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.

 

Ticks – the small crawling kind

It is tick season and for the next 3 months they are likely to be out in force up along the river banks and for some reason they find me irresistible. I plan to spoil their fun.

Some obviously grab on to my clothes as I push through longer grass or bilberry plants which seem to be a favourite and that is sort of unavoidable.  Some I’m sure drop onto socks and shoes in a similar way, they are going to hang on there and get me later. But I am sure some also find out clothes etc. whilst I’m off swimming.

I have adopted strategies in the past with varying degrees of success, such as standing on rocks surrounded by water to get changed and hanging all my clothes in a plastic bag from a tree whilst swimming.  Those have been somewhat successful, but if one is caught on the outside of clothes and you put them in a bag it’s not long before they are on the inside of the clothes.

No matter how thoroughly I check after I get home there are always one or two that get through and the first sign I’ve been bitten again is usually there is an itch at the site of any previous bites.  Then the search is on.  If you find them quickly enough they can be eased out with either a very fine pair of forcep tweezers or one of the special tools you can buy on-line or from vet surgeries and that is usually that.  If it’s later and they have properly got a hold then there will often be a little, itchy scab for weeks after.

That is unpleasant enough, notwithstanding that I do not want Lyme Disease.  Look it up, it’s nasty and whilst Dartmoor has been mostly a low risk environment so far, Lyme Disease is more common on Exmoor and it cannot be long before it moves south.

There are pesticide sprays for clothes but I’m not keen on the idea of that when some will inevitably get on my skin.  However there are also many suggestions for natural deterrents based on smells that either put ticks off or mask the smells that attract them.

The #1 recommendation is rose geranium oil.  Thereafter the popular choices are peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, lemon, citronella or rosemary, singly or in combination.  On the upside, and I’ll smell better too.

Now, because I want to not only protect myself but also mask my clothes and bag etc. I am taking the view that a spray before a run applied to shoes, leggings, bag and towel would be as well.  However, for spraying I’ll need to get the oils into the mix and they don’t dissolve in water.  With a little experimentation I have found that a blend of 15 drops of each of eucalyptus and citronella form a stable suspension in 100ml of 50:50 water and alcohol.  I have heard a suggestion to mix them into vodka which has a 40% alcohol content so I could see that being quite effective if expensive.  Blending in vinegar is also a suggestion, but what exactly will that leave me smelling like?

If you visit the cosmetics/haircare aisle of your local retailer of choice you will find spray bottles with contents for a small cost.  Pick something you will use (children’s hair detangler £2 works for me) and you are ‘quids in’.

2 month update.  There are lots of ticks about I have been told, but the essential oil spray has been 100% effective so far.  The rose geranium does stink mind.

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

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

Foraging

I very rarely go for specific ‘wild food’ foraging moments these days.  I used to, armed of course with Food For Free (Richard Maybe) and Wild Food (Roger Phillips) back in the days before ‘A Cook on the Wild Side’ first saw the light of day on TV.  However, I came fairly rapidly to the conclusion that just because you can eat certain things it does not necessarily follow that you would want to.  To be honest hogweed shoots and alexanders are disgusting in my book, though there are people who savour them or at least claim to. I sometimes wonder however if that is more about lifestyle choice than having a genuine taste for them.  What’s the line from Crocodile Dundee?  “Well, you can live on it, but it taste like shit.”

I have however developed my own road map to wild food (well there have been several as I have moved about) plotting both location and season.  I the right season I divert my swimming to places where on the way to and fro I stand a chance of a handful of hedgehog mushrooms (my absolute favourite), oyster mushrooms (I know of some growing tantalisingly out of reach right now) or penny buns.   The first time I came home with those I made a pasta, paprika and mushroom dish which everyone enjoyed very much, only later did we discover we’d eaten £80 of mushrooms and that figure has probably doubled today.  And therein lies a problem.

Anything ‘wild’ is trendy.  Wild swimming, wild camping, wild food.  Organised foraging trips are run and there are commercial foragers supplying gourmet restaurants where the patrons have only ever seen a blade of grass where it has thrust up through a crack in the pavement.  Not all foragers are irresponsible but it only takes one or two and I know sea samphire beds that were free to all not so long ago but which are now deserts that do not sprout the next year.

It seems counter intuitive that something so prolific could be wiped out but this is not new.  The North American Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird on the continent and flocks contained birds in their millions.  Yet the last bird died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, they had been hunted to extinction.  And this induces a trickle down mentality; ‘if a commercial forager is going to come along and grab everything then I may as well grab everything first’.  I have seen individuals carrying bags loaded to bursting with mushrooms leaving a wasteland in their wake.  After all, where is the sense in leaving the little ones to grow bigger when someone else will simply strip them, you may as well have them yourself.

Fortunately though in this country most people are still sure every mushroom is poisonous so that cuts down the competition and a lot of people are put off by the look of some things or the need to go to quite out of the way places.  And of course some things are still in profusion it would be hard to imagine no more nettles or garlic.

It is amazing though what you can find and also what you might find.  The 4lb lobster lumbering across the rocks was quick but not quick enough when facing someone who had never eaten lobster, though it was actually a close thing.

