Kings Cross Skip Garden

Volunteering at the Skip Garden

“What is the purpose of slugs?”

The gardener looked up at my question, her bare hands half buried in the soil of a plant tub.

“I know that worms are our friends in the garden, but what about slugs? What do they do?”

Her eyebrows scrunched up for a moment.

“They must have a purpose,” she replied, “Else they wouldn’t be there. Everything has its place in the garden. I can’t think what that purpose is right now though… Let me Google it.”

With hands still covered in soil she took out her phone and started Googling the purpose of slugs. I continued digging, pushing aside the damp earth to make room for a camomile plant that had up until then been living in a small pot by itself. I was re-homing it among tomatoes, baby chard and cosmos in a new planter at the Kings Cross Skip Garden, a community project not far from where I live. It is hidden behind Granary Square, opposite the Kings Cross swimming pond, and is home to a café, a potting shed, greenhouses and a chicken coup.

“Ok, so I can’t find the answer right now,” the gardener said, putting the phone back into her pocket and going back to planting, “But we’ll ask the Head Gardener later. He’ll know.”

I pushed my hands deeper into the soil. When I arrived to start my evening volunteering in the garden I was offered gloves.

“But I prefer not to use them,” said Robyn the gardener, “They say that there is something in soil that is also in antidepressants. I’m not sure if I believe that, but it certainly feels like it.”

As I felt the damp grit underneath my nails and the cool body of a worm wriggle past my fingers into the soil I felt inclined to agree. Living in London it is very rare that I come in contact with mud – good old-fashioned mud like the kind I made pies out of as a child. The smell made me feel six years old again and I felt flushed with the same sense of joy.

I have no experience as a gardener. Luckily experience wasn’t required when I signed up to volunteer.

“Are you a gardener?” the Head Gardener asked me when I met him later that evening.

“No,” I replied, “I know nothing.”

“Good, we like people like you. You’ll believe anything we tell you.”

And he was right – I was a very eager learner. I learnt the importance of pushing plants into the soil and watering them to settle them into their new home. I discovered how to build a bug hotel for insects and creepy crawlies. And I learned how to gently coax the roots of plants before bedding them in a new pot. At the end of the evening I was muddy and proud.

I never found out the purpose of slugs though.

Find out more about the Skip Garden here: http://www.globalgeneration.org.uk/skip-garden-and-kitchen-1/

 

 

 

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

 

 

Stoke Newington West Reservoir

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My alarm went off at 6 on Saturday morning and I silenced it quickly, not wanting to disturb my sleeping flatmates. Half-asleep I pulled myself out of bed and reached for my swimming bag and wetsuit.

Stoke Newington West Reservoir is a short bus journey from where I live. The bus was quiet: outside the window I saw a few joggers, a dog walker and a smartly dressed woman walking bare foot down the high street, carrying her heels in her hand.

I was heading to the reservoir for an induction into open water swimming. I feel something of a cliché jumping onto the growing trend for swimming outside, but there is a reason why it is so popular. Being outdoors and in the water just feels right. It knocks me for a moment off the treadmill of life (work, cook dinner, sleep, repeat) and makes me feel completely awake (even at 6 on a Saturday). Particularly as someone who lives in London, finding moments to be among nature feels not just desirable, but essential for my soul. Slipping into cool water and swimming beneath the sky reminds me of the simple sweetness of being human.

IMG_9343I arrived into a cavernous reception area that looked out onto the water. It was a grey day but the perfectly still expanse of water still looked incredibly inviting.

The reception was already full of people. This made me extremely happy. I wasn’t the only one mad enough to wake up so early on a Saturday to come and swim in a cold reservoir: there were loads of us.

I might be biased (because I like to consider myself one of them and because I don’t do any other sport), but swimmers are the friendliest people. Unlike other public places in London where conversation with strangers is unusual, I always strike up conversations when swimming, sometimes in the water and sometimes while half-naked in the changing room.

