On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring

Kit Hill, Cornwall

23 May 2018

The quarrying of granite was in full swing when Delius composed his famous tone poem in 1912. Using oboe, clarinet and strings, he mimicked the call of the cuckoo and painted a masterly musical canvas.

An image of rural beauty, such as can be seen and heard on Kit Hill today.


For the quarry has long since closed. The heart of the hill may live on in lighthouse and London bridges, but the sound of hammer upon tare and feather has faded into the Cornish air. It is a place of silence now. Of murmuring winds. Of bee song.


Kit Hill (Cornish: Bre Scowl) dominates the skyline between Callington and the Tamar. From here, one can look across a tapestry of fields towards the tanned tors of Dartmoor, view the glinting ocean and count a myriad engine house stacks, peppered about the pastures of a verdant landscape. Its name is derived from the Old English word for kite; and buzzards still ride the thermals on a warm afternoon.

An afternoon such as this.

Late spring sunshine bathes the campion, cow parsley and bluebells which line up to form a patriotic guard of honour along the path to the quarry.


This is my home country. Haunt of my childhood and haunt of generations who have come to this place to swim. To soak away the heat of the day. To skinny dip under a Cornish moon. To be together. To be alone.

To become immersed in still water. Immersed in an alternative universe. Shielded from the known world by steep walls of stone. Where worries can be discarded like unwanted blocks and allowed to sink down into the greenest depths.


Which is why I have come…

Plagued by knotted muscles and a knotted mind, I am here to unwind. To unload.

Launching off, I am attracted by the sight of lichen crusted branches reaching out to soothe swollen arthritic fingers in the limpid water. I am reminded of mangrove swamps; an image made all the more real as I peer into the shallows, teeming with tadpoles.


For here I spy the olive and green form of a horse leech (Haemopis sanguisuga.) Cradled in my palm it writhes and loops before attaching a gaping sucker to my finger. But its teeth cannot penetrate human skin, so I enjoy the moment. A literal connection with nature. Despite it being an hermaphrodite, I decide to name ‘him’ Larry. Larry the leech. And I fancy we are friends as I carefully set him down in the silty mud.


I swim back to the heart of the lake and float with only my thoughts as company.


On my back. Hands behind my head. Legs crossed. Drifting. Dreaming. Hearing each breath whenever my ears sink below the surface. Feeling the breeze stroking my skin. Floating with the seed heads. And every bit as aimless.

Early evening sun floods the quarry, turning rowan blossom to gold, as shadows slide across the ragged rock face.


Four frog kicks and I am back in the sandy, stone-strewn shallows. Shorts drying on hot rock. Where ferns unfurl and butterflies meet buttercups.


I startle to a call. A cuckoo. Close and loud and lovely.

And there it is. In front of me. Most elusive of birds.

Landing on a weathered post. Tail fanning on descent. Barred underbelly to mimic a sparrow hawk; curse of the meadow pipit, dunnock and reed warbler.

But a gift to me as I watch and hear it call again and again and again. And then an answer; distant but distinct. And another. And another.

As if an orchestra were being conducted.

In this concert hall of creation.


The Medicine of Mothecombe

Mothecombe Beach, Flete Estate, South Devon

November 17 2017

“…as he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow?

Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.”  (Kahlil Gibran)

In times of turbulence and torment there is no better tonic than a trip to the beach, moreso with a toddler in tow. And there is no better beach than Mothecombe, also known as Meadowsfoot.

Mothecombe jewell .jpg

A jewel of a place; hewn from the Devonian slate of the South Hams and multifaceted, reflecting the many vistas of the countryside hereabouts. For within the gaze lie rugged moorland, rollercoaster fields and rustic woodlands that dip down into the timeless tranquility of the Erme estuary.

Mothecombe Rabbit Field.jpg

And of course, there is the sea. The soothing sea. The balm of the ocean.  And today, all that is clasped in a setting of the finest gold. For although this is mid November and the air is chilled, the sun has forgotten the season. She shines upon us benevolently as we dine alfresco and enjoy a lunch of local seafood and the gift of a good grape harvest at the Old Schoolhouse.

Salcombe smokies.jpg

The path to the beach crosses rabbit-peppered fields, then dips down through a delight of trees where the last blackberries are withering; their juices long sapped by the onshore breeze..

Mothecombe Wood.jpg

Glimpses of paradise greet us through peephole clearings before the horizon expands and sand at last presses up between our toes.

Mothecombe first sand

As usual we are alone. Access is not particularly easy and in all but the heights of July and August this is a place of peace. A place to swim naked.


