Rivers Joining

I have swum several times at Freshford in the Avon by following the public footpath over the railway footbridge, across the field to the first stile and then turning down to a clump of willows on the bank.  From there it is about ¼ mile down to the weir and I have swum about a similar distance upstream.  I have however had an interest in a point a little further upstream where the River Frome flows into the Avon.

The Frome is only small and whilst I once found a good spot to swim near Rode and have swum at the Farleigh Hungerford Swimming Club (it’s not as exciting as people might have you believe) on my only attempt to swim down to the confluence I found the Frome to be little more than a weed choked trickle between high banks thick with undergrowth and therefore not swimmable.  Similarly the Avon upstream of the join is wide, shallow, slow moving and resembles a reed bed rather than a river.  I had to assume then that the swims I had had before where the river was deep and clear were entirely down to the weir.  How far upstream I could swim was open to exploration.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The day is sweltering, especially beside the river where the humidity has been drawn up from the fields and hangs heavily with no breeze to clear the air.

From my usual swim spot I walk upstream following the path, across another stile, through some willows and across a ditch, looking for somewhere to enter the water.  Finally beneath another willow there is a spot where the cattle have trodden the bank down so I can leave my bag out of sight and step down the tree roots into the water.

The water feels soft and warm, well compared to the River Dart much earlier this morning anyway and the very warm sun dips in and out from behind the willows as I move upstream against the flow until I hit the first reed bed.

The reeds are tall, dark green spears and some, where they sand upright nearer the bank, are crowned with a pom-pom flower, but where they are bent over by the current they are sharply tipped and all point in my direction.  Where there are tall reeds there are also long mats of trailing grass fronds in the water, they cling to my arms and wrap around my legs, but here I can see the river bed and as I am in only 2 feet of water I stand and wade until I am upstream to where in can swim on.  There is another reed bed ahead but the water here is even shallower where the river turns gently to the right.

The cattle have lined to top of the bank.  The bank is broken down to a slope so this is clearly where they come down to the river, but they are however not to sure about someone swimming and when I stand up they back away cautiously.

I swim through the left arch of the railway bridge, the water shallows to just a few inches and as I wade forward my foot slips between 2 stones and I give my ankle a firm bash.  But now I can see where the rivers flow together and here they have created a deep and wide pool and I laze in the almost still water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It has taken over half an hour to swim 3/10 of a mile rushing along slow.  Now though I have to get back and with the flow behind me I shoot down the river, whisking through the reed beds and finally swinging in under the willow and back to my towel.

Murlough Bay

The single track road clings precipitously to the steep incline of the stacked cliffs.  Below the sea is azure blue whilst waves break in white spray on the black stones delineating the margin between land and sea.  Over it all lush green trees stand sentinel under the black cliffs.  As if the picture postcard view were not complete a single storey whitewashed fisherman’s cottage nestles on a level platform cut into the hillside just above the high tide line.  A path twists between huge blocks of tumbled stone from the cottage to the beach.

The beach is of fine, white sand and sheltered from the onshore breeze so that here the waves wash idly over the gently shelving sand causing the loose fronds of kelp in the shallows to flap and wave.

Close in to the beach the water sparkles with fine sand grains but out beyond the waves the water is crystal clear revealing the ripples in the sand on the sea bed 10m down.  A few people are paddling in the shallows but I am alone as I head off exploring amongst the rocks out to the island.

The volcanic nature of the scenery is revealed in detail by the island, where the black basalt is vertically jointed in a poor imitation of the nearby Giant’s Causeway.  Just beneath the water’s surface enormous brown digitate fronds of kelp wave, the exposed rocks however are washed bare; black except for small patches of barnacles that cling in the sheltered nooks and above that a crust of vivid yellow lichens.

Diving down beside the wall of kelp the light changes from clearest blue to copper green above a ledge where a field of kelp heads stretches out of sight.  Tucked between the rocks is a finger of sand which cups a lobster pot but it is too deep down to see if there is anything in it.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Back closer to the beach it looks as though the sandy sea bed might be within reach.  However attempting to swim down it the sea bed remains curiously out of reach, I have impaired distance perception in this unfamiliar clear water. The water pressure is pressing against my head and this is certainly the deepest ‘freedive’ I have ever made, but finally I reach with a hand and at a full stretch 2 fingertips dig into the sand flicking up a little puff of shinny grains.  Then I am kicking for the surface which seems as impossibly far away as the sea bed was below.

This coast apparently has some of the best examples of kelp beds in Europe and I can believe it.  The fronds are twice the size and more of anything I see back home even in the most sheltered bays.  Whilst those at home can be quite impressive the visibility does not do them justice but here it is kelp forest almost all the way back to the beach and I hope to see some more before we are done.

 

Loughareema, The Vanishing Lake.

This lake is straddled by the A2 road viaduct, though there was no obvious way by which the 2 sides were connected under the road when I swam, with a small space to park at the east end of the viaduct.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The lake is included in the Geologist Association’s top 100 UK sites because it fills (in as little as a day) and empties rapidly (within a few days) leaving just a deep muddy hole.  Check this link to the Geology Survey Northern Ireland video on YouTube , or this one on the Geology Society web site, or search on-line where you will find pictures showing it empty and quite deep!

In many nearby locations it is apparent that there is a thick chalk bed over-layered with basalt and at the lake itself an additional layer of peat. Whilst the basalt itself is quite waterproof and made more so by the peat it seems the bottom of the lake has hole in it through which the water drains down into the porous chalk.

The road was not always raised on a viaduct and could be flooded for weeks on end. On one occasion in 1898 when it was flooded Colonel John Magee McNeille ordered his coachman to drive through the lake on the line of the road but the coach got off the road and the horses and occupants were lost and now their ghosts apparently haunt the lake.

None of this: ghosts or the chance the water would suddenly vanish, nor the incessant rain, was of course going to put me off swimming the entire circumference of the lake.

The water is dark with peat, very dark, like cola, but not as cold as maybe it might have been given the general lack of sunshine and incessant rain of the past week; necessary factors of course for there to even be a lake.  I set off beneath the island of cairns, each one tipped with a white glint of chalk only reinforcing the impression of dragons teeth.

Cars slow on the road, maybe to look at the lake, maybe to look at the swimmer as somehow I don’t think this sort of thing happens very frequently.  I pretend I am not in a goldfish bowl, but I am in a goldfish bowl there’s no escaping the fact.

There’s a patch of blue sky overhead and the scene brightens for a short while but the sunshine only sweeps the far hillside coming nowhere close and then the gloom lowers again.

Reeds brush my legs.  At this point I have no idea about the geology and history of the lake, maybe just as well, and I have no idea about how much vanishing goes on though the very top flowers of a foxglove just poking through the surface give me some sense of how flooded the lake must be.  The sheep look on disdainfully as I reach ‘the far side’ where one of the streams that feeds water runs in chattering noisily amongst mossy stones.  Extraordinarily I have already been swimming 20 minutes, it is further around than it looks (I find out later that it is over 1/2 a mile).

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is however a swim of 2 very unequal halves and the second half takes less than 15 minutes.  Finally I bump the stones back where I started to find Gerald keeping watch over my towel and the sheep at bay.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It has been a rather wonderful moment that I cannot imagine I will be repeating.

 

Ballintoy Harbour

It has been a day of what we have come to regard as weather typical of Northern Ireland, one minute sunshine, the next showers.  The local people are indeed even more pessimistic about the weather than we are back home where living on the edge of Dartmoor everything comes our way often in just a few hours.  However, what we have come to appreciate is the roads, they are well maintained and it is wonderfully easy to get around, take any journey distance in England and halve the time it will take to make in Northern Ireland.

A diversion from our most direct route ‘home’ is not therefore regarded as an issue.  Signposting however is patchy and we fly past the tiny turning and even tinier sign and have to make an about turn in the main street and head back to Ballintoy Harbour.

Picturesque does not cover it.  The harbour nestles under a cliff of white chalk whilst a headland of Giant’s Causeway like basalt points out to sea.  However, the bays either side of the headland are encircled by other islands of basalt creating two almost perfectly sheltered lagoons.  One bay has the quays that make up the harbour the other a sweep of fine white sand.  The whole is finished off with a bright blue sky streaked with trailing clouds through which the sun occasionally peaks to send silver trails glittering over the sea.  It is stunning, no other description will suffice.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The sand gives softly under my feet and there is barely a noticeable divide between sand and water so much so that the ripples I create wading in are bigger then the waves lapping the shore.

The seabed shelves so slightly that I set off swimming in just a few feet of depth of water, but here beyond the action of any waves the sand is whirled into a mosaic landscape of worm casts, fading down into the depths until they are replaced by current rippled sand amongst blocks of rock.  As well as palmate fronds of kelp the rocks have been colonised by dead men’s bootlace seaweed which grows in strands that reach to the surface where they lie together in mandala patterns of intertwined coils and spirals.  It is not easy to swim through as it wraps around arms, neck and legs.

Above the water line the black basalt rocks also twist in fractured coils capped with yellow lichen if they are above the reach of waves.  Beyond the shelter of these encircling rocks is a different sea.  A deep swell rides waves up onto the rocks.  In places the water finds a gap and fountains into the shelter of the lagoon, but elsewhere it slides up the black rock, foaming as it climbs and then cascades back in an avalanche of spray and bubbles.

Returning to the beach I paddle on my back to take in the changing patterns of the setting sun and then, as I am towelling off, the sky lights up with a display of crepuscular rays that lance into the blue sky or sweep like searchlights across the water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Two days later we stop briefly but there is a gale howling in off the sea, the shore is lined with foul smelling tatters of seaweed and a seal bobs in the water.  Given my bite-hate relationship with seals I decide not to swim.

Cushendun, the first taste of Ireland.

There is blue sky overhead smeared with a few streaks of wispy cloud and a slight breeze stirs the trees.  Across the road from the car park is a low wall with a gateway, a path across a narrow swathe of rough grass and a ramped access to a beach of fine, white, glittering sand, backed by buried railway sleepers contorted by waves and wind blown sand separating the beach from some small fragile dunes.  I have the beach to myself, almost.  Far to my left a solitary figure is stood beside a fishing rod lying in its rest.

However, as I change and then wade into the short surf of the clearest water I can recall swimming in for a very long while a breeze tugs at my hair and sopping wet clouds roll up over the pine trees.  Oh well I will be getting wet anyway and my towel and clothes are rolled into a plastic bag, it’ll be fine.

It must be close to high tide and for 10m out from the surf the seabed is a mix of sand and pebbles and then the limit of the effects of the summer waves is reached and quite literally like a line drawn in the sand the sea bed becomes a simple field of ribbed sand.  It stretches out ahead, left and right, out of sight and here that is a lot of sight.

DCIM169GOPRO
DCIM169GOPRO

The sky becomes greyer as I swim along the beach about 50m out in about 6 to 7m depth of crystal clear water looking down at the endless seabed.  A fine mist of drizzle begins to fill the air and the village fades a little.  The boom of thunder rolls around the bay and glancing at the beach I can see the sky inland is now dark and a little ominous.

The man on the beach is hurriedly collecting his gear together and sets off up the beach at a trot as the first juicy drops of rain pit the surface of the sea with small saucers of ripples.  The breeze across the surface of the sea is barely perceptible and yet the clouds are advancing swiftly and bring with them heavier rain and another growl of thunder though there is no flash of lightning.   The chance of being injured by a lightning strike is vanishingly small though I can understand why the fisherman with his 12 foot high carbon fibre lightning conductor may a run for his car, but you know what, I think I’ll take my chances.

The rain is quickly over and another dull boom of thunder almost out of earshot rolls in over the sea but the clouds it seems are here to stay.

At the far end of the beach from the town the sea bed becomes dotted with isolated rocks each home to a thatch of kelp fronds.  Then there are more rocks, but here the water suddenly becomes warmer and also brown like weak tea where a small stream disgorges its load of peat saturated water collected down off the moorland.  I am used to the River Dart being peaty in colour but this is properly dark brown so I swim back into the clear water which feels sharply cooler now.

Back at my towel the scene is still dull like early evening and the damp sand no longer glitters.  Far away on the slipway at the town someone is walking a dog, but otherwise I am just a solitary figure in the middle of almost 1/2 a mile of perfect beach.

 

Two days later and I am back at the beach only this time I swim end to end and back and the sea across the whole bay is peat stained to such a degree that the seabed is only dimly visible.  And not only is the water coming down the main river the colour of molasses but it is also bitingly chill, which is all rather disappointing.

Flash Flood

There was tragic news earlier in the week about 9 people killed by a flash flood in Arizona.  They were enjoying a sunny day at a popular swimming hole unaware of the torrential downpour miles upstream.  Apparently the first anyone knew of the changing conditions was a rumble like thunder and then a wall of water came down the river and was on them in seconds.  As is clear from the video in the above link it is not only the water but the debris in the water that causes such tragedies.

People say the River Dart is a ‘flashy’ river though it is not immediately obvious how that can be.  Yes there are relatively big flood waters but normally from looking at data on the Environment Agency River Level Monitoring Site it looks like the levels rise and fall relatively slowly.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Flash floods do happen here: Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952, Boscastle 2004, Coverack last week, but are thankfully uncommon.

As far as the Dart goes yesterday brought what was a borderline flash flood as recorded on the above Env. Agency website.

Wild Swimming Still Pool
Wild Swimming Still Pool

On Thursday evening I swam my usual twice up and down the 300m pool near Dartington.  The river chattered over the stones and was still perhaps an inch or so higher than the typical summer low after Tuesday’s showers and just touched the last of the steps near the swing which hangs 6 feet clear of the placid, clear water of the main pool.  I swam with a girl who had stopped off on her run, 2 boys were messing about with snorkels in the shallows by the sandy beach and the 2 girls were taking turns on the swing.

The forecast was for rain.

When it came it was torrential hammering deafeningly on the tin roof at work.  I had to go and take a look at the river.

Beneath the bridge the shallows and banks of pebbles where the heron had been stalking yesterday had vanished.  However, the water might be just an inch deep, a covering and with no marker there was no knowing.

At the pool though it is obvious the level is up about 4 feet if not more.  Tree branches drag the surface and the steps have gone along with the little step from which I dive and the concrete ledge is being washed over.

Stepping into the water at the edge of the beach it is waist deep where yesterday there were dry stones and I wade out to the trees where dark brown water slooshes around the willows.  The water here is however barely flowing, dammed into a little pool by trees and bank.  Walking back along the bank it is clear that in just a few minutes the level has risen to fill the hollow under the leaning tree trunk and back at the steps the ledge has gone.

The water in the enclosed corner stirs gently, there is less flow than in the mainstream on a normal day and I bob easily in the surprisingly warm water keeping place with just gentle flicks of my hands and feet but with nowhere to go there is no point in staying in longer than to take a few pictures and watch the world quite literally pass by.

Hauling myself out using the small tree it is clear the water is rising fast.  It has now breeched the last of the rock and the oak tree roots are awash leaving just a few inches of the tallest rock poking above the surface and even that get swamped once in a while.  As I dry off I see a tennis ball whisk by and several plastic bottles and a surprising amount of potential firewood.  A long heavy length hitches on some trailing tree branches hauling them down until the log is released and the branches spring back with a crash.  The log broadsides the next branches and sticks creating a dam and a noisy gurgle of water.

The last of the rock is finally covered and at the same moment the water catches the tail of rope at the swing and sets it dodging and rocking, the water pulls one end in, flips it up and the other end is dragged in.  That is a rise of 18 inches in 30 minutes.

What looks like a honeydew melon in terms of colour and size spins past.

I’d like to stay and watch (as it turns out the level will not peak for another hour and the monitoring station upstream shows another 10 inch rise yet to come) but instead I’ll come back in a day or too and look for the tide line of debris on the all but submerged fence beyond the vanished beach on the far bank.

More heavy rain is however forecast.

 

 

Wild (Terms and Conditions May Apply).

I have jogged down the coast path to the edge of the sea where the path turns inland again.  However though it is all but grown over there is a side path to the edge of the foreshore which then turns into a narrow sandy ledge above a steep drop that doubles as a path down to the patch of green lawn that nestles on top of rocks below.  There are now several ways down to the sea, but my favourite is a traverse down a thin lip that takes a 45degree angle down a slab of smooth, nearly vertical rock to a level space at the high tide mark.  From here there is a finger of deep water that leads to the open sea, but which is sheltered from nearly all directions except on the biggest tides and in the roughest weather.

The trend for prefixing the term ‘wild’ to an activity as in ‘wild swimming’, ‘wild camping’ etc. grates my nerves.  I blame Richard Mabey.  The latest is apparently ‘wild running’.  ‘Wild’ has now been so overused as to have become almost meaningless.  Which of course it isn’t, it does have its place; though I do wonder if I have been fished in.

To my mind if you are interested in ‘wild’ swimming as distinct from outdoor swimming then with that comes a different set of objectives:

Do swim alone,
Do swim with the minimum clutter,
Enjoy,
Be responsible for yourself,
Leave the environment a better place than when you arrived,
Don’t die.

This of course flies in the face of most advice given when someone asks what they need to go wild swimming.  Except the don’t die bit, I think we can all agree that is reasonable advice no matter what.  However, I fail to see how swimming in a big group and taking so much stuff with you that you need a wheelbarrow to move it all about can possibly be considered ‘wild’ (or any safer, but that’s for another day).

You don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth, ‘wild’ is a moving target.  Where I was swimming (by myself) this morning, the river was flat calm and all I could hear was birds (and far away someone yelling after their dog which had probably gone after the squirrel I saw earlier).  I had a gentle encounter with a selection of ducks and ducklings, a dipper and 2 kingfishers.  However, if I go back after work the place will be awash with people swimming, jumping from the rocks, on the rope swing, there will certainly be dogs chasing about, the river will be churned up and somehow I think the wildness will have gone.  And so to will the ducks, dipper and kingfishers.

Wild is I accept a subjective term in relation to each person’s comfort zone.  I am quite happy to wander through a field amongst a herd of cows whereas the London Underground nowadays gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.

The swimming wilderness is however fast disappearing and the amount of ‘wild’ has more than halved in 5 years.  Places I used to go fairly sure there would be no-one else about are now almost invariably ‘taken’ when I arrive.  Over the course of maybe 5 years and 50 swims at Abbot’s Mede I have met just 4 other people: 3 fishing, 1 walking.  Last week there were 2 other swimmers.

The inevitable upshot is an impulse to go further.  It can bring benefits, but it can also mean being at places where even a minor incident would soon turn major.  Maybe then the only worthwhile safety advice is ‘have fun and don’t die’.