Written by Sam Mould
It was a fleeting thought, a moment that has become an action and is articulated into a daily open water swim. To try, every day for a year, without fail and swim in the elements: this is learning to swim.
A creative endeavour to find the sublime. To know wanderlust.
For 365 consecutive swimming days there were three basic rules; open un-chlorinated water, minimum 10’, no wetsuit. Yes, NO WETSUIT (eeek).
Maybe I will succeed, maybe I won’t. She who dares; swims.
Either way on a daily basis water will be collected from the swim location along with a piece of rock to be catalogued as a work in progress over the next 365 days.
I have committed to swim on a daily basis, to try and find a different way of being in landscape as a creative practice and as a way of being a painter, and by collecting water and rocks from various locations for 365 consecutive days, bring the truth of the landscape into my work, questioning our ever depleting relationships to the natural world around us and those environments which hold our existence. This water and those rocks will eventually be exhibited in their pure form and as a series of water-based paintings in conjunction with the rocks and daily photographs.
Now I’m a painter, not a writer, but I felt the need to try and express in words what cold actually meant to me over the course of that year. How it made me feel and why that became an important dynamic of my relationship to our landscape. To say that one is cold does not even come close to describing plunging into an inky, iced covered pool in the depths of winter.
I wanted to share a few excerpts from my daily log and here they are with a few statistics:
Date: April 23rd 2014
Water Temperature: 55ºF/ Air Temperature: 43ºF
Distance swum: 400m
Location: Serpentine Hyde Park, London.
Looks inviting doesn’t it? The dewy air presses across my face like a veil and a fine grainy suspension investigates every inch of my skin. The icy hands of the Serpentine for the first time this year clasp my breast and the surge of the water embraces me with ease.
Water poured like ice under my arms.
Scratched ragged by splinters.
On surviving this first dip I have feet like lumps of lead, bone-numb fingernails and dysfunctional toes.
Only another 364 days to go…
Date: May 5th 2014
Water Temperature: 54ºF/ Air Temperature 50ºF
Distance swum: 200m (ish)
Location: Llyn Idwal, Wales.
On the border of Conwy and Gwynedd there is a glacial valley that holds Llyn Idwal, lying in the shadow of Twll Du, (this means Black Hole by the way) is 800 metres long and 300 metres wide. Legend has it that during the 12th century, the Prince of Gwynedd, Owain, entrusted his son Idwal to Nefydd Hardd. Idwal was a clever child, compared to Nefydd’s child, Dunawd, who was jealous, so he pushed Idwal into the Llyn and he drowned. Owain was understandably a little angry about this and so banished Nefydd and named the lake in memory of his son, Idwal. Another truth is that Idwal died in battle in 942 against the Saxons and was cremated by the lake.
Either way, since this time it is said that no bird flies over the lake’s surface and that wailing voices, that gasp like a child being pushed can be heard when there is a storm approaching the valley. The drama of the Welsh landscape is only applified by the folklore.
Overcast and brooding, it is a black hole, with a hint of rain and a touch of sunshine smattering through the clouds. I swam around a set of small rocks, an isle and a tree, slipping out into the middle of the lake for a better view of the imposing Twll Du. Water tickling the lake edge. A small yellow butterfly landed on my cap whilst swimming, fluttering around my stroke. Pied wagtails, bobbing around the edge of the waters, washing in the babbling streams supplying the lake.
A river pours; escaping from the lake under a huge purple hued solid slate stone footbridge, only two enormous pieces of slate and stepping-stones allow passage. The slate lies hot in afternoon, yet the chill of the Llyn stays in my bones.
Date: May 26th 2014
Water Temperature: 50ºF/ Air Temperature 41ºF
Distance swum: 200m (ish)
Location: Loch Avon, Scotland
A five hour walk in from Glenmore; we approached Loch Avon from the saddle between Cairngorm and A’Choinneach down onto the pale pink beach and lakeside. Muddy puddles to jump over all along the boggy path, so by the time we got down to the waters edge we needed a dip. It’s impossible to describe the peace here. The air is thin and the wind rushes over the very clear turquoise water. The silence echoes between the arms of the hills. Two ptarmigans croak a welcome and our freezing rainy swim begins. The loch floor glitters with quartz, mica and rose and a deep shelf plunges away into bluely green. Above the snow topped mountains hold strong, between the swirling mist that descends then vanishes like a dream and we relish the patter of the raindrops playing on the waters surface that magnifies the sparkling loch floor. Standing still I breathe in the raindrops. Changing is a battle in the wind and we hop foot it down to the Bothy below to shelter and drink copious amounts of black tea to warm.
Date: February 7th 2015
Water Temperature: 40ºF/ Air Temperature 38ºF
Distance swum: 600m
Location: Serpentine, Hyde Park
Raining, raining. Swan feeding, and still raining, raining, raining. The whole of Hyde Park seems steely grey, tinged with blue. Every raindrop echoes these tones. Upper lip and nasal septum twitch with the icy air.
The cold wind makes it feel as though the raindrops are freezing to each solitary hair on my arms, and soon they’ll become icicles, hanging like glassy wings.
The dawn glistens bright and the placid water takes the sky in its palms and so a breath of fleshy pink glows into the Serpentine and into me. The cold sinks into my soul and for every breath the sky flashes rose and calm descends.
I wrote all of this over a year ago now and the success of this investigation led me directly into thinking about landscape and memory, so when asked to respond to the notion ‘Pool’ for a group show at Griffin Gallery it seemed natural that swimming in landscape feature as part of that practice. I created an installation after spending extended periods of time at Innominate Tarn, Cumbria.
Innominate Cartography (2016) was made out of Earth pigment, tarn water, wool and oil paint.
A series of paintings that are maps of walks and swims that have occurred in and around the Innominate Tarn (formerly Loaf Tarn) at Haystacks in Cumbria. Each piece is imbued with water and earth pigments from the Innominate Tarn and surrounding area.
For Alfred (2016) is a handcrafted, English Sweet Chestnut wooden bench, with a brass plate and the remains of a view.
This bench has a small plaque reading ‘in loving memory of the living’.
This bench signifies the remains of a view over Innominate Tarn where Alfred Wainwrights ashes were scattered.
Every painting takes a continuous mobius form as all walks steamed from the Innominate Tarn and are hung as a connected landscape.
A swim outdoors is fundamentally connected to being in the wild and in the elements, and to quote Jay Griffiths “what is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is, unmistakable, unforgettable, unshakable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quintessence, pure spirit, resolving into no constituents. Don’t waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary.”
You never regret a swim, especially a cold-water one; swim wild, swim free and get into the landscape.
Sam Mould exhibited in ‘Pool’ at Griffin Gallery, London (28 April – 10 June 2016). For more information on upcoming exhibitions visit www.griffingallery.co.uk