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.
It is not that I have run out of places to add to my ‘Devon’ Wild Swim Map it is simply that things keep taking me in the direction of Cornwall and there are, as there are in Devon, some stunning swimming spots ‘across the border’.
When I arrived in Falmouth the previous evening the sea was roaring into the beach and the torrential rain had produced lakes rather than puddles along the seafront road. However, twelve hours is a long time in swimming and in the pre-dawn light next morning there was only a slight breeze and the sea had become almost millpond calm as the stars faded from the clear sky. Looking out from Maenporth Beach though it was quite clear that the focus of the brightness was slightly around the headland and I was not going to get a sunrise. Not from the beach anyway.
The soft sand at the high water mark gave way to sharp pebbles on the gently sloping beach and even before my feet were in the shallows they were feeling numb. I had planned for a longer swim and was in my wetsuit but even so the water finding its way inside was like icy needles and even though I know it is true I had to convince myself afresh that once the water on the inside warmed up thighs would be at least acceptable.
As I got closer to the headland the light along the horizon brightened behind the band of cloud throwing up lighthouse beams that swept the sky as the clouds drifted across the distant sky. Then for just a brief moment the isolated clouds above me turned from leaden grey to burning gold tinged with pink and then pure white and the rising sun swept light down from above half blinding me with its brilliance. In all the excitement I had quite failed to notice the water inside the wetsuit was now more temperate and almost but not quite pleasant though my fingers and toes were refusing to cooperate and lacking in any sense of feeling respectively.
Against the bright sky the perching birds looked like teeth along the ridge of nearby rock they were however troubled by my noisy progress as I kicked up gouts of water to be backlit against the sun and en masse took to flight, wheeling my way at first and squawking irritably before making their own solitary paths across the bay.
My splashy progress eventually took me back into the breaking waves where I unexpectedly found I was in no more than a foot of water as I grated ashore on the sand and pebbles. Only leaving me with a numb foot stumble back up the beach to my towel.