The postal swim is a brilliant way to set yourself a personal challenge, and my own goal is to swim regularly and see if I can beat today's distance, by this time next year. The BLDSA Postal Swim was started by Roger and Valerie Parsons in 1981 and is open to anyone, anywhere in the world. To take part, you just need to download the form from the BLDSA website here, and then swim as many lengths of your local pool as you can within the hour in January or February. You'll need someone to verify that you've done your swim and how many lengths, this could be the pool lifeguard or a friend.
Then you send off your form before the 1st March, along with your badge fee (£4 if you are in the UK, $9 USA, $9.50 for Australia and Canada). Medals are awarded by age, gender, and disability categories, and everyone receives an embroidered badge. Then you take part again a year later and see if you've beaten your previous result.
For me as a relatively new distance swimmer, this is a great way to set myself a personal goal, and to have something to aim for when I'm training. I swim breaststroke and I'm not especially fast. Back in 2000 in developed a condition called Guillain Barre whilst undertaking medical research in maternal and child health in Tamil Nadu, India. I was paralysed and destroyed my immune system, and it took about 18 months before I was mobile again. This means that I find lane swimming especially hard as I'm not confident in judging swimmers around me, probably one of the reasons why I love wild swimming because then I have lots of space and freedom, without bumping into people who swim faster than me! So pool swimming is quite a mentally strenuous challenge as my brain works out where things are around me and tries to avoid them.
The first thing I noticed when I got into the swimming pool today, was how light I felt in the water. I've not been swimming in a pool for a very long time, and it was much warmer than I've been used to with my ice swimming. In the lake and during my wild swims I'm often swimming against waves, or having weed or little bits of debris floating into me, so I feel like I have some resistance, something to swim against. So this was really odd when swimming in a pool (apart from all the hair that kept getting stuck in my fingers, which was a bit grim!).
It took me a couple of minutes to get into the feel of the water, and I really missed the cool water of the lake! I've not swum this far in a long time, but one day I would love to swim an ice mile. Today felt like one step closer to achieving that goal, but I'll need to get a lot fitter and faster, especially swimming breaststroke and being in the water for the kind of time to complete that distance as it would be very dangerous in cold water. It would need a lot of careful training and preparation. For now, I'm planning to swim most mornings, not outdoors, but in the pool - aiming for distance rather than cold endurance. (Though we have snow and winter conditions forecast for the next few days, so I'd like to get some shorter ice swims in whilst I can)
My goal for today's BLDSA Postal Swim was to complete 66 lengths of the 25m pool as that would be equal a mile. I was delighted to discover from Jean that I'd actually swum 81 lengths in the hour, that's 2025m, or 1.25 miles. But more than just the swim, the exercise filled me with endorphins, and I had more energy for writing Bertram Bile stories for the rest of the day, so this could just be a habit that I'd like to develop on a regular basis!
Bertram felt ill. He focused his eyes as hard as he could on a fixed point in front of him, but it was just no use. The world was spinning so fast, that his brain could simply not keep up. What was going on?
He reached a shaky hand to his head, desperately trying to pull off the goggles. But they simply would not budge. In a moment of panic and confusion he flailed his arms around, hoping that his best friend Molly would be close by. Molly always knew what to do in times of trouble. But not this time. Molly was just as scared as him. She grabbed hold of his hand, reaching out for reassurance, desperately trying to make sense of the noise and confusion swirling around in her head.
One minute they had been sat enjoying the summer time shade of an old ash tree on their geography field trip in Gloucestershire, the next, two pairs of golden goggles had fallen from Bertram’s lap and they had decided to try them on. They were no longer carefree, ordinary 11 year olds. Suddenly they had become reluctant time travellers. Hundreds and hundreds of years flashing past them like individual flakes of snow falling from a grey and twirling sky. Bertram’s head hurt with all the motion as he tried hard not to throw up.
The cogs on the sides of their goggles whirred and clicked as time sped up and slowed down with the momentum as they passed through it. One moment they were in 2050, then 1594, 1960, and 1801. They were travelling backwards, into history. Travelling towards the past but leaping sideways to the present, and forward to the future, before hurtling backwards again as if on a waltzer at a fairground attraction. Their bodies pulled and stretched in every single direction. Surely they would be destroyed in the process? At first they fought hard against the movements and spine shaking jolts, but as they relaxed into things, the journey felt easier and the rhythm less chaotic and bone splitting.
No sooner had they got used to the world spinning around them, then it came to an abrupt halt and the clickety clack and whirring of the cogs became silent and still. With quivering hands, and breathless bodies, they took off their goggles and waited for their eyes to adjust to their new surroundings. They had no idea what to expect, no concept of where they were in the world or in time itself. Were they even on Earth or had they been dispatched to some far away galaxy they had never heard of? Were they still alive? Was this even real?
Carefully opening their eyes for fear of sudden shock, or aliens lurching at them, they began to come to. So far so good. Bodies still in tact. Stomachs less queasy. It could certainly be a lot worse. They both breathed a deep but cautious sigh of relief. They seemed to be sat under the old ash tree, in the same place that they had been when they tried on their goggles. Only, this time, it had changed.
It was still a hot summer’s day. Everything LOOKED the same. There were the same meadows with golden yellow buttercups around the old ash tree, and cows grazing in the field. Even the tree looked the same, only, this time everything seemed, well…BIGGER and more IMPOSING!!
Bertram let out a high pitched squeak as he realised he was holding Molly’s hand. At least he THOUGHT it was Molly’s hand. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was now he actually thought about it. It had five fingers, possibly six (he didn’t want to explore it too much and appear overly familiar). It was holding onto his hand with the same intense feelings of terror and utter dizziness that he felt. But where moments ago there had been warm fingers, there were cold, long, and very bony digits with sharp claws instead of Molly’s pretty painted nails. The fingers were splayed and a LOT more hairy than he remembered Molly’s hands to be a moment ago. He was quite afraid to look at them, for fear of what it was he might find, caressed inside his own hand.
Bertram looked at Molly’s face, desperate to make sense of the situation. He instantly recognised her as Molly, and yet she was DIFFERENT. Where her nose had once been perfect (in Bertram’s humble opinion), it was now long and thin, and her face was covered in soft grey-brown fur and long white whiskers. Molly’s pretty little human ears had moved to the top of her head and were now small and round, and her black, shiny eyes looked tiny compared to the rest of her face.
To Bertram, Molly seemed as if she were a cross between a mole and a mouse. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She reminded him of a creature, but what creature he couldn’t be sure - especially given that his head was still SPINNING after his first experience of time travel. That was it. She looked just like…like…a SHREW! An animal he remembered from his biology lesson as being closely related to the mole and the hedgehog. Not a rodent at all, but an insectivore, and one of the oldest mammal groups on the planet, having been around for 135 million years. Surely they hadn’t travelled that far back in time? Had they? Well there were no dinosaurs about the place so far, so chances were they hadn’t travelled quite that far back in time. That was a relief.
Thankfully Bertram was not yet conscious enough to perceive the fact that not only had Molly become a shrew, but so had he. Nor had he noticed that Molly was staring at him with her mouth wide open as she surveyed his own fur covered face and snuffling whiskers.
‘ARRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH’!!!!!!! They screamed at the exact moment the reality of their situation caught up with them. Which is probably quite an appropriate reaction to finding out that you are in fact a shrew and no longer a human being. There weren’t many occasions when Bertram would have preferred to be in the company of his awful geography teacher Miss Petrenko or his arch enemy Angus, but if you had asked him in this particular moment, which he would have preferred - to be a shrew, or to be in a room with Angus and Miss Petrenko, there would have been no contest.
‘Ahhh Bertram, there you are. Hardly recognised you young man. How are you my fine fellow. Lovely day isn’t it. Cracking weather’.
It was Eagle Hawk the heron and he suddenly seemed ENORMOUS and TERRIFYING to Bertram and Molly. He could easily have devoured them both for dinner and still had room for a main course AND a dessert. He gave them both a smile and whistled happily to himself as if it were just another ordinary day.
‘Eagle Hawk, what is wrong with us, why have we been turned into shrews? Have we been cursed? Will we have to stay like this forever? What if something tries to eat us?’
‘Cursed?’ laughed Eagle Hawk. ‘My dear boy, you are not cursed but blessed, for you are the last remaining Nurn in the world. You are magical, and that is why I gave you the very important task of saving the tree of life, this old ash. The world needs you Bertram. The River Thames needs you. We all need you’. The heron patted his round tummy with his long grey wing as he laughed heartily to himself. He was very elegant with perfect posture. Tall and refined. A little monocle dropping from his eye as it dangled on its shiny chain.
‘But why couldn’t I just be a boy, why did I have to become a shrew? I’m so tiny now. What if something eats me? How can I possibly be of any use to anyone when I am so small and powerless?’. Bertram examined his new hands and feet as he spoke, feeling rather clumsy and like a danger to himself as he carefully rubbed his nose with his razor sharp claws. They were sure going to take some getting used to, and he suddenly had a craving for worms. He was sure he could smell one close by. The aroma was making his tummy jump about with delight.
‘Ahhh. All will become clear in time dear Bertram, fear ye not. Do you still have the golden goblet I gave you when we last met?’ The heron squinted and leant forward a little to see the two small shrews more closely. His long beak just inches away from where Bertram and Molly were now huddled together under the old ash tree.
Bertram fumbled around, not exactly sure where a shrew might carry such a thing on him, given that he was no longer wearing any clothes, and as a result had no pockets as far as he could tell. He’d been given one simple task, to look after a magical golden goblet. Surely he hadn’t lost it already? He knew he was the wrong person for the job. The world was doomed if its fate was dependent on him.
‘Here it is’. Said Molly as she produced it from her backpack. Bertram couldn’t believe she was still wearing it, but that was Molly for you, never without provisions and solutions to every situation. Phew what a relief!
‘Superb! I can see why you two make such a great team. You have no idea how much the world depends on you right now. Just look at the poor ash tree. It is supposed to be the tree of life, and yet it is dying in front of our very eyes. The tree needs water Bertram, and only you have the magic and skills required to gather it. Everything will make sense in time. Good luck my young friends’.
And with that the heron disappeared.
Clap! Clap! Clap! Came a noise from a branch above them. It was Ratty Rato the squirrel. Bertram had only met him once before, and had taken an instant dislike to him. He was a punk rocker with a black leather jacket, silver piercings in his ears and nose, and a bad stink of an attitude. Bertram had never met a creature quite as rude as this one.
‘Going to save the world are you eh Bertram? You and your lady friend? Haha, that’ll be the day. I was telling Niddy about you and that stupid Eagle Hawk. Niddy reckons you and that bird are both a sandwich short of a picnic. Both BIRD BRAINED with your teeny-weeny pea sized brains - bird brained eh, get it, get it. Ah only a genius like me would get it, don’t worry your tiny brain boy, you might catch on later eh, or then again, maybe you won’t!’.
Bertram didn’t like people insulting his friends, and he felt an urge to chase the rude squirrel and give him what for. He certainly had the teeth for it now he was a shrew, and he had heard that the bite of some shrews was venomous and deadly. Had Bertram not felt quite so small in comparison to the obnoxious squirrel, then he might have gone through with it. But the squirrel wasn’t sticking around. He was already running up the tree, no doubt to provide some other lies and insults to Eagle Hawk. Ratty was a malicious troublemaker who liked to stir up bad feeling but never did anything for anyone other than himself.
‘Come on Molly, let’s get out of here. Let’s go and find the river’.
Molly tucked the golden goblet back into her backpack and ran on all fours beside Bertram. It took them a few minutes to get into the feel of running on four feet instead of two but once they got the coordination sorted it actually felt quite efficient. It needed to be when the world was vast now they were just a few centimetres tall and weighing 12 ounces each. In their normal life, Bertram and Molly were both keen runners and fairly good at it too, one of the reasons why they were less popular at their new school because they won all the sports day races. But today they did not feel like champions. They had no plan for how they would save the tree and the world, and they didn’t like it one bit. All they could do, was to try to find the River Thames and to fill the golden goblet with river water, before pouring it onto the old ash tree. The tree really had looked in a bad way. The leaves were shrivelled and brown and the trunk was covered in lesions and fungus, leaving it vulnerable to insects and worse still, to Niddy the worm who particularly enjoyed chewing on the roots and causing as much damage as he could.
Bertram looked everywhere for the river, but he couldn’t see any sign of it. Everything was so dry, even the soil and plants around them. What was it that Eagle Hawk had told him the first time they had met? That the water was only visible to those who really wanted to see it? That you had to OPEN your eyes? That it was WITHIN you, ABOVE you, and BELOW you. The words were of no help to him right now. They made no sense at all.
Bertram wiped the sweat from his brow. The scratchy woollen trousers of his hideous grey and scarlet school uniform, making the backs of his knees itch. Ordinarily he might have enjoyed the geography field trip, but today he simply wasn’t in the mood. His face turned the colour of beetroot as his blood boiled with anger.
‘Haha, look at Bertram. He’s fallen in a big stinky pile of dog poo’. Bertram’s worst enemy, a mousy haired, gangly looking boy called Angus sneered at him, as the rest of the class joined in.
Bertram clenched his teeth, a tiny vein protruding and pulsating in his temple. Why did these things always happen to him? Wasn’t life tough enough, without the universe throwing more problems his way?
The stench of the dog poo was overpowering. Worse still, there was nowhere to wash or change in the open field, and the smell was sure to follow him around for the rest of the day.
It was only 10:00 am as they stepped off the coach into what seemed to be the middle of nowhere; a countryside lane in Gloucestershire, England. Their objective for the day, to find the source of the River Thames and examine any river features they might find.
‘Gather around everyone’. Yelled their bad tempered geography teacher Miss Petrenko.
‘Bertram Bile! Would you STOP messing about for once in your life. Otherwise you’ll be back on that coach and on your way to school before you know what’s hit you. Seriously, sort yourself out lad. I’ve had enough of you already’. But it was too late for Miss Petrenko’s threats. The bus driver was gone; keen to get back to the bus shelter at the end of a long and tedious shift. He hated kids at the best of times.
Miss Petrenko had it in for Bertram. He was in trouble, even when he hadn’t ACTUALLY done anything wrong. Just his presence was enough to get him in her bad books. He let out a long but silent sigh of frustration.
Today was going to be a terrible day. He had known it from the moment his mother was rushed to the maternity hospital in the early hours of the morning, to pop out another sibling for their already bulging at the seams family. Still exhausted, he had rolled out of bed, and as he passed through the kitchen, grabbed a cold, unbuttered, slice of toast from his sister’s plate. She shouted obscenities at him, but was not quick enough to catch him as he flew out of the door, determined not to miss the school bus.
With all the commotion of the new baby’s imminent arrival, Bertram had forgotten about today’s geography field trip, and as a result was now the ONLY student wearing school uniform.
Why did he have to be so forgetful, and why oh why did his mum have to have the baby today? Couldn’t she have waited until the weekend? At least then he might have remembered not to come to school in his uniform. The other students looked so relaxed in their shorts and t-shirts, and he was sweltering in his three layered, heavy and scratchy uniform.
Molly smiled at him gently as the students gathered around Miss Petrenko. Molly was his best friend, though he didn’t really understand why she wasted her time on him. He had been a popular kid when they had met on the first day of primary school and he felt annoyed that she should see him in his lowly status, at the bottom of the class pecking order now he was a full 11 years old.
At primary school he had been the apple of his teacher’s eye. The school prefect. A shining example of a model student, someone to look up to. He was smart and caring, and life was so, so happy and full of fun. But now, after his parents’ divorce, starting a new school, and mum’s on and off boyfriends, and not having any money, life was just doom and gloom. Everything that could go wrong for the family did. His mother lost her job, the washing machine broke down, and Saturdays were frequently spent hiding behind the couch so the landlord couldn’t find anyone at home to pay him his over the top rent.
Miss Petrenko bored holes into Bertram with her eyes as he returned a little smile to Molly. Seriously, how could that be wrong, all he was doing was reciprocating a friendly smile to a friend who was trying to make him feel better. Miss Petrenko’s eyes widened and Bertram felt himself shrink a little.
‘Something funny Bertram Bile? Perhaps you want to share the joke with the rest of the class?’ Miss Petrenko pouted her lips and raised a rather severe eyebrow at him, her face growing into a long and pointed frown. Bertram hoped the wind would change direction and Miss Petrenko’s face would get stuck like that forever. That would teach her. Maybe then she would know how it felt to have people laugh at you and tease you all the time for being somehow different.
‘No Miss.’ Bertram whispered, as he lowered his head and looked at the ground in shame, trying to make himself disappear into the surrounding hedges.
‘What was that Bertram Bile? Speak up boy. I can’t hear you when you mumble. Didn’t your mother teach you any manners at all. No, I doubt she ever did knowing her lot. Waste of space the lot of them’.
Miss Petrenko inhaled sharply. When she spoke, she spat out her words. Saliva flying in all directions as if it was venom from an evil snake. It was ironic that she claimed she couldn’t hear him. Usually he couldn’t so much as breathe without her complaining about him being too noisy.
‘I said I’m sorry Miss’. Bertram exaggerated each word, so he could push down the anger brewing inside him.
The rest of the class were laughing at him so much, that the boys had to cover their mouths with their hands to stop their pig like snorts escaping their bodies. Bertram was sure that Angus might just wet himself from giggling so hard. Why did Miss Petrenko never see or hear the other children when they were the ones ACTUALLY being naughty? Why did THEY never get in trouble? What had he ever done to upset her?
But it wasn’t so much Bertram that had upset Miss Petrenko. His dad had dated Miss Petrenko when they were teenagers, long before his dad met Bertram’s mum, and even longer before Bertram was born. Miss Petrenko and Bertram’s dad were childhood sweethearts, but his dad had dumped her when he met Bertram’s mum and it wasn’t long before they married and the first of the children came along.
Miss Petrenko had never forgiven Bertram’s dad for dumping her, but since his dad wasn’t around, her hatred would be vented on Bertram instead. It wouldn’t have mattered if Bertram had been the greatest angel from heaven, he would simply never be good enough to gain an ounce of praise from Miss Petrenko.
Sometimes Bertram felt as if Miss Petrenko were staring at him. He even thought he saw a tiny drop of water or sadness in her eye, but he must have imagined it, he wasn’t sure that Miss Petrenko had any feelings. Just think, if Miss Petrenko had married his dad, she could have been Bertram’s mum, or he might not even exist at all. Bertram gave a shudder. Life really would be terrible if you had Miss Petrenko as your mum! His mum might not be the best mum in the world, but at least she always tried her best and he knew that she loved him very much, even if she was always busy with the newest baby of the family. They might not have much money, but they were rich when it came to the love they had for each other, even if they did fight and squabble on a daily basis.
There hadn’t been much at all to look forward to today so far, but at least Miss Petrenko had said they could choose a partner to work with in pairs for the field trip. Molly was already waving her arms towards him excitedly and grabbing his arm to make sure they would be partners for the day. Bertram knew that Molly would help him snap out of his grumpy mood, and she was certain to have an idea for how to get rid of the sticky brown dog poo that had attached itself to the back of his school trousers.