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,

Poem excerpt from Kingfisher by Norman MacCaig

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