Today the sweetness of summer hay has passed and the high hedges no longer crush the crested lanes. It is only eight degrees above freezing, but the wind is kind and the sea is slight.

I find a perfect rocky changing room and strip off – albeit a little gingerly! Then the dash to the water; clear as glass and equally cutting. Recent storms have woven ridges and ripples into the sand as I wade up to my waist.


A sharp intake of breath. I dive, deep and long into the next wave. Surfacing, I savour the fizzing freshmint feeling of the chill that coils all around me. Impossible to describe. The endorphin rush that I have craved for the past two weeks since my last cold water swim.

My fix.


I drink it in – savouring the salt too, for I love its cheeky tang. The tide is rising but the beach shelves gently, so I am never far out of my depth as I relax into my stroke and begin to swim out. Out beyond the breakers. Where I can float and gaze and think and dream. A place of wonder. A place of prayer.

I think of the films that have been set here – notably Sense and Sensibility and Du Maurier’s Rebecca. A beachouse clings to the cliff and beyond, a remnant of war.


Here the Home Guard sat and waited for an invasion that never came. And here they blew a hole in the tidal pool. Gently bobbing, I ponder why, but explanations are as sparse as the clouds in the perfect blue above me.

DSCF5795 (1).jpg

Lying still, the water around me warms, but the slightest movement unmasks a concealed chill. I languish longer than I should, gazing at the long-deserted pillbox, imagining the lonely vigil on a wild Westcountry night.

Suddenly my own early warning system jangles into life. My left fourth toe buzzes urgently then descends to numbness. The way it always does when it is time to retreat. I twist into the cold current and slowly swim back towards the excited chatter of my granddaughter.

An hour of precious beachtime memory-making follows.

An hour of discoveries and delights.


Mothecombe sandcastle delight

As we begin the ascent towards home, Alexa’s legs falter and she is lifted onto my shoulders. Clutching a feather in each hand, she begins to gently flap her wings. “We will fly back Grandad” she chuckles.

Flying home from Mothecombe.jpg

But I am already far above her – soaring in the thermals. Circling and content in this world of Salcombe Smokies and Sauvignon Blanc. Of sandcastles and shell collections.

Borne up and lifted high by the innocent laughter of a child.


Watch the Wall My Darling …

Lantic Bay, Cornwall

13 August 2017

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.


Three centuries ago smuggling was the blood that pulsed through the granite veins of Cornwall. A life blood – nourishing and sustaining every part of a poor and lawless county. Few had no trace or taint of this blood on their hands. For some, ‘free-trading’ meant life itself.

For in many a fishing community, the difference between success and starvation lay in ‘silver darlings’ – fickle shoals of pilchards that swam close to the Cornish coast as summer days began to shorten. Heva! Heva! would be the cry when their silver sparks were spotted and all around would spill into the sea for a welcome harvest.

Silver Darlings

But if the shoals stayed away, the salting barrels remained empty.

A situation made worse by crippling taxes, levied to pay for England’s military campaigns against American independence. Taxes on spirits soared, tea and tobacco became prohibitively expensive. But most serious of all was the crippling cost of salt – forty times its value. And without salt, the fisherfolk could not preserve whatever they managed to catch.

So they turned their sights towards the ocean: towards a new harvest….


A tax-free trade from France.

Alcohol, tobacco and a host of luxuries, smuggled ashore and spirited away into the Cornish night. A very profitable catch…

And my homeland, the south-east of Cornwall, is soused in tales of smuggling: some tall, some true. Many an isolated cove and cliff-clung community still harbours memories and mementoes of smugglers, long after the tides have claimed their sandy footprints.

lantic last view

Lantic Bay is such a place. Shaped like the moon that lit the men and mules as they descended the steep footpath from clifftop to shore, this crescent of sand and shingle was a perfect place to land contraband. Inaccessible and almost invisible to the prying eyes of the excisemen.

As I stumble and slip towards the beach in brilliant sunshine and a balmy breeze, I am in awe of the men who trod these paths, in the ebony grip of a midwinter night. Silent and sweat stained. Sinews straining. Stealthy and sure-footed.

And they were many. For smuggling was about communities: covert and close.

Here at Lantic Bay, one hundred smugglers were confronted by men from the Excise. A skirmish ensued and one of the preventive men lay unconscious. But no-one was ever convicted – no one could ever be – not by a Cornish jury!

