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.

 

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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

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

 

Ticks – the small crawling kind

It is tick season and for the next 3 months they are likely to be out in force up along the river banks and for some reason they find me irresistible. I plan to spoil their fun.

Some obviously grab on to my clothes as I push through longer grass or bilberry plants which seem to be a favourite and that is sort of unavoidable.  Some I’m sure drop onto socks and shoes in a similar way, they are going to hang on there and get me later. But I am sure some also find out clothes etc. whilst I’m off swimming.

I have adopted strategies in the past with varying degrees of success, such as standing on rocks surrounded by water to get changed and hanging all my clothes in a plastic bag from a tree whilst swimming.  Those have been somewhat successful, but if one is caught on the outside of clothes and you put them in a bag it’s not long before they are on the inside of the clothes.

No matter how thoroughly I check after I get home there are always one or two that get through and the first sign I’ve been bitten again is usually there is an itch at the site of any previous bites.  Then the search is on.  If you find them quickly enough they can be eased out with either a very fine pair of forcep tweezers or one of the special tools you can buy on-line or from vet surgeries and that is usually that.  If it’s later and they have properly got a hold then there will often be a little, itchy scab for weeks after.

That is unpleasant enough, notwithstanding that I do not want Lyme Disease.  Look it up, it’s nasty and whilst Dartmoor has been mostly a low risk environment so far, Lyme Disease is more common on Exmoor and it cannot be long before it moves south.

There are pesticide sprays for clothes but I’m not keen on the idea of that when some will inevitably get on my skin.  However there are also many suggestions for natural deterrents based on smells that either put ticks off or mask the smells that attract them.

The #1 recommendation is rose geranium oil.  Thereafter the popular choices are peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, lemon, citronella or rosemary, singly or in combination.  On the upside, and I’ll smell better too.

Now, because I want to not only protect myself but also mask my clothes and bag etc. I am taking the view that a spray before a run applied to shoes, leggings, bag and towel would be as well.  However, for spraying I’ll need to get the oils into the mix and they don’t dissolve in water.  With a little experimentation I have found that a blend of 15 drops of each of eucalyptus and citronella form a stable suspension in 100ml of 50:50 water and alcohol.  I have heard a suggestion to mix them into vodka which has a 40% alcohol content so I could see that being quite effective if expensive.  Blending in vinegar is also a suggestion, but what exactly will that leave me smelling like?

If you visit the cosmetics/haircare aisle of your local retailer of choice you will find spray bottles with contents for a small cost.  Pick something you will use (children’s hair detangler £2 works for me) and you are ‘quids in’.

Now all I have to do is put it to the test and also order some rose geranium.

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

Friends on the Road

I ran up to Sharrah Pool yesterday and was actually quite pleased with myself.  A few years ago I was doing this run at least once a week and could fly it, but I have been struggling to keep fit, and so after a quite energetic period recently I had made it non-stop.  Not with anything like the speed of previously but nonetheless.

I had expected to have the pool to myself and in a sense I had as the other person was packing to go.  The water was crystal clear and shafts of sunshine picked out the crystal mosaic of deeply sunk granite pebbles.  Leaning forward from the point of the big diving rock, I bounced up on my tiptoes and touched down on the water.  As I flew along the river bed waves of sunlight refracted by the broken surface raced away from me lost to sight as I surfaced, blinking madly in the sunshine.

The other visitor, now blurry through eyes left teary by the cold water called me.  Andrew was having a mini Dartmoor adventure.  We chatted briefly then he headed off and I dropped back into the water to ride the swoosh, splash in the bubbles and chase the trout.

Today I found myself at Clevedon Marine Pool.  I had planned to visit last New Year but it was closed for repairs, but now driving by on the motorway it was only a short diversion.  I’d never met Richard but I do know the smiley swimming hat design so I mentioned it and quickly realisde we have spoken on-line so we chatted briefly.  I was on the way in and standing in my swimwear in the biting breeze straight off the Severn and he was drying and chilled after his swim so this was no time for hanging about.

The pool is to be drained again soon as there is a persistent leak.  Anyway, a change of water would not go amiss as it is grey-green and was not inspiring me.   It was however pleasantly warm and I gently swam up and down twice, a token gesture, whilst trying for a few pictures with an unsuitable camera under an uncooperative cloudy sky.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Swimming in salt water is strange enough, I think it must have been two months since I was last at the beach, that’s what happens when the river warms up.  Stranger still is the thought of the steep drop beyond the retaining wall and line of sight to the pier.  What, I wonder, happens if the leak becomes a flood and the pool with me in it drains into the Severn?  Whilst occupying myself with that thought I swam into a crab line discarded in the water and it wrapped itself round my throat and tangled in my hair.  Reluctant as I was to put my feet down for fear of discarded bottles or other hazards I didn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter.  The crab line was duly rolled up and stuffed down my swimwear, they can come in handy.

And so I find myself jogging back to Sharrah Pool after work.  It is deserted today and the water feels cooler.  However I have brought my goggles all the better to chase the trout.  Or not.  They keep effortlessly out of arm’s reach and I speculate that dynamite may be the way forward! The chill breeze is still there and I’m gently shivering by the time I’m dressed again.

Jogging down the path I almost sweep into J, A and M, who I knew had plans to head to Sharrah but later than I could afford to be.  Once again I stop and chat.  It has been an eventful and friend filled couple of days and only to be expected I suppose amongst a small but sociable group of swimmers.

 

Summer’s Here

It was a dull grey morning, cold, breezy and without promise.  But I hadn’t been standing around on Dartmoor at 5am yesterday morning with the local morris dancers singing up the summer not to have confidence.

“Hal-an-Tow, jolly rumbelow,
We were up long before the day, oh,
To welcome in the summertime,
To welcome in the May, oh —
For summer is a-coming in,
And winter’s gone away, oh!”

Lunchtime and the blue had out paced the clouds and as the breeze dropped there was more and more blue eventually leaving not a cloud in the sky.

I was just changing in the gloriously warm evening sunshine when J arrived having been looking at the swimming options further downstream.  Spitchwick it has to be said is rarely my first choice as there are usually too many people and too much litter.  On a day such as this however I know the sun will be absolutely perfect for an evening swim at the top pool, though not so the bottom pool where it will be down behind the trees already.

The transition in the water is remarkable.  Ten days ago it had that bright zesty lime green tint.  Last week it had gone almost clear again.  Today it is dark orange after the rain on Monday washed peat off the moorland upstream and that is the colour it will stay until October.

J has not swum here before and it is ideal for that, easy to walk in to the water, easy changing, the water is slow moving and deeper under the cliff.  It does have it all in some ways.

The ‘new’ second hand wetsuit arrived this morning, it’s a little tighter than the previous ‘identical in every way’ one I have worn out, except the tightness of course and the feel that it is made with slightly thicker neoprene.  It is most certainly tighter and keeps the water out until I am waist deep, or maybe it is just that the other is full of holes, the worlds first fishnet wetsuit.  It’s not a pleasant thought.

We share the water for 15 minutes and in the end it is only the lateness of the day that forces us out.  The water is only just over 10degC but I always feel that sunshine adds several degrees especially factoring in the black wetsuits which absorb the sunshine.

We change and chat, talking about other places to swim and non-swimmer’s reactions to the whole idea, but as J says, ‘it is so invigorating’.

With a hope we will catch up again soon we head off to our respective cars as the sun nudges ever closer to the horizon and shadows draw out across the grass.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall