Looking back over the years I seem to have been very diffident about expressing my enthusiasm for other writers’ work by actually writing to tell them of it, having sent a mere five such missives in sixty years. I don’t know why this should be – I imagine most authors quite like getting fan letters. I know I do, though admittedly at the rate of about one per year the volume in my case has not been such as to prove unduly burdensome. And on the occasions I have nerved myself, I have always received a perfectly courteous response – back in the early sixties J.R.R.Tolkien, for example, sent his young fan a charming handwritten reply which a few years ago raised £400 for a children’s charity. The last such letter I sent was to the nature-writer Roger Deakin (1943-2006), having fallen in love with his delightful book ‘Waterlog’, which is quite unlike anything else I have ever read: basically an account of his wild swimming adventures in rivers, lakes, seas and waterholes the length and breadth of the British Isles, yet also much more than that: a kind of sensual paean to nature studded with fascinating facts, anecdotes and literary asides. I’ve never been much inclined to follow Roger’s more extreme natatory feats – certainly I remember with great pleasure a swim in a Norwegian fjord after a long hot day’s walk, and a dip in an alder-fringed pool coming back down from a summer scramble up Cader Idris, but the idea of an early season plunge like Roger’s into some freezing wind-whipped mountain tarn is less appealing. But here is Roger in the hills above Porthmadog in Wales.
‘Water was gushing and surging up through a moraine of massive boulders, then sliding down a forty-five degree slab of rock, black where it was wet and purple where it was dry. Lying back against the sloping rock I let the water flood over me, then swam against the current in a substantial pool lower down. Water rushed about everywhere, and amongst the remains of a settlement I found a spring inside a kind of stone temple covered in ferns. I went down to drink from it, and felt its atmosphere and power.
‘I climbed into the river where it ran on through a miniature ravine full of the bright, rich pinks of heather, bracken, stonecrop, thyme, gorse and the little yellow tormentil. I followed it through a ladder of waterfalls and pool, some of them deep enough to swim, interspersed with straight, high-speed runs between great slabs of rock. Here and there the stream would bend sharply to the left or right and the water would climb up the rock wall and spout into thin air like an eel standing on its tail. Then it merged with another stream, running down an almost parallel ravine, and I slid, scrambled, waded, swam, plunged and surfed through it all until I was delivered into a deep, circling pool. A little further on, a solitary sycamore stood sentinel over a sheep-nibbled lawn of buttercups and daisies by a waterfall and another pool, long and deep, between black slabs of rock, where I swam against the stream and hovered in the clear black water. Here I made my camp, hanging my towel to dry in the sycamore branches. I made delicious tea with the river water, devoured bread, goats’ cheese and pennywort leaves, and fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the song of the waterfall, of Minnehaha, Laughing Water, the bride of Hiawatha, watched over by the dark shapes of menhirs on the hilltops.’