For everyone had a part to play – squire, parson, publican and magistrate – all stored the contraband that was hauled and manhandled up from the shore. At nearby Talland, the priest was said to raise the dead in the midst of night, so honest villagers stayed away from the churchyard, fearful of the dark shadowy figures seen moving in silent procession towards their ‘resting place’.

At the very least, gentle-folk would turn their backs on the business: seeing nothing, hearing nothing.

Blind eye

But on this August afternoon, the only sight is the sand and shingle, the sun and the sea. The only sound is a rhythmic lapping along the tideline. The only vessels anchored offshore are yachts gently bobbing in blue waters and today the only danger comes from an occasional jellyfish.

View boats 2

It is a good swim, clear and cool, but caution is required, for rips are common and the sea here should be avoided in all but fine weather on an incoming tide.

TGC swim lantic.jpg

Th beach is quiet. Few venture to this remote place. Lying back on the sand, I drift and drowse in the gathering heat. Creak of wood, flap of canvas, a muffled oar.

So far away ….

Lantic sands

Cry from on high, like a cliff top lookout. I wake with a start! A gull is circling, weaving the thermals like fine french lace.

A westerly wind is gathering and fingers of sand are reaching from the sea to grip the grasses marking my route home.

Lantic Daisies

It is growing late. The cliffs rise above me and, although unburdened by barrel, brandy or baccy, I am still breathless by the time the gorse-sharp track yields to an unfolding softness of emerald grass.

Sitting at the summit, I pause awhile, enjoying the tang of salt and sense of satisfaction.

Lantic Bay from clifftop

And there is admiration too. Admiration for the grit and guile of my my Cornish kin who cheated hunger and injustice.

There is little smuggling here now; Lower taxation, a reinforced Customs and Excise Service and the rise of Methodism put an end to the free-traders.

But their legacy remains and today it is the history of smuggling that brings a valuable cargo to this still poor county – the trundle and tread of tourism.

For in this place of mist and mystery, the muffed murmurs of yesterday still echo all around…

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

[Rudyard Kipling] 






Napper’s Halt

26th May 2017


The 1449 from Buckfastleigh staggers and pants into Staverton Station, disturbing the steady drone of bees and the ripples of heat arising from the baked platform.  There is a steady wheeze of steam and, in this moment, I am sat beside the lines of an Edward Thomas poem…

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I visited Adlestrop once, but found the station gone, victim to Beeching and all trace erased. But its spirit lives on in places like Staverton. Here, entrenched amidst the undulating fields of rural Devon, it could still be 1914. This a timeless scene, painted in steam, and framed long before the mighty metallic hand of war swept away the old order of life in the country.


I cross the track, pass a sleepy signalman and head towards the River Dart.

May is one of the finest times in a hedgerow. Adorned in patriotic bunting for Whitsuntide, the red, white and blue of campion, cow parsley and the last blush of bluebells bob in the warm, but welcome breeze.

The leaves and grass are still tender as I follow a track into the woods, all heady and suffused with the scent of wild garlic.


Crossing via a sluice, I tread carefully along a narrowing, dusty and root-tangled track – eyes peeled for the ‘Still Pool.’


Peering ahead , I overlook the rabbit hole at my feet, stumble and swear. As I pick myself up, wipe the dust from a grazed knee and glance up, my destination unravels before me.

Just as described in ‘Wild Swimming Walks’ – (my guide for the afternoon) – this is “a swimming hole straight out of a Mark Twain story.” I scramble down the bank to a small sandy beach. Here a myriad branches have been dashed to matchwood by the wild spates of winter, but they provide a soft spongy descent into the Dart – welcome relief from the usual slip, sliding stones that guard this river.


Along the warm and rippling edge, the water has the hue of an Islay malt – and all its peatiness too. Deeper, the river turns dark and pulls with a cold embrace – welcome under these cloudless sun-seared skies. A sheen of insects hurry about the shimmering surface, scooped up from time to time by a swooping swallow.


Oak, my spaniel, sets off ahead of me. Stick in mouth, ears streaming behind, he cuts through the current with ease. I drop my clothes and chase him – and soon we are swimming side by side – gliding through a kaleidoscope of colours and temperatures as we head for the far shore.

DSCF5650Here, steps have been fashioned into the bank by generations of children and a swimming rope hangs from an gnarled oak tree.


A rocky outcrop marks a rite of passage for local youths. I hesitate, then leap into the water – black and cold as newly dug coal.  My feet just touch the river bed before I am torpedoed back upwards – expelled by the dark mysteries of the depths. Spat out. My eyes are open as I watch the dawning light of the approaching surface, before breaking back into the air in an explosion of breaths and bubbles.


