Spitchwick and the Heart of Stone


May 14th 2014


There are two things that wild water enthusiasts know about Spitchwick:

1. It’s a good place to swim.

2. It’s a bad place to swim.

You see, it’s all a matter of timing. On an August bank holiday it’s a sprawl of bodies, boom boxes and barbecues – (more on this another day) – and if not hell, then it’s certainly getting pretty toasty!

Which is why we chose a Wednesday morning in the middle of May for a dip in the Dart.

Wherever I lay my hat...

Wherever I lay my hat…

Spitchwick, or Deeper Marsh as it appears on the OS map, has been a popular bathing place for countless generations. Situated on a bend in the River Dart, the large flat grassy expanse of common faces up the wooded hills of Holne Chase with its iron age hill fort. The pretty nearby village of Holne was, appropriately enough, birthplace to Charles Kingsley, author of ‘The Water Babies.’

The moorland 'lawn' at Spitchwick

The moorland ‘lawn’ at Spitchwick

And the water here flows fresh from the moor – pure, peaty, cold and clear at this time of year. The river bed is liberally strewn with boulders, hewn from the granite tors over millenia and then coated with a slippery green sheen. My first taste of the Dart came ealier than planned thanks to this – despite wearing swimming shoes, my grip was lost and so was my dignity!

The peaty Dart

The ochre waters of the Dart

Luckily we were the only folk around, so there was no need to pretend that my sudden descent into the depths was no accident and had been perfectly planned!

I swam across to the far side of the river, partially shadowed by cliffs where tomb-stoners line up to leap into the menacingly dark waters.

A water baby - not!

A water baby

Here I swam against the current for some time before my toes numbed – (the left fourth toe is always the first to go and has become my early warning system.) Drifting downstream and into the shallows, I half stood, half stumbled, emerging awkwardly from the water like some freak of evolution before sploshing my way onto the picnic rug so carefully laid out by my partner. A hefty kick of sand added to her disapproval so I sat in the corner, in the shade and in disgrace.

But less so than Marley Bone.

Like Sal, he had spotted the misleadingly named grey wagtail that had perched tantalisingly close to us on a large broken and bleached bough that had floated downstream in a wintry spate. It’s yellow underbelly almost glowed and the long tail dipped repeatedly, lightning fast.

As was our spaniel… For somehow, in the split second between Sal’s finger pressing the button and the camera shutter releasing, MB managed to spring towards the startled bird. Not just once – many times. We now have a fine collection of photographs displaying the blurred tail of a bird and the nose of a dog!

MB - villain of the peace!

MB – villain of the peace!

Close by, a solitary white tulip meandered downstream and into the shallows where, in a moment so poignant that it could not have been engineered, the lone flower draped itself over a heart shaped rock.

Simple and beautiful.

No words were spoken.

Beautiful and beyond words ...

Beyond words …

No doubt, further up the river at someone’s once favourite spot, their ashes had been scattered and flowers recently laid.

It reminded me of a time when we lived in a cosy rented cottage that nestled in a woodland clearing alongside the River Meavy. This too was a moorland river, smaller than the Dart, but no less beautiful. We knew every inch of its banks, every bend, every boulder. We knew every rocky fall where there was a noisy and  joyous union of white watery effervescence and mossy greenness.

Here too it was not uncommon to find ashes and wreaths – and I was reminded of some words that I once penned after making such a discovery on a cold February afternoon.

Wet Lemon Clouds
(For Alice)

Wet lemon clouds of watercolour wash
Angry river – wild and raw, claws
The shore where summer sticks were tossed
And pebbles thrown, drone
Of ferment, flood and flow o’er
Rocks and rolling stones, sugar brown
The bank’s deposit, settle and shift
Swift the current’s pulse, live
And charging …
Cerulean flash!
The fisher’s king sparks bright
In flight both low and true
And through the spume’s pale veil
Where death has left his wreath
And ash, beneath the oak’s
Soaked roots and shoots of daffodils.

But these were warmer times and, walking barefoot across closely cropped grass, dotted with daisies, we paused frequently to gaze at the patriotic red, white and blue of campion, may blossom and bluebell.

Salute to the red, white and blue

Salute to the red, white and blue

But the warmer times had not yet reached my extremities. I may as well have been walking across hot coals in some Fijian ritual, for my feet had become bundles of cotton wool, numbed and senseless.

Feeling the cold...

Feeling the cold…

It was almost a full hour before they rejoined me!






Swimming Back to 1915

River Fowey, near Respryn

May 26th 2014

Lanhdrock has to be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown.

Home of the Agar-Robartes family, this stunning stately home was largely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1881 and is now a ‘must see’ for any visitor to Cornwall. Described as a ‘wealthy but unpretentious family home’ , Lanhydrock is displayed much as it would have been at the turn of the twentieth century, a carefree time for the family before the clouds of the Great War cast a dark shadow over the 22,000 acre estate – (that’s almost 3% of Cornwall.)



