I’ve spent my life being a night-owl, rising late and staying up late, tapping out words by the hum of distant milk-floats. It’s been a point of honour to carve out my own time, undisturbed by others, alone in my living space while everyone else slumbers on, plus there were better, weirder films on, any food was appropriate, and there was no dress code. When I was younger, the small hours would see me reading and listening to Blue Jam swaddled in the darkness of my room. Night time was my time.
And then I was invited to swim.
It was a casual enough conversation: how I wished I could find more time for fitness, for lidos, to be outdoors, and then I was agreeing to meet on a street corner, to run to the river and swim there. I had so many questions: what do I wear? how do I get changed? will I get too cold? am I going to get swept away? why do we go when the sun isn’t yet up?
But when we got to the water, that day and every subsequent dip, I understood the value of an early swim. Partly it’s pragmatic — the answer to ‘how do I get changed’ is essentially ‘with an immense amount of comfort with your own flashes of nakedness’ — and partly it’s the medicinal nature of it. At noon, the difference in light is minimal between December and in June, when compared to the early hours. When we swim, those months, quite literally, mean the difference between day and night. And year round, the peace of the water is a balm to a rushing, anxious mind.
This winter gave us meteor showers, an enormous falling star on New Year’s dawn, and a terrifying few minutes watching Starlink and being convinced that it was curtains for the humans against the rising robot forces. Now, as spring brings more sun, we see dappled disappearances of otters, breeding duck couples, grass returning through the mud, lilac and tangerine sunrises, and we feel the water temperature rising in minuscule increments, from teeth-clenching to swimmable, with the promise of blissful warmth in months ahead. We enjoy the wheel of the year on the riverbank, noticing and comparing hatchings, bloomings, dormancy and hibernations, by the changing light of the early day.
By the time the rest of my house wakes up, I’ve often already been in the river, seen a heron, waved to the regular dog walkers, and I am awake and reassuringly alive. While I loved the privacy of a life at 3am, I could never quite be sure back then that, through the fog of a midnight brain, I could quite make the same claim. And even on our small slice of riverbank, I’m certainly seeing more of the world.
The Kindness Project by Sam Binnie is OUT NOW in ebook!