Waterlog 5: Holy Isle, Scotland

WaterlogThe seasonality of wild swimming is an organising theme of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, which begins in April in the Scilly Isles, and climaxes with a Christmas Day plunge into the North Sea. If I haven’t been quite so adventurous as to keep my wild swimming habits up in the depths of the English winter (I gave up in November), at least my season opener, a fortnight earlier than Deakin’s plunge, and in the far north of the country, has a certain daring to it.

Holy Isle, Scotland

I rose from my sleeping bag on our second morning of camping out, feeling greasy and hungover, and smelling strongly of BO and woodsmoke. Our campsite  had no showers, and offered little to do after dark but build enormous campfires and drink heavily. We were on the Isle of Arran, just off the west coast of Scotland. It had made the news a fortnight ago by suffering snowstorms so severe that the north end of the island had been virtually buried, and all power from the mainland broken off. When we arrived, the snows were gone save from the tops of the very highest peaks, and the sole memory of that week were the great rectangular generators, lined up on trucks all down the Brodick seafront, and still visible down many a highway and byway throughout the island. We had some fears that the islanders might have resorted to cannibalism, but it turns out that when face with the breakdown of civilisation, they had done the British thing, and retired to the pub to play board games.

Even in the absence of snow, the morning was remarkably chilly, and I pulled on every scrap of clothing I had as I went about the morning chores of making skillet and filling my water bottle. A thin, chill mist hung over everything, blurring the peaks that had been pin-sharp yesterday, and making the sunlight fall weak and watery on our faces. The decision was made to go for a walk on Holy Isle, just off the coast of Arran, once the hermitage of a Celtic Saint and now the location of a successful Buddhist retreat. Half the island is a nature reserve, and some of it is devoted to a group of reclusive nuns who’ve retired from the world for the next four years, but there’s still plenty of scope for a hike up the island’s sole mountain, Mullach Mor, and a walk back along the seashore.

ArranThe island was an odd place, with bright, wind-ragged Buddhist banners flying high above the heather, and hardy brown Asian sheep, with great curved horns, browsing on the thin winter grass. As we reached the top of the mountain it became clear that the chill morning mist had somehow turned to baking noon haze, without thinning or thickening or altering in the slightest. The mainland was completely cordoned off from the eye, and the isle was covered in a luminous, Celtic Twilight atmosphere that photos don’t really do justice to. Temperatures were reaching 18 degree highs, and all the softshells and banded jackets we’d donned that morning were being stuffed back into our groaning daysacks.

Cooling off slightly, we came down to the shore, where some split off to wander into the caves, others to admire the beautiful Stevenson lighthouse, and still others to skim stones skillfully across the water. I decided to paddle – but paddling is an art I’ve never quite mastered. Somehow, I always seem to end up going swimming – and even when I don’t, I still get damp shorts. In this case, I waded in and splashed my face for a bit, and then thought ‘Hell with it’ and took the plunge.

in the seaThe agony and the ecstasy of the water was almost sexual in its intensity. I drifted out from shore on my back, hyperventilating mildly from the cold shock, while my friends on shore waved and cheered. It felt like I was undergoing a whole body attack of pins and needles. Every drop of blood beneath my skin had decided there was somewhere else it would much rather be, and fled back to my core. A deep and purifying cold was scouring the sweat and woodsmoke from me.

I rolled over onto my front and executed four strong strokes towards Arran, with swiftly numbing limbs; then thought the better of it, turned again, and struck out for the shore. I had swum almost a mile in the sea off Mallorca a week ago – but that had been the warm Mediterranean, and I’d still emerged shivering and blue around the edges. Outside of a wetsuit, this was not a sea in which you would want to spend a lot of your time. As I emerged and began to towel some feeling back into my limbs, I had the pleasant experience of seeing my friends cautiously dipping their feet into the water, and jerking back with pained expressions. And so a new year of wild swimming begins!

Waterlog 4: Squam Lake and the River Derwent

WaterlogLooking again through Roger Deakin‘s classic wild swimming manifesto, Waterlog, I realised that while there’s an awful lot of swimming for pleasure, or adventure, or exploration, he never really covers jumping in the lake as an alternative to jumping in the tub. Quite often, after the really long cold swims, he has a piping hot bath awaiting him when he gets out – and actually, it’s hard to blame him for that. But this got me thinking of the two times in my life where swimming has replaced washing, and what that felt like.

Squam Lake, New Hampshire.

It was my first time in America, and we were paying a visit to some family friends called the Butterworths. They had visited England when my father was a kid, but apart from the prosaic business of having children and letting their hair grow white, they didn’t seem to have grown much older in the meantime. Which suited me fine, seeing that I was nine at the time.

This was their summer holiday, and the whole extended family were living in log cabins they’d built for themselves, on the edge of Squam Lake. Electricity really ran out at the fridge, which was in a little hut of its own a few hundred yards up the road. It limped on as far as the main cabin, where it powered a single bulb – but that was it. No modern plumbing, no TV or radio, no hot water. You woke up, went for a swim, then had breakfast. I was nine, and it was paradise. I’d never been around people with their own canoes before, and suddenly it was Swallows and Amazons come to life. It was a perfect, innocent, boys’ own adventure story.

Case in point RE the innocence – it was accepted etiquette for those living on the opposite side of the lake to swim across and greet new arrivals, rather than going to all the trouble of walking round. Our nearest neighbours happened to be a pair of Swedish girls, and as they rose dripping from the water to introduce themselves, I couldn’t work out for the life of me why my father was so impressed, and my mother so irate with him. It would continue to be a mystery to me for a good couple of years.

We pretty much lived in the water – it was always cool, but it was never a shock to get into, and even when we were mucking around in canoes, we were always looking for an excuse to capsize or fall overboard. Being in the water was simply much more fun than being on it -and that’s an opinion I hold to this day.

I’ve forgotten most of it now, and envy my sister’s memory, who can ever recall the pattern on the sides of the canoe, and the path through the woods to every hut. For me, the whole thing has receded into the golden mists of boyhood, and I can hardly believe I ever lived a life that much like something out of a book.

The River Derwent, Peak District

Swimming didn’t replaced bathing again until a recent trip to the Peak District with a walking group from Cardiff. Our bunkhouse was close on the River Derwent, and while we were searching for a footpath that the river, then in spate, had completely overflowed, we discovered a rather convenient bathing hole by the side of an old mill. Upstream the river was shallow and tame – downstream it thundered down a long stretch of rapids out of sight, and in the middle there was a long deep pool on the edge of the weir where a man could get a few strokes in before beaching himself on the gravel.

It was nothing like Squam, where the lake was deep and the swimming was limitless. Unlike the gentle American waters, the river was cold enough to take my breath away, even in summer. But it was a beautiful river, between the moorhens and the willows on one side and the foam, spray and thunder on the other. When our hastily re-routed walk was over, I returned to wash off the dust – and returned again, morning and evening, for the next four days, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. It was astonishing how it would alter my mood. I’d walk down tired and snappish and grimy, and return revitalized, cheerful, and awake. Everyone I swam with commented on it. For four days I neither soaped, shampooed or showered, but plunged in the river and emerged feeling like a king. But then the rain came down, the temperature dropped a few degrees, and I made a cowardly retreat to the hot water of the bunkhouse bathrooms. Yet just as I was finishing up, my hand found the temperature dial and gave it a sudden, violent, anticlockwise twist, and I gasped and spluttered beneath an ice-cold torrent for thirty excruciating seconds before I got out. That too has become a habit.

Waterlog 3: Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula, South Wales

WaterlogRecently, I’ve been reading 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.

Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula 

English: Worm's Head, Gower. Taken by me flyin...

The Gower peninsula is an extraordinary place. A big comma on the South Wales coastline between Swansea bay and Cardigan bay, it offers largely untouched countryside, one of the many candidates for the grave of King Arthur and the best surfing beaches in Wales. The favourite place both for swimming and surfing is Rhossili beach, at the far end of the peninsula, a long straight stretch of sand facing out directly to the west, flanked at either end by two small islands with tidal causeways: Burry Holms to the north, and Worm’s Head to the south.

One of my great regrets about leaving Cardiff was that I never, in three years, managed to get to the end of Worm’s Head, a long, snaky ribbon of bright green grass extending out into sea. Once I got as far as the inner head, a ludicrously steep dinosaur spine of a hill that confronts you as you cross the causeway. Then, however, the tide came back in, and we had to rush back across before we were cut off. The far end of the peninsula remains a mystery to me, fitfully illuminated by long hours gazing at Ordnance Survey maps, or re-reading Dylan Thomas’s classic short story ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’.

I’ve swum twice off Rhossili beach. The first time was on May 3rd, 2010 – I remember this particularly because it was 200 years since Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, the tumultuous Turkish strait dividing Europe from Asia. He was in good, romantic company – the legendary lover Leander is supposed to have swum across each night to visit his lover Hero, swimming back the next morning, until his amorous career was cut short by a tragic, but entirely predictable, death by drowning. Byron survived the feat, which he immortalised in a witty minor gem of a poem. I was not out to do anything so staggering, but a commemorative swim seemed in order, and the weather was most propitious. It was a warm day, and lunching on Rhossili Down I saw my first swallow of the summer. By the time we reached the beach, I was very keen for a swim – and it just so happened that the tide had come in far enough to cut Burry Holms off from the mainland. I swam out through the cool salt water in a Byronic breaststroke, and managed to land on the island without losing any skin to the rocks, which is always the trickiest part. I wandered up and down, waving at my friends back on the mainland, trying to avoid stepping on stinging nettles and wondering how it would feel to have swum the 3 mile distance from Europe to Asia, and swum back again, enjoying the small act of homage to my favourite poet.

Eighteen months later, in November of 2011, I wasn’t expecting to go swimming at all. I had no towel, no swimming trunks, nothing. It was too cold, I told myself, and I was a solemn third year undergraduate now. I was leading walks, armed with map and compass, instead of faithfully following on behind. A little Byronic posing on exposed pinnacles was all I could expect. But fate brought me two people equally as crazy as I was, keen to make the most of the fading Autumn warmth. With Rob I shared a tendency to sandpaper stubbliness, and a love of intrepid, broad-brimmed hats. On the way up, I nicknamed him Ragdoll for his habit of flopping forward bonelessly whenever I applied the brakes. Then there was Lauren, who had proposed the swim at lunch, as if sea-bathing in November was the most natural thing in the world. Before her slow, mischievous smile all the practical difficulties seemed as nothing. As we plunged together into the icy November sea, jumping and splashing and spluttering, I bethought myself of the words of J.K. Rowling:

There are some things you can’t share without liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

This, I decided, was another.

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.

Compton Lock, 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 at Compton Lock 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!