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.

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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 





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

The Magpie and the Hidden Gem


August 2nd 2014


Dartmoor is littered with honeypots.

Places people go on hot Sunday afternoons to escape the pressure cooker of the city.

In my mind’s eye, honeypots drip the 1950s – all braces and rolled up trousers, white ankles paddling whilst a kettle whistles on the primus. Lazy deckchair days behind the Daily Mirror.

A packet of Woodbines.

Which is why I tend to avoid them – particularly those close at hand.

One such honeypot is but a short stroll from my cottage, through woods that are steeped with the scent of bluebells in May, when the forest floor is painted in the same colours as the sky.

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And that honeypot is known locally as ‘Magpie’ …

Magpie Inn


Named after the inn that once gave riverside rest to travellers on the turnpike linking the channel coast with prosperous Tavistock; Magpie has been a popular bathing place for generations.

For here flows the Walkham, the only river to run its entire course on Dartmoor. This main tributary of the Tavy arises high on the northern moor; draining from sodden peat into a bleak and featureless landscape at Walkham Head. It then gathers pace and pours through heathland, then pasture, before reaching Magpie. Here it begins cutting a winding path through tree-lined gorges en route to its union with the Tavy at Double Waters.

The Walkham Valley is peppered with isolated mine workings, their remnants choked by roots and crowned with moss like some forgotten  jungle temple.



The grassy hummocks of Magpie itself conceal the corpse of Wheal Franco, a copper mine which produced 10,000 tons of valuable ore between 1826 and 1862.

Here the river is spanned by Bedford Bridge, built in 1822 and carrying the road between Yelverton and Tavistock.



The water is deep enough to swim beneath its arch, but to be honest, this place had never really appealed. Somehow the thought of swimming so close to the modern world always left me colder than the river in February.

But a good friend had recounted happy family memories of this place, so I had filed it away as a ‘possible’ – but no more than that…

Which is why I was a little surprised to find myself heading for Magpie one sultry, sticky evening in high summer.



I followed the disused railway through the woods, along a track that now bears daytrippers on bicycles rather than in carriages, then headed down beneath the viaduct, past yarrow and wild thyme. Moments later I was walking out onto the heavily grazed and much trampled grassland that abuts the Walkham. Here chamomile may still be found. Once commonplace, but now exotic in Britain, its aroma has long scented herbal infusions and the finest lawns.

It was getting late and a rising wisp of blue smoke between distant trees was the only sign that I was not entirely alone.

Sliding into the cool water, I was surprised that it was deeper than it looked – for refraction had overcome reason and I had long forgotten my first year physics.



The vista before me was also far from expected. The slate and granite arch of the bridge framed a perfect picture – a study in emerald. Beneath my feet, long fronds of weed streamed across the sandy river bed; green fingers pointing me downstream.

Ignoring their direction, I headed up and under the masonry, where stalactites dripped from the overhang. Here the heat of the day, efficiently absorbed by the black tar above, emanated back from the stones in a hazy shimmer.

Swimming on and into the shallows where acrobat shadows danced across the water, I lay on my back and floated beneath boughs of willow, oak and hazel. Past alder, the only British deciduous tree to bear cones, and by banks of wild chervil whose frothy white flowers deserve the title Queen Anne’s Lace more than their more common name – Cow Parsley. To me these are the quintessential hallmark of summer – luxuriant, abundant but short-lived.



Back under the bridge, face down and floating to where Marley Bone was patiently waiting, I smiled as I thought of the traffic passing overhead and the shock that my cheeky grin would give to anyone who happened to glance down from the Number 83 bus!



Beyond lay an artificial pool, created by damming the course of the river – a temporary arrangement of rocks that would never survive the first surge of Autumn. I drifted softly up to the barricade with eyes barely proud of the mirrored surface.

Here a dipper perched, attending to its evening ablutions in the sinking light. This is very much a local bird, characterised by it’s shocking white breast, low flight and bobbing tail. But it is not this twitch of feathers that gives the dipper its name – rather it is the unusual habit of walking into and under the water in search of insect larvae.



Above – and also hunting insects – a bat looped in dizzying dives around my dripping head as I clambered out of the river and into the still warm night air.

