Bridge Swinging

Swing collage
Before — During — After

Not many adventure sports begin by punting down the Isis on a sunny afternoon. To our left, a posse of medical students were drifting by on a relaxed revision cruise, testing each other’s gynaecological knowledge with the aid of various textbooks. No dirty joke here – this was what they were actually doing. To our right, there was nothing but green fields, cows, and the occasional jogger – that portion of Oxford that I only ever seem to see from the river.

We, the relics of a garden party for my sister’s 21st birthday, were in two groups. In my punt was Tom Codrington, who had the build I normally associate with a racing biker, but who turned out to be a rock climber – and a dab hand with the punting pole. His girlfriend Tabitha was with us. In the second, much rowdier punt were my sister Jessamy, her boyfriend Steve, and a smattering of friends from Oxford and Winchester. They had all the left over food from the garden party, some of which they would thoughtfully toss our way whenever the punts bumped together.

So far, there was nothing to separate us from the dozens of other luncheon parties on the river, save perhaps for the coils of climbing rope, carabiners, and tangled harnesses in the till of the punt. That, and the energetic way in which, when the punt came to a low-lying bridge, the occupants would swarm up over the side of it and drop back down into place, while the punt glided smoothly on beneath.

After about half an hour’s lazy cruising, we came to a taller bridge. It was a gorgeous twenty foot arch that crossed the river in a single span, simple, functional, yet still of a piece with Oxford’s greater architectural glories. Here we moored down stream, gathered up the rope and harness, and set to work getting the whole thing set up.

Bridge swinging, in its commercial form, is an alternative to bungee jumping where people swing to-and-fro like a pendulum instead of bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. Large sums of money are paid to do this. In its amateur form, I found, you fix a rope to the railings of the bridge, cross to the the far side, and then swing the other end underneath, high enough so someone on the other side of the bridge can catch it. This is a complex activity which requires timing, foreshortening, and good reflexes on the part of the person in charge of catching the rope. Tom Codrington proved to be expert at this, as well. When that’s done, all you need is someone foolhardy enough to climb into a fluffy, tatty climbing harness, long since discarded from actual climbing duties, clip themselves to the far end of the rope and leap over the railings. My sister went first, and I was close behind.

It was a nervous business, actually, since I had got to get as low as possible to be sure of a good swing, feet pressed flat to the stone and fingers gripping the railings for dear life, while the people on the other end of the bridge took in the tension until this new umbilical was stretched almost horizontal under the bottom of the bridge, taught as a guitar string. Then all I had to do was let go.

Three or four wild, whooping arcs ensued, as I swung crazily between the bridge and the water: then, at the apex of the upswing, Tom Codrington slacked his hold and I crashed into the silver-green Isis, surfacing seconds later, gasping for breath and wiping the water from my eyes. I trod water for a minute while I fumbled with the carabiner’s screw-lock, detached from the rope, and struck out for shore.

Except for Jess’s boyfriend Steve, who was too cool for it, we all took a turn. The girls shrieked, the boys whooped – even the most timorous went, after a false start or two. I went three more times, with varying degrees of disaster – the  first time I leaned too far back and inverted, swinging around upside-down like a bungee jumper in a high wind. Then Tom Codrington and I decided to do a swing together, but the rope stretched too much and we kept crashing into the water on the down swing, slowing us down and taking up from the perpendicular to the pendulous in seconds.

We finished up utterly soaked, thoroughly exhilarated, and with the satisfaction of giving all those picnicking upon the riverbank a little lunchtime entertainment. It was a good afternoon’s work.

2swing collage

Waterlog 2 – Caerfanell, Brecon Beacons

WaterlogSouth 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.

Caerfanell, Brecon Beacons

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.

slidingThe 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.

Blaenyglyn2A 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.

under waterfallThe 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.

Waterlog 1: The River Itchen, Winchester, Hampshire

WaterlogMy bedtime reading this week has been Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, a potent and poetic defence of our right to swim anywhere we please – in ponds, in rivers, in the sea – anywhere that looks cool and inviting, and several that look downright perishing! I now know to ignore the omnipresent threatening signs warning of the risk of Leptospirosis (chances of actually catching it – 1 in 33,000) and take my dip anywhere I please. In fairness, I ignored them anyway – but it’s nice to have some expert backing.

In that vein, I thought I’d write up some of my favourite bathing places throughout the British Isles, in an ongoing series.

The River Itchen, Winchester

This is the river I grew up closest to, and know the best. Itchen rises near Cheriton, and winds its way picturesquely through the village green. At this point, it’s only ankle deep, but by the time it reaches the famous water meadows of Winchester, it’s clear and swift and deep enough to swim in. Deakin devotes a chapter to bathing in the Itchen, but with typical bolshiness, he takes a swim in the exclusive stretch by Winchester College, and gets into an argument with the porters afterwards. I think he enjoyed it a lot more than I would – I subscribe to a quieter life, and bathe a good way downstream, just outside of Shawford, where the water flows over a weir and blossoms out into a deep and pebbly pool. There some good angel has shored up the edge of the pool with wooden stakes, and built a series of steps down into the water. Come the summer, the place is filled with boys and girls taking wild somersaults off the weir, sunbathing and showing off. What I love about the pool is its irregularity – I’ve spent hours diving down to discover its contours and hidden hollows, its currents and eddies. There’s a lot of submerged concrete down there – possibly from an earlier weir – so until you’ve explored it properly, it’s best not to risk diving. When you do know which patch of water to aim for, you can join the teenagers in their death defying dives, or ride the river over the weir as a natural water-slide, or simply get in a bit of swimming practice, striking out against the current and getting precisely nowhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little downstream the river shallows out into a pretty stretch much beloved by paddlers and kids with water-pistols – though painfully pebbly underfoot. Sandals are recommended. On the far side of the banks, every back garden seems to have its own jetty, though I can’t imagine anything larger than a coracle or a lilo being much use. The path emerges by The Bridge pub in Shawford, a good place for a pint or a bite to eat after your dip, and the best place to leave your bicycle, if you don’t want to lug it over half a dozen stiles or risk swerving into the water.

For a picnic and a summer’s dip, I don’t really think you could do better than this quiet, cool, pleasant stretch of river. If a colder and more bracing swim is more to your taste – there’s plenty of dips in my notebook that could accomodate you. Tune in next time!