Seasons of Hinksey Pool
The last swim in Hinksey Open Air Pool, south Oxford, before it closes for the winter is always a bittersweet experience. For those of us who swim there regularly, the pool becomes a companion. It’s occasionally a bit wearing, but a constant that you have – and want – to come back to. Its season, April to September, covers the most radical climatic changes of the year, and it’s this that I’ve come to enjoy most over my years as a member. This isn’t exactly wild swimming, but I do feel closer to the seasons in the water than out of it.
In the early weeks the boundary between winter and spring is porous. Gentle rain one day, sun the next, then a gale. The pool stays open in almost all weathers, so there’s no excuse not to go. The walk along suburban roads get there is gradually greening, even on the coldest day. Birds are beginning really to get into their stride, singing or calling in front gardens.
The water feels soft, as though it too is new and fresh. This is time that mallard ducks most often land in confusion on the pool rather than the pond or the lake just beyond in Hinksey Park. Sometimes it’s pairs, sometimes single males. They are good companions to have as you do your lengths, now seen above – iridescent head, blue streak on the wings – and now below – feet nonchalantly spreading turn by turn as it dawdles over the
When the fresh smell of spring – a sort of clean wetness - becomes overtaken by the thicker whiff of pollen, summer has moved in. May eases into June, usually with more warmth, more sun, and on very hot days the bitter taste of sun tan lotion in the pool water. The number of ducks in the pool falls sharply as the number of people goes up, but instead the very fringes of the water are frequented by bees and wasps. I assume they are there for a drink, but they spend a lot of time wandering to and fro. Quite often you come face to face with one as you turn at a length’s end. For a second the intricacies of their compound eyes glitter back and there your ways part. I rescued a bee that had fallen in once, and it promptly stung me, killing itself.
Birds are always overhead at this time of year. The definitive markers of the season are the swifts. Their migrations, so far as is understood, are largely determined by day length, so they arrive always in the last days of May and are gone again in August. On a blue day their taut black bars streak repeatedly across the face of the sky, visible over a vast arc above the pool. Their screams tail after them and it would not surprise me if
somehow they struck the water like sparks from a firework, fizzing and steaming. When the pool is open for one of the occasional evening swims, the swifts are replaced by the equally fascinating silhouettes of bats, also hunting the insects drawn by the moisture rising from the surrounding park.
Then, without fanfare it is September and the crowds thin out, the swallows on Hinksey Late are becoming fewer. The air has a new feel to it – cold, but not icy. It makes a sharp contrast with the water, which holds you like a huge liquid blanket. As I swim, I look down at the first autumn leaves to fall. They drift serenely just below the surface until the water soaks them thoroughly and they gather in clumps on the bottom. The shapes of the clumps are altered by eddies and swirls created by the swimmers above.
The leaves are still green on the trees, and birds are beginning to find their voices again after the August lull. But the year’s last swim is coming. It arrives always on the last weekend of September. I try to make sure I’m there, even if only for a short while. By this time the water is colder. The ducks may well be back by this time, dotting the largely empty width of the surface. They can seem affronted by the intrusion of humans into
I look at the sky, or the rain, I stretch out in the water. I remind myself that it is only six months until the whole experience starts again.
First published in Oxford Magazine