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

Between Cold Water, Algae and the Jellyfish

Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water.  So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.

The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year.  The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.

There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year.  They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.

The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m.  They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’.  Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.

One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water.  On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000.  I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.

The other is the algae.  That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date.  Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea.  Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

 

The Towel Two Step

Scabbacombe is unofficially a naturist beach, though what The National Trust who own it might think about that I’m not sure.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now, if you want to go and take your clothes off and lie in the sun then fair enough Scabbacombe is quite discrete as beaches go.

The key word in that sentence is ‘discrete’.

This is a public beach, people take the kids there and whilst nudity is the natural state there is a subtle difference between ‘lie in the sun’ and ‘sprawl in the sun’.  And, discrete to display to flaunt to flashing is a continuum that means different things to different people under different circumstances.

I am however aware that I am to some degree in residence in a glass house here.  I cannot be doing with the towel two step let alone dry robes, adopting instead the ‘get changed, do it swiftly and discretely and don’t look at the person standing next to you’ method.

Now, if I stood and stared at one of the naturists I am fairly sure I’d get a slap.  Why then should one of them feel it appropriate to stare at me (wearing my swimming leggings, a sure indicator that I’m not one of the flashing community) and then come up to me to discuss the merits of waterproof cameras whilst hanging in the breeze?

By all means do your own thing, but please do it over there.

I have nothing against naturists.

And I would like to keep it that way.

But all that said, it is only for a few weeks in the year; September to May I have the place to myself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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

The Rise and Fall of the River Dart

The surface of the river at the pool above the weir at Holne Bridge is glass smooth and a perfect mirror to the relentless grey clouds above.  However, refocussing my eyes from the superficial reflection down through the clear water I can see fine sand at my feet grading into pebbles and on to larger boulders out into the middle of the river until the river bed is lost in a aqua-green haze.  The water is very clear, possibly as clear as I have ever seen it.

A gust or air ruffles the surface breaking the mirror which is a good thing as I don’t need seven years of bad luck.  I press my toes into the softly yielding soil of the bank, lift my heels and spring into a dive.  I like to do neat dives which is not always so easy from an uneven vantage point but I feel this one is neat, the water cuts around me rather than there being any sensation of impact.  The water is bitterly cold and stings my eyes as I sweep over the river bed boulders into deeper water before getting forced up by the cold crushing my head.

‘Whoo hoo!’  I shake my head in a futile attempt to dislodge the stars that are spinning around inside. ‘F_, that’s cold.’  But not as cold as Wednesday.

Only last week I was quite contentedly dropping into the river above the bridge in only my swimwear and taking a leisurely 10 minute drift down to the weir without any sense of chill.  The water at a guess was 12degC or more, the temperature buoyed up by day after day of spring sunshine.  The sunshine has been a little less in evidence the last week or so and there was snow over the moor on Monday.  I anticipated the change in water temperature on Wednesday but even so and wearing a wetsuit when I got to the weir I had the shivers, the temperature was 5 or 6C at most.  Today the river is on the upward cycle again but still just sub-double figures at a guess.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The water level however is on the downward cycle, in free fall almost.  A month ago the whole of the weir was covered and the water swirled several inches deep over the lip  amongst the roots of the oak tree where my bag now rests high and dry.  Today that lip stands at least 10 inches high and dry.  That makes changing much easier as I can stand on the concrete and rinse the sand from between my toes.  By late summer the water will be confined to just the sluice and spillway but if the forecast is right that will have to wait a while as there is rain on the way.  It is unlikely to be as much as a few years ago when in the 2 weeks over Christmas 2013 the weather produced three of the highest river levels ever recorded on the Dart.

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