We swim upstream and glide lazily down – me on my back and Oak circling – endearing but abrasive, his claws frequently scouring my flesh. There is birdsong and blue skies. Nothing else touches our world as we drift.


Rolling over, I see that a young woman has arrived at the beach. She lays her towel down, undresses to her underwater and lies in the gaze of the heavens. Her eight year old daughter tucks her dress into her pants and paddles in the shallows – discovering a plethora of wonders and delights. There is a beautiful innocence and simplicity in this scene and I am loathe to disturb them. But after a further thirty minutes I shudder and know I must return to the sand. We smile, a little awkwardly, before she discretely paddles in to collect pebbles – saving embarrassment as I change on the shore.


Downstream, a group of teenagers are celebrating the start of half term – and a respite from examinations. A splash then a cheer; their May revelries ring out – as they always have. Thomas would have known such scenes a century ago. River joys….

Apple finished, guide open and back to the dappled path, long grass and humming orchard that lead to nearby Napper’s Halt. Distant whistle in the valley and a ring along the tracks. I have just enough time to tie Oak to a post for fear that he will startle. And then the engine is upon us, driver grinning down as gleaming wheels glide by, inches away.


We exchange greetings and he is gone. All is countryside again, save for the waning whine of the rails – a soft, slow slip into silence.

Climbing the lane, past church and courthouse, I arrive at the Sea Trout – a 15th Century inn where a cool beer provides an antidote to the late afternoon heat.

IMG_9929 (1)

The breeze ruffles my pages as I begin my quest for the next swimming adventure.


From the steeple, five sonorous chimes.

A blackbird replies.

There is no place I would rather be….





Edward Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

His memory is carried on the birdsong of the Cotswolds 





The Talland Boiler

Porth Tallan

October 26 2014


It is not the sight of the sea, but the stench of the seaweed that takes my breath away as I round the last steep bend into Talland Bay.

Black, russet, amber and brown. Heaped high and shining in the lazy drizzle of an October afternoon. The putrid reek claws at my throat and I swallow hard.

Beyond, under a grey sky, lies a small grey beach that grates and groans to the rhythm of a grey sea, skulking skywards into a grey mist.

All is grey. All is grim.

My spirits are damp as the day. Heavy as lead.

This is far from the scene I imagined: Quiet, unspoiled, beautiful; an Aegean idyll in South East Cornwall …



I slip, trip and slide across to the rocks that slice this smuggler’s haven in half – Rotterdam Beach to the east and Talland Sands lying westward. Here, at least, there is colour in a scattering of deep, crystalline pools.



But little life – the anemones are closed on Sunday and, like a parson at the door, a hermit crab peers blankly out. An occasional shrimp flusters by, then all is still again. Limp and languid and lifeless.

Clambering on, I finally spy the reason for my visit. Exposed by the lowest tide….

A rusted boiler.



All that remains of the ‘Marguerite’ – a French trawler who lost her bearings during a south-westerly gale in March 1922 and foundered on the rocks. Heavy breakers crashed over the doomed vessel, but the crew of 21, including a ten year old boy, were all rescued by the lifeboat ‘Ryder’ thanks to the skilled seamanship of Coxswain Thomas Toms. The locals also tried to ‘rescue’ the 50 tons of fish on board – but were distressed to find that the prized catch had been turned pink by carbide contamination from the ship’s lighting!


The clouds are lifting a little now and, like a crack in cast iron, the horizon reappears as a sliver of ochre. The wind is rising with the tide and I sense that the opportunity to swim will soon fade with the day.

Returning to the sand and shingle, littered with pebbles of pink and purple, I avoid a recent rockfall and toss my clothes away from the reach of the sea.

Where a wonderful calm sweeps over and suffuses me. A warm, silky saltiness that triggers a relaxation response as intense as it is instant.



The sea always feels like an intimate friend and so, although I often swim alone, I never feel lonely. There is both a delicious freedom and a tender togetherness in swimming out and out. In rising and falling with the swell. In being a creature of the deep.

I can understand why Peggy Oliver wrote:

‘..Where salt breezes act as balm

To my troubled mind to bring me calm.

And so when times are hard to bear

I dream that I have journeyed there

For every single worldly care

Can cease at Talland Bay.’

My solitude is shattered by a group of girls. Students I would say. They appear from nowhere, swim around me for a few minutes in an excitement of chatter, and, like a pod of playful dolphins, are suddenly gone again.

All is silent and special once more.

It is just me and the waves.



And the distant tower of St Tallanus.


