A Year in Sixteen Swims
published Winter Solstice letter 2018
At the end of last year I was convinced that we should sell up and move to the coast: either an isolated peninsular in the Western Highlands or to Suffolk where my Rogerson ancestors either farmed or stood in a pulpit talking about the sins of their congregation. We would move Eland Publishing Ltd into a barn and I would work ferociously hard creating a self-sufficient vegetable garden and light log fires in a single hearth. My dog would love me.
Rose had arranged a weekend on the Sussex coast. I journeyed down by train to spend an extra day walking around the battlefield of Hastings. The Normans had built the altar of their victory Abbey on the exact spot where Harold had been felled by the European invader. Was this an act of contrition from William the Bastard, haunted by Lady Macbeth-like nightmares? Or just another victory monument, a Norman boot firmly planted on an Anglo-Saxon neck? The village of Battle was filled with French students, much more interested in each other than the Abbey ruins. The actual town of Hastings was enchanting, filled with quirky shops and publicans that welcomed dogs and talked to strangers, and the fish was fresh and cheap. Rose’s friend lives right beside the old wooden towers built to dry fishing nets. We walked to the eastern most beach in the early morning light and swam in the muddy waters of the Channel. It was exhilaratingly cold, and we wobbled back onto land over the cobbles and dried ourselves with shirt and sweater, as we had neither towel or costume. Then a local fishing boat beached herself by driving at the cobble shore at full throttle. Breakfast in Chandra’s house tasted treble good.
Hastings, February Saturday 17th
Cold water once again worked its magic. So instead of house hunting, I determined to visit the oldest temple in the world, Gobekli Tepe, outside the ancient city of Urfa. And as luck would have it, found myself accompanied by Jason and Jeremy, two very experienced Turkey travel writers. Gobekli Tepe is such an astonishing and obsessively interesting place, that a few months later I managed to return and also explored the ruins of the old Ommayad capital city of Harran. In Istanbul a hospitable Turkish writer gave us lunch at the house where Kim Philby used to lodge in Istanbul. Philby would leap out of his bedroom window straight into the Bosphorus strait. The house had been turned into a very good fish restaurant, and the riverbank has been expanded, so fortunately we could not try and imitate Philby in anyway.
Failed swim, Beylerbey, Istanbul
Rose wanted to go to Crete for a complete break at Easter. By chance we met an old friend on the train to Luton airport, who lives in and writes about Crete. Victoria told us about the burning of Judas at Ayios Nicolas at midnight on Easter Saturday. The evening began with an astonishing anarchy of Greek fireworks and crackers, above which rose the Orthodox liturgy chanted through loud-speakers with the energy of a rock concert. At midnight the Archbishop lit a fuze (from the miraculous sacred fire self-ignited in the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem which had been fetched that evening by a Greek jet) which burned its way along a wire to reach a barge full of dry tinder (moored in a middle of a sacred lake) where Judas swung on the gallows. To a thunderstorm of rockets, the restaurants (many closed over Lent) at last felt free to open for business. One day we swam (with our daughter Hannah who had joined us from Edinburgh university) to an offshore island whose shore was flecked with Minoan excavations. It was just far enough for me to be cautious and to try to work out if there was any tidal stream at work. The sun came out once we were on the island and warmed us up, while the taverna had prepared a warm soup to take the chill off us after our return.
Island off Mochlos, Tuesday 10th April
Every year Mark Ellingham and I travel north by train to spend a weekend walking with John Hatt in the Lancashire Fells. Mark and I wrote rival guidebooks to Morocco in our youth, while John and Mark both set up publishing companies in the same year. I cannot really join their conversations about ethical giving but delight in the literary and travel gossip. John is a passionate fisherman but agreed to disrupt the salmon in his own river, and we swam in a beautiful pool used by otters. It was just the right sort of attitude to prepare us for our outing to the Appleby Fair the next day, packed full of a liberating disorder of horse drawn carts and gypsy wagons.
River Lune, Thursday June 7th
I catch a lift with Roland Philipps who is driving down from Notting Hill to talk at the Chalke Valley history festival about his new book, A Spy Named Orphan. We chatter on about our book projects, while his wife Felicity lies asleep in the back of the car with the dog, planning an epic three-day long birthday party. We are all staying with Jonathan and Lesley Cavendish who live in a converted farmyard with extraordinarily open views of the Downs. Next morning I help them tidy up their outdoor pool, so that lodgers can make use of it, alongside the flow of speakers that they generously host for the history festival. After hearing the Duke of Devonshire talk to a vast crowd about buying new things to mix in with all his old inherited stuff. I talk to a smaller crowd about ancient heroes of North Africa. I wash off all the excitement with a swim under the night sky, beside a vast statue that had been made as a prop to sit beside the jungle river in Mowgli, one of Jonathan’s recent films.
Ebbesbourne Wake, Friday 29th June
For the last ten years we have been meaning to visit On Form, the show of sculpture at Asthall Manor. This summer, having been told by Rosie about the wonders of her tea-tent furnished with kilim cushions and a row of wooden eco-toilets, we make it to the last day of the exhibition. It is thrilling and you are encouraged to touch everything. In the late afternoon light, Rose kips beside the Windrush stream looking like a sculpture. I take the opportunity of sliding like a large frog into the grey, slow moving waters, and try not to make a splash as I swim through the dragon flies.
Windrush River, Friday 6 July
Every year, Mary and I test our old university friendship by plotting a long walk into an unknown British landscape. This year we head up a Northumberland valley to find a series of Roman marching camps imprinted in the turf at Chew Green, astride the Dere Street invasion route into Scotland. In the evening we stumbled into the Turks Head at Rothbury and listen entranced to half-a-dozen fiddlers at play. The next day a young cousin of Mary's walked us south to the same Roman marching camps but this time through the Scottish borders. On our way back to catch the sleeper, we follow the track down to Seacliffe beach, where you can swim in the cold waters of the Firth of Forth while looking out to the whitened gannetry of the Bass Rock and the ruined walls of Tantallon Castle.
Seacliffe Beach, Sunday 15 July
Every summer we have camped with our children and nieces and nephews in a secluded water-meadow through which the Candover brook flows towards the Itchen. We have had wash-outs and mud-fields, sunstroke and steam-burn (caused by a Kelly kettle race). This July I watched the midnight otter-run. A line of young swimmers, each holding a flare set off down the river, the lights glowing like a succession of haloes as they disappeared behind reed-beds, got hidden in a bend in the river or engulfed in a bank of river-mist. The next day, Fred experimented with a homemade, welded rectangular hot tub perched above the water.
Castle Meadow, Hampshire, Saturday 21 July
Rose has decided to sell her camper van but after it roared straight through its MOT (for the first time) we had one more slow drive up to the Outer Hebrides. We invited ourselves to stay with Mary and Melissa at Smalldean Farmhouse, then lodged at the Falcon Inn in the Dales, inspected the Dark Age crypt at Hexham Abbey, took in three days of the Edinburgh festival (including a daughter doing stand-up) then finally caught the ferry from Mallaig to Lochbosidale. Rose refused to even consider booking a warm, dry hotel bedroom, and in the dark we eventually found our way to the dunes above Bonnie Prince Charlie’s beach on Eriskay. We made the most of a wet morning. A quick, bracing dip to prove that we had arrived then a long slow camper-van breakfast, broken by beach walks to gather shells and watch seabirds feast on the carcass of a whale.
Eriskay, Outer Hebrides, Saturday 18th August
It was one of those beautiful, clear-blue-sky days without a breath of wind, which means we have to stay indoors all day, because of the cloud of midges waiting at the door. But it means I have time to learn how to knead dough at the hands of my daughter Molly and bake bread. But in the evening the wind picked up, and we made make our way down to the beach, shedding the odd midge still stuck in our hair by throwing ourselves into the sea. Molly, Hannah and Ariadne Fletcher make a mother goddess sand sculpture. I construct a really good sunken pit for a beach fire of split logs with my godson Fynn O’Sullivan. We added a circle of roasting seaweed for scent and smoke, brew tea and found some whisky to warm up the returning swimmers.
Clachan Sands, North Uist, Thursday 30th August
Next day a strong wind blew from the east. We picnicked in a cleft in the turf-covered dunes. On the beach, the wind whips the fine white sand against your legs, and so makes the sea feel comparatively warm. We swim a bit longer than was totally wise (one of our young guests turned woad blue) but reaped an unexpected reward as we were joined by a school of porpoises.
Berneray Island, Friday, 31st August
Deciding to keep some of the spirit of the Outer Hebrides going in our lives at Hampshire, we drove down in the camper van through Southampton to explore Calshot beach: mixed sand, mud and pebbles, swift moving tides and an endless bustle of Solent shipping on the skyline. Fish and chips beside a vast old aerodrome hanger where T E Lawrence worked as an aircraft engineer in 1929, on seaplanes that ultimately led to the development of the Spitfire. Rose happily at work on her tapestry, I explored a Tudor artillery fortress, then we brew some tea before our third and last swim of the day. That evening my brother David cooked us dinner in his new flat in Bishops Waltham, filled with furniture, books and pictures from our childhood. Under his care they are now all clean and mended.
Solent shore, Wednesday 5th September
After arriving for tea we walked south from Kate Harris and Jason Goodwin's farmhouse in Dorset to try to find a sacred spring on the hills above Abbotsbury. My godson Harry led the way and onto an old coaching Inn which served us pints and free biscuits for the dogs. The next morning, we killed off an incipient hang-over by diving into the big surf pounding Burton Bradstock beach. We have the satisfaction of watching three lifeguards get up from their chairs and pay us some attention. A vast and rambling Sunday lunch takes place afterwards, a muddle of travellers and poets and cider-makers.
Burton Bradtsock, Sunday 16 September
We are summoned to Switzerland to witness my younger brother's 25th wedding anniversary. Shamos took us straight from Basel airport to the banks of the Rhine, which we swam down (our clothes held in waterproof fish-bags) aided by a powerful current that swept up as past the Cathedral terrace, through bridges and beside vast barges. We party in Meggen that night. In the morning I suggest a gallery and the lion monument that I would like to visit in Luzerne but instead find myself driving my brother’s powerful new speed-boat (did it really reach 50 knots?) with an equally strong speaker system, towing atheletic male Rogerson's at break-neck speeds. The rest of the weekend spent in the Burgenstock Hotel perched on a Swiss mountain with breath-taking views of Alp summits at sunset.
River Rhine, Friday, 21st September
Rose and I breakfasted together in Limni under the cover of an ancient plane tree, which managed to keep most of the drizzle off. Later that morning we drove through a devastated landscape (a forest-fire last year, and a flood this) but the villa where we stayed forty years ago had survived this double devastation. I look at the small pebble beach where I first watched Rose inhale a whole cigarette in one puff and then dive off a rock and swim. Later that day we undressed in the rain, in order to wallow in warm Sulphur streams that have filled a series of rock pools. Inland lay the decaying hotels of Loutra Edipsou Spa. We receive instruction upon the proper ritual of hot, hotter, then hottest pools, from a pair of Russian visitors.
Island of Evvia, 23rd Tuesday October
At the bottom of a long and twisting mountain track we discover Micro beach. It was the end of the season and the population was three dogs and nine cats. All the houses were shuttered and the taverna had chalked up a sign, ‘Now closed - see you in May.” One blue fishing boat is tethered to this beach made up of marble pebbles. We reluctantly retrace up our route, only to descend down another road to the village of Platania. There we found a room above a bar with a balcony overlooking the sea. The owner was about to shut, but agreed to stay open for another three days, as he slowly puts his bar, then cafe, then the rooms into winter hibernation. A mountain path from Platania climbs through an olive orchard and over a few cliffs to reach Micro, which we return to every day with a picnic, books, sketchbook and Rose’s tapestry. Each day she swims further and further out to sea, to reach yet another buoy. I cannot keep up but I follow her.
Pelion Peninsula, Wednesday 24th, Thursday 25th, Friday 26th October
Back to Articles page
by Barnaby Rogerson