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Wild swimming during Covid-19

The wild versus the tame: swimming in the Thames and the Seine during Covid-19

In recent years I have been dismayed to find what I think of as real swimming – in ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea –  referred to as ‘wild swimming’.  But on reflection perhaps it is a revealingly apt term. The opposite would be, after all, ‘tame swimming’ in chlorinated heated water in an indoor pool with artificial lighting. This is now the norm.

The tendency towards a tame risk-free existence has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19 and now seems irreversible. In our new virtual world, who would want to get their feet tired or dirty and experience the shock of icy water running between their toes?

Well, I take heart from the fact that an atavistic, almost anarchic tendency has also emerged from the pandemic: a longing for the real versus the artificial, for the wild versus the tame.

I spent the three months of lockdown with my family deep in the English countryside, with a few days in London towards the end of June and I’m now back in my Paris studio. My London and Paris friends all tell me how much they came to value their neighbours and their garden or balcony during confinement, how magical it was to live in a city without traffic or tourists, and to hear birdsong.

For me the stand-out experience of lockdown was the joy of discovering several bathing spots in the rural Thames, a mile away from our house in Oxfordshire. My favourite river beach was nearly always occupied by a few other people, but as a solitary swimmer in unfamiliar waters I found their presence reassuring. On my first visit I was slightly irritated by the music coming from a little group of adolescents but after a while they turned it off and surrendered to the warmth of the sun and the deep seductive peace of the river and the water meadows. I overheard one youth suddenly say to his mates as they prepared to cycle home, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’  It was.

Wild swimming in the Thames, Oxfordshire
Swimming in the Thames, Oxfordshire, May

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In mid-June I spent four hours rambling with a friend on Hampstead Heath in north London. My favourite ‘wild swimming’ spot, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, was closed, but our wanderings took us to the Viaduct Pond, a stretch of water I had never seen before. The sight of such a peaceful place in a city of nearly nine million people just emerging from lockdown felt deeply reassuring. It was as if the water possessed magical healing properties.

The Viaduct Pond, Hampstead, June
The Viaduct Pond, Hampstead, June

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I returned to Paris a few days later, a heatwave struck and I spent as many hours as I could in my favourite spot by the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank. To my annoyance my privacy was invaded by two young men who took possession of the bench behind me. Then I saw that they were stripping off to reveal bathing trunks and sent them an amused glance. We started laughing and chatting and they offered me a beer.

They turned out to be Algerian, which might have explained their ignorance of the Seine’s reputation for pollution. But they said they didn’t care, they were so desperate to swim after three months of lockdown. In fact, because of the prolonged absence of river traffic the water was clear enough to reveal the stones on the riverbed for the first time. They gingerly picked their way over these and then launched themselves into a brief but joyous swim. Full of envious admiration, I gave them my paper handkerchiefs to dry off with.

Wild swimming from the Quai d'Orléans, Ile St Louis, JuneOrléans
Swimming from the Quai d’Orléans, Ile St Louis, June

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a sunny Friday evening in July I strolled with a friend along the Right Bank of the Seine which was packed with young people picnicking by the water’s edge. Near the Bastille we came across the unexpected sight of an older couple who had set up a table in a quiet spot overlooking the water, complete with a tablecloth, wineglasses and candles. They were clearly expecting company, as the table was laid for four. We could not imagine what the gendarmes, who were patrolling the riverbank and telling people off for bringing their own alcohol, would say to them when they got there, but I did not envy them that task.

Dining by the Seine near the Bastille, July
Dining by the Seine near the Bastille, July

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What these experiences have highlighted for me is the importance of spontaneous social contact and of the natural world to people’s well-being.  And especially the value of human contact IN the natural world.

The sudden spike in the demand for flats with gardens or balconies in both London and Paris reveals a heightened awareness of this fundamental need, exacerbated by confinement in the virtual world. It seems that ordinary people, as well as the environmentalists, are appreciating  the healing power of an unpolluted natural world more than ever before.  If, among other things, that will mean cleaner rivers in which to swim, Covid-19 will have had at least one beneficial effect.

Notre Dame a year after the fire

Just a year after the fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame, the cathedral is once again at the heart of a far bigger worldwide disaster. What can we learn about life after the Covid19 pandemic from the fire that almost destroyed it – but didn’t?

I live on the Ile St Louis, the little island connected by the Pont St Louis to the tip of the bigger Ile de la Cité on which Notre Dame is built. From this footbridge there is an excellent view of the Seine, dominated by the lovely apse of the cathedral. It is a favoured backdrop for films set in Paris, for wedding photographers and for tourists, with rival musicians and street performers often occupying both ends at weekends.

Notre Dame with the Pont St Louis leading to the Ile St Louis, right
Notre Dame with the Pont St Louis leading to the Ile St Louis, right. Attila Terbos, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the four bridges connecting the Ile St Louis to the mainland,  the Pont St Louis is the one closest to my studio, so I pass Notre Dame almost every day. In 28 years I think I have been inside the cathedral itself only four times. But every day I have leaned out  from the seclusion of my top floor window to see the tip of its spire, which is at the same height. In fact, when I first moved there I actually thought the spire was a tv aerial, as the rest of the cathedral is completely hidden by houses. Once I realised what it was, it became a personal landmark.

Sunset view from my window, spire of Notre Dame far right
Sunset view from my window, spire of Notre Dame far right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 7.15 pm on 15 April last year  a neighbour phoned to tell me that Notre Dame was on fire. I didn’t believe her, but went to the window to check. I saw a poisonous yellow-grey pillar of smoke belching rapidly upwards into the blue sky of that spring evening, with the spire  – my spire – briefly outlined by flames.