Retracing the path home, I passed a young couple with a six-pack of lager and a disposable barbecue.

The night-shift had arrived….

The Dart Triple Decker

River Dart near Holne

September 6th 2014

Dartmoor gives birth to her river in quiet solitude, labouring amid the peat, granite and heather of the high tors. Twin daughters, later to conjoin, her waters babble and stutter before finding their feet and learning to run. A careless childhoood is spent skipping down gulleys and dancing through vistas of coarse grassland, close-cropped by generations of grazing animals. By the time she reaches the village of Holne, the Dart is a fast and flashy teenager, twisting and turning, jiving through dense woodland.



Here, her mood can change on a whim; one moment bubbling and effervescent, the next, deep and dark and difficult to predict. Emerging from the torments of adolescence at Ashburton, her adult years are lived serenely, gliding through the buccolic beauty of the South Hams before reaching her dotage at Dartmouth. Here the ocean steals her soul and she is borne up into the heavens where her samsaric cycle begins anew.

Life, death and rebirth.

This journey has been repeated many times in the 700 years since the ancient yew in the churchyard at Holne first saw the light of a Devon sky. Villagers have come and villagers have gone.



Onesuch was Charles Kingsley, born into this tiny community in 1819. Kingsley was priest, professor, poet and a friend of Charles Darwin, but he is best known as author of ‘The Water Babies.’



This moral fable, once a must on every child’s bookshelf, tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep who tumbles into a river, drowns and is reborn as a water baby, in which form he embarks on a succession of adventures.



And there are certainly adventures to be had in rivers…

For some time I had been looking forward to swimming at three sites along this stretch of the Dart. All are well known among the wild swimming community and have recently gained a wider audience through written guides and web sites. So, seeking solace, I waited for a weekday after the schoolchildren had returned to their lessons before trekking up through ancient oak woodland towards the first of my triple decker destinations – Sharrah Pool.

For almost two miles I kicked and shuffled through a leafy carpet, where ripening hawthorn berries hung thick and blackberries dripped the goodness of a long summer. Streams busied past in heady dives down the valley sides, reaching for the river far below.




The path was peppered with black beetles, stranded on their backs in an urgency of flailing legs and failing strength. The day was hot and having checked my position on the OS map, I was glad to emerge from the trees to be welcomed by a long, tranquil expanse of still water.



Sharrah was all I had hoped for – beautiful, cool, deserted. Within seconds I was stripped and heading upstream to falls where I jumped in and was spat out by the force of the current. A wet n’ wild fairground ride – helter skelter  – around the rocks and back into 100 metres of limpid loveliness, rich with reflections.



This was a playful pool, filled with the thrill of being spilled and spewed, nudged and nuzzled. And then caught – as if in the net of a trapeze – to be cradled and carried to safety.




A picnic lunch was followed by a second, unscheduled swim – too delicious a dessert to forego. Dipping and diving, bathing and basking, I was oblivious to the presence of a passing hiker, but I was immersed in a personal world, where the only thing that mattered was the wonder of the water.

Wellsfoot Island is particularly acclaimed as a skinny dipper’s delight and so dressed, but still dripping, I retraced the winding path down through the woods towards this second tier of my triple decker.



This heavily wooded island, encircled by a divide in the Dart, is best approached from the far bank, where a precarious bridge spans the water.



But for me, the approach was through the water, as I slipped and slid across smooth algae-laden boulders, until the river was deep enough to swim. I came ashore on a sandy beach, abundant with flowers. A place so perfect that I half expected to discover the footsteps of Man Friday; this was an island paradise and I was a happy castaway.



Soft sands nestled into a clearing where ebony embers lay scattered in testament to a midnight swim. Tracks led away from the beach, fingering through verdant vegetation and topped by a tall canopy of trees. This really was a special place, a place to sit with friends, into the dusk and beyond. A place to be warm beside a sparking fire, to talk, to laugh and to swim  – to commune and connect.

But on this sultry afternoon, it was simply a place to just be. To float in the warmth of the September sun and, after a few lazy strokes, to drift into the deeper waters where the Dart has relentlessly chiseled her mark into the the cliffs that tower above an elbow in the river.



