It was starting to rain. The air was saturated, threatening a crueller downpour that never came. Mist, dense against my skin. I stopped moving, and the damp I’d been carrying sunk through my jumper and cooled, raising goosebumps. Walking against the current,
the riverbank sustained a vertical drop:
Urtica dioica (nettles)
Cirsium vulgare (thistles)
I came here on purpose. I had been at it all day. I’d covered miles and had miles left to cover. A water meadow strong-armed by tarmac. A static river of stone and tar. The true river running underneath at the meadow’s edge, sliding beneath a bridge.
I kept my eyes on the riverbank, searching for a more generous slope. An invitation in. The arches of my feet ached. My shoulder blades kept to my ears, pulled taut against the weather and the weight of a rucksack absorbing water, getting heavy. I followed a bend in the river and as it shifted its course, the banks relaxed into two softer slopes. I saw deep mud that would cave into nothing under the weight of a footprint. I saw a tough patch of grass knotted against the bank that I would have to rely on for leverage to get me in, and out.
I saw the way in, and shivered.
I looked at the river, and the river looked at me.
I am scared of the water. I am drawn to the water. I am most alive in water. I am closest to death in water.
It is early April and the cold of the river bites, and bites hard – through skin, flesh, right to your bones, where it settles further still into marrow and can’t be shifted. Sometimes for hours. Sometimes longer. Jumping into cold water is something like standing at the edge of a platform as a train comes into view, and wondering how it would be to jump. The difference is, you do.
I fell into the river I walked into the river
I was carried I was dragged
I am swimming I am drowning
I will be saved I cannot be saved
I have been numbed I have never been more awake
All has been lost It can never be lost
I am in the river
I am the river
Water marks, or rather is, a change in the landscape: a fluctuation from one state (solid) to another (liquid). To enter a river is to cross into a boundary line – the space in which land and water both divide and connect. Immersed within this swirling disturbance of states, you too become a confusion of land and water. Paradoxically, this confusion brings a kind of clarity. Caught between land and water, life is muddled, interconnected, and permeable.
Clear-cut dividing lines become unclear – if not impossible.
To not end where you thought you did,
not with skin but water
not with arms but meadow
– Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Swims
I go into rivers to muddy the waters. I am not the only one. There are as many reasons for swimming, and voices calling from the water, as there are waters to swim in: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ I wish I knew whether it was Heraclitus (535 – 475 BCE), or his translators, who tried to keep women from the water here.
There is a rebellion to swimming in the open, a defiance of the male gaze, of enclosure and property, which is pertinently a feminist question…
– Abi Andrews
That April afternoon, I slid down the riverbank, collecting nettle bites on the palms of my hands, as my fingers sought a steadfast grip that could not be secured from wet grass and waterlogged ground, at least part-river already. I pushed my feet first into cool mud, then into a few inches of water at the very edge of the river. Its temperature pierced, then numbed, then raised an alarm throughout my body, which registered the icy water as danger, and told me to clamber back up the bank. Back into my clothes, back onto higher ground, away from the deep, mythic reality of the river passing through.
A dull ache spreads through my hands and feet. But I know to keep swimming, to push past it .
– Jessica J. Lee, Turning
I stood still, the vessel of an adrenaline surge. It locked deep into my chest, and rooted into the pit of my stomach. I held it in my hands, which wrapped into fists, clenched in resistance to further steps forward. I carried this resistance with me as my feet searched the downward slope of the riverbank, guiding me further in.
The clear water was at our knees, then at our thighs. How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal
– Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
I was not, logically, doing anything particularly dangerous. But logic has little to do with walking into a river. Standing below ground level, the riverbank stacking a little higher than my head, I had already entered a different world.
Listen this is not the ordinary surface of the river.
– Alice Oswald, Sleepwalk on the Severn
Defying instinct , I waded deeper.
Submitting to instinct, I waded deeper.
My own heart is the beating heart of the pond
– Nina Mingya Powles, ‘Small Bodies of Water’
We are all already part water, not so different from the saturated slope I had pressed my body against as I slipped down into the river. It’s a ratio of six to four, for most of us. When we are born, it is more like eight to two, the proportion dwindling over time. If immersion feels like a return, perhaps this is why.
When I run I rattle. In the water I am faster, smoother: a completed creature.
– Polly Atkin, Poems Underwater
The river I stepped into that April afternoon was the Medway, and before that it was Medwaeg (Saxons). The Romans called it Fluminus Medwaeias, claiming it from the Celts, who named it after ‘Medu’. Mead. Sweet water. The water tasted good. None of this is necessarily true. Words are like water, hard to trace, and even harder to pin down. Spenser called the river him, then her: a brother to the Thames in The Shepherd’s Calendar, his wife in The Fairie Queene. I have always felt the truth in Ted Hughes’ imagining of a river as a woman in ‘Low Water’, staring you down at the end of the poem:
You stand under leaves with your feet in the shallows.
She eyes you steadily from the beginning of the world.
I cannot look into a river without thinking of ‘Low Water’. Nor can I enter into one without thinking of Waterlog: Roger Deakin’s ‘Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain’, first published in 1999. It is a book that has encouraged many to enter into wild waters, and I cannot imagine my own swimming life without it. Deakin called the Medway an ‘industrial river’, the catchment waterway for Gillingham, Chatham, Maidstone, and Rochester. 400,000 souls when he last checked. When he swam in her, he thought of pollutants, polio, and Hepatitis B. When he swallowed her, she was brackish, and curious, and caught him unawares. I swallowed her on purpose. She just tasted cold, and wet.
It was not the same river.
It was the same river.
The Medway begins at a spring in the West of the High Weald, in a place called Turners Hill.
