Gertrude Hermes and Wild Swimming: The Mermaids’ View

By The Henley Mermaids

Gertrude Hermes, whose exquisitely detailed wood engravings and linocuts from The Ashmolean are currently in their final weeks on display at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley on Thames (until 11th October – book now), was a mother, a swimmer and a working artist. Her prints hum and vibrate with the rhythms of water and nature, bodies in suspended animation, reveling in the freedom and exhilarating fear that comes with wild swimming.

Gertrude swam in the Thames and in the River Deben at Hunstanton in Suffolk, near Woodbridge. Her prints show a deep understanding and love of water, of the sense of abandon and vulnerability we land mammals feel when we are in the water, the attraction of being weightless, of gliding through silken waters, over reeds and under trees. Indeed she balanced the demands of being both an artist and a mother and often used water as a theme to reflect her turbulent marriage.

After her divorce from fellow wood engraver Blair Hughes-Stanton in 1933, Gertrude became a single mother and worked on her prints at the kitchen table. On visits to the beach, she would carve pebbles as her children paddled. She knew exactly the challenges of working motherhood, of finding the time and space to get things done with young children.

In Undercurrents, on display in the exhibition, Gertrude Hermes shows a pair of swimmers from below, their arms outstretched, the light above them. Below them in the black lurks an enormous pike, drawn disproportionately here to emphasize potential danger. It’s a perfect depiction of the sensation of vulnerability we swimmers feel when in the sea or a river.

We are exposed and soft-skinned. Everything is either unseen, below us or looms above us. We are eye level with the frogs, below the kingfishers, the swans, the grebes and the cormorants.

For us river swimmers, being in the Thames is our therapy, our social life, our place of peace and solace. In summer the river heaves with boats, paddleboards, rowers, fishermen and the summer swimmers. The water teems with life – swan pairs and their signets, gaggles of geese and the dreaded duck fleas which embed themselves in our skin and itch for days. We swim early, at dawn, to avoid the boats. Sometimes it’s a long swim – from Shiplake to Marsh Lock. Other times we venture further afield, from Lechlade where the river starts, waist-deep with a gravel bottom, downstream through right-angled turns to Kelmscott. On other days it’s a quick leisurely breast stroke downstream. As the leaves turn brown, the summer swimmers return to the leisure centre pools and the boats leave. The water temperature drops and rainwater fills the river, making the flow powerful and tiring.

This year, the Henley Mermaids – five middle-aged women, working mothers, professionals – together swam across the English Channel. We were far from the elite athletes and former swimming champions who often attempt this challenge. Several of us had only learned front crawl in the past three years. We trained (in pairs, socially distant) during lockdown when the swimming pools and lidos were closed, through one of the worst flood seasons on record when the river was “red boarded” and closed to boat traffic, when the water was two degrees Celsius and felt like razor blades slicing the skin. When Jo’s mother died she trained in Wylie’s Baths in Sydney.

It has been a rollercoaster of a year for everyone. Fiona was recalled back to the front-line of intensive care at Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. Joan celebrated her beloved mother’s 90th birthday on Zoom. Susan battled fatigue. Throughout it we trained and laughed and reveled in our unlikely “fifteen minutes of fame,” with interviews in the Henley Standard, the Henley Herald, on BBC radio and in blogs. BBC Oxford even made a short film about our training. Something about five ordinary middle-aged women attempting this challenge has captured people’s imaginations.

But no amount of training could prepare us for the reality of the Channel. The fear of swimming in pitch black darkness into choppy waters we couldn’t even see, the crushing realisation when the sun rose after four tough hours of swimming that we had hardly moved, the White Cliffs of Dover glowing pink behind us. The jelly fish, the cold, the seasickness and endlessly looking at the Cap Gris Nez, so close we could throw a stone at it but the tides taking us back and forth away from it. Jo felt something smooth brush past her hands and feet. The girls on the boat did not react. Later they told her it was eels. The water was blue and harsh, cold and salty. Our mouths hurt for more than a week afterwards, our tongues covered in salt blisters. Nobody had warned us about that.

Endurance swimming is one of the few areas of physical endeavour where women consistently outperform men. Only one person has successfully completed a “four-way crossing”, an American woman, Sarah Thomas. The record for the most crossings in total is also held by a woman, the “Queen of the Channel” British Alison Streeter. Eddie Spelling, the pilot of our support boat ‘Anastasia’, told us Sarah Thomas’ record would stand for many years. Women, he said, have a toughness that men don’t.

For us Mermaids, ordinary life has returned. School runs, work, family commitments, banal household jobs, the supermarket shop. And yet something has changed.

Swimming the Channel has brought us Mermaids closer together. We have shared grief – both Jo and Fiona have lost their mothers this year, we’ve unquestioningly supported each other through divorce, illness, lockdown and teenagers. And we have celebrated our joys – finding a new house, celebrating a new job. And we have shared an experience that is in every way out of the ordinary.

None of us would ever have imagined we would one day call ourselves Channel Swimmers. But we are. We did it. It was far tougher than we expected, more grueling than we had ever anticipated. We have learned this year that we are more powerful than we realise, tougher than we think. The only limits to achieving our dreams (no matter how mad) are in our minds. And of course, for us women, as Gertrude Hermes would attest, in finding the time.

By The Henley Mermaids:

Jo Robb
Laura Reineke
Fiona Print
Joan Fennelly
Susan Barry

Don’t miss Art of the Wild: Gertrude Hermes and the Natural World at the River & Rowing Museum – last chance to see it before it closes on 11th October 2020. Book now! Museum open Thurs to Mon, 10am to 4pm.

Exhibition organized by The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

The Henley Mermaids – @HenleyMermaids – raised £27,000 for Henley Music School from their amazing Channel Swim in July 2020.

Gertrude Hermes: The Swimmers © The Estate of Gertrude Hermes © The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.