Summer is coming, but to be honest though it is the equinox and first day of spring in these parts tomorrow you could be forgiven for thinking this is still mid-winter. We don’t get much snow in South-West England, well not in recent years anyway and it is possibly as much as 40 years since there has been snow on this scale locally. Then twice in 2 weeks, but I am not complaining.
I have long harboured a whimsical notion of swimming at Sharrah Pool on the moorland section of the River Dart when there is snow on the ground. The problem has been not only a lack of snow but, as 3 years ago when there has been snow, by the time my pathetic car will tackle the roads the warmth in the river has seen off the snow in the valley. These conditions are however perfect for whilst there is 12 inches of snow in a “deep and crisp and even” layer across my garden it didn’t properly settled on the roads and I get to the New Bridge car park without difficulty. Nevertheless as I rush along the riverside track as fast as possible given the abundant photo opportunities and following a solitary set of footprints all around there is a steady drip, drip of thawing winter.
Turning from the track onto the side path I have that joy of making the first footsteps in virgin snow and I know I’m grinning like an idiot and I’m photographing every twist and turn of a path that I have taken 100s of times in the past as if it was my very first outing.
Yes! The footprints I rejoined on the track have got to Sharrah but then for some inexplicable (but much appreciated) reason gone off through the trees. The river bank is pristine. And the day is improving second by second as the holes in the clouds over head coalesce into gaps, into rents and then it is blue sky all the way, just dotted with the fluffiest white clouds. I’m photographing everything with 2 cameras just in case.
Careful not to make tracks I dunk the thermometer into the river as I get changed. It nudges up from an air temperature of -1.7°C to 3.7°C in the water, this is going to be a full on polar bear swim. A few selfies on the big diving rock whilst trying not to slip off, which would hurt a lot, and then I wade into the water. There is clearly something very wrong with anyone who wades into water this cold and thinks ‘oh, that’s not so bad’.
I am now using camera number 3, taking advantage of the wide angle perspective and I tread water repeatedly as I swim up the pool to the swoosh. The river is moderately high and the swoosh is swooshier than usual. I feel for the rock I know is there under the churning bubbles, pause, click, click, click, and then I launch myself into the flow.
It is a well known fact that people have just about neutral buoyancy in fresh water, but when a substantial part of the water has been replaced by bubbles that no longer applies. I vanish under the ‘surface’ (it’s hard to be exactly sure where the water filled with bubbles becomes air filled with splashed water) and of course lifting my arm holding the camera up high to get a record of this madness only serves to lower me further under the water. With my free arm I push myself around the corner, not wanting to get caught beneath the overhang, and then I am shot down the pool and back to where I started, not so much swimming as ‘floating with style’. I ‘float’ on down to the shallows, click, click, click and then swim back to the diving rock (not today). I dash through the snow, switch cameras and I’m back in the water to do the whole thing over again.
Now I stumble from the water. The chill has caught up with me but only in my left hand which is as painful as a very painful thing indeed. I’m grinding my teeth as I strip and dry (ankle deep in the snow) and then begin to fight my way damply into layers of clothes. My left hand is as good as useless, why did I wear a shirt with buttons? The hell with the buttons! Layers, put on more layers: fleece, scarf and hat. Well that’s the top end covered up and I’m sure anyone watching would find that very amusing.
Finally, but my hands are refusing to cooperate and tying the laces of my boots takes 3 attempts for each foot, which is frustrating when I know what I need to be doing is getting going and warming up. But even when I’m finally ready to go I can’t help myself and progress is again punctuated: click, click, click.
I don’t actually notice when the shivering stops but I am exactly half way back to the car when all of a sudden my hands warm up, a moment that is almost but not quite the best part of the whole outing. And tomorrow it’s spring. Hmm, we shall see.