What a Difference a Day Makes.

Today I am filled with optimism.  The weather began to improve yesterday late afternoon and I dashed back to Still Pool for another nifty 40 minute swim as the sun nudged down behind the trees sending random shafts of light lancing through to the river and the sky above, cloudless, faded from pale towards darker shades of blue.  This morning the sky is mostly cloudless and there is barely a hint of breeze moving the tree tops.  The horizon turns from pink to orange to golden and sunlight lances into the kitchen lighting up the steam from my coffee cup.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Golden light filters through the redwood trees, though the mornings no longer have the warmth of mid-June that scented the air with pine resin, and reflects up off the water making the river bank trees glow.  My, my, it must have been raining somewhere, the river is up a clear 10cms on yesterday.

10cms (or 4 inches in Brexit money) does not sound much I grant you, but across 5m of river that is a lot of extra water trying to get somewhere in a hurry.  And it has a slight extra chill edge to it as I wade in to the still water in the lee of the rocks.

The water deepens sharply and in 3 paces I can no longer touch the bottom with outstretched toes, but here the water is almost still.  I swim a few brisk strokes down to the shallows and turn upstream into the line of bubbles that mark the line of the fastest flowing water.  The water is certainly in a hurry to get somewhere.  My shoulders are still a little tired after yesterday and they ache and complain as I push into the flow, with each stroke barely advancing me a head’s length.

My direct route up the pool eventually takes me out of the faster flowing water and into the shallows on the inside of the bend, though even here this morning despite the placid looking surface the water is fairly racing along.  It is only ½ way up the pool that there is a short, still patch of water and I can catch my breath, but not for long.  I am soon in the shallows, the water surface chops and splashes hiding the randomly placed boulder hazards.  I find one of them with my knee but only discover ½ an hour later when I am drying that I found it quite hard and it was quite sharp and I am leaking a red streak all down my shin.  Ah, the joy of cold water.

I am abreast the dipper rock (the dipper is not at home), another fast flowing and choppy patch of water is in front of me, only 1m across but it takes a dozen strokes to clear it to the still water in the lee of the next rock.  Across from me towards the far bank there is a moss covered rock I use as another marker, or there should be, it was there yesterday evening a little green oasis in the flow, but now it is entirely submerged.

I push off and float the first 5m being whooshed along by the flow, the water is too shallow to swim this side without kicking the stones of the river bed.  Where the water calms a little it is deeper and I race back down the centre line of the pool leaning in to the left hand curve past the diving rock and I’m back where I started.  It has taken 13 minutes, same as always, for the round trip, but instead of the usual 8 up and 5 back, this has been more like 10 up, 3 back.

Despite the apparently free ride back I was swimming as fast as I could and am now a little breathless.  Various muscles are also complaining; ‘Shut up, this is good for you!’

One down, two to go.

And the forecast is good for this evening.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Conquering Gloom

Things are not what they were.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

September has arrived and brought with it rain, low clouds, a morning chill, a very chilly river and a desire to stay inside, light the fire, curl up under a duvet and hibernate.  There is no sunrise this morning, the world simply becomes less dark whilst becoming more gloomy.  At least in the dark you cannot see the clouds and drizzle.  I stand in the kitchen at 6:30 making a coffee and watching the sunrise non-event.  I do not want to go swimming.

However, over the last 2 months I have shifted about 5kgs of flab and trimmed my waistline quite considerably and that is entirely down to swimming.  I did not have this outcome in mind and was somewhat resigned to a manageable amount of middle aged spread (don’t be delusional, that is late-middle aged).  In fact I was actively against turning my swimming into a fitness regime, but there you have it.  Half a mile in the river 3 or 4 mornings a week has become 3/4 mile every morning pre-work and often in the evening too.  However, two days off and I am getting antsy.

It is now unpleasantly chill in the river up at Holne Weir and after 40 minutes in the water I shiver for an hour, but to be honest the real thing that is holding me back is that I will have to move down river again.  Dartington does not have the appeal of Holne Weir, there is far less sense of achievement without that last push against the flow up under the bridge to pat the cleavage rock.   Nevertheless and somewhat bizarrely it is only 8 miles downstream to Dartington but there the water is 3 degrees warmer which is just enough to lift it out of the shiver zone.

I pour a second cup of coffee in the thermal mug as apparently I am going swimming.

It is even more gloomy under the trees to the point that I can barely see the tree roots that snake across the rough footpath and clutch at my feet to trip me as I pass.  It is also unclear if it is raining or if the constant drip, drip is simply falling from sodden leaves.  The rain has also helped turn much of the path into a bog, I should have worn wellington boots.

