awakening Non-fiction

COMING UP FOR AIR | Phoebe Harper on how swimming keeps her afloat in the winter months

Creative Non-fiction

by Phoebe Harper

Enduring the winter months can sometimes feel a bit like living with your head underwater. Throughout January and February, I became bored with what felt like an unending episode of drudgery, driving back and forth to the office and only observing daylight from the inside of a window. Before spring heralds the end of the hardest slog of the year and we give ourselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back, the weather can toy with our heads and invoke suffocating feelings of depression and anxiety. The mind becomes a breeding ground for sombre thoughts, arresting sentiments of self-doubt and a numbing kind of boredom. These are the tiresome bedfellows of short winter days and depleted amounts of sunlight. The palette of your world changes to grey, and the inside of your head is often dressed to match.

Tired of hearing the relentless peel of the office phones, the buzz of notifications from my mobile and loudest of all, the teeming thoughts inside my own head, I found myself longing for the ultimate noise-canceller: the muffled silence of being beneath the water.

To be underwater has always held a magic for me. As a keen wild swimmer I am proud of some of the magical places where I have swam; the rivers surrounding my home in Suffolk, by the lazy meadows of Grantchester where Virginia Woolf used to write and the epic mountain lakes of Snowdonia where as legend would have it, King Arthur once encountered the Lady of the Lake. The unforgiving winter climate can rule out such places, so I turn instead to my local swimming pool, that old bastion of community living that I had never even thought to consider. Often uncomfortable in the presence of too many people, I am immediately daunted as I leave the outdated changing rooms and waddle awkwardly over to the pool, my bare toes cringingly curled into the cracks of wet tiles.

Swapping the wild for an indoor pool feels a bit like swapping a field for a motorway. The water is controlled and comes with its own set of rules. Where is the excitement? With a river swim, there is nothing like the slimy finger of a reed wrapping itself around your ankle or the sight of a darting water rat to keep you on your toes. On the beach, it is a short, sharp dash across painful pebbles to get to the water before you are slammed with brute force by the pounding waves of the North Sea. You then face the appalling sting of saltwater on freshly shaved legs and the loathsome feeling of unknown objects brushing past your skin. Choosing an indoor, life-guarded pool seemed to pale in comparison.

“Swapping the wild for an indoor pool feels a bit like swapping a field for a motorway. The water is controlled and comes with its own set of rules. Where is the excitement?”

Challenges of a different nature soon present themselves. Harsh neon lighting illuminates every imperfection, from the iridescent stretch marks that pattern my thighs to the cruel red shaving rash of my bikini line.  In the water, I face the burning assault of chlorine on the retinas and the unbridled screams of children bombing it down the nearby chute. All the while I am constantly surveyed by some poor teenager, perched like a dismal overseer on a towering stool by the corner of the pool, visibly bored out of their mind. At one point I prepare to leave as the screech of a siren threatens the onslaught of a wave machine. I head for the deep end and soon realise that I am completely unversed in the unwritten etiquette of the fast lane. The speed and determined direction of other swimmers is unnerving, particularly when confined to lanes so narrow that I have to seriously curtail my movements so as not to injure the streamlined front-crawler passing me in the opposite direction. Soon, with my head bobbing underwater, I fall into a rhythm of mindless repetition, marking length after length in a satisfying measure of my own strength.

Now, as spring starts to make her appearance, approaching like a slow smile spreading across a face, I look forward to returning outside, but it is good to know that the public pool is there. In those quiet late evenings, between nine and ten, I take myself off for an hour and revel in the calm distraction of being submerged in the warm water. It may be chlorinated and a bit too overpopulated for my liking, but it envelopes me entirely and brings me distraction. There is a peace in knowing that the only thing you need to focus on for a while is simply keeping afloat and, every now and then, coming up for air. 


Phoebe Harper | @harperphoebe | phoebeharper.wordpress.com
Phoebe Harper works in the travel industry. When unleashed from the office, she can be found with her nose in the spine of a new book or plotting her aspiring future career as a travel writer. She is at her happiest with a brand new Moleskine and a Lamy fountain pen in front of her (preferably with an espresso on the side). 


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