • Mediterranean Every Day, by Sheela Prakash
  • Deliciously Ella, Quick and Easy
  • The Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen
  • The Little Library Cookbook, by Kate Young
  • Hemsley and Hemsley, The Art of Eating Well, by Jasmine Hemsley and Melissa Hemsley
  • Together, The Hubb Community Cookbook

Do you use cookbooks? What’s the book you reach for most frequently? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

P.S I’m going to do another post soon on my favourite baking books – there are too many to fit in here!

Honeymoon reading – October 2020

A photo of Libby holding a stack of books: Daddy Goes A-Hunting, The Island of Sea Women, The Songs of Us, Before the Coffee Gets Cold and The Girl with the Louding Voice

I’m writing this from my little writing room in London, but in my heart I’m back in the cabin in the woods where I spent the past week. I was on my honeymoon with my new husband; we hired a little hideaway in the heart of Dorset with its own private lake and surrounding woodland. It was the perfect trip: a week of walks, wild swims and curling up next to the woodburner reading. One of my favourite things about going on holiday has always been having the time and excuse to read as much as I like. It’s such a treat to read for hours on end, not worrying about the time passing. Here’s my honeymoon reading list…

Libby sits on a deck by a lake reading Before the Coffee Gets Cold, wearing a jumper and scarf.

Before the Coffee Gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is one of those books that I’ve so nearly bought many times, my attention always drawn to it in bookshops, my hand pausing on the cover before for whatever reason moving on to something else. On a recent trip to one of my favourite indie bookshops I saw it again, the cover winking at me, and decided to go for it this time. I’m so glad I did. It’s such a cosy and dreamlike story, set in a café in Tokyo with a twist: if a customer sits in one of the seats in the café, it is possible to travel in time. The time travel is constrained by certain rules though, one of them being that the traveller can only stay in the past (or future) for as long as it takes for their coffee to get cold. For a book about time travel, it is a surprisingly gentle and quiet sort book, but that’s what I loved so much about it. It’s moving too, making you think about the moments in life you wish you could go back and relive or change in some way. Reading it on my honeymoon had a particular resonance, reminding me to cherish every moment, moments that one day in the future I might choose to go back and experience again if I happened to find myself in a time-traveller’s café…

I raced through this book in a day, so headed back to the same shop the next day to buy the sequel, Tales from the Café, which was published this year. It’s just as enjoyable as the first, picking up on the stories of some of the characters you grow to love in the original book as well as introducing new stories.

Libby lies on a bed in the sun reading The Girl with the Louding Voice.

I get a lot of my book recommendations from a WhatsApp group I’m part of where myself and a group of female book-lovers share what we’re reading. The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré is one that’s been incredibly popular in our group this year. Set in Nigeria, it tells the story of Adunni and her long fight to get an education after being removed from school and sold into marriage as a young teenager. She’s a narrator whose unique voice really stays with you. It’s a book about the power of finding your voice, something which particularly as writer and a woman, struck a real chord with me.

A kitchen table featuring a bowl of porridge, a cup of tea, a pair of binoculars and a book, titled The Island of Sea Women.

Like The Girl with the Louding Voice, my next read, The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See was one that really moved me and will stay with me for a long time. It tells the story of two friends who grow up as part of a collective of all-female divers on the island of Jeju off South Korea. The book follows their friendship and how it is tested by the harrowing events that take place on the island over the years. I particularly loved this book for how well it depicts the weight and significance of female friendships – something I think I’ll always want to cover in my own writing because it’s something I so believe in. This particular paragraph in the book had me underlining like mad and saying ‘yes!’ out loud:

‘No one picks a friend for us; we come together by choice. We are not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son; we tie ourselves together through moments. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded, and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.’

The book does a brilliant job of capturing what is so special about friendship as well as exploring the pain of a friendship tested to breaking point. There are some really dark parts in this story, but it is brightened too by moments of love and the warmth of a community of women.  

Libby sat on a sofa under a blanket and wearing an orange jumper, reading The Songs of Us.

