Discovering the Thames

 

Seeing a river from a duck’s level is completely different to seeing it from the bank. The Thames stretched ahead of us in an elegant curve, looking much wider than it had from the side. All along its length were plump trees that jostled each other and bulged over the bank into the water.

You notice things at this level that you don’t when you are walking along the edge. The pattern of the water stretching ahead of you, rumpled like a crinkled tablecloth; the size and awe-inspiring nature of the trees and the sky; waterboatmen swimming their crazy backstroke beside you, and the reeds blowing gently at the edges of the water.

It was a busy stretch of water, and as we swam we tucked in under the trees to let barges, river cruisers and little motorboats pass. The captains and their passengers waved at us and we waved back.

We swam up and down our little stretch and crossed over to the other side, looking back and forth in each direction as though we were crossing the road and watching for traffic. On the other side was a National Trust property and grounds (Cliveden) and people sat eating their sandwiches and watching us. A beautiful stone staircase swept down from the bank into the river, ornate with carvings and flourishes. We swam to it and wished we had a camera with us.

At points we swam with our heads down, Alex in front and me just behind and following in her bubbles. We swam in bursts to keep warm. I looked down into the water beneath me. It was mostly a milky green and too deep to see the bottom, but then a patch of weeds would loom out of the darkness, reminding me that water does always have an end. I wondered what other creatures shared this river. I didn’t want to see them – I was happy keeping ourselves to ourselves – but it was nice to know that other animals were with us in the water.

The cold clutched at my forehead and squeezed, feeling like the brain freeze that you get from eating ice cream too quickly. But then we would stop our front crawl and lift our heads like ducks bobbing up from under the surface. We lay on our backs, lazily watching the sky and the boats. Because for us, wild swimming is not just about swimming. Thinking that’s all there is to it misses the point.

It’s about the shock of the cold and the sense of adventure at leaving our dry clothes on the land and stepping out like explorers into an unknown stretch of water. It’s looking up at the sky that looks somehow different from the water, and realising how small you are but that it’s okay. It’s feeling part of nature, not just an observer on the shore. It makes me feel more alive than anything. Wild swimming is living.

 

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/