Rivers Joining

I have swum several times at Freshford in the Avon by following the public footpath over the railway footbridge, across the field to the first stile and then turning down to a clump of willows on the bank.  From there it is about ¼ mile down to the weir and I have swum about a similar distance upstream.  I have however had an interest in a point a little further upstream where the River Frome flows into the Avon.

The Frome is only small and whilst I once found a good spot to swim near Rode and have swum at the Farleigh Hungerford Swimming Club (it’s not as exciting as people might have you believe) on my only attempt to swim down to the confluence I found the Frome to be little more than a weed choked trickle between high banks thick with undergrowth and therefore not swimmable.  Similarly the Avon upstream of the join is wide, shallow, slow moving and resembles a reed bed rather than a river.  I had to assume then that the swims I had had before where the river was deep and clear were entirely down to the weir.  How far upstream I could swim was open to exploration.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The day is sweltering, especially beside the river where the humidity has been drawn up from the fields and hangs heavily with no breeze to clear the air.

From my usual swim spot I walk upstream following the path, across another stile, through some willows and across a ditch, looking for somewhere to enter the water.  Finally beneath another willow there is a spot where the cattle have trodden the bank down so I can leave my bag out of sight and step down the tree roots into the water.

The water feels soft and warm, well compared to the River Dart much earlier this morning anyway and the very warm sun dips in and out from behind the willows as I move upstream against the flow until I hit the first reed bed.

The reeds are tall, dark green spears and some, where they sand upright nearer the bank, are crowned with a pom-pom flower, but where they are bent over by the current they are sharply tipped and all point in my direction.  Where there are tall reeds there are also long mats of trailing grass fronds in the water, they cling to my arms and wrap around my legs, but here I can see the river bed and as I am in only 2 feet of water I stand and wade until I am upstream to where in can swim on.  There is another reed bed ahead but the water here is even shallower where the river turns gently to the right.

The cattle have lined to top of the bank.  The bank is broken down to a slope so this is clearly where they come down to the river, but they are however not to sure about someone swimming and when I stand up they back away cautiously.

I swim through the left arch of the railway bridge, the water shallows to just a few inches and as I wade forward my foot slips between 2 stones and I give my ankle a firm bash.  But now I can see where the rivers flow together and here they have created a deep and wide pool and I laze in the almost still water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It has taken over half an hour to swim 3/10 of a mile rushing along slow.  Now though I have to get back and with the flow behind me I shoot down the river, whisking through the reed beds and finally swinging in under the willow and back to my towel.

Flash Flood

There was tragic news earlier in the week about 9 people killed by a flash flood in Arizona.  They were enjoying a sunny day at a popular swimming hole unaware of the torrential downpour miles upstream.  Apparently the first anyone knew of the changing conditions was a rumble like thunder and then a wall of water came down the river and was on them in seconds.  As is clear from the video in the above link it is not only the water but the debris in the water that causes such tragedies.

People say the River Dart is a ‘flashy’ river though it is not immediately obvious how that can be.  Yes there are relatively big flood waters but normally from looking at data on the Environment Agency River Level Monitoring Site it looks like the levels rise and fall relatively slowly.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Flash floods do happen here: Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952, Boscastle 2004, Coverack last week, but are thankfully uncommon.

As far as the Dart goes yesterday brought what was a borderline flash flood as recorded on the above Env. Agency website.

Wild Swimming Still Pool
Wild Swimming Still Pool

On Thursday evening I swam my usual twice up and down the 300m pool near Dartington.  The river chattered over the stones and was still perhaps an inch or so higher than the typical summer low after Tuesday’s showers and just touched the last of the steps near the swing which hangs 6 feet clear of the placid, clear water of the main pool.  I swam with a girl who had stopped off on her run, 2 boys were messing about with snorkels in the shallows by the sandy beach and the 2 girls were taking turns on the swing.

The forecast was for rain.

When it came it was torrential hammering deafeningly on the tin roof at work.  I had to go and take a look at the river.

Beneath the bridge the shallows and banks of pebbles where the heron had been stalking yesterday had vanished.  However, the water might be just an inch deep, a covering and with no marker there was no knowing.

At the pool though it is obvious the level is up about 4 feet if not more.  Tree branches drag the surface and the steps have gone along with the little step from which I dive and the concrete ledge is being washed over.

Stepping into the water at the edge of the beach it is waist deep where yesterday there were dry stones and I wade out to the trees where dark brown water slooshes around the willows.  The water here is however barely flowing, dammed into a little pool by trees and bank.  Walking back along the bank it is clear that in just a few minutes the level has risen to fill the hollow under the leaning tree trunk and back at the steps the ledge has gone.

The water in the enclosed corner stirs gently, there is less flow than in the mainstream on a normal day and I bob easily in the surprisingly warm water keeping place with just gentle flicks of my hands and feet but with nowhere to go there is no point in staying in longer than to take a few pictures and watch the world quite literally pass by.

