A Susurration of Swimmers

It has been a sweltering day and I am very much looking forward to a swim.

I have also been asking around but no-one locally has any knowledge about swimming the Tamar at Gunnislake Bridge and yet it appears as though there is nearly a mile of water held back by the weir.

It is time then to go and take a look.

The first mistake was to park at the Gunnislake end of the bridge and then walk down the riverside path.  it is a pleasant walk, cool under the trees without a hint of breeze.  The water smells of river and drifts by so slowly, limpid in the heat, dull, olive green.  There is however only one place to reach the water where the bank has been worn down, but it is thick oozing mud and there is nowhere to hide my bag out of sight.  I have spent 20 minutes on this so far and the opposite bank looks even less accessible.  Hmmm.

I remembered however that there is a track on the Tavistock side that follows the bank upstream.  Dodging the cars to cross the bridge it turns out that there is plenty of parking space this side and the track is level and wide ending at a large parking place, with, a set of concrete steps and a hand rail down to the water.

Two people paddleboarding are stopped at the foot of the steps.  I had seen them earlier coming upriver so we talk about paddleboards and what the river is like down below the bridge as it is so late now that will be as far as I get.  The water is surprisingly warm, warmer than the sea or the Dart and despite the colour the water is clearer than it looked.

The real surprise is that the water is very shallow.  I’d swum half way to the bridge and softly nudged two obstructions when I decided to let my feet trail, which in turn resulted in me stood only bum deep right out in the middle.  Several more ‘touchdowns’ proved this was the case all the way to the bridge.

It is on the return swim, pushing gently into the current, the sound of cars on the bridge fading to nothing as the bridge is obscured by the slight bend that I am struck by the notion of a susurration of swimmers.  It is a word favoured by Terry Pratchett in the later Discworld novels, the sound of gently breeze through stems of grass or in this cases the swirl of water around me.  Even when I take a pause there is still a faint sound from the water, which seems to be barely moving, yet is sliding amongst the reed stems and twigs trailing from branches that obscure the bank.  Or maybe it is the sound of the water flowing amongst the stones on the river bed.  It may be out of sight but surely it must make some sound after all it does where it runs through stones in a rapids.

The girl is sitdown paddleboarding now, spinning around on the water waiting for her partner to give a hand up the steps with her board.  In the lowering, late evening sunshine it paints an idyllic picture and there is the soft susurration of water beneath her board.

There is time to dwell on such inconsequentia when susurrating in the river.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Rose Geranium Oil

Following on from my post about Ticks (the crawly kind):

Since spraying with eucalyptus and citronella mix I have had only 3 hitch-hikers and they have not dug in but have all looked a bit dazed.

I now have rose geranium oil and does it ever stink, I’m quite dazed.

I have this plan to go and stand in some long grass, collect a few ticks then waft some of this at them and see what happens.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

À bout de souffle

It is just about 7am as I take the bridge over the River Dart at Staverton.  The low sun casts long shadows, but even so it is apparent that the river level is still high after recent rain as the shoal of pebbles is fully covered by water.  As I walk down though the trees the sound of the river seems more urgent that usual and it cannot be the sound is carried by the breeze as there is none of that.

It is rare that there is not some breeze, today is that rare moment.  The water is unruffled except where the flow that is indeed at least a hand’s span up on summer ‘normal’ surges over rocks that have been unseasonably submerged.  Not a single leaf twitches, the rope swing hangs motionless and even the sunlight reflected from the water fails to dapple the undersides of the leaves.  Totally still and almost totally silent.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Diving from the rock there is very little light in the water under the tall oak tree but out in the middle of the river there is a sudden change from shade to sunlight which reveals the sand and pebbles out of reach of my fully extended toes.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The river bed has been changing in recent years.  There used to be a beach and the sand used to slope gently out into mid-stream except when it collected a coat of sunken leaves which bubbled when disturbed.  But the floods of 4 years ago and since have set in train a reconfiguring of the profile.  Some of the bigger logs were dislodged which exposed the longer buried more rotten wood and that has put up no resistance to the river.  Now the beach is barely 1/2 the width it was and beneath the water the edge is a vertical drop off into water deeper than I am tall.  What’s more the exposed face beneath the water is just more compacted twigs, branches and sand, so I expect the erosion to continue.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The water is chilly despite the sun and each time I breathe out I leave a thin, white cloud hanging above the water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Climbing up the bank and looking back the river has been reset to ‘still’ and there is as yet no hint of a breeze so that all there is to tell I have been there are a few splattered watery footprints.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Between Cold Water, Algae and the Jellyfish

Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water.  So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.