Nope, it’s raining, the surface of the river is being pummelled by fat, heavy raindrops.  The river level is up maybe 10cm and the recent rain has changed it from clear to opaque and I cannot see my feet once the water is above my knees, which leaves me groping with my toes for the next secure footing.  It is warmer though and there is no swearing as I launch myself under the surface.

Twice up and back at Holne is equal to 3 times up and back here and with the extra flow if I stay in the main channel I am getting a good workout if my glacially slow progress relative to the river bank is any measure of such things.  The rain has eased to drizzle and under the constant drip, drip even the river bank looks as though it is being worn down by impending autumn.

I have made my first circuit and am back at the main pool when a kingfisher whirls across the river to a perch on a leafless branch of the beech tree.  I drift closer but he takes fright, whirls away downstream and suddenly there are 2 blue jewels weaving over the water.  Things always feel better after kingfishers.  I am at the top of the second circuit when another kingfisher comes at me head on and zips over my head the bright blue Doppler shifting to vivid orange as it passes.  The dipper is not however on his usual rock.  All is well when I spot him bobbing amongst the stones on my return to the lower end of the pool.

One more time!  I take little notice of the rain that has turned heavy again except where drops raise tall pimples of water each with a dot above, besides it has eased when I finally puff and blow my way back onto the bank and grab my towel.

Look no shivers, but hang on, is shivering good muscle toning exercise?  Surely it must be.

No matter what, I’m feeling a lot less gloomy.

 

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“Why? It’s September!”

The prospect did not to be honest look too great as we pulled up in the lee of the sea wall at Seaton.  Beyond the wall the pebbles were raised in two steep waves down to grey choppy sea.  50m out to sea a yellow buoy bobbed and tossed whilst away to the left another with a flag atop lurched and waved against the fading sky.  The wind blew smartly south-westerly up the beach.

After the carnival float was set up and as much time as could be spent had been on looking at the other floats of which there were disappointingly few there was the inevitable lull.

The pebbles scrunched as I walked to the sea.  The waves ran at a slight oblique angle right to left sweeping along the beach creating a slight but irrelevant current to one side.  I weighed my towel down on top my bag with a large stone, which I regard as a universal sign ‘this bag has not been forgotten, someone is out there swimming however unlikely that seems’, and waded into the clear grey-green water.

Compared to the 13.1C temperature of the river at 8 this morning this was almost tropical.  15C is a tipping point in my life both for running and swimming, below that it is cool, above and I begin to overheat, especially when running.  There does not seem to be much chance of overheating this evening but it is still luxuriously warm.

25m off the beach I swim against the chop parallel to the seafront to the row of beach huts.  The floats along the sea wall light the scene and create a cacophony of conflicting musics each calling ‘pick me, pick me’ to the judges.

It was always my intention to swim out to the sea tossed buoy but from here I can swim parallel to the chop of the waves rather than face on into them.  Mad, but not stupid.  The buoy is quickly reached and out here the current is stronger.  I don’t want to get too close as there is always a danger of trailing debris caught around the chain and having to be rescued might provide entertainment for those on shore but let’s not shall we.  The current however is pushing me onto it so I swim wide out and around.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now I have the waves trailing me, lifting me up and pushing me in to the beach and I am fairly rocketing along whilst wondering how deep it is.  I am soon close back in to the beach, under 10m out.  Pulling my goggles down I upend into the silence of the water.  For a moment the waves pull at my ankles but then all is still.

It is 4 or maybe 5 metres deep and I have dived on the divide between beach and seabed.  To my right the pebbles tumble down steeply in a landslide of flints.  The biggest form a barrier between pebbles and sand, a sharp divide.  To my left the pale sand undulates in shallow ripples out of sight into the green sea.  Here and there odd stones lie on the sand and I suspect these have been thrown from the shore as otherwise the sand is uniformly clear.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Jumping back over the sea wall that seems to have filled the lull in the proceedings perfectly and provided a talking point for the landlubbers.

“Why were you swimming?  It’s September!”

There is little to offer besides “Because”.

But as Hig Hurtenflurst would have it, “Hey, that’s neat”.

 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Kingfishers

Until a few years ago I had seen very few of these shy, beautifully jewelled birds.  One memorable occasion was a bird I followed in a kayak down the River Dart.  Only then I had a much too long paddle back against the flow which left me carrying my kayak further than I enjoyed, so it was memorable then for two somewhat conflicting reasons.

I have seen more kingfishers in recent years.  This could be because I am spending more time at the river, or I am going to more obscure places at times when they are otherwise deserted, or there are simply more birds.

