Mytholmroyd-based author Benjamin Myers on why cold water swimming offers an antidote to modern life.
Ever since I was young I have always wanted to be in the landscape. Not passing through, skirting over or observing it from a distance, but in it. A part of it.
Modern life appears to be moving away from the landscape and nudging us into a strange new reality part-lived in the digital realm. Yet for thousands of years man hunted, farmed and lived close to nature so it’s almost unnatural not to still have that instinct to be back in the mud, on the moors or in the woods. Modern medicine, science and technology have extended the human life span, and few of us would want to go back to the days of mud huts and tribal warfare, but there is nevertheless something positive to be gained from stepping off the tarmac to briefly remind us who we are and where we came from – and why it must be protected and preserved.
While some favour rock climbing and others birdwatching or splashing through boggy uplands, I find swimming to be the best pursuit through which to enjoy a closeness with landscape. It’s a subject that I explore in my new book Under The Rock, a study of the poetry and people of a place - the Upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire.
In Yorkshire we’re lucky. Beyond the fringes of our towns and city there are an abundance of places to explore. One urban myth suggests that in London you’re never more than six feet away from a rat; here you’re rarely more than a mile or two away from a green space.
I have loved to swim all my life - in tarns, ponds, rivers, streams, reservoirs and waterfalls. In this age of health and safety, the simple act of exploring water can become an act of dissent. Swimming is not even necessarily about the act itself, but rather the immersion in landscape, the subversion of form and the frog’s-eye view that is gained.
Of course, caution should always be exercised. One should never just hurl oneself into the unknown, especially on a scorching day. You must do your research first - the visceral effect of cold water is literally shocking, and dangerous too.
There are simple rules to be observed: check the safety of a place, and make sure you have permission. Don’t swim alone, always have an exit route. Post-industrial bodies of water such as quarries and former mill ponds are best avoided too.
Enjoyed safely, the benefits are many. A cold water swim makes you aware of your blood, your heart, your muscles. It increases clarity of thought too, and much of Under The Rock was written after a morning dip. Increasingly, cold-water swimming is also being acknowledged as a proven antidote to anxiety and depression, its healing properties only recently beginning to be recognised in the treatment of mental health. I have certainly found it offers a brutish panacea to gnawing anxiety, and the after-effects are powerful and addictive. Once experienced, the adrenaline high is difficult to match.
My favoured spot is in a long, narrow valley through which a beautiful beck winds down in deepest West Yorkshire. Here low-flowing levels and shallow pools compose their own chiming music and, formed by the collapse of a hard gritstone cap, a waterfall presents itself over a small but beautiful near-circular pool. The steady flow of the beck rising with endless rainfall has scraped away the earth’s carapace to uncover and erode the softer shale beneath it. Once this dean held a glacier the size of 10,000 cathedrals, a solid mass squeaking and groaning under the weight of itself, but today it has been reduced to a liquid memory.
I have been coming to this pool for several years, usually in the morning, before groups of sun-seekers make the long hike up here. Even now in spring the water can be alarmingly cold. The key to entering is to exhale slowly. One must ease into it, and expect the shock. You should also resist the urge to gulp in air. It will be cold, but in this moment there is revelation too. Where once you thought you were awake, now you really are. And if the water proves to be unbearable you can always climb out, let the body accept the surprise that the mind has already anticipated, and then get back in again. Blood is powerful stuff.
I swim out towards the main flow beneath the falls where the water is like a rolling boil, an unrelenting and hypnotic squall of foam and fret. It is the only danger spot: beneath it after several days of rain one could conceivably be pushed under and held there, but if I manoeuvre round it there is a shelf of rock on which I can sit, carefully positioning myself so that the thunderous water thuds at my neck and shoulders. I drink a mouthful of the pool and let the flow push me away to the shallows, clumsily expelling a small fountain of this water the colour of stewed tea.
As the seasons turn from spring to summer and then on into autumn I keep returning, even when the weather is as rotten as the worm-chewed apples that bob in the valley’s silted mill ponds.
With each day I notice the tone and hue of the waterfall altering. After another prolonged downpour, it is roaring, and from a distance the central flow of fluted water appears as solid as a gleaming marble column, yet when experienced close up is in fact a shower of deep amber jewels, thunderously strewn.
I swim towards the centre of the pool, passing through a swirl of twigs and leaves and into the turbid froth at the foot of the falls. I position myself on the usual stone shelf for a shoulder massage but the heavy water has other ideas and dispenses me quickly with a flurry of smacks about the head, throwing me back into the pool, punch-drunk and reeling, and laughing too.
Like a journeyman pugilist that won’t be put down, I come back at it, but this time circle around the waterfall and take the side entrance, slotting into the small space behind the main unbroken gush of pure water and the concave of the back-rock that has been hollowed away.
Here I crouch behind the falling veil and only as I catch my breath back from the stun-gun immediacy of the cold do I notice a strange and foreboding sound, a drone, deep, wide and sonorous. This dank hypnotic stone-chant can only have been created by a specific amount of water falling at a certain amount of litres per second, at this very moment. Caught between waterfall and crag, I feel the sound run through me. I am its instrument and it is almost as if I have discovered a new note. A new sound. There is a sense of dramatic foreboding to its timbre but it is compelling too, and reaches back to something embedded in a subconscious past when our forefathers might have cowered naked and afraid in such caves or hollows, hiding from the peals of thunder as they rumbled over the moors.
When my skin is dimpled and I am beginning to shake I push out into the pool again, straight into the churning centre, tumbling in the barrage. my skin accidentally moss-scrubbed and stone-scraped.
As I dry off afterwards I pour out my own invention, ‘The Yorkshire Espresso’ or ‘Yespresso’: twice-brewed tea with the bag left in to mash for an hour or two in advance, then drunk black and sugarless in short, flask-cup shots. Each bitter dose is like a normal cup of tea condensed. It is as dark and pungent as the water that drips from my shivering body.
Below me the waterfall flows onwards, a comforting crash and boom of spray and spume. I’ll be back soon.
Under The Rock by Benjamin Myers, published by Elliott & Thompson, is out now. His latest novel The Gallows Pole, published by Bluemoose Books, has just won the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.