In 1999, the National Rivers Agency, a forerunner to the Environment Agency, published an overview of the river, documenting its particularities. The sand and clay of the High Weald give it a different character to those rivers in the surrounding region, which cut, instead, through chalk: ‘The Wealden Clays are impermeable to rainfall and water must find its way across the surface of the land, creating a multitude of small rushing streams’. The Medway is really many rivers. Where I waded in, at the outermost edge of the Weald, it had already gathered four major tributaries: the rivers Eden, Teise, Bourne, and Beult. By the time it reaches Gillingham, where Deakin went in, it has collected nine – though the number runs far higher if you count all of its minor tributaries, which run like lines of fine lace into the main body of the river.
It is at this point that the Medway really lets loose. From its bowl-like spring, lying in a wooded bank between two fields, it spills itself out and spreads slowly wider. Village by village, town by town, it has been steadily broadening, a body uncurling from a compacted crouch into an upright position: feet firmly grounded, shoulders drawn back, it throws its arms upwards and tangles itself with the land, creating small islands and complex, marshy thoroughfares. It confuses clear-cut distinctions between land and water, insisting on the possibility of both, simultaneously, until it draws itself into cohesion for the final time, and squeezes through the gap between the Isle of Grain and Sheerness, throwing its lot in with the Thames Estuary. In doing so, it forms that relationship which Spenser found so hard to define.
Until March last year, this patch of land-water was dominated by a chimney, which stood some 650 feet tall. As Deakin swam from Gillingham Strand to Hoo Island, he used the chimney as his waymarker: ‘the one vertical feature in the horizontal world before me.’ The Kingsnorth Power Station produced energy from coal – described by climate scientist and activist James E. Hansen as ‘the dirtiest and most polluting of all the fossil fuels’. All coal-fired power plants emit enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, but those commissioned before 2001, when the European Union produced reformative legislation, also produced vast quantities of unfiltered sulphur dioxide.
When sulphur dioxide reacts with water and air, it forms sulphuric acid, the main component of acid rain. When this rain falls, it acidifies land and water alike, converting aluminium compounds held within soil and water into more soluble forms, creating an environment that is toxic to much of life that would dwell on land and in water. Sites at which soil is likely to wash into rivers, where land and water are particularly intertwined, are therefore doubly vulnerable to this toxicity.
On a June evening in 2009, Emma Gibson and two other women jumped off a small boat and into the Medway River, as part of Greenpeace’s protests against the power station. They swam directly into the path of a coal freighter as it crossed the river towards the Kingsnorth plant. The protest took place about a year after Emma had given birth to twins: giving birth to her children had transformed the way she viewed herself, and the things her body could do. She understood that she could be brave; that she could summon up all her strength and be stronger still; could fight for the Earth – and keep on fighting. She wanted to put her body on, or through, the line: between land and water, action and inaction, hope and inertia.
Greenpeace had organised swim-protests like this before: putting bodies in the way of ships in order to prevent them from delivering fossil fuels to power stations. Usually, ships stop, or change course, once the captain sees that there are protesters in the water. This is not what happened here. Too close to swim out of the ship’s path, the protesters only escaped unharmed because the wake of the ship buoyed them up and out of the way.
A coastguard later justified the captain’s behaviour by explaining that if the vessel had changed direction, and had run aground, the result might have been a serious pollution incident in the river. There is an astonishing strength of cognitive dissonance at play when a coastguard can reprimand the actions of a woman who puts herself in the way of a shipful of coal – reprimands her for the pollution she might have caused, had the ship capsized. The size and strength of the structures of power maintaining the fossil fuel industry could not be more clearly articulated than in the image of a coal freighter charging through the Medway, forcing climate protesters out of its way by the sheer force of its wake.
The true bravery of Emma Gibson, and all of those who protest, is not to be found in their willingness to put their bodies on the line. Their bravery lies in their refusal to look away: their willingness to feel the fear, to see the unfeasible scale of what must be done, and yet still act. On the phone to Emma, listening in awe to her description of the evening she spent in the polluted water of the Medway, she reminds me: you cannot protest without holding a vision for the future. You cannot campaign without hope.
Immersion holds the potential to alter the perceptions not only of the swimmer, but also of those who bear witness to the act. After years of campaigning, the chimney of the Kingsnorth Power Station was demolished in March 2018. It will not be replaced.
The thing about water is that it holds endless inconsistencies, and draws your own to the surface. We are all complicit in the creation of buildings like Kingsnorth. We are all capable of campaigning until those buildings are pulled down.
As I took myself deeper into the Medway, the feeling of profound, physical alarm, followed almost immediately by a complete inurement to it, repeated over and over again as I exposed each new inch of myself to the river. The intensity of these shifting sensations did not lessen as the water rose to meet my calves, passed my knees, and settled at my waist. The shock of it, and the way this shock rendered all sensations inert, continued to take my breath away.
I stood at the mid-point between both banks, hands raised above my head, feet secured by the mud of the riverbed.
I took a deep breath.
I went under.
The feeling of everything and nothing, of stupefaction, was held by the river and was carried within me as I broke back through its surface and began to swim. I stayed in the Medway for as long as I could bear, and when I found that patch of knotted grass and pulled myself back up the bank, I understood: resistance to the river is only one permeable frontier away from a resistance for the river. The two are inextricably connected, like land and water. Like a body in water.
I was always already in the river, and the river was always already in me.
For Pearl, 19.9.1999-15.3.2019
Nick Hayes is a writer and illustrator. He has published four graphic novels with Penguin Random House and is the chief propagandist for the Land Justice Network, an organisation campaigning for greater access to land in England. He is currently finishing his first non-fiction book for Bloomsbury, in which he trespasses the country estates, ducal castles and country piles of England’s land-owning magnates.