Magnus Manske

Last Easter, on a trip to visit a friend in Devon, we made the walk to the salmon leaps on the river Teign. These are small, deep pools, staggered on a weir, intended to ease the upward journey of the fish. We brought shampoo with us, and in the raging waterfall, we leant back and washed each other’s hair. People passed and heralded our bravery. Somehow, despite being just meters from the path, we occupied an entirely new place, with its own timeless time zone. The water enables intimacy, and swimming with a friend is a new way of being in each other’s company, the water’s arms embracing whoever chooses to swim in one liquescent hug.

It’s such a bodily hobby, and one so elevated by the company of others that soon it becomes an event that punctuates time.

I have always been a water baby. As a child, I used to watch my dad swim great lengths of the swimming pool in awe. His relationship with water was one of reciprocity. Unlike other swimmers, who seemed to drag themselves through the water like injured moths, he met no resistance. Somehow, it seemed to support him, urging him on like an old friend. Water – dad – water – dad: interchangeable bodies who moved in such a way that I sometimes wondered whether one day he would simply shed his skin and dissolve. I remember clinging to his back as he swam below the surface. It felt as if I was riding on the shell of a giant turtle.

The chilly pull of rivers and lakes have continued to revive me in ways I have not been able to source elsewhere. Floating aimlessly, ears just under the water, you can listen to what can be described as the water’s heartbeat. Or maybe it’s your own, amplified by the silence? It’s an experience that is deeply rooted in sensation, yet somehow surpassing it too. You feel at once hyper-aware of your own body – but equally reduced to a pair of eyes, watching light distort as drops gather on your lashes. I prefer to dive in to avoid the agonising feeling of the cold climbing up your back. There will inevitably be a few minutes of indecision – the voice inside your head telling you slyly to retreat and put on a jumper. Fighting this, and slipping in, even just for thirty seconds, somehow erases any previous hesitation, and we emerge, giddy, muddy, breathless and, somehow, clean.


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I had no idea that swimming in the river Cam would play such a central role in my relationship with this town. Swimming has become a strange way of marking both my history and my geography. It’s such a bodily hobby, and one so elevated by the company of others that soon it becomes an event that punctuates time. Water, by this point in my life, stands as a kind of portal for memory. Submerged in the cold, I remember the time we stripped naked and floated on the surface of Lake Como’s 400m depths. Then there was the delirious 6 am swim I took after King’s Affair – plunging in from a tree. My body broke the skin of the water and dispersed the dawn ghosts, marking the start of the summer.

Now exams loom, and sitting in the University Library, watching the trees shake the last drops of rain from their branches. My mind is beckoned towards the balmy afternoons to come, sitting by the river Cam. But now, staring at strange, middle English words, I wander backwards, too, to an earlier time and an earlier place: to a dream world where children ride on the shells of giant turtles, adults become weightless and motherly liquid hands comb through your hair.

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