Reading history and reviews
Finished on 28th April 2017Dutton's book - part guide, part account and part celebration of his adventures exploring rivers, lakes and seas - is something of a historical oddity, long out of print (my copy is from 1971) and predating the more recent revival in outdoor swimming which is commonly associated with Roger Deakin's 1996 book Waterlog.
However while both celebrate the joys of swimming outdoors, in many respects the nature of those joys seem very different. Deakin's book is an account of a specific year spent swimming around Britain: almost a travelogue, in it his swimming becomes the medium though which he engages with and becomes a part of the nature, geography, people and history that he finds along the way.
For Dutton however the adventures at times feel more like a kind of escape, both from the land and from the land-bound nature of human beings. Equipped with snorkel, fins and occasionally (in very cold water) a wetsuit, he is fascinated by the spirit of the different kinds of water that he swims in. Not content with mere "surface swimming", he dives down to lake, river and seabeds and describes the underwater flora and fauna he encounters, and revels in the currents and flows. He seems less interested in the specific location or history of the places he visits (a focus on generality perhaps reflecting an intention for the book to be in part "how-to" guide), and at times there is almost an atavistic delight in the pure physicality of being in the water, as well as a sense of how alien the underwater world can be.
I think something that both Dutton and Deakin shared though was the idea that these experiences should be accessible and available to all. For Deakin maybe it was psychological freedom - the idea that all you needed to do was go to a place, get in the water, and start swimming. For Dutton, writing in a different era, it was more about more specific and personal physical freedoms: a mask to enable you to see underwater, a snorkel to enable easier breathing, fins to enable speedy and effortless swimming, and a wetsuit to enable you to stay warm.
The flyleaf of my copy includes the quote that the book "... is likely to become the classical introduction to an open-air recreation whose immense possibilities are just beginning to be realised." In the event it wasn't to be - I only became aware of Dutton's book from a picture of its cover in Susie Parr's The Story of Swimming - however all this time later, it offers a fascinating and personal perspective on "wild swimming" which is markedly different in character from that which we think of today.