Next up on my reading pile was The Songs of Us by Emma Cooper. I was lucky enough to meet Emma at an event we did together last year and have been meaning to buy her books ever since after hearing her read aloud and talk about her work. She is also truly lovely, so it was no surprise that her debut was too. It’s a quirky, poignant book about love and family which I found myself racing through. I’ll be adding her next books, The First Time I Saw You and If I Could Say Goodbye to my to-read pile too.

I’m now half-way through Daddy’s Gone A Hunting, a Persephone book by Penelope Mortimer about a 1950s housewife struggling with the loneliness of her life and a troubled marriage. If you’ve read The Lido you’ll know that loneliness is a subject close to my heart, so I’m enjoying reading this interpretation of the theme.

Somehow without meaning to I ended up reading a lot of quite sad books on my honeymoon, so I think I might seek out some cheerier reads next. I like balancing my reading as much as possible moving between different locations, time periods and up and down varied emotional landscapes. I love that no matter what mood you’re in, there’s a book out there to suit you. Right now, with an autumn chill knocking at my window, I’m craving some comforting books to snuggle up with. Are there any you’d recommend? Add your suggestions in the comments below!

  • Photos with thanks to my husband, Bruno.
  • Where we stayed: we found this wonderful place via Canopy and Stars. It was the perfect place for a cosy honeymoon.

What I’m reading – September 2020

A table featuring a jug of sunflowers and a stack of books: The Amateur Marriage, The Dud Avocado, Miss Benson's Beetle, The Compassion Project, The Heart's Invisible Furies and The Offing

This month I have visited New York, Ireland, Antigua, Paris, New Caledonia and Robin Hood Bay, all without leaving my sofa. Because that’s the brilliant thing about reading, isn’t it? It can take you anywhere.

Although this year our lives may have shrunk in many ways and in reality, I have travelled no further than Dorset (to visit family), I have been reading more than ever. It comes in ebbs and flows and at the start of the Covid-19 crisis I must admit I struggled to read. The news and my feelings of anxiety were so all-consuming that it was hard to focus on a book. Every time I settled down to read the words scrambled as though each page was made of Scrabble letters and someone was shaking them about. But there have been other spells where I have read voraciously, grateful for the comfort and escape of books. I’m thankful to be in one of those spells right now.

Two books on a coffee table with coffee cup and sunflowers in the background. The books are The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne and The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

It’s hard to pick favourites from the books I’ve read recently because there have been so many that have moved or affected me in different ways. I think I have to start with The Offing by Benjamin Myers – a dreamily gentle tale of a sixteen-year-old boy living in the North of England post Second World War, who turns his back on the coal mines to set off on a walking adventure the summer he finishes school. It reminded me a bit of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. Young Robert’s journey is side-tracked when he meets Dulcie, an eccentric older woman living in a tumbling down cottage facing the sea. She feeds him with lobster, nettle tea and stories, and an unlikely friendship begins. If books were medicine this would be Calpol – comforting, soothing and sweet.

If The Offing was something of a gentle stroll, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was more of a mountain hike, epic and full of highs and lows. Oh, I loved this book. It tells the story of Cyril, a gay man growing up in 1950s Ireland and charts his story from birth, when he was put up for adoption and taken in by rather unusual adoptive parents, to his teen years and on through his entire life. Including spells in Ireland, Amsterdam and New York, this book covers not just a great span of place and time, but a broad emotional spectrum too. At parts heart-wrenchingly tragic, at others laugh-out-loud funny, this is a book I will remember for a long time.

Two books on a green sofa. The books are Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo and The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Last year I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s Man-Booker winning Girl, Woman, Other and have been wanting to read more of her books ever since, so picked up Mr Loverman in a local bookshop. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is such a memorable protagonist: a seventy-four-year old Antiguan man living in North London, a dapper dresser and a witty narrator. He lives with his wife Carmel in Stoke Newington (incidentally this is where I live too so it was nice to read mentions of so many places that are familiar to me) but has been having a secret affair with his childhood friend Morris since both men were teenagers. I raced through this – I particularly enjoyed the complexities of the characters and how your sympathies are tugged in different directions throughout the book.

One of the places I get my book recommendations is a WhatsApp group I’m part of; most of the women I’ve never actually met in person but when my friend invited me to join I was delighted. We all share books we’ve been loving and it’s a brilliant resource, plus nice to feel part of a community of book-lovers even if we don’t all know each other. One of the books that’s come up many times this year in that group is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s on my list but I decided I wanted to start with Brit’s first book, The Mothers. It had me hooked from the first page – the writing is just so beautiful. The narration style is unusual but totally gripping. It tells the story of a group of teenagers, an unplanned pregnancy and the fallout from the choices that are made as result. It deals with friendship, loss and the power secrets can hold over us, even years later. I can’t wait to read The Vanishing Half next.

My most recent read was The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a glittering, gripping book set in 1930s New York and with a fantastic female protagonist who reminded me a bit of the main character in The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy which I also enjoyed (set in 1950s Paris). Both women have what I’d describe as ‘moxie’ and both books were great escapist reads.

Next on my list is Summerwater by Sarah Moss – I’m only at the start but have already fallen in love with the lyrical descriptions of a rainy Scottish summer and the varied characters brought together by the chalet park where they’re all staying. The writing is rich and wonderful like a hot chocolate made with proper chocolate – to be sipped and savoured.

Other books I’ve enjoyed recently

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – I love all of Rachel Joyce’s books and her latest was no exception. A great adventure story with two loveable female leads.

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler – Dare I admit this was my first Anne Tyler? I loved it. And the great thing about coming to an author late is having a whole back catalogue of books to go back and discover – what a treat.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls – This book about first love really brought back memories of being a teenager. I was particularly moved by the descriptions of depression and a young person dealing with a troubled homelife – there were some real catch-you-off-guard weepy moments in this one.

Next up

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré – I have heard wonderful things.

How I choose what to read

Often when I get into slumps with reading it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. One of life’s greatest joys, in my view, is that you will never run out of books to read, but it can make it overwhelming at times too. Now, I have a word doc on my computer where I save book recommendations so that I can print it out whenever I visit a bookshop. I love being pulled organically towards books that aren’t on the list too, but it helps guide me when I’m feeling stuck. Here’s where the books on that list come from:

  • Personal recommendations: like so many people, most of the books I read come from recommendations from friends and family. I love being part of the WhatsApp group I mentioned already, and I have a couple of friends who share similar taste in books to me and whose recommendations I always act on. I also try to reciprocate this by sharing books I love with friends – often posting my copy to them when I’m finished if I can bare to part with it.
  • Social media recommendations: I follow a lot of bookish Twitter and instagram accounts and love seeing what everyone’s reading. I love how passionate the book community is on social media and am so thankful to the work that bloggers do, both as a writer but perhaps more importantly as a reader too!
  • Independent bookshops: Indie bookshops are brilliant for book recommendations – it’s part of the service that makes them so special. At the start of lockdown back in March my local bookshop were brilliant at recommending a stack of books that saw me through those difficult weeks. Next time you pop into your local bookshop, why not ask a member of staff for some advice?

What are you reading this month? And how do you choose the books you read? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Why I’m proud to be a Pirate

Getting children reading and writing is an issue close to my heart. In this blog I write about why I’m proud to volunteer for the Literacy Pirates, and what the charity is all about.

‘And then the aliens arrived…’

‘Wow! And what happened next?’

‘WELL…’

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m listening to a ten-year-old school student tell me his ideas for a short-story. We’re sat in a room that looks like a pirate ship, parrots resting on shelves, waves and treasure chests painted on the walls and excitable children scattered at cosy desks throughout the room. Everywhere you look, there are books. This is the home of the Literacy Pirates, a charity I’ve volunteered with for the past two years. They’re a small organisation that provides extra reading and writing support to children via an after-school learning programme. Volunteering with them has been one of the highlights of the past couple of years for me.

I started volunteering there when my first novel, The Lido, was published. I feel so lucky that I’ve loved reading and writing since I was very young, but I know that not everyone feels the same way. Some children just need a little bit of encouragement to really get into books and stories. But I strongly believe that with the right books and the right support, reading and writing have the power to bring a lifetime of joy and opportunities.

