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

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Holne Weir

I have now adjourned lock, stock and towel to Holne Weir and made it for 12 sunrise swims here on the trot, a run only broken today by torrential rain.  Whilst some might say that shows a lack of imagination, I’d paraphrase the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy “When you are tired of Holne Bridge, you are tired of life itself.”  What’s more as time has allowed I have been here 5 or 6 time maybe in the evening too.

What gives it such drawing power?  It is very easy to park on the road and only a 2 minute walk to the water, there are lots of places to get changed and I now have a peg on a holly tree with my name on it.  It is the simplest thing to step off the weir and swim to a little beyond the bridge, which is outrageously scenic.  On the downside it can get popular because it is just beside the road and the opposite bank is a campsite.

As for the swimming there is a deep water channel up the middle of the main pool about 3/4 of the way after which you need to swim directly to the rope swing, passing about 2m off the white rocks on the right bank and missing the very sharp rocks in the placid shallow water on the inside of the turn that you would otherwise have swum smack in to.  Tight in to the bank under the swing turn left and swim towards the larch tree on the far bank, turning in mid-river and swimming upstream heading about 1m off the rocks on the left.  Drift to the right and you will hit sharp rocks again as the channel is deep but narrow here.  Then swim directly for the middle of the span of the bridge head after which head straight up the middle of the river aiming at the rock in mid river at the start of the rapids.  It is 340m from weir to rock and following this course misses everything underwater.

The swim varies in intensity depending on river flow.  If the weir is water bank to bank I can barely make progress beyond the ½ way point of the weir pool.  As the level drops from there as it has over the last 2 weeks it reaches a point where the bridge is achievable and though you won’t know it as you set out it is just possible to reach the rock at the rapids when it is just clear of the water.

The river bed adds to the fun however, the channel shallows and narrows so that the approach to the rope swing is quite push.  Under the swing is the deepest part and almost still water.  From there the river bed begins wide and shallow but it funnels, deepening and narrowing to the next rocks and passing them is a push until almost at the bridge.

There the channel is as wide as the span of the bridge and maybe 10 feet deep, certainly enough that people will jump from the bridge above.

Above the bridge the water is chaotic, fast flowing and large rocks on the river bed create sideways currents and counter eddies.  Each swirl opens a space in the flow that is immediately grabbed by another.  Simply being in the water adds to the chaos and sweeping my arms and kicking my legs creates a new set of eddies so that at one moment the water is piled against my face but with the next sweep of my arms a bow wave pushes ahead of me getting drawn upstream by the flow with an urgent rushing sound.

The water shallows about 3m down from the rock but there is a patch of dead water and you can simply float forward over the hidden boulders.  It is only recently that I have noted the profile of the rock is somewhat reminiscent of cleavage and that perhaps I should be gentler when landing my hand on it each time with a slap as a measure of achievement.

Then comes the downstream rush, keeping to the same line but duck diving into the water to scoot along the sand and pebbles of the river bed or twist over the bedrock where it has been worn into flutes.

It is a 20 minute round trip; 12 going, 8 returning and my aim is to do it twice if the current allows.  It will be interesting to see what the flow is tomorrow morning.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

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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

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.

 

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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.

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After the Crowds

When I am used to being on the river bank by myself even a couple of extra people constitutes a crowd.  Generally that’s not a problem, I don’t have the monopoly on solitude or peace and quiet for that matter and what’s not to like about the sound of people enjoying themselves.  Up to a point.

There are 6 or so late ‘teens’ or early ‘twentysomethings’ on the river bank and a couple of the lads are hurling fist sized stones into the water.  I have inhabited that particular glass house so I’m not saying anything, but on this otherwise perfectly still evening in the warm golden rays of the setting sun it is a major assault on the senses.

From where I stop further up the river bank to change I can here them calling and yelling out of sight through the trees but there is still the occasional sploosh of a falling stone out in the middle of the pool.  There is a ceasefire in their barrage as I swim down and back but behind me again I here another sploosh, that hollow sucking sound of a stone falling into shallow water.

Their intrusion fades as I get changed, the sun has gone behind the trees and so have they, silence falls and the surface of the pool settles back to its natural calm state.

I’m sitting on the bank absently contemplating the ripples on the water.  In a fast flowing current it always surprises me that ripples pushed ahead of me as I swim upstream aren’t carried downstream by the flow of water.  Afterall, like leaves or twigs that is what you would expect isn’t it?  Instead however I have often noted how the ripples move against the flow of water as if the water were in fact completely still.  But more than that, ripples in still water spread out leaving a still centre, whereas ripples in moving water seem to propagate almost indefinitely raising static waves in the flow.  I have been watching these ripples for as long as it has taken me to dry and dress and they are still there trapped in the flow of the water, their undulations marked by flickers of reflection.  They will fade eventually, that must be the case because they were not there when I dove in earlier.

Perpetual motion is a myth, it is contrary to all the laws of thermodynamics including the first law of thermodynamics club which is, don’t talk about thermodynamics.  So the ripples must be drawing energy from somewhere and that can really only be from the flow of the river.  That being the case I speculate on whether there is a relationship between the frequency and/or amplitude of the ripples and the rate of flow of the water.  This must  be the case because the ripples I made swimming and getting out must have been many and chaotic, yet they have now settled into a very uniform pattern.

I’m yanked back to the ‘real world’ when a pale brown autumn leaf tumbles over my towel just within arm’s reach.  Except that there is no breeze and for a leaf to be moving that fast there would have to be a hurricane blowing.  Gently tilting my head down I can peer beneath the overhang of the bank and there not 3 feet away a pair of beady black eyes flank an urgently twitching nose which waggles its whiskers at me.  The mouse and I hold eye contact for a moment and then it flicks away like a randomly bouncing ball ricocheting off stones and tree roots.  It’s not just me that likes it when it’s more solitudinous.

Walking back past the scene of the youthful gathering I pause and collect up the cans and other litter.  Now that really pisses me off and I bet more ended up in the river.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Bedfellows

Running is, to my mind at least, a natural bedfellow to swimming.  After all, how better to get from here to there and more importantly get warm afterwards?

In the summer it couldn’t be simpler, just swim in the running kit and then run back, no towel required.

The winter requires a rethink of routes, the choice being either run with a small backpack containing towel and swimwear (not so good for running but there is the post swim warm-up factor), or, run and swim back at the start (no need to carry anything but chilly afterwards).  Decisions, decisions.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I am almost tempted to run up to Sharrah Pool but I have left it a little bit late and the traffic through Totnes was moving with glacial slowness as distinct from the usual snail’s pace.  It is nearly 6pm when I get to New Bridge so Sharrah is not on the menu.

Instead I make a little circuit up and down the river bank past Wellsfoot to the end of the track by the ruined bridge at the foot of Long Island.  The air is still under the trees, the sun is warm and the light dapples the ground.  One solitary daffodil stands tall facing the sunshine and up here the ground is wrong for the wood anemones that are in profusion further downstream, but the bluebells are coming.

I hop back in the van and bundle down to Holne Bridge which is a default ‘go to’ place, partly because it is perhaps the best swim on the river, partly because it is extremely beautiful – always, and partly because it is easy to get to.

I change on the river bank and walk the sandy path to the tumble down gap in the wall.  The traffic has dropped to nothing which is as well because any motorist coming along would find a wetsuit clad head case with swimming goggles perched on their forehead doing a ‘La La Land’ up the middle of the road, dancing as it were, from one white line to the next (because the paint takes the sharpness out of the road grit, mad, but not stupid).

After running the water seems especially bitter but that will pass and has done so almost by the time I have been shot under the bridge.  The sun is a little too low to give the best silhouette effect but it highlights the roiling water where it twists like ropes thrown up by unseen boulders on the river bed.

As I round the corner by the rope swing the Mandarin Ducks splash away noisily.  I suspect they have a nest.  They have been here for two years at least but generally there are more and more of this introduced species year after year.  Very pretty, but they don’t belong.  A few years ago some mergansers had a nest on the bank in amongst a thicket of willow and hatched a gaggle of chicks, but now with the bank cleared they have been forced out.

From here to the weir the pool is in sunshine.  The water has cleared since Sunday and the golden sand can be seen spread out across the river bed infilling around the boulders.  There are no salmon yet but I hope to see them soon, it is the right time of year.  I shall report back.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming