It had been snowing earlier in the day, 2 heavy showers, though both quickly turned to light rain. This may be April in England, but 8 of the last 10 mornings there has been frost on the garden shed roof and that is almost as many frosts as January, February and March combined this year. No wonder then that the river last night felt far colder than 2 weeks ago and sure enough the thermometer dips past 10.2C and stalls at 8.6C. A degree and a half down that has put the water back into the ice cream head zone.
The question must therefore be, ‘is it going to be worth it?’.
Spring along the river is for me the best time to be swimming. Summer may offer warmth, but the thick tree foliage screens much of the river from the sunshine. Autumn has its own appeal as the sun hangs lower and lower in the sky and the water becomes almost languid before the winter rain. A clear winter sky can offer a shade of blue that will never be found on any artist’s palette. But in spring the trees unfurl vibrant yellow and green leaves that sharply contrast the dark branches and blue skies, the clouds have a freshly washed brightness, the sun strikes water that is clearer than at any other time of year and makes it dazzle and each day the collage takes a leap forward, change is all around.
The water is exceptionally clear, 10 feet deep beneath the ledge, yet every rock, pebble and grain of sand are clearly picked out. However, I am going to start further upstream and pad barefoot over compacted soil, stepping from one tortuous tree root to the next and then my feet slide into soft golden sand and the edge of the pool.
The top pool, for those who do not know it, is surprisingly deep right down its length, sagging down from the banks to the middle under the weight of accumulated pebbles. However there is more to it than that and at the top end of the pool a finger of black rock barricades half of the river on the far bank. The finger of rock is unremarkable, but the pool immediately downstream is 8 to 10 feet deep in places, a cauldron kept clear when winter floods overtop the barrier and swirl and churn and dig away at the river bed.
After 3 long swims down to the river bed it feels as though my face is being pushed back into my head by the cold. I cruise about the pool snapping photos as my head readjusts, allowing myself to slowly drift down to the boulder strewn beach. The game over summer here is to make stacks of pebbles on top of the larger boulders. The game is underway and there are about 10 small stacks. During the months to come that number will rise maybe into 3 figures and smaller stacks will be replaced by ever more ambitious towers until the first autumn storm hits Ctrl-Alt-Del.
A 6 foot jump from Black rock lands you in water that is also about 10 feet deep, but the ‘pot’ hole is small so diving would not be a good choice. The rope swing is strictly only for those who know where to ‘land’. At my second go my grip slips from my nose and the quantity of snorted water brings me up coughing and spluttering. Maybe I’ll give that another go in a minute, but in the meantime I swim out into the flow where the current initially draws me in to the rapids in a counter eddy before pushing me into the flow, across the river and onto the far beach.
I pick my way on hands and feet across the incredibly slippery stones to the soft sand then wade into the third pool where the river flows in a sharp ‘S’ double curve around two interlocking rock ledges. The lower ledge has a break in it which creates the magnificent Horseshoe Falls.
This is barely a waterfall by anyone’s standards, but it does have 2 qualities of particular worth. First, it is very picturesque despite its petite nature and secondly, it is horseshoe shaped and it is my firm belief that names should reflect circumstances. For example ‘Victoria Falls’ is of no help to anyone, whereas ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ is however a fitting description of something that is very loud and very wet even when you are stood a good distance away.
I’m too cold to contemplate another jump from Black Rock, my feet don’t feel the stones on the path as I walk back to my clothes and the idea of getting another wetsuit full of cold river is not appealing. Maybe tomorrow. Besides it will have all changed again by then.
I am now sufficiently far through this that I have set up a new 100 Swims South-West Google map.