South Wales is sadly underserved in Roger Deakin’s classic wild swimming manifesto, Waterlog. The west of England is covered pretty thoroughly, and the Rhinog Mountains in North Wales get a chapter to themselves, but the sole mention South Wales has in the whole work is a brief aside where Deakin contemplates jumping into the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal near Talybont-on-Usk, and decides against it. Knowing as I do how close he was to the Talybont reservoir, a three kilometer long pool surrounded by farmland, forest, and the high peaks of the Brecons, or to the spectacular, boulder-strewn course of the river Usk, his timidity seems all the more unusual. A little further exploration, and he might have found one of my favourite swimming holes.
A favourite walk with the Cardiff University Hiking and Rambling society was to drive up into the Brecons, climb the recklessly steep Craig y Fan Ddu, and circle the ridgeline, taking in the wreckage of a World War II Wellington bomber and the memorial to its Canadian flight crew, before descending into the valley beside the course of the river Caerfanell. So popular was it that I walked it three times in three years, and went swimming every time.
The first time I took a dip in Caerfanell was in October, in the second wettest day I’ve ever been out in the Brecons. As we came along the ridge, all the dozens of little streamlets were being blown back upon themselves in arcs of spray. Not having any waterproof trousers with me, I was absolutely soaked by the time we got down to the bathing pool – a deep cauldron of a place beside the road, with a tree stretched out over it from whence the brave can take daredevil leaps into the deep water. I figured going swimming in this weather was daredevil enough. It had been advertised as a swimming walk, but it seemed that only I’d been foolish enough to bring a towel and swimming costume, and since I’d already lugged them over hill and dale – well, why not?
Skidding down a steep slope that left a long trail of mud across my legs and back, I immediately cleaned myself off by jumping in. The water was icy, but after the first half minute of breathless gasping and frenzied doggy-paddle, I found myself rather enjoying it, and even took time to cool my head off beneath the waterfall before climbing out, dressing, and making the welcome escape to the minibus and the warm showers of home.
A year and a half later, I walked the same route with a largely different group of people, on a spectacularly sunny day. Word of my wild swimming propensities had circulated the club by now, so we were on the look out for a swimming hole – but this time everyone in the society seemed keen to join me. It had been a long hot sweltering walk that day, and everyone was keen to wash off the sweat and dust. We found a likely place, a deep, cool, brown pool, much further up the path and hidden from the road. And for the first and only time in my three years with them, everyone in the hiking club joined me. There was a great deal of splashing and teasing and frolicking, and the little pool became so full I clambered out again and began exploring upstream, threading my way barefoot along rapids and waterfalls. I found several pleasant little pools, though none so nice as ours, and succeeded in giving myself a limp for a week by trying to slide down a waterfall. I found to my cost that, limpid and slow as the stream may be, once you’ve built up a bit of momentum the slide is terrifying. “Oh God, I’m going to bang my head and drown!” I remember thinking as I bumped and tumbled over half a dozen small drops before clawing to a panicky halt just before plunging into the final pool. Yet, clambering down, I found myself celebrated for my daring, and would rather like to repeat my slide to this day – with perhaps the small additions of a helmet and a wetsuit.
The third year I did the walk was a slightly melancholy affair, as my time at Cardiff wound to a close, and many of the people I’d been walking with on the last two occasions had already moved on, to employment or unemployment. Now I was leading the walk, introducing the wonders of the Brecons to the freshers, and it was hard to chase my thoughts away from the young, hardy, ridiculously enthusiastic fresher I used to be. Still, there’s nothing like a nice cold dip to chase the blues away, and while the pool I found this time was rather too shallow for the purpose, it had a fantastic waterfall. Sitting underneath it was something like being in a cold shower and a massage chair at once, and tilting my head back, I enjoyed a beautiful and unusual view of a waterfall from the bottom upwards. It was a fine way to wind up three exceptional years, and three exceptional swims in a gorgeous river.