Polly Joke

Porth Joke 

July 30 2015

Sometimes a name in itself is sufficient to invite exploration.

Polly Joke is such a name.

As soon as I saw those words in my ‘Secret Beaches of the South West’ guide I knew that I would go there.

The detail did not matter. The name did.

So on a sun-soaked afternoon in late July, I find myself parking in a field and stepping out on the half mile trek through poppy-peppered cornfields, rolling downwards to the sea.


Polly Joke is a name of endearment and familiarity, used by the locals. But to most this is Porth Joke; a north westerly facing inlet beach between the prominent headlands of Kelsey Head and Pentire Point West on Cornwall’s Atlantic coast. Completely undeveloped, this is a natural gem; geographically only a handful of miles – but galaxies apart – from nearby trendy Crantock and the crass commercialism of Newquay.

The walk to the beach is also a thing of beauty, passing blackberries that are beginning to swell with Autumn promise, graceful grasses and golden grain. Bees, bugs and butterflies abound.


A gentle drone and rhythmic breaking of distant waves – their crashes; a ragged remnant of a recent unseasonal gale.


For the last hundred metres of my descent, the business of bees is gradually replaced by the clamour of children and I realise that I will not be alone this day.


How naiive to think I would, for this is peak season. But nonetheless, there is no feeling of crowding – no confusion of windbreaks – no radios – no barking dogs. Just a happy murmur of childhood, softened by an Atlantic lullaby.

Crossing the chilled stream that traverses the apex of the beach, I choose a spot on the edge of the dunes – all marram and thistle and wisps of hot sand coiling to the tune of an onshore breeze.


The general advice at Porth Joke is to avoid swimming except in the calmest of conditions and then only on the rising tide. This is on account of the strong swell, lively surf and strong rips that feature prominently in the cove.

But today, despite a recent force 8, the swell is manageable and the tide rapidly consuming the vast, almost flat expanse of sand, so I wade into the gorgeously warm (18.5C) and clear waters.


Heading out, through a straggle of weed and past a handful of optimistic body boarders, I am soon swimming alone in the surf, which is lively and playful.

I dive into the first wave; indigo at it base and rising through turquoise to the purest white foaming crest.


Tossed about in its heart; powerless as a grain of sand, I break free from its grip and explode back to the surface.


My sense of conquest is short-lived, for I am instantly battered around the back of the head and flung forwards by its accomplice – stealthily creeping up on me from behind.


I feel salt gush into my nose and mouth, see a kaleidoscope of spinning blues, hear the rush of the wave above me and the shuffle of sand below. …before I again escape and rocket back into fresh air.

And it feels so good. Like a toreador, I emerge to face the relentless charge again and again …


An hour surges past like the relentless breakers, leaving me bobbing in a timeless place.

The beach has contracted and a trickle of families are embarking on the uphill trek towards home.

I face the shore and launch into each advancing wave, surfing on my stomach until the water is again shallow, warm and tranquil.

And where sea and river meet, amidst the turbulence and change, I see a shape outlined in foam.

Perfect …


Singing the Body

Meldon, Dartmoor

September 20 2014

‘… but when I try to imagine faultless love, or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’  (WH Auden)


Meldon has a story rooted in limestone.

On the northernmost fringe of Dartmoor; where the roughness of granite yields to rolling pasture and where, on a fair day,  the horizon widens to embrace the sea, the hamlet of Meldon is best known for its quarries.

Today, ballast for the railways is still excavated from one site, but beyond this, through woodland and under the vast spans of a viaduct, rests a peaceful place. Where drills and powder, tares and feather have long fallen silent. Where quiet has replaced the calls of the quarrymen.

meldon men

At Meldon lay a deposit of limestone, sandwiched between layers of hard, flinty chert. Being quite distant from the coast, there were no ready supplies of seaweed and sand to nourish and neutralise the peaty, acidic fields. So lime was quarried, kilned and spread to ‘sweeten’ the soil hereabouts.

Excavation began on a small scale in the late 1700s and by the time the quarry became exhausted, early in the 20th Century, a two acre crater, some 130 feet deep, had been gouged from the ground.

With time, moorland rains and Auden’s murmuring streams poured balm into the earth’s wound and today this quarry offers one of the finest swims on Dartmoor.

Or so the wild swimming sites proclaimed – with pictures reminiscent of a Mediterranean idyll; all sunlight and serenity.


To be honest, I had never really believed that colour. It seemed too vivid, mystical, unearthly. Certainly it was unlike the night-sky blackness that envelops the swimmer in most moorland pools.