The first kingfisher that I came to see regularly was back in 2013 at Abbots Mede, which was at that time a swim I had only done once or twice but became a go to place that summer.  In that respect it certainly ticked possibilities 1 and 2 above.  I saw a single bird probably every other time I swam and once was able to drift to within 3 to 4m of where it was perched in the open end of a china pipe sticking out from the bank.  Since that summer however though my visits have been less frequent I have not seen a kingfisher there again.  I have seen one as far up the river as Wellsfoot, but no further, though on several occasions I have seen them over the winter at the beach both at Mermaids Cove and Mansands.

Still Pool has always been as good a place as anywhere to see these birds though it is often popular with swimmers.  On one occasion I dived in off the rock and as I surfaced a pair flew low over my head and perched for a moment side-by-side on the rock.  Another time I lay in the shallows and watched a bird fly out from a branch of a hazel tree, hover over the shallow water, dive on a fish then fly back to the tree.  In 20 minutes the bird probably made a dozen dives and caught 2 or 3 fish.

This year they are everywhere.  I saw one on the way in to work one morning on a part of the Hems that is barely an inch deep and another similarly on the Ambrook.  Whilst swimming though I have probably seen at least one every third swim, possibly more often.  They are wary though and even lying in the water and just letting myself be carried by the current towards them they will rarely let me get closer than 5m.  More often they are off long before that.  This morning was a case in point.

The bird shot from his branch as I stepped into the river, we must have been 5m apart and from there he whirled away upstream and around the bend out of sight.  I thought no more of it as I swam upriver, he’d be long gone, except that as I rounded the corner the bird was racing back downstream barely an outstretched arms length from me and it shot over my head beautifully lit by the rising sun at my back.

That was not the last of him either.  As I returned to the weir 15 minutes later he dropped from a branch and shot away downstream again.

They are probably one of the most colourful of UK birds, they are uncommon and shy so many people will never see one.  To see them as often as I do is therefore quite special and no matter how frequently I see them I always take a moment to watch them out of sight.

 

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Morning Rainbows and Shooting Stars

The air has a distinct autumnal chill and mist was drifting from the trees and out over the lower part of the pool which was in deep, cold shade as I set off from Holne Weir this morning.  I confess I was wondering why exactly I was doing this to myself at 7am morning after morning if I was no longer enjoying it?  The simple truth is that the last month has seen a quite dramatic improvement in the tone of my stomach, but this is quite a price to pay.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

By the top end of the main pool I was feeling lethargic and the chill was creeping in to my fingertips.  As I set off into the gloom where the trees meet overhead I was definitely considering maybe I’d only go up and back once not twice.

Fifteen minutes later and back at the weir, what the hell, I’m here now, so may as well go round again.

There is however a small patch of river just beyond the main pool that catches the early sunshine as the sun clears the trees, but only for a few minutes before the sun swings around and is soon blocked by the trees on the opposite bank.  The sun chose this moment to clear the trees and as I puffed my way along with the light directly behind me, each time I breathed out the mist I created filled with a rainbow.  It is a rare combination of still water, sunshine and cooler air.  It will not last as in a week or two at most as the position and angle of the sunrise will be such that the trees will block it entirely.

The cleavage rock is also in sunshine.  A sunbeam has found a gap in the tree cover and has put the rock in the spotlight.  I pat the rock gently, but even as I watch for a few seconds I can see the shadow edging across the wet stone.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

On the return big fat drops of dew were falling from the branches.  Where they fell in the sunshine they were like shooting stars backlit by the sun and creating huge fountains where they hit the water except for a few that hit lower branches and exploded in a cascade of smaller stars.  It was all about perspective and as I passed downstream of the patch of sunshine and looked back I could not even see the drops falling or the splash they raised, the only giveaway was the concentric rings of ripples on the water’s surface.

Forty minutes and 3/4 of a mile and I’m back at the weir and the cold has really sunk in deep leaving me shivering almost uncontrollably.  Tomorrow I will bring a heavier sweatshirt.  Yes, I will be back, who can say what tomorrow will bring, and somehow shivering all the way in to work didn’t seem so bad after that.

 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Holne Weir

I have now adjourned lock, stock and towel to Holne Weir and made it for 12 sunrise swims here on the trot, a run only broken today by torrential rain.  Whilst some might say that shows a lack of imagination, I’d paraphrase the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy “When you are tired of Holne Bridge, you are tired of life itself.”  What’s more as time has allowed I have been here 5 or 6 time maybe in the evening too.