Today though on this very low tide it is possible to walk out to the kelp beds, always a nice addition to a stir fry and some of the garlic flower buds I picked at the river yesterday will give it a certain piquant boost.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Red Lake is far Away

It is 3 miles as near, or far, as makes no difference from the car parking place at Lud Gate to Red Lake.  Not so far until you factor in the three hillsides to climb and the rough nature of the ground underfoot.  There was a time I could run it non-stop, not any more.  I shall instead use ‘stopping to take a photo’ as a feeble excuse for ‘I’m going to die’.

The open moor is only just waking up to spring.  A few bluebells are showing in the hedges at Lud Gate whereas in the woods near home they form a blue carpet and have done so for a week or more.  Down at Holne Bridge the first hawthorn (may) flower was out two weeks ago but as I pass the last hawthorn on the edge of the open moor it is only showing its first green leaf tips.  The grass underfoot has gone past brown and dessicated and is now bleached and crumbling and the ground is parched and dry, well dry in a Dartmoor sense, in other words I have not yet gone knee deep in peaty mud in the first 100m of open moorland.

Along the way I make a little diversion to the top of Puper’s Hill to take in the view, then down to Huntingdon Warren where the daffodils are still in bloom and up to the Mound of Sinners, on to Broad Falls and thence Red Lake.

It was going so well, but there is no approach to Red Lake from this side that does not involve a long diversion or wet feet.  I have wet feet.  So close.  I have also stumbled upon the dead sheep which had alerted me to its presence 100 yards away.

The lake is a disused china clay pit which by all accounts never made any money.  I am not surprised.  The cost of the tramway alone, which snakes down the moor 6 miles to Harford nearly on the level and then steeply down to Ivybridge must have been exorbitant.  However, what I imagine most people don’t see is the line of the porcelain pipe down which the china clay slurry was sent.  It is clear to see in some places such as where it crosses a small tin streaming works on an aqueduct but for most of the rest of the way it is simply marked by a run of standing stones.  It too must have cost a fortune.

It is widely held that the lake is contaminated with arsenic which was extensively mined in Devon and Cornwall during the early part of the 20th century.   The water however is alive with fish and tadpoles and they live and drink it all day long and it doesn’t seem be doing them much harm, but it is probably as well not to drink the water.  That probably equally goes for any river downstream of a town where the pollution from vehicle exhausts lies in the gutters until being swept into the river by rain. Right about now after weeks with no rain that will make the lower stretches of the River Dart fairly nasty when the rain finally comes.

The water is chilly but not cold.  I enter form the west side under the bank which cuts out the chill breeze, but here the bottom is marshy rather than sandy and bubbles of gas burst foetidly as I wade in.  It is about 400m around the edge if you swim close in to the shore, but today I content myself with heading out into the middle kicking and splashing at the tea stained water, it never really clears, February or July, always dark and peaty.

There is something about the emptiness of this place that would perhaps not be to everyone’s liking.  There is the hurried lap, lap, lap of wavelets driven by the breeze against the stones, the sound carries around the sunken bowl like a faltering heartbeat and the breeze soughs through the grass in a final death rattle.  Floating out here in the middle of this forsaken lake is either like dying or being born, for is it not written “All things come to those who wait.”*

Suddenly the sky is full of swallows, sweeping, ducking and weaving and there is that heartbeat again.

I could head back the way I came or I could follow the tram way to where it is crossed by the Abbot’s Way, then down to the clapper bridge and around the hill and back.  However, from the top of the volcano I have a clear view of Ryder’s Hill a mile and a half away over fairly level moorland and once there I can take the ridge back to Snowdon and skirt Pupers Hill to get back.  It is a long way but it is ‘level’ or at least mostly in my favour.

Downhill it may be but I am very glad to see the car again and I am splattered with mud once again.  There is nothing for it, I will have to stop at Holne Weir on the way home.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

 

*The Way of Mrs Cosmopilite, 3 Quirm Street ,  Ankh Morpork.

The Greening of the River

I have no explanation for the phenomenon that affects the rivers and streams of Dartmoor in the early spring.  They turn green.  Bright zesty lime green.

All through the summer the waters are loaded with peat which turns them in extreme cases the same general tone as over stewed tea.  The tint is carried down the Dart, as far as its meeting with the sea at Totnes Weir.  All the growth and activity in the bogs presumably stirs the peat up and the reduced rainfall concentrates the effect, that seems fairly straight-forward.

In late autumn the rainfall picks up, the rivers run in torrents and the waters turn alternately grey-brown with stirred up sand, mud or mashed plants and leaves, or quite clear and colourless during the rare lulls in the rain.  That too is as expected, water does not have a natural colour or tint.

Then in spring the waters turn lime green.  Bright zesty lime green.

Why? is a good question well presented.  I’m open to suggestions.

It is still fairly cold and life in the peat is only just getting going after winter and maybe the winter rains have flushed out the peaty colour and that might explain why the water is tint free in February.  But what happens in mid-March to turn the water green through April and on to early May when the tea returns again?

If it was an algal growth then you might expect visibility to reduce, but it doesn’t ‘clear and green’ would be the best description, the clearest the water will be all year.

Dissolved minerals?  Some lakes appear blue because of clay flakes suspended in the water.  But what is special about spring that minerals would specially dissolve in the water?  Surely that’s going to happen all year.  Perhaps the acidity of the water changes, though why?

Perhaps most obviously it could be something to do with the plants but it happens up on the open moor above the ‘tree line’ so it’s mosses or grass or ferns, but why any of those emerging from winter would turn the water green is a mystery.

I’ve thought about it and thought about it and I still have no clue.  Answers please?