So, it’s with towel and a generous portion of scepticism stowed in my rucsac that I head for Meldon on a sultry Sunday afternoon in late September. Marley Bone is clearly as intrigued as me, for he leaps out through the car window before I have even parked. A bark of surprise and bemused face in my wing mirror shows that he has forgotten the harness he wears in the car, but his tail is still wagging as, gently swinging, he awaits rescue with an air of patient trust.


Emergency over, we head downhill, passing dense bracken and spoil heap fingers that grasp the hillside. The bronzed hues of early Autumn are painted here and there and skeletal remnants of rosebay willow herb loom up beside the gnarled remains of a long dead hawthorn. Thistledown trips along the ground. Wisps of cloud follow suit in a deepening sky.


The air hangs heavy with the drone of bobbing bees and I begin to doubt my direction, for there is no lake to see.

Finding a bridge, I cross the West Okement and moments later, through a parting of trunks, it is there.


Tree-ringed and pretty as the proverbial postcard. And that colour! It was true…

So intense that I can only sit in awe – absorbing what I had failed to believe.


Scrambling down through scrub and sending a cascade of stones into the water, it’s clear that the pool is instantly deep. No gently shelving entry here: In or out – all or nothing.


So in it is …

And how good! For the heat of a long summer has suffused these green waters. Dragonflies and a swooping wagtail become my crewmates as we set off on an exploratory voyage; traversing the length and breadth of the lake.


Voices above send me into a grove of trees that dip and drape into the water on the far bank.  I shelter amongst shadows where all is still and stagnant. Like an alligator floating with eyes barely crowning the waterline. This is ‘Deliverance’ without the duelling banjos.


The voices pass and silence floods back into the quarry. Leaving my lair, I slide back out into the sunshine, into the heat and light that is focussed by the lake as if through a magnifying glass. I dive down, through a palette of greens that change from sage, through emerald to bottle as I probe deeper into the opaque water. Rising back, to float lazily at the heart of the pool, I am reminded of a more sombre day.


A day back in 1936; when a local man went missing and was believed to have drowned in the murky waters of the flooded quarry. But no corpse had been found so a decision was made to ‘sing the body.’ This was a traditional practice on the moors whenever a drowning occurred but no trace was evident. It was believed that by singing sacred songs at the water’s edge, the body would be attracted to the surface where a Christian burial would be waiting.

So a choir from Okehampton was duly assembled. Hymns were sung, psalms chanted and prayers said over the waters of Meldon.  Within a few days the corpse was found floating on the surface – the last recorded occasion of a body being ‘sung’ from the depths.

To my left, a sudden splash!

Excited shouts…


Three lads have clambered onto a ledge of chert far above the water. Here a sloped overhang, created by the undercutting of limestone, towers 40 feet above the lake. This is the site of the ‘Meldon Bomb’ – as infamous as it is dangerous – for, from this height, any dive that lacks needle-precision is potentially lethal.

I can almost imagine the spirits of that 1936 choir assembling once more beside these virescent waters…

I feel a shiver. I’ve been in the pool for over an hour, so set off for the steep bank that leads to a towel and picnic.

From my new vantage point high above the lake, I see a shimmering surface and shadows of sycamore in the dryness of the dust.


But in the breath of a breeze, an occasional crusty leaf drifts across my gaze.

A sign that all must change.

For these languid days of summer stand numbered now …

A Swim for All Seasons

Eastertide: The towering Devon hedges that lead to the river are crowned with daffodils. Like a mighty menorah, a newly pollarded tree with habit violated beyond recognition stands stark against the skyline. Below is strewn a cloak of primroses; yellow as marzipan through a simnel cake.



But deep in the valley it is still autumn and fresh molehills have erupted overnight. An ocean of dew has drenched the meadows and a spectral veil of mist hovers above the glistening grass.



Beech nuts crack underfoot and suddenly it is winter in the bare-boughed forest; emergent nettles standing stunned and frost-frilled in the clearing that separates woodland from water.



Beyond, amid the gorse thorns, where the bitter butteriness of a fresh flowering speaks of resurrection, beech buds are bursting and it is spring again. And my clothes are hanging from a branch above the sand, streaked with the saffron of a rising sun.



But the water boasts an icy grip – at 6.5C it’s as cold as I have known. Wading up to my waist, I feel the thrilling chill of the Tavy wrapped around me. I pause. The shriek of a pheasant in Great North Wood cleaves the air and I launch forward into the void.