Listening to the children read is one of my favourite parts of volunteering. I love choosing the books together and getting lost in a great story. We chat about what we’re reading and I often leave wanting to search out a particular book at my own local library. It’s always great when the young person decides to borrow the book themselves; seeing them slip the book into their rucksack makes me think about all the hours I spent tucked up in bed reading as a child, and the books from that time that I still think back to with fondness.

It’s also always heartening when you see a child’s confidence growing throughout the afternoon.

‘I NEVER read out loud at school,’ I remember a particularly quiet boy telling me one session.

‘And yet you just read beautifully to me for half an hour!’ I replied, ‘You should be so proud of yourself.’

‘I am,’ he said, a huge grin on his face.

I turn up to volunteer at the sessions with the hope of helping out, by giving a child some one on one time, helping them look up a new word in the dictionary or just by joining them in a very silly but very fun game of ‘splat’. But every time I visit I learn so much too. The students constantly inspire me with their creativity and ability to come up with ideas, something that can sometimes feel daunting when I sit in my home office trying to write. I think every child has a story – usually loads of stories actually – to tell, and it’s such a joy to help them bring those to life. All of the projects lead towards some sort of finished product, be it a published book, a film screened at the local cinema, or an app that the students and their parents can download onto their phones. Being there to celebrate the end of a project is always a wonderfully noisy, happy occasion. To see the students so proud of the (amazing) work they’ve produced is a fantastic feeling.

At the end of the sessions the staff often tell us volunteers a bit more about the impact of the learning programme. Like the fact that children who come along to the sessions improve their reading age over 50% faster than age-related expectations. Or that 100% of parents say they’ve seen a positive impact on their child’s literacy because of the programme. Being part of something like that, even if in a small way, feels pretty amazing. Because the Literacy Pirates after-school sessions are so much fun – they’re moments in the week where aliens really can turn up at any moment, where games and laughter are encouraged – but they also make a real difference too.

That’s what keeps me coming back, and why I feel proud to be a Pirate.

Want to support the Literacy Pirates?

  • The Literacy Pirates are currently raising funds for their World Book Day Campaign and are looking for organisations to get involved and run fundraising events (think book-themed quizes,  pirate-themed office Bake Off). You can find more info and support on their website.
  • If you can’t put on an event but still want to support the work of the Literacy Pirates, you can donate to the campaign.
  • The Literacy Pirates are always looking for volunteers to help run their sessions in North London. If you live nearby and think you can help out, check out their information about volunteering. I can vouch that being a volunteer is great fun!

 

Winter swimming – what’s all the fuss about?

This is my first year of trying to keep swimming all throughout winter in cold water, without a wetsuit. ‘WHY?’ is a question I’m regularly asked when I talk about my dips in chilly lidos and ponds. Here are my top seven reasons for taking the plunge.

1. The chance to be in nature.

 

I live in London, and as a city-dweller I crave moments where I can feel like I’m connected to nature, where I can see the seasons changing around me. It was at the Hampstead Ladies Pond in North London, where I swim regularly, that I saw my first ever kingfisher. I was swimming my usual lap when a friend pointed out a flash of turquoise and orange at the far end of the pond. We trod water for a while and watched as the kingfisher darted about by the bank. It felt truly magical, and a moment I would never have experienced if I’d stayed at home that day.

At the Ladies Pond you regularly see herons and cormorants swooping low or fishing as you swim quietly in the water. You get to see them up close, truly noticing the patterns of their feathers. And if you swim in winter at a lido you can watch birds and planes flying overhead and notice the shifting patterns of the clouds. I find it incredibly peaceful and humbling, a reminder of my place within the wider scheme of things.

2. The post-swim rush.

As I pull myself up the ladder at the end of a swim my skin glows bright pink and I feel so full of life that I could tilt my head back to the sky and roar. There really is nothing like the rush you get after a swim in cold water. It’s a euphoric high that can become quite addictive. When I swim in a pond or lido in the morning it energises me for the whole day.

