Coldwater Culture: Polar Beards/Old King Cold

Warm mild days don’t do much for conditioning and when the weather returns to its seasonal default the difference in temperature tricks the body into feeling unconditioned. The nature of our climate and the ambitions of the adventurous are at best uncertain, so perhaps it is for the best: Stick at it come what may, nothing can be done about the weather whilst everything can be done to cope with it. The warmer days have not been wasted – explorations, expeditions and training opportunities have presented themselves. Similarly good work has been done on the cooler days.

A neighbour talked to me the other day lamenting the loss of the golden age of his youth where adventures were undertaken at the drop of a hat. “Now, my children come home from school and just turn on their tablets,” he said mournfully. He’s moving abroad in the hope of finding new opportunities to tempt his children away from their screens. I found it hard to agree. He’s sold his house, quit his job and is making the final arrangements to leave in a few weeks.

A few days before I’d cycled eleven miles with my 4 year old on the trailer bike, exploring a dismantled railway track, its tunnels and the brook that crosses it. We circumnavigated a reservoir, had a picnic and then set off along the canal. She has delighted in telling everyone how she pedalled all the way “I wasn’t tired at all,” she declared.

A day later we rowed the boat around a different reservoir, she did 4800 metres on her own oar of the 5200m that I did. My other child rowed 1200m, sang songs, played the harmonica and we told each other stories as sailing boats raced each other nearby. I manoeuvred the boat into the inlet so they could see into the grating and watch how the current pushed the boat back out again. The day after we rowed again, cycled, scooted, climbed trees and explored the course of a brook in our locality which we had to find in some woodland. I don’t recognise this lost golden age of adventure. We have it right now, within our grasp with more resources than ever to pursue it. Google Earth, online maps current and from the past provide plenty of routes to explore. Clues in architecture, the lie of the land and our imaginations make for endless possibilities. Opportunities to race, explore, keep fit, get strong and enjoy life are available for little or no cost at all. Screens and artificial entertainments are equally ubiquitous. Choices have to be made, that’s all. No hand wringing required.

In Folkestone, grey skies and small flurries of snow falling from the skies did not discourage us from our pursuit of Coldwater Culture. As the snow fell, we entered the water of Sunny Sands and moved about a bit. Ghislain powered up and down the beach with customary enthusiasm whilst Céline and I moved at a slower pace. Céline did the unthinkable, deciding to start open water swimming in January. With a happy “see what happens” attitude and no great expectation Céline has made good progress, having a few dips without the wetsuit as well as with it. Ice crystals fell from the sky as we exited the water, the incoming tide losing some of its warmth as it passed over sand that had frost on it a few hours before.

After lunch we were visited by Enduroman n°17 Neil Kapoor, [the Enduroman Arch to Arc Triathlon is an ultra-distance triathlon. The triathlon starts with an 87-mile run (140 km) from London's Marble Arch to Dover on the Kent coast, then a cross-channel swim (shortest distance 21 miles/33,8 km) to the French coast, and finishes with a 180-mile (289,7 km) bike from Calais to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris] who had come to say “Hi to Big G,” before his departure for the Arctic Circle next month. The 6633 Arctic Ultra race is 352 miles of pulling a sledge up the Klondyke ice road to Tuktoyatuk.

Not bringing any swimming kit – as he had no intention to swim – was not a problem. There are always spares to hand and in any case it was a no hat session. With a few words of encouragement he slipped into the cool waters of Rotunda beach for some Coldwater Culture nostalgia. I told stories of foolish past escapades. “This sounds like a five minute story,” said Ghislain, “and it needs to be a three minute story.” I don’t have any three minute stories, but did my best, remembering a lone night winter swim where I’d talked myself into an immersion which grew into a 1200m dash for survival. “On

my own, I’m dangerous,” I mused. “The inner voice will always say that what I’ve planned is not enough. With others, I’m more sensible. That’s why I like having you all here with me,” I said.

We exited smiling after eleven minutes: small drips in the bucket of conditioning. Collectively the drips fill a person with ability and confidence. Nothing to it but to do it. Neil and Ghislain wished each other luck on each other's forthcoming adventures. I marvel at the luck of having friends involved in such great things. This corner of the world is a remarkable place. “These are days we’ll remember when we’re old and past it,” I said to Neil on the way back to the hotel.

The next day, the sky was even darker. There was an early frost, but no snow. As we walked to Sunny Sands, the sky lightened. I pointed it out to Céline and joked “that’ll add a tenth of a degree of warmth…hopefully.” The clouds heard me and redoubled their efforts to shield the Sun. There was more sand today. We’d decided on another happy bathing session. The wind had shifted to NE, so some decent waves climbed up the beach, snatching at goggles as we stood contemplating our motivations. Céline had ditched her wetsuit again, adopting a survival stance and finding the waves to be challenging. I looked to the bleak horizon, recounting the great sunny swim a few Decembers back around the bay with Glenn, Hanno, Ali, and John. “I used to look across to France and wonder if I could,” I told Ghislain. “Now I look across and wonder how I did.” “Never again,” he laughed. He is going again, there and back this time. Ghislain does things in a big way.

Shivers did not come today, we changed as the sea advanced destroying Max and Lex’s sandcastle. It was time for goodbyes. Returning to the van, I passed the time of day with Alan Taylor, a daily swimmer of this locality and another friend of the great Peter Jurzynski, a man of 14 successful Channel Swims. Air cadets marched past singing “Old King Cole,” Or maybe it was “Old King Cold…”


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