I huff wildly for a few seconds before striking out towards the far bank. Here I perch on a submerged rock shelf, acclimatising in the lea of a vole-pocked bank. Emerald moss clings to trunks and, like ribbons on fairday, strands of grass flutter from branches far above head height – testament to the scourge and spate of December. The rocks are also robed in moss, and on this velvet is laid a perfect composition; a still-life array of pebbles, plants, sticks and a feather. Here is an unexpected thing of exquisite beauty which I study as one would a vast canvas in a gallery.



The cold has made me clumsy as I clamber onto the slip-slide-slate of my diving rock. Marley Bone circles below until I wave him away and dive into the bubbled confusion, all green and gripping. Surging up, my head breaks the surface and in an instant becomes cool and clear as menthol.



A thousand pins puncture and probe my skin. The kingfisher; regular and true as a church clock, powers past. Downstream, a wood pigeon traverses to and fro, to and fro, in tireless courtship.

But I head upstream, beaching myself on the shallow falls that are alive and angry; spitting crystal globules into my face. I turn into their turbulence and am sprung like a trap. Laying back, my head winces in the gelid grip, so I roll into a breaststroke to escape its pain.

The sun is streaming with the river now and two brimstones dance daintily in a delusion of summer.  Bright as sulphur, these are the original butter-coloured-flies, from which their family name is derived.



Bees bumble by. It could be July. I stand steaming in the sun, her warmth on my back. But my skin is red as a scalded prawn and cooled to the thickness of leather. So numbed that I barely feel the towel as I dry. My feet stumble and shudder on the sand. I trip into my trousers.

Over the brim of a trembling cocoa, I spot a sculpted trunk in the shallows; carved into a confusion of curves and crevices.



Dark, dense and leaden. It will look well in my garden, so is lifted to shoulder.

A hard trail uphill.

Towards home – back through the unfolding of the seasons.



The Spitchwick Sardines

Spitchwick, River Dart

May 21, 2014

‘What a difference a day makes’ – or so sang Dinah Washington.

Now multiply that by seven.

Seven sun-soaked, blossom-laden days.


A week that has transformed Spitchwick from a place of quiet beauty into a post-apocalyptic landscape of litter and contempt. Where the pristine grass has been seared into a chess board of barbecue burns. Coals and foil tossed aside. Cast-off cartons and cans creaking in the heat.

But the blossom and bluebells have survived the weekenders and on this Wednesday noon the turf is warm and the air pristine. ‘Spitch’ is still a site of sunshine and solace – albeit shared with two couples who lay pressed close together; roasting flesh on an undersized rug.

I lay my own blanket far away; on a small sandy beach, set in a dense dappling of leaves beneath the bank.


The Dart chatters and sparkles all about me as I settle down to Roger Deakin, a sandwich and luke-warm pasty.

Roger’s words are deep and clear and charged with the energy of experience. The pages turn themselves, rushing by with the impatience of a river in spate – surging and pressing from his pen.


An hour passes. The sun sears through the lens of her sky and I hear footsteps: A woman and child. They pass, smile and head towards the river.

But they make a mistake. They break the cardinal canine rule:


Thirty minutes later they pass again. The smiles are forced this time…

By now lunch has settled and I hear the call of the Dart – a needy cry that demands only one answer.

So moments later I am tip-toeing past the sleepers. The dreamers. Not a murmur. Their dream goes on.

And my clothes come off.


At the water’s edge; a cool clear embrace – ankles, calves, knees, thighs.

I slip. The kiss of the river and I am swimming. Weightless. Carried in her current. Yesterday and tomorrow are left behind. All is now – condensed into this moment.

And still no movement from the sleepers.

I slide off my shorts – tuck them into the bank.

Securely wrapped in the blackness of the deep, I drift with Mother Dart, probing the bank. What mysteries lie within her burrows – these dark places? The water sings. My ears strain. Can I know her secrets?


Buoyed by our embrace, I spin lazily …. and meet the gaze of eight eyes!

Dreaming no more and watching my every stroke. A shout, a giggle.

I groan and head for the far bank where I languish until interest is lost and all four fall supine again.

But now I have been joined by an unwelcome spirit – the pulsing beat of their boom boom boom box.

It bores, erodes, pummels my skull, skull, skull.