3. The community.

When you swim through the winter you get chatting to other swimmers in the changing rooms or on the banks of the pond or river. Immediately you have a shared connection, something to talk about and to bring you together. There is such a wonderful sense of comradery. I have also made great friends through outdoor swimming. I am now part of a WhatsApp group called ‘Pond Ladies’, friends with whom I try to swim twice a week. On a grey day when I don’t feel much like climbing into cold water, they spur me on. I go to the pond to see them just as much as I go to swim. Afterwards, we sit on benches watching the other swimmers, drinking hot tea and sharing biscuits. They are some of the happiest moments in my week.

4. To discover the beauty in winter.

Winter has always been my least-favourite season. I usually sink into something of a slump from October to March struggling with the lack of sunlight and the long, cold nights. I look ahead to spring with a sense of desperation, wishing each winter’s day to go by so the sunnier seasons can get closer. But this year, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the season because of my cold-water swims. In the water I take the time to watch the trees and sky and find that actually, winter can look pretty wonderful.

5. Because it makes me feel good about my body.

After a swim in the Ladies Pond I have a (cold) shower, totally naked, standing in front of a floor to ceiling window looking out on the water. In those moments I feel totally unselfconscious, thinking only about what my body has just achieved and how it felt to be in the water. For a moment I feel free of any worries about the way I look and realise actually, it really doesn’t matter.

6. It’s a way to get out of my head.

When you’re in really cold water all you can think about are the sensations in your body, which can be a huge relief it you’re feeling low, anxious or generally stuck in your thoughts. I find cold water swimming incredibly freeing for exactly this reason – it’s a time when I don’t worry, when all I think about is what I’m doing. You leave everything on dry land when you slip into the water.

7. It makes me feel brave.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly brave person. But the fact that I swim in cold water in the middle of winter makes me feel fearless. If I can do this, I can do anything.

Want to try cold water swimming?

  • Take your time. If you’ve never swum in cold water before it’s not a good idea to suddenly give it a go in mid-January. Instead, start swimming outdoors in the summer and keep going through the autumn, sticking at it for as long as you feel comfortable. Over time you should acclimatise, particularly if you go regularly (at least twice a week).
  • Get some gear. When I swim I wear a swimming costume, a thin neoprene rash vest with short sleeves, neoprene gloves and socks and a woolly hat. The gloves, socks and hat make all the difference in my opinion. I love feeling the water against my skin but there is no shame in wearing a wetsuit, especially to begin with. Up until this year I always wore a wetsuit, but gradually started getting used to not wearing one, by doing a short swim in the suit then taking it off and going back in for a very quick dip.
  • Bring lots of layers for after. And when I say lots I mean LOTS. When I pack my bag to go for a winter swim I bring as many layers as feels ridiculous. And then I pack another one. When I’m dry and warm I can’t imagine needing quite that many jumpers, but when I’m shivering after my swim I am so grateful I brought them!
  • A hot drink afterwards really helps to warm you up from the inside – I always bring a flask of tea with me when I winter swim.
  • Don’t jump in – as it can be quite a shock to the system. When I swim outdoors I ease myself in slowly, splashing water over my shoulders as I go to get myself used to the temperature. When you’re in, don’t forget to breathe. Take long, slow, calm breaths as you adjust to the temperature.
  • Check out more tips from the Outdoor Swimming Society here: https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/6-tips-for-cold-water-swimming

Swimming at Vobster Quay Inland Diving Centre

img_1057The lake is down in a hollow, surrounded by trees. Their lowest branches dip into the water making slight ripples. On the far side are rock-faces where birds nest. Orange and pink buoys sit on the surface among fallen leaves and the arms of swimmers can be seen breaking the surface between them. The lake is larger than I expected, stretching away in either direction until I can barely make out the buoys.

The five of us sit on a jetty above the water: my sister, her three friends and me. It reminds me of a Pink Floyd poster Alex used to have. Five women sat on the edge of a pool, their naked backs to the camera. I always used to want to be the woman in the middle with the curly red hair and the tiny waist who looked as though she was in conversation with the woman next to her.

