August 21st 2013
This is the face of a broken man…
I was still in the Cotswolds on a sultry late-summer afternoon with the air hung charged and heavy. From time to time, darkening thundery skies threatened to silence the quintessential crack of leather on willow that rang out from the closely mown cricket pitch – from the gentlemen in white.
There was a timeless feel about this place. And little wonder, for Minster Lovell is a tiny and ancient village, a cluster of thatch, rose and hollyhock.
A straggle of yellow sandstone walls, mediaeval inns – and owl cottages with happy faces …
But mine was not a happy face. Far from it, because it was hot – oppressively hot – and every sinew within me was straining and aching to swim.
Mentioned in the Domesday book, Minster’s history probably extends further back through the centuries, for it lies close to Akeman Street, a Roman road linking Cirencester with St Albans.
Beyond the cool peace of St Kenelm’s Church lie the 15th century ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Henchman to Richard III, Francis Lovell became one of the wealthiest men in all England, but after Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Francis became a fugitive. A man on the run. A man with no place to hide.
Legend has it that an underground room was discovered in the early 1700s and within its confines sat a skeleton, upright at a table and surrounded by books, papers and pens. Was this the notorious Viscount Lovell?
But I had made a far more notable dicovery….
This is a picture of a happier man.
A man who has found water, for the River Windrush runs right past the ruins of the great Hall.
The cool smell of its flow was in the air, but there was a problem – and a big one at that…
For it was quite busy and many children were swimming. Unusually, I was totally unprepared; I had no trunks and I knew that to skinny dip here would earn me a custodial sentence and an uncomfortable meeting with the General Medical Council!
What was I to do?
Luckily, the average Brit on a day out has an unshakeable belief that walking more than 200 metres from the car causes one’s feet to shrivel and wither. So they tend to clump together – like the ‘huddled masses’ of Emma Lazarus.
Determind to escape the ‘teeming shore’ and to ‘breathe free,’ we set out along the narrow path that first crossed a meadow, then a humble bridge before finally entering a small wood where it meandered hand in hand with the river.
Here the Windrush was a chalky green colour and I hoped this was because the Cotswolds are, well, green and chalky. But there was a real risk that the hue was far more sinister.
Did you ever own a chemistry set? If so, did your Christmas morning excitement fade when the copper sulphate crystals you grew were a tiny reflection of the vast blue shards pictured on the lid?
You also likely failed to generate sufficient hydrogen sulphide to make much of a stink bomb. So in frustration you probably just mixed all the little packets of powder together, added a drench of water and left the vile concoction sitting on a windowsill.
Where it became the exact colour of the Windrush…
Near the bridge, where the river widens into a pool enjoyed by children through countless generations, two girls were swimming quietly together. Neither appeared to be foaming at the mouth or dissolving away so I travelled on for a few minutes and then plunged into the murky waters. Like a clockwork toy boat, I was off, shooting across the water in a wide circular navigation until my coil finally unwound and I drifted to a sedate halt.
Where I stayed.
Life was casual and gentle here.
A slow drift carried me into an oxbow where the path and the river briefly parted company in a lover’s spat. In this backwater, distant from the known world, all was silent and peaceful and perfect.
The reeds beside me murmured, as if, Moses-like, they sheltered a secret.
More movement, then a shuffle of water to reveal a female mallard, paddling and babbling through the verdant emerald margins.
Embarking on a wldly reckless dare, a damselfly alighted close by in a shock of vivid blue. Folded-back wings, fragile body and feeble water-hugging flight distinguished this delicate insect from its bigger, bolder dragonfly cousin.
To simply float with eyes at surface level, to become immersed in this place, to be painted into the scene was a very pure delight. To be part of that canvas, whose detail unfolded with the looking, was a privilege; a private viewing.
And to turn for the shore was a wrench, tempered only by a slow bankside sun-dried half hour.
Back at the Old Swan, whose pedigree spans almost 600 years, I downed a cold pint, played chess and chatted with Marty, my future son in law.
Seated in the pub garden, suffused with the saffron glow of the setting sun, Marty said he thought the way I am happy to just jump into a river and swim, unplanned and uninhibited was “real cool”.
To be honest, I was a bit pleased, a bit proud! With puffed up chest I strolled to the bar to buy us another drink …
….. Or did he say “fool”?