What gives it such drawing power?  It is very easy to park on the road and only a 2 minute walk to the water, there are lots of places to get changed and I now have a peg on a holly tree with my name on it.  It is the simplest thing to step off the weir and swim to a little beyond the bridge, which is outrageously scenic.  On the downside it can get popular because it is just beside the road and the opposite bank is a campsite.

As for the swimming there is a deep water channel up the middle of the main pool about 3/4 of the way after which you need to swim directly to the rope swing, passing about 2m off the white rocks on the right bank and missing the very sharp rocks in the placid shallow water on the inside of the turn that you would otherwise have swum smack in to.  Tight in to the bank under the swing turn left and swim towards the larch tree on the far bank, turning in mid-river and swimming upstream heading about 1m off the rocks on the left.  Drift to the right and you will hit sharp rocks again as the channel is deep but narrow here.  Then swim directly for the middle of the span of the bridge head after which head straight up the middle of the river aiming at the rock in mid river at the start of the rapids.  It is 340m from weir to rock and following this course misses everything underwater.

The swim varies in intensity depending on river flow.  If the weir is water bank to bank I can barely make progress beyond the ½ way point of the weir pool.  As the level drops from there as it has over the last 2 weeks it reaches a point where the bridge is achievable and though you won’t know it as you set out it is just possible to reach the rock at the rapids when it is just clear of the water.

The river bed adds to the fun however, the channel shallows and narrows so that the approach to the rope swing is quite push.  Under the swing is the deepest part and almost still water.  From there the river bed begins wide and shallow but it funnels, deepening and narrowing to the next rocks and passing them is a push until almost at the bridge.

There the channel is as wide as the span of the bridge and maybe 10 feet deep, certainly enough that people will jump from the bridge above.

Above the bridge the water is chaotic, fast flowing and large rocks on the river bed create sideways currents and counter eddies.  Each swirl opens a space in the flow that is immediately grabbed by another.  Simply being in the water adds to the chaos and sweeping my arms and kicking my legs creates a new set of eddies so that at one moment the water is piled against my face but with the next sweep of my arms a bow wave pushes ahead of me getting drawn upstream by the flow with an urgent rushing sound.

The water shallows about 3m down from the rock but there is a patch of dead water and you can simply float forward over the hidden boulders.  It is only recently that I have noted the profile of the rock is somewhat reminiscent of cleavage and that perhaps I should be gentler when landing my hand on it each time with a slap as a measure of achievement.

Then comes the downstream rush, keeping to the same line but duck diving into the water to scoot along the sand and pebbles of the river bed or twist over the bedrock where it has been worn into flutes.

It is a 20 minute round trip; 12 going, 8 returning and my aim is to do it twice if the current allows.  It will be interesting to see what the flow is tomorrow morning.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

There is already less slight than I had expected under the trees beside the little stone building, but I had experienced a moment of indecision and gone a very long way about getting here and the sunset has already set leaving only a dull pink glow on the low cloud.  Under the circumstances I had expected to be alone, but there is only a single space into which I can wedge the car instead of an open run of 7 or 8 car lengths.  The darkness intensifies as I turn beneath the low hanging tree branches and onto the riverbank path.

It is about a ½ mile walk along the bank and through the meadow to the oak trees beside the ‘beach’.  I put my bag of clothes up into the hollow of one of the oak trees away from the inquisitive cattle.

The beach is more mud than sand and at the water’s edge there is a strip of sunken vegetation which bubbles as I stand in it.  Beyond that sharp pebbles slope gradually into deeper water though out in mid-river there is a sudden drop off to unexplored depths beneath the far bank.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The riverbank trees are silhouettes against the fading blue sky and a gibbous moon rides high over midstream.  However, it is quite extraordinary how human eyes adapt and the kingfisher blurs by me in an orange and iridescent blue streak pulling up sharply to perch on a nearby branch that overhangs the water.  I drift towards him with little direction tweaks from hands and feet.

He’s off again and I drift on.  Then he vanishes into a willow thicket amongst the heavy shadows so I push on downstream.  I have gone only 50m when he whooshes by me again and the chase is on once more.  This time I get to within 5m of where he sits on a fallen and half submerged tree.  He drops to the water and is instantly off again only this time with a silver fishy flash in his beak.

I turn upriver and head back, I have been perhaps a little longer than intended and even though I know this stretch of river very well indeed I am upon the oak trees by the beach before I recognise them.  It is a quick rub down with the towel in the gloom and a brisk walk back in near darkness until II reach the street lamps at the roadside.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Looking back up the river the water and bank merge seamlessly as one black shadow.  Ten minutes more and I’d have been lucky to find my way back out of the soft evening darkness.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall