It has been a sweltering day and I am very much looking forward to a swim.
I have also been asking around but no-one locally has any knowledge about swimming the Tamar at Gunnislake Bridge and yet it appears as though there is nearly a mile of water held back by the weir.
It is time then to go and take a look.
The first mistake was to park at the Gunnislake end of the bridge and then walk down the riverside path. it is a pleasant walk, cool under the trees without a hint of breeze. The water smells of river and drifts by so slowly, limpid in the heat, dull, olive green. There is however only one place to reach the water where the bank has been worn down, but it is thick oozing mud and there is nowhere to hide my bag out of sight. I have spent 20 minutes on this so far and the opposite bank looks even less accessible. Hmmm.
I remembered however that there is a track on the Tavistock side that follows the bank upstream. Dodging the cars to cross the bridge it turns out that there is plenty of parking space this side and the track is level and wide ending at a large parking place, with, a set of concrete steps and a hand rail down to the water.
Two people paddleboarding are stopped at the foot of the steps. I had seen them earlier coming upriver so we talk about paddleboards and what the river is like down below the bridge as it is so late now that will be as far as I get. The water is surprisingly warm, warmer than the sea or the Dart and despite the colour the water is clearer than it looked.
The real surprise is that the water is very shallow. I’d swum half way to the bridge and softly nudged two obstructions when I decided to let my feet trail, which in turn resulted in me stood only bum deep right out in the middle. Several more ‘touchdowns’ proved this was the case all the way to the bridge.
It is on the return swim, pushing gently into the current, the sound of cars on the bridge fading to nothing as the bridge is obscured by the slight bend that I am struck by the notion of a susurration of swimmers. It is a word favoured by Terry Pratchett in the later Discworld novels, the sound of gently breeze through stems of grass or in this cases the swirl of water around me. Even when I take a pause there is still a faint sound from the water, which seems to be barely moving, yet is sliding amongst the reed stems and twigs trailing from branches that obscure the bank. Or maybe it is the sound of the water flowing amongst the stones on the river bed. It may be out of sight but surely it must make some sound after all it does where it runs through stones in a rapids.
The girl is sitdown paddleboarding now, spinning around on the water waiting for her partner to give a hand up the steps with her board. In the lowering, late evening sunshine it paints an idyllic picture and there is the soft susurration of water beneath her board.
There is time to dwell on such inconsequentia when susurrating in the river.
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.
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.
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.
The water is chilly despite the sun and each time I breathe out I leave a thin, white cloud hanging above the water.
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.
The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy has much to say on the subject of towels.
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
Clearly anyone who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where their towel is, is clearly a person to be reckoned with.
The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.
My towel was given to me when the galaxy was still young, small furry animals from Alpha Centuri were real small furry animals from Alpha Centuri and the Hitch-Hikers trilogy was as yet a radio show in two series. It did not however come from the Salisbury branch of Marks and Spencer.
Wild Swimming has become a go to phrase in recent years It is part of the ‘wild’ revolution: wild camping, wild swimming, wild running, all of which could equally be termed ‘outdoor’ or ‘open sky’. However, whilst running, camping, and let’s add cycling for good measure; whilst all the above clearly have by their very definition an intrinsic outdoor element, swimming has become something that is synonymous with indoor pools and chlorine. In the context of swimming then a little definition of ‘wild’ is perhaps advised.
Wild Camping could be defined as ‘not at a campsite’, the open sky bit goes without saying surely. Wild Running or Cycling are equally away from city streets or roadsides but are instead on trails or green lanes, footpaths or open hills. Wild Swimming presents a dilemma. Clearly a lido is ‘open sky’ but with a lifeguard and coffee shop to hand anyone thinking of it as wild is clearly delusional. However, a natural sea pool enhanced by people is open sky but is it wild? Is a river running through a town wild? Well, we would be fooling ourselves to think any river in flood is within our control so wildness can be a condition as well as place. The town beach may be open sky and in summer with ice cream vendors to hand it does not seem wild, but out of season, with a good swell crashing up the sand, wind tangling hair, at dawn or sunset, with maybe even some rain thrown in for good measure, then it can be quite wild. Perhaps though true wild swimming is simply where other people are not and/or nor is there much evidence that anyone has been here previously. Such places in the UK though are vanishing few in number.
Let’s therefore say that this ‘wild’ or ‘outdoor’ swimmers guide is for places where, when you get out of the water, there is no-one to sell you an ice-cream or cappuccino.
What Do You Need? Some people would say water and nothing else, but for the sake of modesty and comfort let’s agree a towel and your swimwear as a bare minimum. Goggles, ear plugs and a nose clip pack down small and add an underwater dimension to your adventure. ‘Beach’ shoes or old trainers can be helpful on rocks or pebbles. A waterproof ( not water resistant but water-PROOF) camera makes sharing your adventure simple. If you plan to swim through the winter then a rash vest and/or similar top and leggings do conserve a little warmth but a silicone swimming hat conserves more warmth than expected, whilst others prefer to swim in woolly hats. A wetsuit is the end game for some swimmers, but choosing a wetsuit is a topic in its own right. There are then as many ‘optional extras’ as manufacturers can dream up and add ‘wild’ to the description in order to part you from your money as you can imagine. My line is drawn at ‘dry robes’ and ‘tow floats’ but as already said the definition of wild is a bit hazy and some stop short of wetsuits or even swimwear. After a while the items taken will begin to shape to the place visited.
So Where Do You Want To Swim Today? From where I am sat writing this it is under 20 minutes to a sandy town beach, a rocky headland or a tree shaded river bank. 40 minutes and I could be on a sweeping pebble beach or at a moorland river pool. No wonder I am semi-aquatic. To find such places you can either take out a paper map or go on-line, where satellite imagery can be wonderfully useful. There are also many on-line web sites and social media groups with maps showing swimming places, all offering friendly advice on just about anything to get you to your destination.
What Are The Dangers? On the basis that you may be on your own, miles from any help even if you are in a group, and can drown in no time at all, then there is undoubtedly a need to muster all the common sense you have before setting out. Some people say ‘never swim alone’, which I think is sad and besides swimming in a group is no guarantee of safety. Just because you are in a group it does not mean someone will recognize you are in difficulty or have the skill to save you. Furthermore swimming in a group does introduce peer pressure and you should never give in and swim further, for longer or in colder water than you want to. In short, no matter how experienced you are or how far you have just travelled, sometimes you have to be prepared to just say ‘not today’. If you are going alone then at least tell someone where and when you might be back.
To put the danger into context the number of people who drown annually in the UK whilst actively swimming is about 30. Meanwhile 3 people drown in their bath, 10 in a pool and more walkers or runners drown than swimmers, which may seem unexpected except that if you are in either category and end up in water then you are probably ill prepared, fully clothed and have maybe injured yourself in the process, none of which will enhance your chance of surviving. (In the UK these statistics are published in the WAID Report, WAter Incident Database, and can be found on-line.)
A list of things to definitely avoid begins with alcohol, it is almost certainly the case that most of the 30 swimmer drownings began with a drink.
Jumping or diving can be great fun but you must be able to see clearly that there are no obstructions or explore underwater first with goggles, but underwater depth and distance can be deceptive. It doesn’t matter that it was clear yesterday, some fool may have thrown something in since then or something may have washed down the river. Always check.
Cold shock. If you are unprepared and enter cold water (less than 10C / 50F) your body’s reflex is to take a sharp gasp which will not go well if you are underwater. That reflex gasp probably killed most of the people who jumped into the water from the sinking Titanic. With experience you can prepare for that initial contact and stifle that gasp reflex.
Hypothermia. This takes longer to develop than most people appreciate, it is however insidious in that the more hypothermic you become the less you are aware of the cold. In water at 0C if you are unacclimatised and unprepared you will be unconscious in about 15 minutes. 10C and that is closer to 30 minutes. 20C and it could take an hour.
There are 3 stages. Borderline hypothermia and you start to shiver uncontrollably. Mild hypothermia and you struggle to perform simple tasks like tying your shoelace as you’re getting dressed or talking coherently. Full hypothermia and you become completely disoriented and ironically can feel too hot which makes people take clothes off instead of putting them on.
Afterdrop is an unpleasant but not life threatening effect of having been in cold water. If you are in cold water there may well come a moment when you think ‘this is not so cold afterall’ and that should be the trigger moment to get out as it is a symptom of blood flow being cut off to your skin to conserve heat in your core and your body is not getting feedback from your skin to tell you it’s still cold. Afterdrop then kicks in when you start to dry and dress and the warm core blood begins to circulates through the skin again, cools and returns to your core body. This can result in shivering, headaches, blurred vision, chattering teeth, numbness in toes and fingers and in my case the feeling that ants with hot shoes are walking up and down my spine making me feel quite nauseous. The feeling will pass but getting dressed quickly and walking briskly for 10 minutes should accelerate the recovery.
But Why? It is cold, potentially life threatening and expensive, why do it? Some people believe cold water swimming boosts their immune system and engenders a feeling of well-being. For some people it actually does, for some people because they believe it then it actually does. However, there have been many, many studies trying to establish a clear link between cold water swimming and improved health and the mere fact that every year there are more studies does suggest any link is proving hard to identify. No matter what, after a while you will find you have both physically and mentally acclimatised to cold water and simply don’t notice that you are swimming in 6C water in January in just a pair of shorts (though maybe only for a short while).
Living is life threatening, surviving and enjoying swimming it is about proper risk assessment and common sense. We all have lapses, we all make mistakes and swimming in a lake or river miles from anywhere is never going to be 100% safe.
Expensive it is not, though it can be. Who does not have an old t-shirt, pair of shorts and towel? You don’t need new ones they are going to get dropped in mud, ground into sand, soaked with salt water, forgotten wet in a bag for a week. You can go without the t-shirt, or the shorts and on a hot summer day there is no need for a towel, but let’s not. You certainly do not need to buy all the optional extras and you certainly do not need a costly bicycle or expensive walking boots so it is possibly the least costly sports activity you can do outdoors.
You may get to see stunning sunrises or sunsets, have a friendly seal turn up, get buzzed by kingfishers, see salmon streak like silver bullets across the river bed or even see a wild otter or dolphin. If I arrive at a beach that has been smoothed by the tide and I step off and make the first footprint in the sand then I am made up for the rest of the day. You will probably make new friends and eat too much cake because it is an unwritten rule of swimming, ‘when two or more swimmers are gathered together there will be cake’. You may be happy swimming with others at a few places or you may suddenly develop and urge to follow your local river back to its source and swim all of what you can and in the process you may see the world from a perspective that few or possibly none ever had before. All that and it might keep you a bit fitter too.