The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year.  The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.

There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year.  They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.

The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m.  They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’.  Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.

One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water.  On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000.  I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.

The other is the algae.  That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date.  Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea.  Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

 

The Towel Two Step

Scabbacombe is unofficially a naturist beach, though what The National Trust who own it might think about that I’m not sure.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now, if you want to go and take your clothes off and lie in the sun then fair enough Scabbacombe is quite discrete as beaches go.

The key word in that sentence is ‘discrete’.

This is a public beach, people take the kids there and whilst nudity is the natural state there is a subtle difference between ‘lie in the sun’ and ‘sprawl in the sun’.  And, discrete to display to flaunt to flashing is a continuum that means different things to different people under different circumstances.

I am however aware that I am to some degree in residence in a glass house here.  I cannot be doing with the towel two step let alone dry robes, adopting instead the ‘get changed, do it swiftly and discretely and don’t look at the person standing next to you’ method.

Now, if I stood and stared at one of the naturists I am fairly sure I’d get a slap.  Why then should one of them feel it appropriate to stare at me (wearing my swimming leggings, a sure indicator that I’m not one of the flashing community) and then come up to me to discuss the merits of waterproof cameras whilst hanging in the breeze?

By all means do your own thing, but please do it over there.

I have nothing against naturists.

And I would like to keep it that way.

But all that said, it is only for a few weeks in the year; September to May I have the place to myself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Trees

The change is obvious as soon as I step from the tunnel of trees that enclose the footpath to the weir.  The oak tree that hung from the bank at the end of the weir has been chopped down.  The space is strewn with leaves and twigs, a few branches lie in the water, but the bulk of it is stacked in neat rounds back from the water.

There are a lot of trees in the world but for me at least some of them have a special place.  This was one such.  True it had been much undermined by recent floods and I suspect it was necessary to cut it down before it fell down and did damage to the recently restored weir, but it is a loss.

In summer the leaves patterned the concrete with their shadows.  On early mornings in autumn beads of dew would glitter and sparkle on spiders’ webs festooned amongst the twigs.  Later in the year there would be the plop, plop of acorns hitting the pool as I sat changing and the roots made very handy seats.  And earlier this year the largest raven imaginable sat casually out of reach in the branches and watched with nonchalance as I wriggled into my wetsuit.

There are indeed more trees and trees come and trees go with or without the help of a chainsaw.  Nevertheless, after those that cloaked the opposite bank were clear felled 2 years ago it seems that this once wild oasis enclosed by roads and cars and people is suddenly in a glaring spotlight.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Goldilocks and the Early Morning Swim

‘Eeek, the river is too cold’, said the winter swimmer.

‘There are too many people’, said the holiday swimmer.

‘But that’s just right’, said Goldilocks walking through the morning sun patterned woods, the air pine scented by the redwood trees and elusively heard in the distance the patter of the river over the stones in the shallows heading down to the deep pool.

The water is mirror calm without the hint of a breeze and the flow is only given away by a few petals of foam carried down from the distant weir.  No people, just the chatter of birdsong, too early yet even for the first walker to have sent their dog in to smash the magic tranquillity.  That job is mine.

I am swim ready beneath the sweatshirt and shorts and my toes curl on the edge of the stones worn down by countless other feet, many of which have been my own.

It is called Still Pool, but only for another 1/2 a second.  Take sight of a little petal of foam, lift up on tiptoes, the water rushes at me and then everything changes from bright glittering sunshine to fiery orange peat filtered sunlight.  Down, down to the rounded pebbles, across the river bed, rising on the gentle slope of the far bank where sand  cascades amongst the pebbles.

Climbing back out on the diving rocks the water at my feet is now a jumble of conflicting ripples reflecting back from the banks, but upstream, fully half the distance of the 300m pool, serried ranks of ever diminishing ripples march onward against the flow.  And then the water is rushing towards me once again.

Early morning throughout June, July and August is the time to be here.  It is the only time that the sun sweeps its path across the river downstream where the forced gap in the trees allows light into the pool.  Swim upstream then float down under the leaning beech trees into the shallows.  The hazel tree that the kingfishers used as a fishing post has been carried away by a winter storm, though its future looked tenuous last year and the sandy beach on the far shore has been further eroded, there is less than 1/2 the area of even 3 years ago.

After 25 minutes I climb out again only to take two more dives from the rock but there is a distinct chill in my toes, it’s time to go, but it is almost no diversion at all to come here on my way in to work, I will see more still water before summer is out.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming