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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.