There was a group of us who were there for the induction, and the instructor took us through the safety information and showed us around the facilities. Then it was time to wetsuit up and get into the water.

I love wearing my wetsuit. It feels hilarious. My arms hang stiffly by my side making me walk like a penguin. It takes ages to pull it on, and in the changing room I laughed with the group of women also doing the ‘wetsuit jump’ and twisting like contortionists to reach the zip at the back.

Standing on the side of the reservoir we looked not quite human, not quite fish. Together we walked down a pontoon and acclimatised to the water. We were instructed to ‘flush through’ our wetsuits, which I thought sounded very strange but just meant filling it up with water so the layer between you and the neoprene keeps you warm.

There were a few routes we could swim: the full 750m course, 200m or 400m. The 750m loop stretched away into the distance and I remembered what the instructor said about not pushing ourselves so went for the 400m as it was my first time.

After a few warm-up exercises (running on the spot in water makes me laugh) we were off. I love my local pool, but it felt wonderful to be outside and not constricted by the lanes and the pool’s short length. I swam, and then kept swimming. I felt strangely empowered as I swam – I was very aware of it being my arms and my legs making me move through the water. Go arms! Go legs!

Once I’d finished the loop I pulled myself out of the water, dripping and grinning.

IMG_9350The reservoir is a short walk from Clissold Park, one of my favourite parks in London, so after my swim I walked there and found a spot outside the café on the hill. I ordered a full English breakfast and ate it in the sun.

By now it was 9 but the park was still empty apart from runners and parents with small children. A group of girls played outside the cafe. One was dressed as ‘Batgirl’. Her cape billowed behind her as she ran up and down the hill. As I watched her I thought about how un-sporty I was for most of my life, and how up until a few years ago I could barely swim. When Batgirl stops wearing her cape I hope she still realises she can do anything that she wants to do.

http://www.better.org.uk/leisure/stoke-newington-west-reservoir-centre If you want to swim at Stoke Newington West Reservoir you must first book an induction.

A dip in Kings Cross swimming pond

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Kings Cross swimming pond

“Are you warm in that?” the man in the swimming trunks teased me. We were both leaning against the side of Kings Cross swimming pond, except his arms were bare and mine were cuddled in neoprene.

“I’m testing out the wetsuit,” I said. I’m going to the Lake District for an outdoor swimming adventure next weekend and wanted to check the hand-me-down wetsuit fitted. It did, after ten minutes of jumping up and down in the tiny changing cubicle and tugging wrinkles out of my knees.

It was my first time visiting the freshwater pond that is ten minutes from my flat, hidden behind the fountains and the fashion students at Granary Square. I walked there through a small park where a group practiced Tai Chi and chanted, not quite drowning out the sound of the construction sites all around. If you look in any direction at Kings Cross you can see a crane. The skyline is broken by half-built buildings and shiny glass tower blocks. And in the middle of them all is a swimming pond.

I swam alongside two other swimmers and a pair of ducks as the sun set behind us. The water felt warm (or maybe it was the wetsuit) and I swam front crawl up and down the small pond, catching glimpses of scaffolding and sky under my arm as I rolled my head for air. When it was nearly time to leave I floated in the middle of the pond, my feet and neon pink toes poking out of the water. I took deep breaths and floated. And I felt so happy.

There is nothing that says ‘London’ to me more than a swimming pond surrounded by building sites. London is a confusion of noise and buildings growing from the ground like weeds overtaking a garden. I hate it. But then I find a little pocket of something special – nature in an unexpected place, a bookshop so beautiful it makes me want to cry, a restaurant with the best banoffee pie, or a swimming pond in the middle of the city – and I am charmed. The surprises make my heart swell.

“No wetsuit next time,” said the man in the swimming trunks as I stood under the outdoor shower, my head turned up to the sun and a huge smile on my face.

“No wetsuit next time!” I replied.

http://www.kingscrosspond.club/ It’s advised to book your session online if you can. If you are turning up on the day the swimming pond only takes card, not cash.