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.

A self defeating exercise.

Outdoor swimming has grown in popularity over the last 10 years and this outwardly appears to be a good thing, but I increasingly feel it is a self defeating exercise.  This suspicion has been amplified by recent events at Spitchwick Common on Dartmoor.

In the blue corner, all those who might not otherwise have seen a jellyfish or a kingfisher.

In the red corner, those who arrive with their instant bar-b-cue, cans, bottles and disposable lifestyle and think the beautiful place they just visited will be enhanced if they smash glass into the water, cut branches off the trees, burn the grass and undergrowth and leave their litter when they go home.

Thoughtless people insensitive to the environment and the wildlife and people they share it with are nothing new, indeed ‘smash, grab and trash’ seems to be an appropriate motto for the human race.  What the finish line of this race will look like remains to be seen, but I have an insight.

Yesterday I clambered down the river bank on the way to my swim, picked up the box neatly packed with the plastic and cardboard remains of someone’s day out and lifted it back tot he roadside from where I collected it on my return.  How is it, I constantly wonder, that people take all the packets to the picnic, eat and drink the contents and then find themselves without the strength to carry the empties back to the car?  Or worse still, do carry it back to the car but simply then leave it in a bush or behind a rock in the car park.

I read recently that the scientific name Homo stupidus was once seriously proposed for Neanderthal people.  I think I have identified a far more deserving people for the name.

Countless people have enjoyed a day out at Spitchwick, the main draw being that it is a great place to swim in the river, and yes there has always been some litter and a few fires, but the land is privately owned.  The litter and vandalism of the environment has however become unsustainable.  Car parks have been closed to choke the flow of visitors.  Double yellow lines have been painted on the roads for miles in every direction and a ruthless ticketing policy enforced.  And now the last car park has been closed, the next nearest shrunk in size and CCTV installed.  It no longer looks like a national park but more like a high street.

It seems unlikely to be effective.

I have heard it said that people park on the yellow lines and agree in advance to share the parking fine.  The litter won’t stop but now the roads are impassable too.

I have in the past contacted the park authority and asked why they do not empty the bins at the nearby New Bridge car park which spill over in a stinking mound all through the summer.  They assure me that the cost is too much for them to provide bins and that not providing bins makes people take their rubbish home again.  Looking at the abundant and highly visual evidence to the contrary I have to disagree.  The bins may not be theirs but they don’t know who they do belong to, they tell me.  But they are turning your car park into a rubbish tip, why not phone the contractors number on the side of the bin and ask who does pay the rental and cost of eventual emptying?  They don’t know why they don’t do this.

Ultimately the land owner may resort to a big fence, it is his land, he should not have to be constantly clearing the area and there is no more an open invitation to go and swim there than there is to all and sundry if you put a paddling pool in your back garden.

A fence in turn will simply displace the hordes to the next place and so on and so on.

As with the situation at Stonehenge I can see a time in the not too distant future when the closest you will be able to get to the river over there behind the barbed wire and attack dogs will be to have an interactive virtual wild swim where at the end someone tips a bucket of water over you which contains some crisp packets, a plastic bottle, soggy cardboard, a knotted dog poo bag and if you are going for the deluxe experience some broken glass and one of those razor sharp grilles from a disposable bar-b-cue.

Rather than being a part of and contributing further to this self defeating moment.  I cannot pick up any more litter than I already do so maybe it is time to hand back my goggles and swimwear and throw in the towel.


The Greening of the River

I have no explanation for the phenomenon that affects the rivers and streams of Dartmoor in the early spring.  They turn green.  Bright zesty lime green.

All through the summer the waters are loaded with peat which turns them in extreme cases the same general tone as over stewed tea.  The tint is carried down the Dart, as far as its meeting with the sea at Totnes Weir.  All the growth and activity in the bogs presumably stirs the peat up and the reduced rainfall concentrates the effect, that seems fairly straight-forward.

In late autumn the rainfall picks up, the rivers run in torrents and the waters turn alternately grey-brown with stirred up sand, mud or mashed plants and leaves, or quite clear and colourless during the rare lulls in the rain.  That too is as expected, water does not have a natural colour or tint.

Then in spring the waters turn lime green.  Bright zesty lime green.

Why? is a good question well presented.  I’m open to suggestions.

It is still fairly cold and life in the peat is only just getting going after winter and maybe the winter rains have flushed out the peaty colour and that might explain why the water is tint free in February.  But what happens in mid-March to turn the water green through April and on to early May when the tea returns again?

If it was an algal growth then you might expect visibility to reduce, but it doesn’t ‘clear and green’ would be the best description, the clearest the water will be all year.

Dissolved minerals?  Some lakes appear blue because of clay flakes suspended in the water.  But what is special about spring that minerals would specially dissolve in the water?  Surely that’s going to happen all year.  Perhaps the acidity of the water changes, though why?

Perhaps most obviously it could be something to do with the plants but it happens up on the open moor above the ‘tree line’ so it’s mosses or grass or ferns, but why any of those emerging from winter would turn the water green is a mystery.

I’ve thought about it and thought about it and I still have no clue.  Answers please?

Hair Care

It has probably not gone unnoticed that I have quite long hair.  It is not in great condition.  No amount of hair care products, no matter what they claim, can combat almost daily dunking in the sea.  Terribly corrosive stuff that salt.

Help is however now at hand.  Not some miracle Pantene breakthrough, no, simpler than that, stop washing it.

Uh, gross!

Well, not exactly stop washing entirely.

The River Dart warms up ever so quickly in the spring, the dark peaty water sucks up sunshine like a camel sucks up water.  Take today for instance, it is 5:30 in the evening and I am being cooked in the sunshine as I get changed on the river bank.  The forecaster did warn me earlier about sunburn, though that was hard to believe when there was frost on the shed roof again this morning.  However, diving down into the water just 8 feet deep and it is pretty dark, all that heat and sunshine went somewhere.  In just two weeks the water has gone from rip your face off cold to that’s about okay as I swim down along the river bed.

And that’s the point really, from here on my hair will get at least a once a day dunking and it is the best hair care ever invented.  Whether it is the peat in the water or the dissolved minerals or the slight acidity I can’t say but it will rescue my hair from a winter of discontent and it smells nice too.

So, no more shampoo until October, what’s not to like?  Though on occasion I have turned up at work after an early morning dip and only then found a leaf or twig or bit of grass stuck in my ponytail, but I can live with that.

Just so long as I keep it out of the sea.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall