MMXIX - Nine Swims
A dip into the Wyken pond completed a winter weekend fact-finding trip to England’s near-perfect combination of winery, restaurant, café, shop and outdoor farmers market. Chilled bottles were swopped and promptly drunk; two diarists (Carla Carlisle and Lucy Baring) swopped notes about writing the back page for Country Life; and I found a man like me (identified by a Maclaren tartan armchair) caught up in the romance of being descended from an impoverished highland ancestor, who walked barefoot off the hills to find work.
Leaping Hare, Wyken Vineyards, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, 23rd March
Over the Easter weekend I drove the camper van down to the Sussex coast, over a breathtakingly beautiful cross-section of the chalk downs. The Sussex shore is seldom pretty, colonised as it is by an early 20th-century drift of retirement bungalows. Easy to despise until you find yourself in one. In this instance it was made from a pair of intact turn-of-the century railway carriages roofed over to frame the seaview. Utterly enchanting, this shoreline society was breezily democratic. We swam three times that day, as the tide transformed the pebble beach into a completely different seascape. Then warmed ourselves up with homemade hot cross buns and tea.
Pagham, 19th April
In early May my eldest brother joined me in Istanbul and quickly proved himself an asset when the hire-car went into lock-down twenty seconds after it had been rented. David was unfazed by four-lane highways full of Turkish lorries being driven at breakneck speed during a thunderstorm, so was elected co-driver. I took up my favourite position as navigator in the back (looking up interesting things in the guidebooks) and with the driving shared between him and Jason Goodwin, we rattled down to Cannakale on a mission to look at Troy, Ottoman coastal forts and the battlefields of Gallipoli. On the first day we drifted about, picnicing in the forgotten Roman ruins of Alexandria-Troas and caught a ferry to the island of Bozcaada – the setting for a brilliant childhood memoir of a Greek childhood on a Turkish island (published by Eland). It is now a tidy, well-cared for Aegean island, dotted with vineyards and handsome small cottages, but is also a land clearly ruled by the wind. On the western edge of the island we found a wild beach and plunged into the foam. Though badly equipped in terms of swimming trunks and towels, it was a good decision. The next day it seemed impossibly disrespectful to swim off any of the battlefield beaches of Gallipoli.
Bozcaada (Tenedos) 6th May
Salaries are not large for independent travel publishers, but there are occasional perks. One of these, has been to make friends with Nick and Katya Laing, who took us sailing off the coast of Croatia for a week. It was utter bliss, swimming in different waters six times a day, all of them miraculously clear and clean, and moving every day to different harbours and anchorages. In a cove on an island we explored an old Yugoslav submarine pen, cunningly cut into a cliff face and camouflaged with iron doors that had now rusted for ever open. One of the other guests was a Russian computer expert, who had briefly worked for the Soviet Navy. While excitedly discussing the naval tactics of the Cold War (which had dominated my father’s career and influenced my childhood) perhaps too much vodka and champagne was drunk. As the evening progressed, we talked about Serbia and how Tito’s support had kept the Greek Civil War alive (while wicked old Stalin kept to his wartime pact) and drunk lots of local red wine. When a gale suddenly came upon us at midnight, I should not have dived in naked to rescue a wind-blown cushion, which kept catching the wind, just as I nearly reached it. Without any real cause for alarm, a boat was launched to rescue me, for I had disappeared from view. All in all, it was an exhilarating night.
Island of Brac, Croatia, 28th June
A week later, we met our two daughters at Split, where Diocletian had built a maritime castle as a retirement home, having first saved the Roman Empire. We caught a ferry to the island of Hvar, oblivious to the fine views due to a fierce game of racing demon. Rose had found an apartment in an old courtyard house in the back streets of Starigrad which gave us views of the hills, three churches and five allotments. In the early morning we walked through the empty streets to swim in deeper water on the edge of the town’s river-harbour, then returned picking up fresh bread for breakfast. Each day we drove out in an open-topped VW beetle to find new places to swim and sit out the heat of the day, sheltering under the shade of pine trees that grew right beside the sea.
Hvar island, Croatia, 2nd – 7th July
At the end of July, fireworks for a sumptuous wedding at The Grange punctuated the night of the annual family camping in the Candover water meadows. It was better organised than ever, by my nephew Fred, who divided up tasks so that on Saturday evening (for example) his aunt Rose cooked an enormous paella, his cousin Hannah prepared lethal rum cocktails (with local mint) and I was allowed to lead the traditional midnight otter-swim down the river holding candles “down in the reeds by the river, spreading ruin and scattering ban.”
Hampshire, Saturday 27th July
In August we drove up to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in the camper van, intending to impose ourselves on old friends for supper and long conversations, bed and breakfast. Instead the battery over-heated (filling the van with noxious sulphuric fumes), the clutch cable snapped the next day and then on the third day the gear box lost a gear, then two. It could have been a horrendous journey, except that Scotland is filled with good-humoured Samaritans. It also turned the first swim at Clachan Sands into a humanist baptism into cold, clean water released us from the stink of the infernal eternal combustion engine.
North Uist, 19th August
In the autumn, I returned to Istanbul for three days of glamorous party-going, followed by a road trip through north-western Turkey with Don McCullin. Five days later we flew to Beirut for another three days of high living, after which we explored the Roman ruins of Lebanon. It was a wonderful journey, but at Batroun we downed tools, locked up the cameras and notebooks and gave ourselves a day of rest. Don’s wife had found the perfect hotel - just four bedrooms beside a fish restaurant where in the evening you watched the catch arrive by boat. At dusk, fishermen silhouetted on offshore reefs looked like as if they were walking on water, whilst their colleagues brewed tea on charcoal braziers and puffed on aromatic water-pipes. The swimming was gorgeous but you had to keep your wits about you, as the submerged rocks (possibly a submerged section of old walls of a Phoenician harbour, were razor sharp.
Batroun, Lebanon, 23rd September
At the end of summer, we harvested a bumper crop of plums, pears and autumn raspberries, topped up by two productive weekends of mushrooming in the woods. I was tired, but very contented, but could not resist joining a daughter who suggested one last plunge in the little pool we make every year by damming the Candover brook with flints. We took a flask of tea and sat watching out over the water meadows, bustling with wild-life if you have the patience to sit still.
Hampshire, 6th October
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