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.
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!
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 …