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.
Here, 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.
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