Here all was stillness; a haven, where the waters pause before tripping and tumbling off downstream, hustling and hurrying through a succession of rocky rapids and peaceful pools.



And soon I was following on, stumbling over the roots that straddled the narrow woodland path and pausing only to enjoy the company of fellow evening travellers through Cleave Wood.



Then onwards to the final tier of the Dart Triple Decker – crafted like a horse shoe – a natural jacuzzi. Deep and delicious, I had spied this place on a previous visit and was determined to sample the spa treatment it promised.



Here I hoped to savour the ultimate watery massage, amid the foam and first-fallen leaves of Autumn.



But it was not easy to gain entry into this private pool – the force of the current repelled every attempt to swim up and into the narrow channel that funnels into the fall itself.

The only faesible approach was to drop in from above. Nine hours of Devon sunshine had warmed the smooth rock from which this plunge pool was hewn, its comfortable heat giving little clue as to the cold shock that awaited me as I slid over the edge and into the maelstrom.

But wow! What a feeling. It was impossible not to whoop and shout in exhilaration as my shoulders were pummelled and pressed by the crystal waters. An umbrella of spray rose above me, splashing down to wash away the view and flood into my eyes, nose and mouth. And how sweet that water tasted.



A couple were swimming a little way upstream, so in deference I had donned my swimmers. But Mother Dart, she had other ideas and soon I felt the strength of her flow tugging and pulling and, in an instant, the shorts were around my thighs, knees and then gone.

It was as if she were saying there is only one pure and beautiful way to enjoy my gift to you – like a baby, naked, drenched and vulnerable within the slate of my womb …

‘In fact, the fairies had turned him into a water baby. A water baby? You never heard of a water baby? Perhaps not. That is the very reason why this story was written.”  (Charles Kingsley)



Minster Lovell

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”?

Swimming in a Chocolate Box

River Windrush

August 20th 2013

Today, one of my daughter’s is flying away. Flying away to sunny climes.

As we exchange airport texts, my mind drifts back to a holiday we shared last summer.

For it really was a drifting time.

Drifting off the beaten track through impossibly quaint Cotswold hamlets, drifting across golden cornfields under pure blue skies and drifting down the very prettiest of rivers and streams.

Golden cornfields above Adlestrop

Golden cornfields above Adlestrop

Pretty rivers with pretty names.

Like the Windrush.

To me, this paints a mind picture, not of a howling hoolie, but of a gently winding reed-lined stream. So I was not disappointed when, on a sultry August afternoon, I decided to retrace the footsteps of Roger Deakin, like a disciple on a pilgrimage, to find a swimming hole described with great beauty in ‘Waterlog’ – the book that launched a thousand wild swimmers!


‘About a mile downstream from Burford on the meandering footpath to Widford, I found the finest oxbow bend I have ever seen. Sheep grazed the meadows and the cropped grass was in wonderful condition, springy and deep green. At the narrow turkey neck of the oxbow were two old pollard willows. One of them masqueraded as a hybrid, with dog-roses, hawthorn and elder growing from the marsupial recesses of its anguished trunk. Each was an independent world, with whole cities of insect life in the grimy wrinkles of its bark and generations of bird’s nests in its dense topknot. I slid into the upstream side of the oxbow and swam all around it, almost back to where I had begun, climbing out by the twin willows again. Two hops across the grass and I was back in the river where I began, swimming the next power-assisted lap around the grassy peninsula.’

Roger Deakin: Waterlog: Chap 25: The Oxbow (Published by Vintage Books, 2000)

I rather fancied a ride in this flowing fairground, so we headed to the small and much photographed town of Burford – cover pic of many a chocolate box.


Steeped in history, Burford is remembered as the place where, in May 1649, the leaders of the ‘Levellers’ were finally cornered in the parish church and executed. These three brave men had led a mutiny in Cromwell’s army, believing that their leaders had betrayed the notion that all men were  equal under the law. This desire to level out social inequalities cost them their lives, but their pre-socialist ideals are remembered every year on Leveller’s Day – with a celebration of music, processions and political debate.

Photo courtesy WEA

Photo courtesy WEA

Wild swimming is a levelling activity…

Anyone can do it, regardless of class, creed or colour. You don’t need money or have to undertake expensive training. The only equipment you really require is the suit you were born in – and there’s nothing more levelling than that!

Leaving Burford on foot and using a local map that cost 20p – (a poor investment as it transpired – and a lesson always to invest in the Ordnance Survey) – we walked for what seemed an eternity along the busy road leading to Witney and Oxford beyond. The verge was dry and dusty – a Roman march away from the quiet footpath that I had imagined at the day’s dawning. So it was with relief that we turned downhill, left the road behind us and headed down towards the famous oxbow.

Unfortunately in the 14 years since Roger first penned his account, many a pilgrimage must have ensued.

Too many!

For now the way was barred, fenced and signed as strictly forbidden territory. The addition of searchlights and razor wire would not have rendered the scene any less welcoming. But we were a large group with small children so I did not feel that this was the right time to push boundaries.


Instead we headed downstream, through fields that afforded no easy river access. A swan with two cygnets looked me up and down with a ‘make my day’ sneer that required no Dr Doolittle translation.


I was beginning to feel a little crest-fallen, a little desolate, when suddenly, rising up ahead of us – Shangri-La.

As if purposely planted as succour to the weary traveller, two sturdy willows stood overhanging a wide pool, casting deep shadows across the water and into the meadow. There could be no better place for a swim and a picnic.


Moments later we were sliding down the muddy bank* and into the still water – slate green and barely moving, like a thin pea broth in the pan of a lazy chef.

*[Memo to self – muddy banks that are great to slide down are not always so great to slither back up!]


The character of the Windrush could not be further removed from the moorland rivers that I am used to. No cool clear waters in a restless hurry, no rattle of stone or foaming fall. Instead, a slow steady procession,  straining through metre long tendrils of emerald weed. Thistledown tumbled from the banks, blown along in the softest of breezes, too little wind to ruffle the perfect reflection of reeds and sky that were painted across the water.


The river bed was gravel and silt, typically three to four feet deep, so we swam upstream with ease before floating down on our backs, receiving a massage from the weed below whilst soft willow leaves casually brushed our faces. No exotic health spa could have offered more!

Like a shipwrecked sailor, Maddie clung to a small log with cries of glee as she too was softly carried down the stream, past tall grasses and fields of ripening barley.


All about us were bankside burrows, speaking of lives unseen in the heat of the afternoon. Here one could meet Ratty, Mole or Mr Toad without surprise, for this English river was quintessentially theirs.

With swimmers drying in the afternoon sun, we took shelter in the shade of the trees and enjoyed a lunch of cheese, chorizo, french bread and fruit. Meadow games followed before we embarked on the tired, slow walk back to Burford with swim bags dangling.


And all around us, the chatter of children and crickets …




Tai Chi at Twilight

Denham Beach

24th June 2014


Dragonfly dancing

Above the slow green river

Two journeys, one end


I love the ability of Japanese haiku to create a mind picture in just seventeen syllables.

Because less can be more.

The ability of Hardy, the ultimate wordsmith, to craft a buccolic vision of Wessex in a short paragraph, the simplicity of Vaughan William’s lark, the crimson daub of a Monet poppy.

Detail from Poppy Field in Argenteuil by Claude Monet

Detail from Poppy Field in Argenteuil by Claude Monet

But no stroke of pen, bow or brush can ever truly reflect or replicate the beauty that is to be found in wild places. A beauty that must be felt, smelled, heard, seen and even tasted.

A beauty that was fully enjoyed on a sultry summer’s evening three weeks ago…


After many days of glorious weather, the last dregs of sunshine were glowing like the embers of a dying fire, so a busy duty day just had to end with a cool dip on my way home.

Entirely alone, save for Marley, my clothes were soon shed in eager anticipation and I walked out across the warm sand to savour the cooling wrap of water around my skin. I swam on my back, with a curious homegrown stroke that revived  memories of pondskaters – a source of endless childhood fascination.

To swim naked now seemed as normal as my next breath and I navigated into the colours of the setting sun that carelessly dappled the surface of the river. Turning onto my back, I let the current take me downstream, gathering pace as I gazed up at a cloudless sky. Far overhead a high-flying gull headed seaward.

My ears were submerged, redundant and soundless, straining against an overwhelming silence. Gradually building, a rattling of pebbles broke the peace to warn that I was  approaching the shallow falls that lie below a leafy hazel overhang.


I swam back, hard against the flow and clambered high onto the moss-coated outcrop where I dived repeatedly, reaching the river’s deep bed. Here, amongst the sand and stones, a pair of pants lay discarded – perhaps the romantic remnant of a midnight dip?

And why not?

Where better?

Like Adam in a pre-fall Eden, I felt no shame as I emerged from the water to dry, dress and depart for home.

But after a handful of steps I stopped, standing alone on a bank of bleached boulders. The solitude was subtly sensual.  It seemed too early to go home now and I felt drawn into a Tai Chi routine, first on the bank, then in the shallows and soon, without resistance, I found myself naked once again and waist deep in water that was both warm and welcoming, My slow steady movements mirrored the passage of the river as dusk descended.

Tai Chi at twilight

Tai Chi at twilight

Making the traditional Tai Chi salute, I thanked the Tavy for her kindness on this balmy evening and I also thanked her creator – the God of green places.

And then, one final swim into the softness and silence of the now dark water. Gentle strokes that barely ruffled the surface – for to do so would have felt like desecration…


King of the River

The Silent Pool – Denham

June 11th & 13th 2014

I love the sun.

I love the feel of it on my skin. I love long lazy days, walking barefoot in shorts and an old T-shirt. I love the way life slows down and priorities change.

But most of all I love the feel of cold water at the end of a hot day. That first leap into a cooling balm. I love to sit on the river bed and physically feel the heat of the day leach away, through flesh that is strangely and suddenly porous  – and with it all tension and trouble.

So after a long and arduous day building a new chicken run, I decided to take a solo dip at Denham on my way to morris dancing. And for those who have not yet discovered the joys of morris and who are minded to smirk or sneer, may I just say that the clash of an ash stick is also a pretty efficient stress reliever!

In step with tradition - the clash of ash

In step with tradition – the clash of ash

That evening I chose to launch off from the rocky outcrop that overlooks the Silent Pool. Here the slate is wide and warm, a perfectly shaded place to shed clothes and seek solace from the heat.

The changing room

The changing room

I dived deep, kicking down until I could see the rounded rocks of the river bed, ochre painted in the diffused light.


That amazing silence that deafens. A few seconds of peace before rising again, up through a hustle of bubbles to break the surface with a gasp.

Only on this occasion I torpedoed straight into the flailing paws of Marley who had mirrored my dive. His look of consternation and confusion was priceless!

I cruised across to the opposite bank, grounding gently in fine silt and almost becoming skewered on a submerged branch, its leaves long washed away. A short upstream breaststroke was followed by a long leisurely backfloat, under a canopy of oak, rowan and nut-decked beech.

Just chillin'

Just chillin’

And suddenly there it was. Like an incoming missile – low, fast and true to the axis of the river. This could only be one thing and sure enough, moments later a lightning flash of orange and turquoise, no more than 18 inches from my face. Although over in an instant, this was my closest ever encounter with a kingfisher and it was one of those magical moments that a river will sometimes lend you.

It was time to celebrate my good fortune, so after a quick towel down I was off to the the sleepy riverside village of Bere Ferrers, arriving just in time for a dance, cool ale and squeezebox session beside the Tavy’s slow flow.

Bere Ferrers

Bere Ferrers


Two days later and I was back at the Silent Pool, this time accompanied by Sal and a delicious picnic supper.

Supper is served

Supper is served

The weather had remained fair and this was a Friday evening, so tonight the pool was not so silent. Distant cries of delight hailed from a family paddling and floating on large rubber rings,  just around a bend in the river. Blue campfire smoke snaked up into the sky, merging into dusk.

But they were too far away to bother me and soon I had strippped off and dived in, the shock of the cold snatching my breath away. As always, I was a willing victim of the river’s mugging.

Later in the evening the family passed by on the woodland track above me, all loaded with a rainbow array of bags, towels and inflatables.

But I laid low in the bank-side shadows, like the trout and salmon that find a haven here…

Laid low in the shadows

Lying low in the shadows