The great house stands in extensive grounds – formal gardens, wilder plantings and parkland, these leading down to the River Fowey. Here there is good swimming to be had, particularly at Respryn Bridge, but this can be busy on fine weekends, so after a little research, we settled upon a quieter spot for some Saturday afternoon solace.

Parking at the old Bodmin Road Station (now renamed Bodmin Parkway – an act of banal utilitarian blandness) we surveyed the sleepy scene. There was little sound apart from the buzz of a bumbling bee.

Breaking the silence

Breaking the silence

Heat was rising from the platforms and I thought of the poem Adlestrop – written by Edward Thomas exactly a century ago to describe just such a station and just such an afternoon in rural Gloucestershire…

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 love this poem and the atmosphere it evokes, which is why I went on a pilgrimage to Adlestrop last summer. The station is long gone, but walking in the hills and fields around this tiny village (population 80) one can almost hear the hiss of steam. In just the same way I was experiencing the tranquility of a bygone age, right now, back in my home county.

"The steam hissed..."

“The steam hissed…”

Pushing open the heavy wooden gate that led from the platform, we walked down the drive that would have been an essential link between the great house and the outside world. The start and end of journeys. This was the main rail link to London and here both people and goods would have arrived and departed, perhaps family coming home and surplus kitchen-garden produce departing, bound for Covent Garden or Spitalfields.

Arriving at a bridge over the River Fowey, we diverted down a flight of steep steps and walked along the left hand bank, through lush emerald water meadows, speckled with flag iris and molehills. The skeletal remnant of a once mighty tree served to reflect the fortunes of the Agar-Robartes family – of this extensive, influential pedigree there is only one surving member, now housed in a cottage on the estate.

A reminder of mightier times

A reminder of mightier times

Nearby we happened upon a perfect spot for a picnic lunch, beside a right-angled bend in the river with easy access, deep water and a small beach on the wooded shore opposite. Pink campion graced the bank where a gentle slide guided me into the water. I could feel soft mud exuding through my toes as I walked in to first waist, then chest deep and I was off, drifting downstream in the gentlest of currents.

Perfect for a picnic

Perfect for a picnic

A frayed ropeswing spoke of bygone times, of excited shrieks and memories made. Of evening sunshine, exhilaration and the tiredness of children. Did the Robartes family ever come to this place I wondered?  Were they permitted to feast on the freedom of the river?

Freedom of the river

Freedom of the river

Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes, born 1880, was the eldest of ten children. Schooled at Eton then educated at Oxford, Tommy was a keen horseman who beame a Liberal MP in 1906. Famed for his dapper appearance and trademark buttonhole of violets, he once appeared on the cover of Tatler and was every bit the charming English gentleman.

Thomas Agar-Robartes

Thomas Agar-Robartes

Floating lazily in a wide gyration, I wondered if Tommy had really known the river. Had he discarded his clothes and convention before leaping into these waters? Had he swum from the shingle beach before gazing  up at the sun or stars?

My thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a woman almost towing her sullen teenage son in her wake. Having also discarded my clothes and convention, I took a few strokes towards the high river bank where the water was deep and dark. Here the brown mud was peppered with burrows, like the aftermath of a machine gun attack. Treading water to save mutual embarrassment, I heard their footsteps drawing closer, then pause. “Hallo” she called with a smile and a hearty wave. Treading hard, I echoed her greeting before floating off, back into the green stillness and my musings.

Green stillness

Green stillness

A gentle breeze carried the rhythmic pulse of a steam train over the fields, for the Bodmin & Wenford line still operates nearby. The vintage picture was suddenly complete. It was 1915 and I was enjoying a rich, slow, timeless and simple life here on the surface of the river.

Presently, darkening skies drew over and the air chilled. We retraced the path, past an explosion of rhodedendrons to the railway road where I imagined Tommy in an open-topped car en route to the station, casting a last backwards glance towards his childhood home before rejoining his regiment on the western front.

Rhodedendrons along the river

Rhodedendrons along the river

And I imagined the tears of his mother as the train pulled away …

On September 30th 1915, Captain Thomas Agar-Robartes was in command of No. 2 Coy, 1st Bn, the Coldstream Guards at the battle of Loos. Although wounded, he rescued a comrade from no-mans land under heavy fire.

Tommy was killed by a single shot fired by a German sniper.

Grave at Lapugnoy, near Bethune

Tommy’s grave at Lapugnoy, near Bethune

The river flows on.







Introducing Denham

If a wild swimmer can have a ‘local’ then Denham is mine.

A place of refuge, rest and relaxation. A place to swim, lie on warm sands, to dine and to dream. It’s a place for thought, for prayer and for Tai Chi. And, above all, it’s a place for fun. Somewhere that feels like home, where the family goes and knows like the back of their hand. A place of safety, a haven and a limitless playground for Marley Bone, our springer spaniel!

Marley Bone

Marley Bone


Marley Bone

Never far from the fun

Denham, in particular the pools that lie waiting downstream of the bridge, will doubtless feature in many a blog, so it seems like a good idea to make some introductions…

Denham Bridge

Denham Bridge

Denham Bridge is an ancient packhorse crossing, as narrow as it is old. Crossing the River Tavy, its granite double span links the 21st Century with the timeless otherworldly villages of the Bere peninisula. At peak times the narrow lanes that transcribe a sinuous serpentine journey through meadow and woodland are anything but idyllic, as careful drivers are in as short supply as the scarce passing places that are scattered along the route.

And nowhere is more dangerous than the bridge itself, lying at the bottom of a very steep` winding gorge. There have been many accidents here – and not just on the road.

Denham Bridge is a famed site for tombstoning and on a sultry summer’s evening, the 40′ deep waters are suffused with teenage testosterone and adrenaline. But the deep section is also a narrow section – and tragedies have occurred.

Bathers beware!

Bathers beware!

Two hundred metres or so downstream is a large, wide sectiion of river that I call ‘The Silent Pool’ because that’s just what it is. The waters here are deep, black-green, lazy and languid. Wild rhodedendrons cast a purple reflection across the planed surface and when the flowers drop they resemble floating fairy hats, or tiny sailboats embarking on a gentle, unhurried passage. On the left hand bank (facing downstream) there is a wonderful rocky outcrop, perfect for changing and still draped with frayed hessian from the spates of last winter. It’s as though the river had neatly hung up her coat and then left without it!

Upstream from the Silent Pool

Upstream from the Silent Pool

Until recently it was easy to access this spot and the few who knew could take a narrow path through the trees to reach this micro-idyll and the small pebble beach beyond. But now the way is barred with barbs and the fun, for many, has been stolen. Oh to be in Scotland where the law grants almost universal access to rivers. In England and Wales, there are 40,000miles of river – but access is permitted along only 2% of these miles. Time to join the ‘River Access Campaign’?

So in order to reach the Silent Pool, I now have to climb down off my soapbox and use the right hand bank via an uppity downity sort of public footpath, frequently traversed by fallen trees that the landwowner has so far omitted to clear. Nothing that cannot be clambered around or ducked under though….

Access to the river here can be a little tricky when wet, for there is a muddy bank which leads to a partly submerged plateau. This drops suddenly into deep water where the current can be a little frisky, so caution is required. As always, it is important to read the flow, the eddies and the currents before diving in – and also to know exactly where you can get out.

Downstream from the Silent Pool

Downstream from the Silent Pool

Partially submerged trees, looming up like icebergs provide an additional hazard in this stretch of water.

Icebergs of wood

Icebergs of wood

Following the path downstream, one enters a large clearing – unswerving trunks rising from a rustling russet beech leaf carpet where generations have carved pledges of love into the scarred bark. A broken rope swing hangs limp and useless from a sturdy bough. Alone in the stillness of twilight, this is a serenely beautiful, almost magical space.

The beechwood clearing

The beechwood clearing

Beyond the woods is a small grassy plain, where high stems have been beaten down in the centre to accommodate tents, for this is frequently a place of campfires, guitar and song, a perfect pitch that leads to a long boulder beach. Here the rounded grey stones have been stacked high by January floods and the river is wide, shallow and loud. In the dry months, islands of cow pasley sprout in the middle of the river and both wagtails and dippers are frequent visitors.

Looking upstream from the boulder beach

Looking upstream from the boulder beach

Around the next bend is my heaven. I call it Denham Beach. Here the stillness of the water signals its depth, A small, secluded and unusually sandy beach slopes down into the peaty water. Boulders are few so the tread is easy. From this place there is an effortless channel in which to swim against the flow, then a place to cross the current and be wafted into a large, gently circulating lake. This spills the swimmer back out into the main stream where one can backfloat, gently spinning under a canopy of trees and open skies.

Denham Beach

Denham Beach

The river then naturally nudges one into a moss-softened rocky outcrop that slopes so gently into the water that it can be climbed like a gangplank. From here it is a mere leap back into the deep water and the muffled world of the river bed where, rising through bubbles and starbursts of scattered sunlight the whole figure of eight cycle begins again.

Rising up through bubbles

Rising up through bubbles

In this quiet spot, shielded by an overgrown river bank, I usually bathe in the buff. To peel off one’s clothes, leave them lying in the warm sand and just walk into the embrace of the river is a wonderful thing. To swim free and dive deep, to kick out and lie back is a luxury. To float under the dazzling flash of a kingfisher and to hear the laborious wings of a heron rising behind you is a blessing.

To commune with the river is a privilege.

Taking a leap

Taking a leap

This is my place.

This is my local.