Waterlog 1: The River Itchen, Winchester, Hampshire

WaterlogMy bedtime reading this week has been Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, a potent and poetic defence of our right to swim anywhere we please – in ponds, in rivers, in the sea – anywhere that looks cool and inviting, and several that look downright perishing! I now know to ignore the omnipresent threatening signs warning of the risk of Leptospirosis (chances of actually catching it – 1 in 33,000) and take my dip anywhere I please. In fairness, I ignored them anyway – but it’s nice to have some expert backing.

In that vein, I thought I’d write up some of my favourite bathing places throughout the British Isles, in an ongoing series.

The River Itchen, Winchester

This is the river I grew up closest to, and know the best. Itchen rises near Cheriton, and winds its way picturesquely through the village green. At this point, it’s only ankle deep, but by the time it reaches the famous water meadows of Winchester, it’s clear and swift and deep enough to swim in. Deakin devotes a chapter to bathing in the Itchen, but with typical bolshiness, he takes a swim in the exclusive stretch by Winchester College, and gets into an argument with the porters afterwards. I think he enjoyed it a lot more than I would – I subscribe to a quieter life, and bathe a good way downstream, just outside of Shawford, where the water flows over a weir and blossoms out into a deep and pebbly pool. There some good angel has shored up the edge of the pool with wooden stakes, and built a series of steps down into the water. Come the summer, the place is filled with boys and girls taking wild somersaults off the weir, sunbathing and showing off. What I love about the pool is its irregularity – I’ve spent hours diving down to discover its contours and hidden hollows, its currents and eddies. There’s a lot of submerged concrete down there – possibly from an earlier weir – so until you’ve explored it properly, it’s best not to risk diving. When you do know which patch of water to aim for, you can join the teenagers in their death defying dives, or ride the river over the weir as a natural water-slide, or simply get in a bit of swimming practice, striking out against the current and getting precisely nowhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little downstream the river shallows out into a pretty stretch much beloved by paddlers and kids with water-pistols – though painfully pebbly underfoot. Sandals are recommended. On the far side of the banks, every back garden seems to have its own jetty, though I can’t imagine anything larger than a coracle or a lilo being much use. The path emerges by The Bridge pub in Shawford, a good place for a pint or a bite to eat after your dip, and the best place to leave your bicycle, if you don’t want to lug it over half a dozen stiles or risk swerving into the water.

For a picnic and a summer’s dip, I don’t really think you could do better than this quiet, cool, pleasant stretch of river. If a colder and more bracing swim is more to your taste – there’s plenty of dips in my notebook that could accomodate you. Tune in next time!

The Big Sleep Out of 2009

While I was volunteering for Winchester Churches Nightshelter, as described in a previous blog post, I was asked if I fancied sleeping rough to raise money for them. The plan was to spend the night beneath the stars in Winchester Cathedral Close, a pleasant patch of grass behind the Cathedral that was easily shut in and quite safe. It was my gap year, and I was determined to say yes to all new adventures: on the grounds that if the expeditions I’d planned for the summer suddenly fell through, I wanted to say I’d done something, at least. So I agreed quite readily. And on a rather damp Friday night in May, I packed my sleeping bag, roll mat and woollies into my old Duke of Edinburgh rucksack, and headed down to join in.

I had doubled the £60 minimum sponsorship easily by applying diligently among my friends and acquaintances. I was even sponsored £5 by a complete stranger to whom I happened to mention it to while working on the tills at WHSmith, which was lovely. And the first part of the evening was really remarkably pleasant. The Army caterers came out and did us a fantastic bowl of curry, and it was great to have the whole of Winchester Cathedral to ourselves for the evening, without tourists or services to disturb us. That said, the program organised by the people in charge was extremely thought provoking. We heard from Ed Mitchell, a talented journalist who had fallen into alcoholism and ended up sleeping on the streets, and an accountant from Eastleigh whose business had failed, and who ended up sleeping rough in Winchester, having nowhere else to turn. It really did go to show how being homeless could happen to anyone.

Around eleven o’clock, when the real rough sleepers were settling down for the night in the grounds outside the Cathedral, we settled down in Cathedral Close. And here a series of small disasters occurred. Firstly, I had forgotten my survival bag, a big orange heat-trapping plastic sack, within which I’d hoped to spend the night in a tolerably snug and waterproof fashion. Secondly, while I’d been socialising and gobbling up the curry, everyone else had been preparing immaculate cardboard palaces in which to spend the night – and there was none left for me. Fortunately, I eventually managed to scrounge a few forgotten sheets from behind the bins, tucked my feet into my rucksack, and bedded down. I actually changed into pyjamas first, which gives you some idea how little about roughing it I knew. Not having anywhere dry to leave my hearing aids – for they don’t work at all if the damp gets into them – I clutched them in my right hand all night.

I woke up about 1 am because it was raining on my face. This was round about the time many people made a sudden dash for inside of the Cathedral and a drier night, but whether from drowsiness or my own natural bloody mindedness, the thought never occurred to me. There wasn’t enough cardboard to pull it over my head, so I dropped my hat over my eyes instead, and listened to the rain drumming against the waxed cotton brim. I tried to recite all I could remember of Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘. And somewhat miraculously, I fell asleep.

I have never been quite so glad in my life to wake up at 5am and find the sun up. People were up, and moving around, there were cups of tea to be had, and I could divest myself of my cardboard cocoon, now a claggy coat of mush, and my damp sleeping bag. I could get up and chase the chill out of my bones. And this is what I did. I wandered around the Cathedral for the next few hours, reading Milton and feeling pleasantly chewed out and hoary. Then they fed us a bacon sandwich, and we all went home to our beds – suddenly much more comfortable by comparison.

I’ve slept rough twice since then – once on the streets of Bilbao when we couldn’t get a room, which was just another lousy episode in a lousy trip, and once again for charity, which was embarrassingly easy. I had a good sleeping bag and we were in a car park instead of under the stars, so I got an uninterrupted 7 hours and went home quite refreshed. The Big Sleep Out was the hardest and most authentic it got – and the most authentic I hope it gets, for me.

Evenings with the Homeless

cropped-outside_article_imageThe Service section of my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s award required a twelve month stint doing charitable work in the community, but just what to do was a puzzle to me. I’d collected my silver award by doing a stint behind the till in a charity shop, but I fancied something a bit more challenging. Besides, at that point, being behind the tills was my day job, and I was already starting to get customers coming and going in my dreams.

I tried hospital radio for a bit, but it didn’t really gel. Then I thought I’d try the local homeless shelter, the Winchester Churches Nightshelter, and ended up doing my year’s stint there. In fact, I ended up being so interested that I slept rough outside Winchester Cathedral to raise money for them, came back for multiple shifts during the University holidays, and even got my parents into the routine of  cooking for them once in the month. I still look in, if I’ve got a few weeks free and nothing to do.

The nightshelter is well known, but rarely noticed. Its premises are tucked in beside the library – or the Winchester Discovery Centre, if you favour the rebrand – and behind Maison Blanc, bordering on a small car park so busy that the nightshelter parking spaces have to be guarded with multiple traffic cones and religious zeal. Inside there are 17 beds in single and double rooms, showers, laundry facilities, a TV and computer lounge, a dining hall and a kitchen, in addition to the daytime offices. The staff consists of one supervisor, who stays till morning; one or two evening helpers who stay from 6-9pm; an overnighter, who stays from 9pm till morning; and visiting cooks. All but the supervisor are voluntary. The homeless visitors – ‘guests’ in the nightshelter parlance – are breathalised as they come in, and sent for a brisk walk down to the King Alfred statue and back if their blood alcohol content is too high. So it’s never rowdy, and usually ends up being a quiet night in front of the TV in the lounge. They’re an incredibly mixed bunch, of every age and nationality. I’ve met people who’ve been long term homeless and sleeping on the streets; married men and women who’ve been thrown out of the house; men who’ve just got out of prison and need somewhere to go; and even ex-students who could be me in  a couple of years (most unnerving). Occasionally you’ll get someone who’s the life of the party, but mostly the guests are a bit glum, or grumpy – and with good reason, to be honest. I’ve met some great people, and I’m always willing to talk if someone wants to, but mostly we leave each other alone.

I started off as an evening helper, and found it a remarkably comfortable and easy way to tick off my award. Once in a while I got asked to make the tea, or do some washing, or help with the meal, but mostly I just sat in the corner with a book or watched whatever’s on TV with the other guests. And then, when dinner’s served, I tend to eat larger portions than any of the homeless! Being an overnighter takes a bit more effort. The room you get is windowless, and usually stifling. There is AC, but hardly anyone knows how to use it, so I usually come in to find the isolator switch turned off and buried behind a mountain of junk. After my first few nights of trying to sleep on the bed, I gave up, and started bringing a sleeping bag and stretching out on the floor, where I can usually get four or five hours of sleep. It’s not exciting, it’s not picturesque and it doesn’t feel particularly philanthropic – until I think that just because I’m here, rolling around in my sleeping bag or sat reading in a clapped-out armchair, 17 people are getting TV, internet, a full meal, and a warm place to stay, who would otherwise be on the streets. If you’re living in Winchester, and can spare a few hours of your evening, you could do a lot worse with your time.