Still Chilly After All These Years

The pre-dawn sky is clear and dotted with stars that began to fade as I head north, the sky off to my right brightening and glowing with fiery colour.  There is not a breath of wind and the vapour from the factory at Avonmouth rises vertically, spreading, shaping into a massive balloon and I realise now I have been able to see it for the last 30 miles, the only cloud in the sky.  The top of the cloud catches the first rays of the rising sun and pulls them slowly down.  Sunrise is accelerated as I rise up the gently curve of the Severn Bridge and the cloud of vapour is now spectacularly backlit, 500m high but tethered to the earth.

Remarkably 2 hours later the air remains perfectly still and the cloud continues to dominate the sky as it recedes in the rear view mirror, my course now reversed.

The Somerset Levels are a maze of channels, some little more than ditches greened over with duck weed a hazard for any unwary traveller, others gently flowing rivers.  I found Cripps River quite by accident 5 years ago almost to the day, a narrow bridge beside which there is just enough room to pull up a single car and a public footpath along the levee. Unsurprisingly the water is still like glass though the nodding of riverside reeds show the water is flowing.  The half submerged fridge that has been ditched off the bridge into the river shows however that the water is not too deep.

Not too deep under the bridge that is, but 50m upstream there is a clump of riverside willow beside a gravelled ramp into the greeny-brown water.  The ground under the tree is leaf littered and the branches serve as handy clothes pegs.  An alarmed blackbird clatters away along the bank, whilst a wren scolds me from the undergrowth and a robin looks on impassively.

The water is bitterly, bitterly cold around my ankles that are slipping beneath the surface as my feet sink inexorably into the fine slime that has accumulated along the bank displacing great gouts of bubbles.  There is nothing for it but to swim, it’s that or sink.

I had fancied the idea of swimming to the bridge but the fridge has put me off so I’m heading upstream past truncated fences,  trees with thinning brightly coloured branches, some laden with berries all dipping and gyrating under the shuffling weight of pigeons stuffing themselves with this brief bounty in preparation for winter. Meanwhile ahead of me 3 ducks are zig-zagging from bank to bank in some crazy aquatic version of pin ball.

The water glitters under the hazy sunshine, there is change in the air, and the surface ruffles with a brief but firm breeze.  Squinting into the sunshine there is one last fence and the unmistakable silhouette of a kingfisher, but like his kind he takes to the wing before I get very close, wings flittering in a rolling flight across the field.  There is quite the menagerie along the river this morning and over head starlings swing on their way and above them a few crows lurch languidly by.

I’ve gone far enough, I can tell, my feet and hands have stopped hurting.  The camera is also misbehaving.  The 20 seconds or so that I have my hands out of the water persuading the camera to behave bring back the feeling and dropping them back into the water makes them burn again.  The first shiver runs down my spine.

I am about half way back when a sharp movement catches my eye.  If there had been any breeze to move the trees I would surely have missed it but today every movement is eye catching.  It is the kingfisher again, perched high on the end of a fence rail and this time not against the sun and this time he lets me drift closer.  I’d guess he is a youngster, his feathers have their adult colour but look distinctly rumpled and ruffled and downy.  Closer I drift and he nods and bobs his head swinging his improbably beak side to side to get a better look at me and to be fair I see a lot of kingfishers but I’m willing to bet he’s never seen anyone swimming here before.  With a twitch of wings he’s gone, that is close enough.

I am now quite chill and it is time to get out. My way back however is blocked by 2 adult swans and their soul cygnet from this year’s clutch of eggs.  Swans and I have a long history of hostility ever since one decided to pounce on me whilst I was swimming even though I had been giving him and his nest a wide berth.   I could try and get out and walk down the bank but there are nettles, thistles and  a certain amount of cow manure.  Instead I decide to take advantage of the fact that the swans too are probably on the back foot having not had to deal with swimmers before.  I swim splashily towards them, it works, they hesitate then edge back a little, enough for me to reach the slipway and squelch out over the mud again.  They waste no time and now paddle by hissing at me.

For  awhile my fingers are reluctant to cooperate with the drying and dressing thing but the sun finds a less hazy patch of sky and warms my hideaway despite the strengthening breeze.

There is still a long drive home which gives me time to reflect.  With just 7 weeks remaining and 25 swims to make it to 100 the chance of reaching that total are slim.  It is however a purely arbitrary number, why not 50 or 75 or 83?  More importantly it has fulfilled the object of the exercise which was primarily to broaden my swim horizons and today has been a positive endorsement of that aim.


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