Wild swimming in the River Usk

When I was younger I hated all forms of sport, especially those that involved running. So I surprised myself when I agreed to go trail running with my sister, early in the morning on the first day of our holiday in Wales. Our mum woke up as we changed into our running gear but we couldn’t persuade her to join us – instead she decided to go down to the river for a gentler walk.

The three of us were on a rare and special holiday together, staying in a beautiful country hotel just outside of Crickhowell in South Wales. It was the kind of place where you feel as though it’s okay to curl up in your tracksuit bottoms in front of the fire, poring over one of the many gorgeous hardback books they had on display. The view was stunning: out across the hills topped with trees and sheep, and down through fields and ferns to the River Usk, which flowed gin-clear at the bottom of the valley.

Alex and I stepped out into the early morning. The fresh cold woke up immediately. AI followed my sister down the hill, watching the white flash of rabbit bottoms as they disappeared into the hedgerows. The morning sun poured liquid gold onto the fields and the river. On the other side of the water was a small wooden hut painted slate grey and with two wooden chairs outside. The perfect swimming hut, we said to each other as we ran. I imagined sitting outside it with a thermos of tea and a book, drying off in the sun after a swim.

The track headed out of the field and up into the woods, where the light fell in patches through the trees. It smelt damp and quiet. I dodged rocks and tree roots and followed behind my sister, who is (of course) much faster than me. I kept her mostly in sight though, focusing on her to keep me going.

As I got used to the uneven terrain I started to relax and look around me more. Perhaps running isn’t so bad after all, or maybe it was the magic of the quiet woods. Every now and then we disturbed a bird that crashed up through the branches to the sky, but otherwise the woods were hushed.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” I thought to myself, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

What are my promises? The promise to keep running perhaps, to try my best to keep up with my sister, and to do what I can to keep my body healthy. It is the only one I have, after all.

We ran further into the woods, until the sound of rushing water below us became too tantalising and Alex veered off the track and down the hill. She ran deftly between the trees while I slowed to a walk, following the sound of the river.

“Wow,” she shouted back up to me.

And then we were standing on the edge of the most beautiful section of river. A waterfall crashed over slabs of rock, creating a rapid that rushed and then slowed into a deep pool. There was a slower flowing pool next to the waterfall too, with rocks leading down to the water’s edge. The sun reflected on the surface and it was completely ours.

We hadn’t planned on swimming, but the water was too tempting. Together we scrambled down to the water’s edge and stripped to our pants and sports bras, leaving our shoes and clothes on the rocks. And then we plunged in. The water was so cold it took my breath away. I swam quickly towards the waterfall and back, my heart beating against my chest like a restless bird in a cage. Alex swam for a little longer but I pulled myself out, warming myself on the rocks. Once out of the water my skin felt so cold it glowed.

This spot was magical and we feel proud; like we have found this place through some skill even though it has been here for thousands of years and was created by nature, not us.

I arrived back at the hotel damp and cold but with a fire in my chest. Mum told us that on her walk she saw an otter sunning itself on a rock. It gave the water even more magic. Even though I didn’t see one myself (and never have) it was wonderful to swim knowing that otters were nearby. It reminded me of when I was young and believed deeply in the existence of fairies. When I walked in woodlands I kept my eyes wide open, hoping to see one. But even though I never did see one, it didn’t matter. The woods still held a special magic because my young-self knew they were there. Otters are my new fairies. They are water fairies that fly through the rapids catching fish for their supper.

The next day we brought Mum to our swimming spot, after a long day of walking along rivers and canals (broken by a pub lunch and a pint of beer). She was surprised as we are when she pulled on the wetsuit Alex lent her and jumped into the river with us. It was her first experience of wild swimming.

“I can see why you love this,” she told us as she floated in the cold pool, watching the trees above us.

We had the river to ourselves, and swam up and down it, Alex and I jumping off the rocks as Mum watched. We were alive, and sharing the same sensations: the cold water on our skin, the rustle of the trees, the beating wings of a heron. The river held a magic that binded us together.

As I changed after the swim in our secluded spot I turned and faced my bare chest to the river. I felt part woman, part wild river creature. I wanted to tip my head back and roar.

Discovering the Thames

 

Seeing a river from a duck’s level is completely different to seeing it from the bank. The Thames stretched ahead of us in an elegant curve, looking much wider than it had from the side. All along its length were plump trees that jostled each other and bulged over the bank into the water.

You notice things at this level that you don’t when you are walking along the edge. The pattern of the water stretching ahead of you, rumpled like a crinkled tablecloth; the size and awe-inspiring nature of the trees and the sky; waterboatmen swimming their crazy backstroke beside you, and the reeds blowing gently at the edges of the water.

It was a busy stretch of water, and as we swam we tucked in under the trees to let barges, river cruisers and little motorboats pass. The captains and their passengers waved at us and we waved back.

We swam up and down our little stretch and crossed over to the other side, looking back and forth in each direction as though we were crossing the road and watching for traffic. On the other side was a National Trust property and grounds (Cliveden) and people sat eating their sandwiches and watching us. A beautiful stone staircase swept down from the bank into the river, ornate with carvings and flourishes. We swam to it and wished we had a camera with us.

At points we swam with our heads down, Alex in front and me just behind and following in her bubbles. We swam in bursts to keep warm. I looked down into the water beneath me. It was mostly a milky green and too deep to see the bottom, but then a patch of weeds would loom out of the darkness, reminding me that water does always have an end. I wondered what other creatures shared this river. I didn’t want to see them – I was happy keeping ourselves to ourselves – but it was nice to know that other animals were with us in the water.

The cold clutched at my forehead and squeezed, feeling like the brain freeze that you get from eating ice cream too quickly. But then we would stop our front crawl and lift our heads like ducks bobbing up from under the surface. We lay on our backs, lazily watching the sky and the boats. Because for us, wild swimming is not just about swimming. Thinking that’s all there is to it misses the point.

It’s about the shock of the cold and the sense of adventure at leaving our dry clothes on the land and stepping out like explorers into an unknown stretch of water. It’s looking up at the sky that looks somehow different from the water, and realising how small you are but that it’s okay. It’s feeling part of nature, not just an observer on the shore. It makes me feel more alive than anything. Wild swimming is living.