The summer of 2018 just gone was, famously, a Good Summer. In the south of England people sweltered in hot towns as the temperatures soared into the thirties. This, of course, didn’t happen up here in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Our town sits above the Tweed estuary and the North Sea, where normal summer temperatures seldom reach higher than twenty. However, in 2018, on several days they reached an exceptional twenty-five or twenty-six. It was enough. It was time to put on my swimming costume and head down the road to the beach beside the pier.
The sea-water, I had learned from the internet, was unusually warm, even in the North Sea. It had certainly (and again, exceptionally) reached double figures. It might even be in the teens. This does not mean the sea was warm – but importantly, the air temperature was.
This is how you swim in the North Sea. You must enter the water immediately and joyfully, without whimpers or petty shivering. You walk straight in up to your chest, feeling the intimate lapping of the icy water about you. Then you immerse yourself completely and remain immersed. That way Cold Water Shock will have effect straight away. Surprisingly, you won’t suffer; the shock takes care of that. It is like cutting off a finger with an electric saw – you feel nothing. While CWS is taking place, do not attempt to swim, but splash about aimlessly till your body has acclimatized to avoid stressing your heart. Gasp and splash till you are ready – in other words, till your body has reached the same temperature as the water. Then you can start to swim, allowing your head to drop beneath the water to the world of stones and shells and sudden squiffs of sand from startled shrimps. It no longer feels cold in the water and your body moves fish-like through the strange grey-green water of this sea. You are filled with elation and joy. After twenty minutes or so, when your extremities are completely numb, it is time to tear yourself from the water. You walk, seaweed-dripping up the beach, in the sunshine, feeling no cold at all at first, and casually drape a towel around yourself. Five or ten minutes later the cold starts. By now you need to have removed your wet costume behind a friendly dune, dried yourself and piled on vests and jerseys. This is when you feel cold; a new inner cold of your organs that is too deep to reach. Your teeth start to chatter. It’s time for hot drinks and warm blankets.
All open swimming enthusiasts talk about the same thing: the elation that it generates. You feel utterly wonderful. Re-born. It is fantastic, and I was to experience it again and again over the summer.
But as the weather grew colder after the summer, open swimming in the North Sea became just too arduous. As the sea temperature slipped back down into single figures and the air temperature with it, it was only for the hard core. But I found myself still longing to be in the sea.
I bought a wetsuit. I won’t say a lot about this, except that hauling tight rubber on and off takes getting used to. But friends, it is worth it. I was back in the sea.
On a still November morning, just after dawn, I went down to the beach. The water was a bronzed, luminous pink which glanced off the lazy movement of the swell. There was no-one around, not even an early dog-walker. A couple of oyster-catchers flew up from the tide-line, shrieking their complaint at me. I walked in, feeling the clear waters round me. My feet and hands were freezing (buy gloves, I noted to myself) but the rest of me was only cool. I lay back in the rubbery buoyancy of my wetsuit, floating on the bronze waters. I watched the red disc of the sun moving up above the lighthouse. The sea was very calm. Small ripples ran against my body, gently pushing me forward. In a moment of epiphany I understood that the sea was alive – not alive with the things in it, but alive of itself. Aware, and aware of me in it as I was of it.
Cuthbert’s first biographer tells us that he was brought up inland, in the Leader Valley south of Edinburgh. But he spent most of the latter part of his life within a few hundred yards of the sea, first on Lindisfarne, then on Inner Farne. One of the best-loved icons of the saint depicts him standing on the shore after a night spent praying in the ocean, while sea-otters dry him with their fur. According to Bede, the incident took place when he was visiting the convent of St Ebba at Coldingham, ten miles north of Berwick. One of the monks with him saw him slip out of the dormitory in the night and followed him out of curiosity. He saw Cuthbert go down into the waters of the bay.
He went out into the sea until he was up to his arms and neck in deep water. The splash of the waves accompanied his vigil throughout the dark hours of the night. At daybreak he came out, knelt down on the sands and prayed. Then two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath and tried to dry him on their fur. They finished, received his blessing and slipped back into their watery home. He was soon home and was in choir at the proper time with the rest of the monks.
Cuthbert must have known all about Cold Water Shock and deep internal cold. He was entering the water for ascetic reasons, to mortify the flesh. But even so, would he not have also sometimes felt the elation, the sense of re-birth, brought on by the shock of the sea? Would he not, in the slow tenderness of the tide, have felt his own identity with its life? I think he would.