We are not naked though. Alex’s friends wear bikinis and swimming costumes and we wear wetsuits. When the others said they were braving it without one I considered it. But not for long. More than anything I like how buoyant my wetsuit makes me: I can stand upright in the water without moving and I don’t sink. It makes me feel calmer and swim further. I think about the Scottish myth of the ‘selkie’: part woman, part sea creature she is not fully at home either on land or in the water. Her selkie skin is her tether to the water, and when she puts it on she becomes more sea creature than woman. I love the story, and sometimes I feel part-selkie myself.

One by one the others push off from the edge, sending a splash into the air. They swim in quick circles to warm up, their breathing quick at first but gradually slowing. Then it is Alex’s turn and I follow quickly behind her. The water crashes around me as I break the stillness of the surface. I am plunged for a moment into the grey-blue darkness. I watch the bubbles of my breath and my hands that look so pale underwater. I watch my feet below me as though I am watching a film of a girl underwater. And then I pop to the surface like a cork.

The others are swimming head-up-breastroke out into the lake, heading for the orange buoys on the right hand side where the trees trail in the water. They chat as they swim, catching up on the week and saying how lovely the water is. When I duck my head underwater I see their legs kicking like sea creatures. Bodies look completely different underwater – at once graceful and strange-looking. Beneath them is the grey blue darkness and then nothing. Occasionally the sun catches the water just right and I make out some sign of there being a bottom: a rock or the rope that tethers the buoys.

Every now and then Alex and I pull away and swim front crawl to the next buoy. We swim side by side. I focus on pulling my arms in time with hers and keeping close to her, swimming in her bubble stream. Although I am growing in confidence in open water, I feel my calmest when I swim next to her. My breathing slows and I think just about my stroke, not about what might be lurking in the deep. We reach the buoy at the same time and bob up, looking around us at the lake. After a stretch of head-down front crawl, with sky only seen in snatches under our elbows, the view is stunning.

Sisters wild swimming in the Lake District

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Me and my sister Alex

My sister always wished she’d had a brother. Growing up she was very sporty and most likely to be found up a tree; I’d rather hide somewhere with a book. Throughout her life she has done (and excelled at) most sports: hockey, rugby, rowing, judo, and swimming (sorry if I’ve missed any, Alex). I went along to watch and support from the sidelines, but I could never join in.

Since discovering swimming I have been able to share so much more with my sister, and I think we’ve become closer as a result. Last weekend we went on a long weekend to the Lake District to swim in tarns, lakes and a waterfall. It was my first time visiting the Lakes, and my first real experience of wild swimming.

Swimming must be good for the soul. As I stood in front of the still and peaceful water I felt something inside me move like someone standing up and shaking out their body after a long time sitting still. I took deep breaths and prepared myself for the shock of the cold. Together my sister and I waded until we were standing with the water at hip-level.

“Shall we count to three?” I said, looking at her and then out over the water.

“Okay.”

“One, two, three…”

And then we both pushed ourselves off the bottom, diving together into the cold, clear water. As we swam I looked down at the tangle of weeds and up at the sky in the window made by my bent arms. And across from me was my sister, never too far away. We swam in each other’s ripples, following the patterns our bodies made and the bubbles kicked up by our feet.

Here’s where we went….

Blea Tarn, Little Langdale

The water at Blea Tarn was perfectly still and painted with the hills and trees that surrounded it. It is a short walk from a car park and a less-than-short walk up the hill behind (which I learnt was called a Wainwright, not a hill). The walk up the hill was worth it though for the beautiful views down the valley and at the water we had just swam in.

Easedale Tarn, Grasmere

On our second day the weather was heavy and damp. We walked up from Grasmere to Easedale Tarn, passing soggy sheep and waterfalls trailing down the hill. Finally we reached the crest of the hill and saw the water below, only broken by a pair of ducks on the surface. The mist rolled in over us as we swam. It felt like swimming on the top of the world. We walked half way down the hill in our wetsuits and walking boots and then stopped off for a dip in one of the waterfall pools. Walkers past us with raincoats and in waterproof trousers and shouted down to us, asking if the water was cold.

“It’s lovely!” we shouted back.