Hauling myself out using the small tree it is clear the water is rising fast.  It has now breeched the last of the rock and the oak tree roots are awash leaving just a few inches of the tallest rock poking above the surface and even that get swamped once in a while.  As I dry off I see a tennis ball whisk by and several plastic bottles and a surprising amount of potential firewood.  A long heavy length hitches on some trailing tree branches hauling them down until the log is released and the branches spring back with a crash.  The log broadsides the next branches and sticks creating a dam and a noisy gurgle of water.

The last of the rock is finally covered and at the same moment the water catches the tail of rope at the swing and sets it dodging and rocking, the water pulls one end in, flips it up and the other end is dragged in.  That is a rise of 18 inches in 30 minutes.

What looks like a honeydew melon in terms of colour and size spins past.

I’d like to stay and watch (as it turns out the level will not peak for another hour and the monitoring station upstream shows another 10 inch rise yet to come) but instead I’ll come back in a day or too and look for the tide line of debris on the all but submerged fence beyond the vanished beach on the far bank.

More heavy rain is however forecast.

 

 

Wild (Terms and Conditions May Apply).

I have jogged down the coast path to the edge of the sea where the path turns inland again.  However though it is all but grown over there is a side path to the edge of the foreshore which then turns into a narrow sandy ledge above a steep drop that doubles as a path down to the patch of green lawn that nestles on top of rocks below.  There are now several ways down to the sea, but my favourite is a traverse down a thin lip that takes a 45degree angle down a slab of smooth, nearly vertical rock to a level space at the high tide mark.  From here there is a finger of deep water that leads to the open sea, but which is sheltered from nearly all directions except on the biggest tides and in the roughest weather.

The trend for prefixing the term ‘wild’ to an activity as in ‘wild swimming’, ‘wild camping’ etc. grates my nerves.  I blame Richard Mabey.  The latest is apparently ‘wild running’.  ‘Wild’ has now been so overused as to have become almost meaningless.  Which of course it isn’t, it does have its place; though I do wonder if I have been fished in.

To my mind if you are interested in ‘wild’ swimming as distinct from outdoor swimming then with that comes a different set of objectives:

Do swim alone,
Do swim with the minimum clutter,
Enjoy,
Be responsible for yourself,
Leave the environment a better place than when you arrived,
Don’t die.

This of course flies in the face of most advice given when someone asks what they need to go wild swimming.  Except the don’t die bit, I think we can all agree that is reasonable advice no matter what.  However, I fail to see how swimming in a big group and taking so much stuff with you that you need a wheelbarrow to move it all about can possibly be considered ‘wild’ (or any safer, but that’s for another day).

You don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth, ‘wild’ is a moving target.  Where I was swimming (by myself) this morning, the river was flat calm and all I could hear was birds (and far away someone yelling after their dog which had probably gone after the squirrel I saw earlier).  I had a gentle encounter with a selection of ducks and ducklings, a dipper and 2 kingfishers.  However, if I go back after work the place will be awash with people swimming, jumping from the rocks, on the rope swing, there will certainly be dogs chasing about, the river will be churned up and somehow I think the wildness will have gone.  And so to will the ducks, dipper and kingfishers.

Wild is I accept a subjective term in relation to each person’s comfort zone.  I am quite happy to wander through a field amongst a herd of cows whereas the London Underground nowadays gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.

The swimming wilderness is however fast disappearing and the amount of ‘wild’ has more than halved in 5 years.  Places I used to go fairly sure there would be no-one else about are now almost invariably ‘taken’ when I arrive.  Over the course of maybe 5 years and 50 swims at Abbot’s Mede I have met just 4 other people: 3 fishing, 1 walking.  Last week there were 2 other swimmers.

The inevitable upshot is an impulse to go further.  It can bring benefits, but it can also mean being at places where even a minor incident would soon turn major.  Maybe then the only worthwhile safety advice is ‘have fun and don’t die’.

 

A self defeating exercise.

Outdoor swimming has grown in popularity over the last 10 years and this outwardly appears to be a good thing, but I increasingly feel it is a self defeating exercise.  This suspicion has been amplified by recent events at Spitchwick Common on Dartmoor.

In the blue corner, all those who might not otherwise have seen a jellyfish or a kingfisher.

In the red corner, those who arrive with their instant bar-b-cue, cans, bottles and disposable lifestyle and think the beautiful place they just visited will be enhanced if they smash glass into the water, cut branches off the trees, burn the grass and undergrowth and leave their litter when they go home.

Thoughtless people insensitive to the environment and the wildlife and people they share it with are nothing new, indeed ‘smash, grab and trash’ seems to be an appropriate motto for the human race.  What the finish line of this race will look like remains to be seen, but I have an insight.

Yesterday I clambered down the river bank on the way to my swim, picked up the box neatly packed with the plastic and cardboard remains of someone’s day out and lifted it back tot he roadside from where I collected it on my return.  How is it, I constantly wonder, that people take all the packets to the picnic, eat and drink the contents and then find themselves without the strength to carry the empties back to the car?  Or worse still, do carry it back to the car but simply then leave it in a bush or behind a rock in the car park.

I read recently that the scientific name Homo stupidus was once seriously proposed for Neanderthal people.  I think I have identified a far more deserving people for the name.

Countless people have enjoyed a day out at Spitchwick, the main draw being that it is a great place to swim in the river, and yes there has always been some litter and a few fires, but the land is privately owned.  The litter and vandalism of the environment has however become unsustainable.  Car parks have been closed to choke the flow of visitors.  Double yellow lines have been painted on the roads for miles in every direction and a ruthless ticketing policy enforced.  And now the last car park has been closed, the next nearest shrunk in size and CCTV installed.  It no longer looks like a national park but more like a high street.

It seems unlikely to be effective.

I have heard it said that people park on the yellow lines and agree in advance to share the parking fine.  The litter won’t stop but now the roads are impassable too.

I have in the past contacted the park authority and asked why they do not empty the bins at the nearby New Bridge car park which spill over in a stinking mound all through the summer.  They assure me that the cost is too much for them to provide bins and that not providing bins makes people take their rubbish home again.  Looking at the abundant and highly visual evidence to the contrary I have to disagree.  The bins may not be theirs but they don’t know who they do belong to, they tell me.  But they are turning your car park into a rubbish tip, why not phone the contractors number on the side of the bin and ask who does pay the rental and cost of eventual emptying?  They don’t know why they don’t do this.

Ultimately the land owner may resort to a big fence, it is his land, he should not have to be constantly clearing the area and there is no more an open invitation to go and swim there than there is to all and sundry if you put a paddling pool in your back garden.

A fence in turn will simply displace the hordes to the next place and so on and so on.

As with the situation at Stonehenge I can see a time in the not too distant future when the closest you will be able to get to the river over there behind the barbed wire and attack dogs will be to have an interactive virtual wild swim where at the end someone tips a bucket of water over you which contains some crisp packets, a plastic bottle, soggy cardboard, a knotted dog poo bag and if you are going for the deluxe experience some broken glass and one of those razor sharp grilles from a disposable bar-b-cue.

Rather than being a part of and contributing further to this self defeating moment.  I cannot pick up any more litter than I already do so maybe it is time to hand back my goggles and swimwear and throw in the towel.

 

The Morning Menagerie

The warm weather continues.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

A single day when the temperature gets into the upper 20s Celsius here is notable but we have now had 5 or 6 on the trot and today is set to best those again.  More remarkable is the lack of a breeze.  Geographically speaking the North Atlantic is just over there and then it’s 3000 miles of open water such that weather and wind is the normal order of the day.  But again, the day has dawned breathless.

Walking down the track through the redwoods I startle a squirrel which makes off with that zig-zagging tail flicking run they do to confuse predators and then claws a tattoo staccato on soft  bark and is gone aloft.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The river level is dropping day-by-day, so there is not even the usual chatter of the water to carry through the trees and stepping carefully down the tree roots to the bank the water is even more mirror like than yesterday.  Clearer too, that and I am 15 minutes earlier today so I am catching the sunshine that has not yet swung away from the rope swing, but shafts down into the deepest part of the river, picking out the scoops of golden sand between the dark rocks.  The smooth water slides up my leg as though I am pushing my foot through some sort of membrane.  Lazy concentric circles spread until the reflections begin to bounce back from the bank, colliding and jumbling the surface.

Birds flit and dart, a wagtail skitters down to the stones I have just vacated and jitters nervously almost as if it doesn’t actually want its feet in contact with the ground.  High above a seagull heads up river with a squawk, whilst a pigeon zooms fat breasted over my head away downstream.  The shallows by the rapids are filled with flitting fish.

The gaggle of ducks upstream by the shallows corrals and keeps a distance from my slow progress against the current.  Finally they divide, the 2 males are not in the least bit concerned and seem almost to be asleep just gliding away from me at the last moment.  Meanwhile the mother duck shepherds her flock of 4 well grown young to the far bank beneath an overhanging branch, she stands erect in the water keeping both eyes on me whilst the young are penned, but are otherwise nonchalant.   Close by a dipper stands perfectly still on a stone in the shallows of the splashing river.

The current sweeps me back to the pool where a solitary duckling, younger then the others I have just seen and still with ragged downy feathers, peeps forlornly.  One duckling on its own with no mother is not a good sign but she seems able enough and forages amongst the riverside plants.

Swimming back up to the top of the pool the male ducks still don’t care and mum and ducklings are happy to watch me sweep down in the current once more, this time floating on my back in the dappled sunlight.  Of which there is a lot less now.  Half an hour and the pool is now half in shade and the water is now dark and mysterious.

I have just picked up my towel when there is a splash by the bank nearby and a kingfisher flits onto a tree branch, adjusts its breakfast in its beak and then whirls across the water and into a tree on the far bank.  I continue to drip and watch.  The bird flits down to a log resting in shallow water and then begins an aerial ‘battle’ with a second, each darting from its perch to displace the other only in turn to be displaced.  They go round and round for a few moments and then shoot away downstream.

And so the day begins, heralded in by the 8 o’clock clanging of the church bell as I walk back to the car.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

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

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