Port Meadow looks different before a swim. It is colder and wilder, perhaps because your whole consciousness is focussed on the river. The river is what frames the meadow – it is the point at which the land stops being Our Oxford and starts being “the wilderness” leading on to Binsey and the woods beyond. If you look at a map, you can see the way that the Cherwell encloses the city, creating pockets of land with names and personalities – meadows, allotments, and parks.
Just south of Port Meadow is an area of land called Fiddler’s Island, where the Medley Bridge leads to a fork in the river which separates the Thames from Castle Mill Stream and the Oxford Canal. Here you find an area of water which was authorised for public bathing in 1852. There are other places to swim in the city – Parson’s Pleasure, Tumbling Bay. Worcester Lake has been done by many, as has Uni Parks and the divided stream of the Cherwell under Magdalen Bridge. But there is something about Port Meadow, its simultaneous closeness and removed-ness from the city, which makes it a good place to start for prospective wild swimmers.
At college, we bundle up like children going to the seaside – towels, jumpers, flip-flops. But it’s only April, and it’s a grey day, and there’s an air of trepidation as well as excitement in the walk through Jericho and over the railway bridge. We have done this in January, February and March, in three jumpers and a coat, when the river was flooded and wild and even the ducks sat on the canal boats fearing the strength of the current. The water was a whirlpool – too dangerous to jump in, we lowered ourselves down, holding onto the bridge to avoid being swept downstream. This time though, we brace ourselves and jump, eyes closed and breath held.
There’s a wonderful feeling of freedom that comes from being in the water, especially here where it is deep enough to kick your legs out without touching river-bed. It’s not like swimming in the sea, where you feel like the waves are washing you clean. The water of the Thames is brown and murky, and we emerge with mud and scratches on our bodies from climbing out over the bank, skin raw and pink and hastily covered in towels and clothing. This is not a baptism in the sense of feeling cleansed and refreshed by the water – in fact you feel like you need a long bath and bed as soon as possible.
But it is a rite. This is how you become part of the Meadow – reclaim it as something human. Not in the way that destroys trees, and erects housing complexes and roads, but in the way that makes humans an intrinsic part of the landscape, and it a part of us. Swimming in summer, when the Meadow is buzzing with people, this feeling is more acute. People line up to watch the crazy students playing on the rope swing on Fiddler’s Island.
The river is a part of the personality of Oxford, where rowing and punting and crossing the Magdalen bridge are part of the daily fabric of life. These things are also what separate us from real life. This is what you feel when swimming – that nowhere else could being in the river mean quite so much.