Ullswater

Ullswater was the only lake we swam in on our trip, and we noticed the difference in the temperature. I had been told to watch out for the glacial tarns, but it was the lake that froze my fingers and face (the rest of my body was thankfully kept warm by my wetsuit, socks and bright pink swimming cap). We swam from the shore out to Norfolk Island, where the seagulls shouted at us to get off their island. As we were sharing the water with sailing boats and a small local ferry service I wore a neon pink safety buoy that tied around my waist and trailed in the water behind us. It also doubles as a handy dry bag.

I can’t wait for my next experience swimming in open water – hopefully with my sister.

For more wild swimming spots in the Lakes take a look at the Wild Swimming website. In Ambleside we visited a great open water swimming shop that is worth a visit!

 

 

My favourite books for swimmers

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Some of my favourite books about swimming

I organise my bookshelves by categories, and one growing section is books about swimming. Whether you are a pool-swimmer, an outdoor-swimmer or just have an interest in getting in the water, here are some of my favourites:

Down Stream: A History and Celebration of Swimming in the River Thames, Caitlin Davies

When I told people I was reading a book about swimming in the Thames their reactions were the same: “Eww!”

Most people associate the Thames with the murky brown central London section and bottles (or worse) floating on the surface. But humans have actually swum in the Thames for years. The book follows the river downstream from the Thames Head (the exact location of which is much disputed) right along to Southend, and tells the story of the people who have swum stretches of it over the years. I particularly loved the tales of kick-ass women who were swimming miles and setting records years before they were allowed to vote.

The book is full of characters and stories that made me smile and laugh out loud. You’ll have to read it for yourself to hear them all.

Swimming London: London’s 50 Greatest Swimming Spots, Jenny Landreth

I am making it my mission to swim my way around these pools, lidos and outdoor swimming spots in London (so far I’m on about 10). From central pools that you’d never imagine were hidden among the busy streets, to peaceful lidos a little further out of town, this book makes me realise how fortunate I am to live (and swim) in this city.

Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton trained as a professional swimmer when she was young, and is now an artist. Her book weaves together her experiences of training with vivid descriptions of being in the water and wonderful paintings. It also includes photographs of her collection of swimming costumes and a description of when she bought them all, which fascinated me.

It’s the kind of book that you can open at random and know what you read, and see, will be beautiful.

Wild Swimming Walks: 28 River, Lake and Seaside Days Out by Train from London, Margaret Dickinson

My sister bought me this book and I can’t wait to try out some of the walks and swims. They are all within easy reach of London and some include stops at pubs. When the weather is nice I am looking forward to slinging my swimming bag over my shoulder and heading off to one of the many places I have marked with post-its.

Do you have any other suggestions? Add them in the comments below

Word on the Water

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Word on the Water: a floating book barge

Every day on my way to and from work I walk past a boat filled with books. Word on the Water is a floating bookshop that is currently moored in Kings Cross. In the evenings music plays and the books are lined up in neat piles along the boat. I love the smell of the paper and the colourful faces of the books that smile up at me as you walk past. Sometimes one has a particularly large grin and it catches me. And I stop.

At the weekend I couldn’t resist buying The Sweetness of Life by Françoise Héritier. I want to buy a pile to send to friends and family if they are ever sad. It is a long list about the little things that give life its colour and magic. The small moments and observations that make life worth living.

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My current favourite book: The Sweetness of Life

Here are some of the things that I would add to Héritier’s list:

white Christmas tree lights strung in trees, when you see confetti outside a church or town hall and know there has been a wedding, baby’s hands and feet, shapes in coffee, eating things you did when you were younger (banana and custard, beans on toast), finding the perfect word to describe something, sweets in jars, perfectly smooth pebbles, love letters, wild flowers growing in unexpected places (cracks in pavements, the side of railway tracks), the smell of birthday candles, watching people you don’t know have moments you know they will always remember, throwing pennies in a pond or well and making a wish, finding sand in your bag after going to the beach, crumpets, floating book shops.

https://twitter.com/wordonthewater What puts the sweetness in your life? Add yours in the comments below