View of the spire fro my window, 15 April 2019
View of the spire from my window, 15 April 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I gaped in disbelief and frantically took a series of photos. Then the spire was hidden by smoke and when the smoke cleared not long afterwards it had gone forever. I felt exactly as if I had lost a friend.

Over the next few days access to the Pont St Louis was barred. I asked the policeman on duty when it would re-open and then to my horror realised that I was about to cry. He said, ‘On a tous la même réaction’ and patted my arm.  Two nights later I joined a crowd of silent Parisians on the Ile St Louis listening to a choir singing hymns opposite the burned out wreck. But at least the towers were still standing. Unsolicited, I made the largest donation I have ever made in my life to the fund set up to restore Notre Dame.

Although full access from the footbridge to the Ile de la Cité was only reopened in January 2020 and the damaged building itself was soon surrounded by a temporary perimeter wall, the crowds, if anything, were bigger than usual. People gazed in silence, and took pictures to reassure themselves that it was still there. I neither overheard nor exchanged any comments on the disaster with my neighbours, not even to talk about the dangers of lead poisoning. It seemed fatuous to comment on such a shocking and unexpected disaster which had touched people all over the world. Notre Dame looked very sad and sorry for itself, ‘as if it were wearing crutches and a mac’ according to my sister, to whom I sent this photograph

Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis, 29 April 2019
Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis, 29 April 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now, almost exactly a year later, Notre Dame is once again surrounded by empty streets and at the heart of a much bigger worldwide disaster. It reopened briefly on Good Friday for a service in the burned-out nave, with just seven people allowed inside, to broadcast a worldwide Easter message of mourning, comfort and hope.

The global effect of the COVID 19 pandemic on daily life, especially in cities, is beyond anything we could have imagined.  It is clear that when it is over nothing will ever be quite the same again.

But the story of the disaster which befell Notre Dame last year is also a story of human ingenuity, co-operation and resilience. By November everyone had got used to the scaffolding surrounding Notre Dame and the Pont St Louis was once again filled with people enjoying the view and the silver and gold Christmas lights strung in the trees overlooking the Seine (too subtle to be seen in this photograph unless you zoom)

Christmas lights on Ile St Louis, scaffolding around Notre Dame, right
Christmas lights on the Ile St Louis, scaffolding around Notre Dame, right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By January 2020 the perimeter wall surrounding the cathedral had been cleverly used to display an exhibition of huge photographs showing the extent of the disaster and the scale of the restoration work, with explanatory text in French and English. The reopening of the cathedral is planned for 2024. Until the lockdown emptied the streets of Paris on 17 March, I saw passersby, both tourists and locals, slowing down to read it and I felt uplifted to think that Notre Dame will rise again.

It will do so, and so will we.

London launch of Half An Hour From Paris on 10 May 2018

London launch of Half An Hour From Paris at Word on the Water

 

Readers, friends and visitors are cordially invited to the launch of

Half An Hour From Paris 

at  Word on the Water, the floating bookshop behind St Pancras International station, London

on Thursday 10 May from 6.30-8.30 pm

Annabel will give a short presentation at 7 pm before signing copies.

Word on the Water, Regent’s Canal towpath, London N1C 4LW
Go past The Lighterman pub to Granary Square and continue down the ramp to the waterside https://goo.gl/maps/Le5wn2i1UXy

Third edition of An Hour From Paris out now!

third edition an hour from paris I’m delighted to announce that the fully revised and updated third edition of An Hour From Paris is out now as a Kindle book (with a clickable Index) from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr.

The print edition will be released in April 2017 and can be pre-ordered now from Amazon.co.uk

View the first few pages and a sample chapter here.

I’ve re-organised the chapters by station of departure instead of alphabetically and listed the daytrips in descending order of journey time. So, for example, the quickest journeys from the Gare de Lyon are shown first.  I’ve also added an optional walk and map to the Ile du Martin Pêcheur chapter and completely re-written the Getting around the Ile de France chapter, as so much has changed. One of the best changes is the extension of the Navigo zone for Paris to cover the entire Ile de France, seven days a week, for the same price as the old Paris pass.

Happy exploring!

 

Rally for the Republic, 11 January 2015

I have never experienced a march quite like this one. The sheer number of people massed in the streets around the Place de la République made it impossible to move after a certain point. I gave up trying to reach my group of English journalists at the planned rendezvous and stayed motionless for nearly two hours, packed shoulder to shoulder with another group of journalists who had come by coach from Belgium and were bound for the same meeting point 200 metres away.

Apart from the Belgians, I seemed to be the only non-French person there. But the French around me came in all colours, sizes, religions and age groups. Most had placards saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ and some read ‘Je suis flic (cop), je suis juif, je suis la République’. Many had tricolours, ready to be waved, and larger flags hung from the balconies and windows over our heads, whose occupants were leaning out. The mood was good-humoured and, above all, expectant.

From time to time a rumour would sweep the crowd that we were finally about to move and applause rang out, only to die down as it became obvious that we weren’t going anywhere. One of the Belgians gallantly held a placard over my head during a brief shower. Looking up, I noticed a police sniper on the roof of the building opposite and a man who had wrapped himself around a traffic light acted as a lookout for all of us, but with nothing to report. Finally, we were reduced to watching tv coverage of François Hollande and other leaders in the Place on another man’s Iphone, which he held up to be seen by the people pressed around him.

Police sniper, Boulevard Voltaire
Police sniper, Boulevard Voltaire

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