River Tavy

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.



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

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

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.