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.

 

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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

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

 

The Return of the Infinity Pool

Though there has not been a great deal of rain and much must have soaked into the parched moorland the river Dart is nevertheless a foot deeper today than last Tuesday.  Horseshoe Falls is a swirling cauldron and much of the beach at Wellsfoot has been swept smooth, whilst the river at Sharrah Pool crashes down the cascade and spits foam and bubbles from the swoosh.  It was definitely a good move to get here in the early morning as the cascade is lit by bright sunshine and the beach is bathed in warm sunshine as I change.

I am swimming back up the pool, quite hard work against the flow until I get in the lee of the big rock, to run the swoosh a second time.  Looking up I see there is a heron stood at the top of the cascade in the dappled light under the oak trees.  We stare each other down, it’s not often you can get this close, but he ‘blinks’ first and flaps in the untidy way of herons everywhere into the air heading away from me.  He evidently didn’t go far as a moment later he sweeps by just above treetop height, still struggling for lift and then he’s gone down the river.

I shoot the swoosh again and then follow the heron downstream, a second dip already planned, I am interested to see what the river level is at Holne Weir.

A month ago the water level covered the concrete of the weir from bank to bank, a few inches deep at the bank and 6 inches or so in the middle.  The effect whilst floating in the water is that of an infinity pool.  However, when I stopped by last week the water was flowing entirely within the central spillway having dropped steadily day by day which rather spoilt the effect.

The water has risen sufficiently after the rain and once again covers the weir from bank to bank.  Unlike further upstream however the water of the pool is completely calm, like water on glass reflecting back the blue sky, clouds and freshly greened trees.  The only give away that the water in the pool is flowing at all is the little eddy around the fallen tree, until of course it comes crashing over the weir.  The best view however is from the pool itself.

Diving in below the bridge the strong current in the narrow channel whooshes me downstream and it takes a brisk bit of swimming to regain the step in the rocks to do it again.  Then it is simply a case of letting the current take me down under the fresh green leafed trees that were all bare sticks just a month ago.  The mandarin duck pair hesitate, they are becoming more familiar with me but in the end they skitter down the water, not really getting airborne and then dropping back in.  There were 2 females for a while, maybe one has eggs or chicks.

Nearing the weir the infinity effect takes over, the river looks as though it runs straight up into the trees and the line across the top of the weir is smooth, even and unbroken, it is only close up that the dimple where the sluice is shows up.  The real give away is the spray rising in billows from beyond the watery horizon catching the sunshine and sparkling though not quite enough to produce a rainbow.

More rain is forecast, maybe the infinity pool is here to stay for a few more days yet.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Friends on the Road

I ran up to Sharrah Pool yesterday and was actually quite pleased with myself.  A few years ago I was doing this run at least once a week and could fly it, but I have been struggling to keep fit, and so after a quite energetic period recently I had made it non-stop.  Not with anything like the speed of previously but nonetheless.

I had expected to have the pool to myself and in a sense I had as the other person was packing to go.  The water was crystal clear and shafts of sunshine picked out the crystal mosaic of deeply sunk granite pebbles.  Leaning forward from the point of the big diving rock, I bounced up on my tiptoes and touched down on the water.  As I flew along the river bed waves of sunlight refracted by the broken surface raced away from me lost to sight as I surfaced, blinking madly in the sunshine.

The other visitor, now blurry through eyes left teary by the cold water called me.  Andrew was having a mini Dartmoor adventure.  We chatted briefly then he headed off and I dropped back into the water to ride the swoosh, splash in the bubbles and chase the trout.

Today I found myself at Clevedon Marine Pool.  I had planned to visit last New Year but it was closed for repairs, but now driving by on the motorway it was only a short diversion.  I’d never met Richard but I do know the smiley swimming hat design so I mentioned it and quickly realisde we have spoken on-line so we chatted briefly.  I was on the way in and standing in my swimwear in the biting breeze straight off the Severn and he was drying and chilled after his swim so this was no time for hanging about.

The pool is to be drained again soon as there is a persistent leak.  Anyway, a change of water would not go amiss as it is grey-green and was not inspiring me.   It was however pleasantly warm and I gently swam up and down twice, a token gesture, whilst trying for a few pictures with an unsuitable camera under an uncooperative cloudy sky.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Swimming in salt water is strange enough, I think it must have been two months since I was last at the beach, that’s what happens when the river warms up.  Stranger still is the thought of the steep drop beyond the retaining wall and line of sight to the pier.  What, I wonder, happens if the leak becomes a flood and the pool with me in it drains into the Severn?  Whilst occupying myself with that thought I swam into a crab line discarded in the water and it wrapped itself round my throat and tangled in my hair.  Reluctant as I was to put my feet down for fear of discarded bottles or other hazards I didn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter.  The crab line was duly rolled up and stuffed down my swimwear, they can come in handy.

And so I find myself jogging back to Sharrah Pool after work.  It is deserted today and the water feels cooler.  However I have brought my goggles all the better to chase the trout.  Or not.  They keep effortlessly out of arm’s reach and I speculate that dynamite may be the way forward! The chill breeze is still there and I’m gently shivering by the time I’m dressed again.

Jogging down the path I almost sweep into J, A and M, who I knew had plans to head to Sharrah but later than I could afford to be.  Once again I stop and chat.  It has been an eventful and friend filled couple of days and only to be expected I suppose amongst a small but sociable group of swimmers.

 

Summer’s Here

It was a dull grey morning, cold, breezy and without promise.  But I hadn’t been standing around on Dartmoor at 5am yesterday morning with the local morris dancers singing up the summer not to have confidence.

“Hal-an-Tow, jolly rumbelow,
We were up long before the day, oh,
To welcome in the summertime,
To welcome in the May, oh —
For summer is a-coming in,
And winter’s gone away, oh!”

Lunchtime and the blue had out paced the clouds and as the breeze dropped there was more and more blue eventually leaving not a cloud in the sky.

I was just changing in the gloriously warm evening sunshine when J arrived having been looking at the swimming options further downstream.  Spitchwick it has to be said is rarely my first choice as there are usually too many people and too much litter.  On a day such as this however I know the sun will be absolutely perfect for an evening swim at the top pool, though not so the bottom pool where it will be down behind the trees already.

The transition in the water is remarkable.  Ten days ago it had that bright zesty lime green tint.  Last week it had gone almost clear again.  Today it is dark orange after the rain on Monday washed peat off the moorland upstream and that is the colour it will stay until October.

J has not swum here before and it is ideal for that, easy to walk in to the water, easy changing, the water is slow moving and deeper under the cliff.  It does have it all in some ways.

The ‘new’ second hand wetsuit arrived this morning, it’s a little tighter than the previous ‘identical in every way’ one I have worn out, except the tightness of course and the feel that it is made with slightly thicker neoprene.  It is most certainly tighter and keeps the water out until I am waist deep, or maybe it is just that the other is full of holes, the worlds first fishnet wetsuit.  It’s not a pleasant thought.

We share the water for 15 minutes and in the end it is only the lateness of the day that forces us out.  The water is only just over 10degC but I always feel that sunshine adds several degrees especially factoring in the black wetsuits which absorb the sunshine.

We change and chat, talking about other places to swim and non-swimmer’s reactions to the whole idea, but as J says, ‘it is so invigorating’.

With a hope we will catch up again soon we head off to our respective cars as the sun nudges ever closer to the horizon and shadows draw out across the grass.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall