There are people for whom swimming in the sea – even a holiday brochure azure sea shimmering under a Mediterranean sun – is too horrible to contemplate. Then there are people like Frances Anderson.
Actually, that’s not true. There are lots of people who don’t mind swimming in the sea who are nothing like Frances Anderson.
This is a woman who can talk of salt-swollen lips and hallucinations while swimming the Channel with an injured shoulder and of swapping places with seals on rocks off the Farne Islands.
This is a woman, moreover, who can talk joyfully of the apparent ‘layers’ of the sea she has been swimming through, with the darkest layer visible as a shadow far below. This in response to me explaining my paranoia when sea swimming, that a huge and slimy beast will emerge from the depths.
No, Frances doesn’t suffer from that. Between you and me, her smile suggests she doesn’t even really get it. Instead she tells me that when she sees a nice stretch of ocean, it’s all she can do to stop herself plunging right in. It makes me think she would be a really happy mermaid.
Frances, artist and wild swimmer, has a new exhibition at the Customs House, South Shields. It is called Immersion and it could hardly have found a better venue with the River Tyne flowing past just yards away.
The exhibition consists of photographs and prints which invite consideration of the sea not as an overwhelming and scary mass, more often grey and green than blue, but as a natural phenomenon of great beauty and intricacy, ever-changing and always inspiring.
Using underwater camera gear Frances photographed the surface of the sea from below, a seal’s eye view if you like.
She has captured the moment a wave breaks, causing sand and bubbles to tumble and dance. In the little prints, tiny details are highlighted and abstracted, alerting the viewer to the shapes within the foam deposited briefly on the sand by the incoming tide.
Frances was born in Newcastle but now lives in Alnwick. She did a fashion and textiles degree at Newcastle Polytechnic (when it was on the point of becoming Northumbria University) although she was also keen on photography as a medium for exploring pattern.
After graduating she made clothing and taught. She also worked on community arts projects through the Creative Partnerships programme which was designed to develop the skills and aspirations of children and young people.
She has been working recently with pupils at Marine Park Primary School in South Shields and, with Paula Turner who specialises in dance and movement, has set up Dry Water Experimental Arts which they describe as “a passionate approach to lifelong learning”.
You don’t have to be a genius, however, to work out that wet water is what Frances is really all about. To visit the South Shields exhibition is to be immersed in it.
She has always been obsessed by the sea and the patterns in it, Frances tells me. But life, studies, work took her away from it for a while.
“I went back to swimming in my thirties but when I first got in the pool I couldn’t swim a length or two without feeling I was dying, so I joined a swimming club and got fit.
“Then I went on a swimming holiday and a lot of the other swimmers had swum the Channel and I thought that sounded good. I crewed for other people who were swimming the Channel and that was when I thought I really would like to do this.”
Frances planned to do the swim in 2007 but a shoulder injury, brought on by over-use and poor technique, postponed the swim for a year. She was 37 when she finally entered the water, spurning a wetsuit or any of the supposedly insulating gunk that you see long distance swimmers smearing over their bodies.
There’s a protocol to be followed by any aspiring Channel swimmer. You can look it up on the website of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation which tells you that the Dover Strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world and that it’s best to play by the rules.
“You have to have clearance from the UK and French authorities and you have to have your passport, you and your crew,” says Frances.
It was 4am when she stepped into the water at Dover’s Shakespeare Beach with, as she puts it, “a light stick attached to my bum”.
She recalls: “I started in the dark and it felt really choppy, as if the sea was trying to spit me out. I wasn’t comfortable until I got out beyond the breakers and then, after two and a half hours, the shoulder started hurting.
“It meant the swim took much long than anticipated. I thought I’d do it in about 13 hours but it took 19 hours and 46 minutes.
“You are aware of the shifting currents and patterns in the water and you become part of it but you also get really, really cold. I started hallucinating. I thought I was in school at one point and that scared me. Then I was fantasising about pulling on some heated jogging pants.
“In the Channel it can be flat calm for 20 minutes but then choppy because of the wash from ships. A lot of the time it was misty so I couldn’t see France at all but I was always aware of the ships.
“You know they’re there because you can taste the fuel in the water long before you see them.”
Her support crew noted three porpoises leaping out of the water, and one of them swimming under the boat, and also a fulmar (a seabird) which accompanied her for four hours and was nicknamed Gulliver. The bird, she says, kept her going.
In order to complete a Channel crossing, a swimmer has to clear the water before returning to the support vessel and, in Frances’s case, the comfort of a sleeping bag.
She collected some sand from Walde Beach at Calais before making the last little effort in the water. “Swimming back to the boat you have nothing left at all. Nothing works and you’re swollen with the salt.”
It sounds tremendous fun, doesn’t it? But Frances still finds the pull of the open sea hard to resist. She is a member of Alnwick Sea Swimmers which has more than 150 members including a 15-strong core of regular North Sea swimmers.
“People think we’re crazy but we’ve become acclimatised to the cold because we do it all year round,” says Frances.
“One thing we all have in common is a love of the water and a complete addiction to being in it. There is so much coastline in Northumberland. We swim at Sugar Sands, Boulmer, Newton-by-the-Sea.
“We even get dropped at the Farne Islands and swim with the seals.”
Clearly you have to be careful. The water between the islands, says Frances, can be fast moving and very deep. Seals, which tend to be fine in the water, can deliver a nasty bite on land.
She describes “a lovely moment” when swimming off the Farnes with friends. A group of seals, observing them from rocks, slipped into the water, at which point Frances and her friends clambered onto the rocks to observe the seals. It was a memorable and comical switching of vantage points.
The pictures in Immersion have a delicate, many-shaded beauty which hardly hints at the efforts involved in making them. Frances talks of going to sea equipped with two cameras, one attached to a harness and another tied to a piece of string.
You can see them in the exhibition which runs until June 15 at the Port of Tyne Gallery at the Customs House at Mill Dam. You can also see the log of Frances’s Channel swim and a map which shows that she crossed the water in an incredible S shape due to the drag of the tide and the weakness in her painful shoulder.