The Silence of the Owls

The silhouettes of the branches are emerging from the darkness against the lightening sky whilst amongst the trees all is darkness so that the multi-hued autumn leaves that form a carpet strewn across the ground are no more than a pixilated mat in shades of grey.  Walking from the clearing under the canopy of trees the silence and darkness envelopes everything.  Away in the woods a pair of owls call and continue to do so until they fade from hearing.  That’s when they are at their most fearsome; when you can no loner hear them stalking you.

Many people I know are afraid to go down to the woods to play and the idea of woods in darkness would terrify them.  Maybe it is those killer owls.  The most dangerous thing in these woods is me and that be good enough reason for others to be terrified.  However the one thing that bothers me is that somewhere here there is a tree root.  That will be it, the one I just stubbed my toes on.  How is it possible that when I knew it was there and wanted to avoid it I was nevertheless drawn to it like an owl to the scent of fear.

The surface of the river is without a ripple except right at the foot of the rocks where the current rolls to the surface leaving a sinuous and every changing corded ripple that trails downstream past the leaf littered jetty until it is ironed flat by the flow of water.  Were it not for that and the fallen leaves channeled into a narrow band flowing by out in midstream there would be little to suggest there was any flow at all.  Even the chatter of the water over the pebbles downstream is subdued.

Retying my pony tail with additional bands to prevent any further leaf entanglement and scissors incidents I step into the water, give a short gasp at the cold and set off upstream pushing a swell ahead of me with my breaststroke.  Emerging from under the tree canopy I see ahead of me upstream for a brief moment the sky overhead flushed orange with an unseen sunrise.  However by the time I have returned on my second circuit the sky colour has faded to ashen grey, though the trees are now at least dull shades of green.

I am still alone in the silence as I set off for my third run.  Up and back takes something like 12 minutes, but as I round the corner into the main pool for the end of my swim Clare is stood on the bank already slipping her sandals back on having changed, dipped, dried and dressed in my period of absence.  We comment on the stillness, the calm before the storm, as rain and high winds are forecast for the afternoon.  It does not seem possible.

But it was and by mid-afternoon the trees outside my office window are bent before the gale and leaves stream in a blizzard down the road that is gushing with water in the leaf choked gutters.  Killer owls!  Yeah, you try and hang on to your perches in that.  Killer owls indeed.

There will be no river swimming tomorrow morning after this lot.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


Before Dawn

The forecast for yesterday was solid rain, but that did not materialize.  Nevertheless, the river was at least 12 inches higher than might have been expected after a few rain free days so maybe it has been raining up on the moor.  It was however quite swimable, though the dipper’s rock was completely submerged and I could get no closer than 5m to the churning water that marked its unseen presence even though I was swimming flat out against the flow.

This morning the level is back where I would expect it though still running too fast at this point in the year to contemplate a loop down to the shallows before a push to the top of the pool.  The water is far too fast over the shallows for that to be viable.

The swirling surface of the water is wreathed in threads of mist.  There is no apparent sense to it.  In some places it streams up off the surface in sheets which drift imperceptibly into the cover of the trees.  Elsewhere random puffs of mist inexplicably billow up from the surface as if the river has just exhaled.  Each time I exhale I add to the haze.  I dip into the river as the church clock chimes seven.  The sunrise is as yet no more than a dull glow below the tree line downstream.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is odd to now swim beneath branches and twigs that were just 12 hours ago trailing in the river.  And unlike last night I am now swimming with each stroke advancing me beneath the tree, whereas before it took me ten or more strokes to advance ten centimeters.  I am past the apples trees, past the sunken log (not a problem last night but now there to snag an uninformed toe), past the Himalayan Balsam which still hints the air with that slightly sickly odour and past the half submerged branch with just a few forlorn leaves nodding rapidly in some form of St Vitus’s Dance.

I am into the still water and bowling along then out into the full flow again.  The Dipper’s rock is there but remains elusive.  The current hurls me back downstream into a morning still dark beneath the mist shrouded trees.

On my second return however the sun finally crests the trees downstream and the pool illuminates in a blaze of fire, the tongues of mist now lick upwards scorching the undersides of the leaves with an orange reflected glow.  It is dazzlingly bright.  I set off back up the pool for the third and final time.

The dawn glory is all over by the time I shoot back down the pool.  The sun has cleared the trees and the fire-orange glow has paled to intense yellow-white against a bleached blue background.  It has been as memorable as my first equinox swim earlier in the week only now it is on time, or at least on the same day.

I furiously towel dry as the shivers set in, each moment will make it harder to tie my boot laces, but I am layering up as fast as possible.  Maybe the trick is to put the boots on first, then get dressed.  Tying laces is hardly a precision job, but it does need doing right, whereas putting a hoodie on can presumably be done shivers or not.

Leave that with me until tomorrow morning.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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

From Dawn ’til Dusk

So no vampires then.

It’s 4:30 in the morning, it has been light for half an hour but under the trees shadows still lurk on the edge of vision.  And again there is not a hint of breeze.  We join the group who bivvied on the beach as the horizon assumes a hazy orange glow.  The waves are sweeping softly over the high tide line belying the deeper swell that makes the 5 Knot buoy bob and nod further out.  We ride the swell as the sun clears the horizon filling each face with summer warmth and promise.

We swim back in as the sun rises higher making noticeable progress minute by minute, there is a lot of sky to cover today.  Climbing back up the hill the shadows have fled away from beneath the tress, it is just 6 o’clock.

The first day of summer is a scorcher as the camper van creeps up the motorway then onto major roads and minor roads through the Brecon Beacons, across the heart of Wales.  The route picks up the River Wye and follows it back up into the hills until crossing over at Eisteddfa Gurig from where I can almost see the sea.  It is an extraordinary twist of geological fate that send the river instead half the length of Wales east to the Severn 100 miles back the way I just came.

It is much later in the day when I pull the camper onto the roadside at Borth.

The heat is already draining from the day as a slight breeze stutters over the pebbles and sand.  The sun is now creeping down to the horizon off this seeming endless stretch of beach as I throw off my t-shirt onto my towel and wade out through the surf almost reaching the sunset before there is sufficient water in which to swim.

The sun creeps lower, casting golden tints across the water, its progress seems far slower than its earlier ascent, reluctant perhaps to give way to a brief darkness, a darkness that is now on the ascendant from here to December when there might again be vampires, but for now there is only the summer.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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


Devon and Cornwall?

It is not that I have run out of places to add to my ‘Devon’ Wild Swim Map it is simply that things keep taking me in the direction of Cornwall and there are, as there are in Devon, some stunning swimming spots ‘across the border’.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

When I arrived in Falmouth the previous evening the sea was roaring into the beach and the torrential rain had produced lakes rather than puddles along the seafront road.  However, twelve hours is a long time in swimming and in the pre-dawn light next morning there was only a slight breeze and the sea had become almost millpond calm as the stars faded from the clear sky.  Looking out from Maenporth Beach though it was quite clear that the focus of the brightness was slightly around the headland and I was not going to get a sunrise.  Not from the beach anyway.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The soft sand at the high water mark  gave way to sharp pebbles on the gently sloping beach and even before my feet were in the shallows they were feeling numb.  I had planned for a longer swim and was in my wetsuit but even so the water finding its way inside was like icy needles and even though I know it is true I had to convince myself afresh that once the water on the inside warmed up thighs would be at least acceptable.

As I got closer to the headland the light along the horizon brightened behind the band of cloud throwing up lighthouse beams that swept the sky as the clouds drifted across the distant sky.  Then for just a brief moment the isolated clouds above me turned from leaden grey to burning gold tinged with pink and then pure white and the rising sun swept  light down from above half blinding me with its brilliance.  In all the excitement I had quite failed to notice the water inside the wetsuit was now more temperate and almost but not quite pleasant though my fingers and toes were refusing to cooperate and lacking in any sense of feeling respectively.

Against the bright sky the perching birds looked like teeth along the ridge of nearby rock they were however troubled by my noisy progress as I kicked up gouts of water to be backlit against the sun and en masse took to flight, wheeling my way at first and squawking irritably before making their own solitary paths across the bay.

My splashy progress eventually took me back into the breaking waves where I unexpectedly found I was in no more than a foot of water as I grated ashore on the sand and pebbles.  Only leaving me with a numb foot stumble back up the beach to my towel.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall