When Daniel Start was a child, he spent the school holidays dipping in and out of swimming spots in his native Herefordshire. One summer many years later, Start found himself stuck in a London office daydreaming of the wild swimming spots of his youth. Swapping daydreams for action, Start decided go back and revisit the art of wild swimming and rediscovered the UK’s natural pools, lakes and rivers in the process. The result was his book, Wild Swimming (£14.95, Punk Publishing). In the following extract, Start returns to some of his favourite haunts – and explains exactly why they’re so wonderful.
1. Swimming in natural waters such as rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Often associated with picnics and summer holidays.
2. Dipping or plunging in secret or hidden places, sometimes in wilderness areas. Associated with skinny-dipping or naked swimming, often with romantic connotations.
3. Action of swimming wildly such as jumping or diving from a height, using swings and slides, or riding the current of a river.
Salisbury Plains and Wiltshire Chalk Streams
Salisbury Plain is the headwater for three chalk streams – the Nadder, Wylye and Hampshire Avon – that all descend on Salisbury. Percolating from the hills, they are fabulously clean, clear and cold! I arrived at the Avon in Figheldean, just south of Stonehenge, to find bikinis hung on a Morris Minor, a picnic hamper spread out under a willow tree and a mother and her three children paddling and shrieking in cold glee. This is a beautiful pool above a footbridge at the end of a little lane by the church. The water is exceptionally clean and clear and roars in over a simple sluice-type affair, first into a deep hole, and then over white pebble shallows and flint sand banks with views out over hay fields.
Two young men in shorts and wellies had also just arrived from across the fields and were racing each other to be first to dive into the deep pool beneath the small waterfall weir. Elizabeth, an elderly resident of the village, was spectating from a deckchair, calling out comments and clapping at all the action. In the old days, she said, the pool was always packed in the summer, particularly with servicemen from the airbases. During the war there were Land Army girls here too. Some said their naked bathing was distracting the village from the war effort and the local policeman, who also ran the village swimming lessons, ordered that bathers should be suitably clothed for decorous bathing.
The Nadder, some miles away, is a much quieter, smaller stream splashing down through the uplands of the Cranborne Chase. I was quickly lost among the narrow lanes searching for a public footpath that might give bankside access. There, on a hill brow, with a sign pointing down through a billowing wheat field to a little bridge, I finally found a tiny map-marked public right of way. The riverside is neatly mown and cordoned off, clearly prepared for some very well organised fishing. I dare say fishermen would not welcome wild swimmers so I followed the footpath gingerly, not wishing to disturb the peace, but I saw no one, save a dipper and a wagtail, and I arrived alone, hot but delighted, as the river widened into a clear shelving pool behind shrubs. A chute of the purest spring water poured in over an old hatch. Making a neat pile of clothes on a fishing bench, I climbed down the soft grass bank, tiptoed along the deepening riverbed and swam breaststroke into the pool. Pebbles of whites, greys and reds formed a wobbling mosaic on the cool riverpool floor.
The third chalk stream – the Wylye – runs in between the Nadder and Avon. I had initially been attracted to Steeple Langford by a series of lakes I spied from the main road late one evening. What were once gravel pits are now a nature reserve and just as I was preparing to head home disappointed that a silent dip wasn’t allowed I spied a tiny lawn with a bench, opposite the nature reserve entrance, and a small sign: ‘Entry to the pool is prohibited to those unable to swim.’ With these magic words a small but beautiful pool appeared, turning a silver green hue in the fading evening light! A mother swan was collecting some final weedy titbits before tucking up her cygnets for the evening and the church warden was cycling by on her bike, making home for supper. I tiptoed excitedly over the white shingle and waded into the pool. Here, floating like Ophelia, I lay in a perfect stillness, starring up at an indigo sky and the first stars of the evening.
Lower Wye and Herefordshire
I spent my early childhood close to the Herefordshire Wye, near Hoarwithy. We were two families and a gang of five children. I was the youngest and would trail along behind as rafts were built and lanes explored by bicycle. It’s easy to be nostalgic about a river when it flows through the heart of your formative years.
When I tried to remember some of the places I had swum on the Wye, however, I realised many were lost in the fog of early memories, so I decided to return to Hoarwithy for a week and retrace old steps. I based myself at Tressacks campsite, a plain but pleasant stretch of riverside with a little beach, roaring campfires and an excellent gastro pub. Each morning I tiptoed sleepily down to the river and plunged groggily into the shallow waters and was brought to life with a judder of adrenalin. I had played near here as a young boy, I thought, though the river seemed so much wider and deeper then. On really big expeditions we would cycle the three miles to Sellack Common and it used to take all day. The height of excitement was standing on the white iron suspension footbridge, bouncing up and down to see if it would swing and dropping blackcurrants on canoes as they went by. The Wye is lucky to be one of the several rivers in England with an Act of Parliament that enshrines the right to navigate, and to swim. Some suggest that all rivers navigable by small craft have automatic rights of navigation but even here on the Wye, one of the most famous canoeing rivers, there are still occasional conflicts between fishermen and other river users.
From Sellack Common the river completes a five-mile loop to Backney through mainly private fishing estates, but a mile-long lane, over the brow of a hill, cuts off the corner and brings you to Backney Common. This area of meadow has age-old commoner rights and occupies the inside of a large, deep meander. A wide pebble beach has been deposited over time on the inside bank and large deep swimming holes have been eroded on the outside. The sand and pebbles are beautifully graded so you can even bring your bucket and spade. Some seven miles downstream the river comes to its most splendid reach as it enters the great wooded ravine of Symonds Yat. Beechforested cliffs climb up on all sides and King Arthur’s and Merlin’s Caves can be spied high on the limestone walls, cut by the river many thousands of years ago. The village is squeezed onto the narrow rising banks of the gorge and the east and west side are joined only by two rope ferries. It is possible to swim across but most inhabitants use canoes. Many homes – and even the church – have river landing stages which double up for river swimming in the summer. The village is equally famous as a place for learning about rivers and the great outdoors: the Biblins forest camp in Symonds Yat has been giving inner city children wild experiences for over 50 years.
The Wye is the most popular canoeing river in Britain and many companies will arrange everything needed for a few days canoecamping through the countryside. There is also the beautiful Wye Valley Walk and it was at Symonds Yat that I met an elderly couple from Lincoln who had walked for over thirty miles, swimming along the way. They had come rather unstuck skinny-dipping one lunchtime just as a flotilla of canoes helmed by a stag party in fancy dress came by! Despite that, they had a strict routine of swimming three times a day: ‘Before breakfast, lunch and tea we agreed – its very good for you, you know, going in the cold water. And we haven’t missed an opportunity yet.’
Glen Etive and Loch Arkaig
Glen Coe is famous for its wild and dramatic scenery but it is a little known valley running to the south that holds its most spectacular swimming pools and gorges. A haven for climbers and wild campers, Glen Etive is a place you could spend many days exploring. Picking up a friend in Glasgow on her first visit to Scotland we drove north past Loch Lomond in the evening light before climbing up through the craggy lakes of Rannoch Moor as dusk fell. Arriving at King’s House Inn at Glen Coe we pitched our tents in the darkness with the black outline of Aonach Eagach towering over us against the indigo sky. Apart from catching the occasional glint of foam flashing in our headlights, we could only hear the nearby river and could only hope we hadn’t camped too close to its edge.
The whole valley was still in shadow when we awoke the next morning but the sun had caught the top of the mountain and was playing with wisps of cloud. Here, under the dark guardian of Buchaille Etive Mor – The Great Shepherd of Etive – we found ourselves by the most fantastic series of river pools you can imagine. A few yards away our grassy bank dropped into a gentle river lido in a wide meander with a shingle beach and a hundred yards downstream it tumbled into a long gorge with deep lagoons and purple-streaked cliffs.
It was to this beautiful glen that Deirdre, foremost heroine in Irish mythology, came to escape Conor Mac Nessa and his warriors. Her twisted yellow tresses and grey–green eyes were said to lure the gods and mesmerise the mortals. That morning, as the shadow line edged down the mountain wall and the sun broke the high peaks with blinding rays, there was something of her colours in the dawn sky.
The tiny road follows the river for over eight miles down to the remote and enchanted sea loch of Etive. The gorge by which we camped remains my favourite place but there are many other swimming holes as well. A mile upstream there are good shallows for children with a small island and further on the river plunges through a waterfall to open onto a long pool. Two miles before the road head of Glen Coe are deep plunge bowls scooped out of the blue stone, each a bathing place to while away a whole day. Thirty miles to the north of Glen Coe, on the other side of Fort William, you’ll find the Dark Mile, a long line of beech trees and a stone bridge across the Caig Burn. To the right the Eas Chia-aig Falls tumble into a deep, dark pool known as The Witch’s Cauldron. An old woman was accused of casting her evil eye over Lochiel’s cattle, causing them to fall ill and die. When she fell into the pool and drowned the cattle miraculously began to recover from their illness. There are three tiered pools and, while the lower is the largest, the upper two have wildly contorted rock striations that are particularly noteworthy.
There may have been some witch-like trickery going on the day we were there. Having dipped in The Witch’s Cauldron we headed further up the remote lane to find somewhere to swim in Loch Arkaig. We quickly passed an unusually early crop of red and white toadstools on the roadside, the magic mushroom Fly Agaric. Suddenly a stone on the road cut open not one but two of the tyres on the car. We had no phone reception and were stranded by the loch overnight. This gave us plenty of time to explore the white shingle beaches and swim but we couldn’t help but feel we had been tricked by The Witch’s Cauldron and her toadstools.
For more information about wild swimming safety and locations visit www.wildswimming.co.uk
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