In the beautiful, long, hot summer of 1976, our last term at primary school, we were taken to the local open air swimming pool for anti-drowning lessons.
Brynaman Lido (or ‘The Baths” as we called it), was a sparkling white and aquamarine palace located near the rugby pitch, across the two counties our funny little village straddled. It was an oasis of blue in a green and brown world. Short doored changing huts ranged all around the twenty five metre pool which was fed with water direct from the river, always freezing after its burbling meander down from the Black Mountains.
Chlorinated footbaths were little preparation for the scrotum puckering water, and it was a considerable achievement to complete your first dog paddle width with your balls up around your chin. It would have been inconceivable to have worn a wetsuit, the only wet suit in Brynaman in those days was when the insurance man got caught in the rain on his monthly visit.
Those widths achieved made the walk home with a frozen orange jubbly in the sharp, bright afternoon sunshine nothing short of bliss. Salad days, indeed.
With our new skill came the parental privilege of being allowed to swim in “Pownd Plank”, a dappled pool towards the bottom of the Nant Melyn river. This had always been the domain of older children of which we now considered ourselves the equal. Where I had previously just scooped frogspawn and slipped to full boot discomfort, I was now able to strip to stripy trunks and splash about in four foot depths, emerging renewed and exhilarated to lie on pobbly banks to dry. The dark green haven was a little paradise for a short time, at least until that wondrous summer came to an end.
The secondary school in Ammanford I went on to attend that Autumn had a decent pool but swimming lessons were only a small part of our physical education. They shared the timetable with the twin brutes of rugby and cross country runs and, consequently, I probably only swam two or three times a year during my time there and barely for long enough to get wrinkly.
I was therefore still an almost novice swimmer by the time I met my wife, Sarah, in the late eighties. She was a comparative mermaid, having competed in swimming galas at school. She’d even been taking advanced lessons to improve her stroke! I was intimidated, but in the spirit of embracing everything about her I swallowed my pride and a fair amount of pool water, and asked her to teach me.
She raised my confidence and improved my stroke to the point where I was able to go along once or twice a week to the lovely old St Helen’s Baths in Swansea to better my stamina. I began to understand the appeal of swimming as regular exercise, the pleasure of working hard for the reward of a shower and the smugness of having done something of good to yourself.
As our relationship developed Sarah invited me to meet her characterful mother, who lived in Spain. The visit is another story, but for the purposes of this little tale it was also the time I first swam in the sea. I’d been in the sea before of course, on trips to Porthcawl, Tenby and Swansea as a child, but only to cautiously splash about a bit and be sick after swallowing too much salt water.
I fell easily for the clear water of the Costa Blanca, was reassured by the lack of Mediterranean surf and enjoyed the added buoyancy. I had found my sea legs and could now fully enjoy the sun prickling my skin as the salt slowly encrusted me on the hot sand when I finally dragged myself out.
Despite having met her mother we were married soon after, and set off to circumnavigate the globe on a year long trip. We swam (unknowingly) with sea snakes in the Arabian Sea, braved the crashing waves of the Bay of Bengal, swam near the bridge over the River Kwai and wondered at the turquoise coloured South China Sea off Thailand. We body surfed in the Antarctic waters of the west coast of Australia, snorkelled over coral, sharks and giant clams on the Great Barrier Reef, and were lightly poached in hot springs in New Zealand before relaxing in the Pacific at Hawaii’s Waikiki beach.
The municipal swimming pool in Neath did not really compare with the exotic beaches of the world, but it wasn’t a bad place to teach our kids to swim some years later. We spent many a Sunday morning happily splashing about in the kiddies pool and sliding down the pipe slides as they got older. The routine changed with each of our four children but invariably ended with food and the familiar satisfaction at having done something to earn it.
At the age of 40 I was found to have high blood pressure. I’d had a stressful few years building a business, moving house and raising the children but the news came as a bit of a shock and galvanised me into an enforced change of lifestyle.
At the time the nearest pool with lane swimming was in Penlan to the north of Swansea. The leisure centre was a part of the large secondary school and the changing rooms reflected this, making it a pretty unsavoury experience to be there even at six in the morning. I persevered though and the habit stuck. Thankfully, it was only a year or so before they opened the spanking new National Pool considerably nearer my house and I have been going there every weekday (more or less) ever since.
The routine is now ingrained, up at seven, in the car by ten past, at the pool by quarter past, in the water by twenty past. I objectively analyse my repetitive movements as I go through them, the muscle memory only thrown out of kilter if I have forgotten my membership card or a pound for the locker. Hand over the card, trot down the steps, drop my ticket in the bin, find a cubicle, change into trunks (why are they called that?), put my bag in the locker (always the same way around), strap the key to my wrist (always the same way around), take a shower and walk into the pool.
I go through my regular set of lengths, driving myself potty by obsessively counting the strokes, the breaths, watching the time taken for each set of ten 25 metre lengths, interspersed by brief chats with the other regular aquanauts. I might fret over an aching muscle, a lingering cough or a touch of cramp and there are seldom days when something doesn’t hurt.
I sometimes wonder at what I’m swimming in, the effluvia, hair and leakings of my fellow swimmers, hopefully tempered by the eye reddening blunt object of the chemical world, chlorine. I secretly think that it actually does me good though, this random alternative medicine akin to a scattergun homeopathy. Regardless, when I’ve done my fifty lengths the smug feeling returns, I find a Goldilocks shower that works and reverse the entry process until I’m back in my car.
While swimming I occasionally find a state of grace, at one with the elements. In a calm frame of mind I can be effortlessly creative, solve problems and plan my day. The water becomes a tepid amniotic fluid from which ideas are born.
Despite my misgivings, the day-in-day-out boredom of repeated exercise, the drudge of dragging myself out of bed through the dark months to scrape a windscreen and the suspect hygiene of others, it must be said, on a good day, with a following wind, I occasionally, quite like, to swim.