I am trapped in the rhythm. An irresistible pressure. Words squeezed from me. A tortuous sinew stutters and cries out. An involuntary rap – conjured from somewhere I hope not to visit again:

It is May and the mercury’s high / Dandelion seeds are drifting by / but the Dart is wet / Yes the river is cool / And I am needy for her midday pools / Crossing the common, with silent tread / Past the heads of the sleepers – four to a bed / Snug as a bug on their rug in the sun/ In shorts and bikinis that will never know the fun of a plunge / In this place. Dark eyes to the sky / Grilling and searing, close together they lie / As I pass by, to their side I glide / Then into the green and ochre I slide, striking out / For the depths, for the shade I aim / Lazy and slow ’til the sound of a name / Of a laugh and a shout – and my secret is out! / For I am unclothed, alone and laid bare / And the couples on the bank they sit and stare / Eating their lunch while the water I tread / Until they lose interest and sink back to their bed…

Somehow, somewhere in the strains of the rhyme I find an exorcism, a freedom. Released and at large, I drift on down until the shallows claim me and my knees grind on their arresting stones. All is silent again.


My towel scatters sand on the remnants of lunch as teeth chatter and cold skin claws.

Roger smiles – this was once his bread and butter too.

The hawthorn blossom has burst through and my path back is a marriage of confetti and birdsong.


But within this idyll is scattered man’s detritus: Bottles in the bluebells. Coke cans crush the campion.

The Council has turned away. Fifty bags of rubbish in one day was simply too heavy a burden.

At the laneside, a newly carved sign commands ‘No Open Fires’

The original is long gone.

Broken up.

Burned on a barbecue…

Brief Encounter

River Tavy at Denham

Autumn 2014:

As I write, the boughs of Denham Wood are bare and the air tinged with frost. Autumn has conceded to winter and she, in turn, has swept on and through, trailing the last tattered rags of her icy coat behind. It’s an early spring day but, floating in the river, I am carried back to crisp-leafed October mornings.


When fungal spores flashed in the flare of a declining sun. When abundance and decay walked strangely hand in hand. When the swimming was glorious and breakfast was a feast of blackberries and hot chocolate.


In those days I swam early, whilst the mummies were delivering their beloveds to prep, and long before they arrived to fill the woods with their labradors and chatter. This was often a magical time; ethereal mists, light games through the trees and a calm, clear silence.


In the clearing where Sky luvs Nick, I would kick through sycamore mounds, startling sleepy herons into cumbersome flight. Beyond and beside the Tavy where the grass was thick and deliciously drenched with dew, I would slip off my shoes and savour its wetness. Barefoot on hallowed ground. Past abandoned summer altars, where webs strung across campfire stones were studded with morning diamonds. Here crystal waters skipped over rock and ran on into deep pools where all was stilled once more.


From time to time I would watch leaves drifting down in the meekest of breezes before meeting the river in a silent union. Like shrunken sailboats they would brush my face as I swam – a tiny flotilla navigating through the fog of my warm breath as it hung lazily in the chilled air.


Here and there the surface sparked and burned like sodium – a blaze of fireworks to celebrate the sun’s climb over the ridge of Great North Wood. Deeper, and in stronger currents, leaves danced wildly around me as I dived, before gathering to rest in vast submerged clumps wherever sunken logs barred their dizzy progress.

Just upstream, where a sandy cove has grown in the lea of a fallen tree, I was more often than not treated to a kingfisher flypast. This was usually a transient glory. A hurried blur of colour and energy. Low along the river. Bankside hollow to branched hideout.


According to Greek mythology, the first pair of kingfishers were gods who sacrilegiously referred to themselves as Zeus and Hera. For this they died, but in an act of compassion, the other gods restored them to their watery home. They were also granted fourteen ‘halcyon’ days of storm-free calm in which to raise their young. And it was on onesuch still, serene, halcyon day that the usual shard of orange and turquoise slowed, then materialised before me….


Kingfisher! A close encounter. Always an aching anticipation. And now a reality.

Silently, I eased forwards, barely raising a ripple until I was but a few feet from the stout short-tailed body.

From the oversized head with dagger-bill. From the ebony eyes.

I began to gently tread water. Our gaze met.

But rather than flying, the kingfisher dived, breaking the surface with little sound and emerging with a beak-filled breakfast of pond skater. Then again and again. No flapping fish to satisfy this bird’s daily need to consume its own body weight. Just insect after insect after insect.


A moment of rapture.

Behind me came a loud splash and clatter. I spun around to see Marley Bone arriving at our party.


But when I turned back, the branch was bare…

That kingfisher jewelling upstream

seems to leave a streak of itself behind it

in the bright air. The trees 

are all the better for its passing.


Kingfisher photograph used by kind permission of Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de.

Poem excerpt from Kingfisher by Norman MacCaig