The 300m stretch of river above the weir to a little upstream of the bridge is possibly my favourite swim along the River Dart, a happy blend of convenience and almost, but not quite, wild.
Pulling the van into the side of the road where it widens, the mid-winter, mid-day sun is too low in the sky to clear the trees and instead everything is patterned with the shadows of twig, stick and branch of the slumbering oak trees. It will be 3 months yet before they start to show spring greenery. It is still mid-winter, there was frost on the cars this morning, and the air outside needles like a tattooist at my exposed skin. There is however not a hint of a breeze at river level even though clouds are drifting up over the sun and blue sky overhead. As the sunshine fades the chill in the air bites deeper.
It is a 20m walk along the side of the road to where there’s a gap in the wall then the path winds through close knit trees and the world fades away. In a few months this will be a carpet of daffodils, after which wood anemones, after which bluebells. In the meantime after I have tucked my flip-flops under a familiar tree root I walk on barefoot over the soft sponge of last year’s fallen leaves and river sand.
Under the bridge and 20m upstream there is an easy place to slip into the river where there is waist deep water right up to the bank. My wetsuit is old and tired and pulling apart at the seams and river water rushes in and quickly reaches the parts I rather wish it hadn’t. It’s ‘fresh’ and makes me want to scream, but not in a good way. On second thoughts it’s probably best not to scream as I’m not sure I’d be able to stop if I got started.
Pushing off into the flow I let out a gasp and a white cloud formed by my breath wafts over the roiling water.
There was a run of about 2 weeks last September when, I came up to the weir every morning and swam breast stroke from the weir up to where I just got in and then swift crawl back downstream, 300m each way to the millimetre. Like today, each day was still and breathless, under clear blue skies, with not another soul about and too early for there to be more than an occasional car on the road. It was almost sacrilege to crash through the mirror calm surface and some days I would come back in the evening too.
Today there are plenty of cars on the road and I have just passed under the bridge and I am cruising downstream floating on my back when a car draws to a halt in the middle of the bridge to watch the crazy person swimming.
I’ve got to the rope swing over the deep pool when a kingfisher skims over the still water half way down the pool and drops abruptly onto a perch in a riverside bush. For a moment as I drift closer I lose him against the background but then I am able to pick him out again by his bright orange breast. I can make him out quite clearly as I drift closer but he’s not standing for that and skitters away with a windmilling of wings to another bush downstream. The water is so cold I just want to get out but on the other hand if I just drift along I can get closer and closer. I get closer than I did before and then he takes to the wing again only this time he crosses the river almost above my head then wings away upstream in an iridescent blue zig-zag.
That was unexpected and makes the apparent loss of my fingers and toes seem perfectly worthwhile.