#40 Pairs

Things said

things done

things bled

things won

Sad things

sad songs

bled out

all wrongs

Lost hearts

lost lives

false starts

long drives

Two hands

deep night

two hands

clutched tight

No words

just eyes

tears

sighs

arms

scars

skin

silence

understanding

#39 windmill

Suspended on a wooden floor in the upper chamber of a sailless windmill, wind swaddled the tower in a sinewy vortex. 

We’re on the first high point inland from Praia Guincho, one of Europe’s wildest surf beaches. The wind is awe inspiring. 

Our walls are at least two feet thick, the tower shaped like a squat pepper grinder. No sense of danger. Outside, though, the palms and pines are strafed and raked, their fronds and needles shriek. 

  

#38 Bubbles

A car drives into another car

Puncturing bubbles of insularity.

Like an escaped gas,

The injured party

Rushes out with a knife-

 he was on edge, 

 had so many pressures building within,

 he was rushing, barely seeing,

 had no time-

He strides to the offending vehicle,

Throws open the door,

Hears no apologies

Fails to register a frightened face,

With the knife, opens

The delicate membranes 

Of an old man.

From within passing cars, 

Calls for help are activated. 

Sirens begin, another helicopter

Loosed into the sky

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jul/17/sussex-police-hunt-driver-stabbed-motorist-death-car-crash

#36 Run-off or dive in?

Stood on the warm stonework of the quay at Claverton Weir, I registered the familiar anxiety that preludes diving into a UK river/lake, or the sea: is it safe?

(photo courtesy of kittylongfield.com)

It was a halcyon day. The sun throbbed, cows browsed the opposite meadow, another train would soon chunter past. I had already sidled along the plant-strewn weir and was now poised to plunge deep into the water. I was not alone, as well as my partner and our children, the quay was packed with excitable youths replete with scant swim-wear and sunglasses. I reached for my son’s hand, he joined his with my daughter, then my partner, her son and his friend. We leapt off…

The surface of the Avon erupted in multiple explosions, screams, limbs and laughter. It was utterly euphoric. For several hours, we dived and swam, immersing ourselves, our permeable skin and vulnerable mucous membranes in the dark river. Five out of six of us spent the next few days either vomiting or stricken with diarrhoea.

The Environment Agency provides a useful online map of local water quality. Looking at the closest sample site (the confluence of Wellow Brook and the River Avon), the data suggests that the water quality here was grade A between 1993 and 2009.

Capture

The term Grade A water could be seen as misleading. Saturated with man-made pollutants, it is by no means pure. Levels of nitrates and phosphates in the river are also measured in the E.A. sample, and were rated consistently at level 5 between 2004 and 2009. Level 1 is described as a very low level of pollution, level 6 is the very worst.

The Wild Swimming Quick Guide to Water Quality explains that Grade A and B water is fine to swim in and that high levels of nitrates and phosphates are not dangerous to human health, but surely the effect of these contaminants on the occasional swimming human is only of elementary concern? High levels of these chemicals cause water to become eutrophic- rich in nutrients that support plants, which flourish, then decompose, depleting oxygen levels and killing animal life.

The local water authority, Wessex Water, have encouraged farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and fertlisers. This is part of a wider strategy by the Environment Agency which incentivises farmers to sign up to an Environmental Stewardship Scheme. The E.A. has published a map of NVZs (Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones) so that farmers are aware of the potential damage chemical run-off can have to local watercourses. Natural England is the government’s environmental advisory body and is responsible for payments to farmers based on a sliding-scale of how environmentally accountable they are. Their website shows a typical payment in 2013 to a lowland farm with 100 (qualifying) hectares as £3000. Clearly, encouraging farmers to regulate their use of dangerous chemicals is a good idea, the quantity of pollutants in our waters has decreased hugely over recent years. The problem is that improvements to water quality have plateaued. Despite the efforts of the governmental bodies, the levels of agricultural pollution in our rivers remain unacceptably high. However important the environment might be, farmers have crops to maximise, supermarkets to stock and bills to pay.

Run-off is not the only pollutant in our waters. Sewage is also regularly dumped into rivers courtesy of an out-moded system of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Whenever there is an extended period of wet weather, many of our rivers (and therefore coastlines) have raw, untreated sewage spewed into them. Referring to work already done by Wessex Water in 2003 to over 100 CSOs around Bath, a spokesperson for ongoing projects said,

“River water quality is not the primary issue, the Avon is a large, healthy river. Water quality is hardly compromised by the discharge of sewer waters. This scheme is primarily about aesthetics.”

The aesthetics alluded to are, presumably, faecal waste, tampons, condoms and toilet paper. The logic here seems to be that water dilutes things- the bigger the river, the smaller the problem of waste becomes.

Of course, natural waste produced by animals living in or alongside a river is also an important factor. E. Coli and cryptosporidium are rife in freshwater, each causing a variety of health problems, both non-serious and life-threatening. The Swim Healthy leaflet from Public Health England is clear and straightforward,

“Open water is not considered to be of bathing quality as it can contain sewage, livestock contamination, and pollution from farming or industry.”

Rats also like to swim in rivers. Whenever one mentions wild swimming, the apocryphal threat of Weil’s disease surfaces. In fact, out of the variety of dangers lurking in our waters, leptospirosis is the one we are least likely to encounter. The NHS website cites 44 cases in 2011, none of which were lethal.

The small stretch of the Avon that I like to swim in only serves as an example. The following graph is taken from a highly critical EU: Water Framework Directive Implementation Report 2012, and indicates the state of UK rivers back then:

The gradual revival in bathing beyond the municipal pool may well have been reinvigorated by Roger Deakin’s brilliant travelogue, Wild Swimming. Since its publication in 1999, there has been a steady flow of books on this theme and the phrase wild swimming has entered common parlance. The activity itself, like tattoos and graffiti, has entered the mainstream; there is no shortage of hearty folk lining up to take the plunge. At Claverton Weir, what was once a local secret now clamours with people. It is a spectacular meander set, amphitheatre-like, amid a deep, forested valley. When I visit, however many people fill the cow meadow, the landscape itself exerts a strong sense of permanence, as well as beauty: we did not make this, it does not exist to serve our fleeting purpose.

This year, I brought shears to clip back the thriving nettles and invasive Himalayan balsam that overhang the top of the weir, growing almost hydroponically in the fertiliser-rich river . Freshwater mussel shells glimmer in the shallows below, evidence that the Avon remains a viable habitat, despite its impurity. A family of swans glide into the scene, there are dragonflies. Immense willows and alder hiss in the breeze. I stand again on the brink, poised, tremulous. Having reviewed the data for this piece of paradise, it will no longer be the prospect of mind-numbing cold that fills me with dread, or uncertainty of what lies beneath, but rather knowledge, sharp stark statistics, of what I’m sharing the water with.

#35 Llangynidr

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A day out, a journey into the past.

Grimebusters rarely venture far from Bristol or Bath, but I agreed to clean the carpets of a beautiful holiday cottage in Llangynidr, Cae Bach today. Llangynidr is a village I know from my teenage years, and it was a pleasure to return, do a good job, and then be rewarded with time to wander the banks of the River Usk.

I caught my first fish here. A brown trout which, like Salman Rushdie as a child with a kipper in The Satanic Verses, I painfully struggled to eat successfully.

This was also the first river I swam in. After my GCSEs, a group of us stayed in a cottage by the river, and waded out across the brow of the nearest strongest falls. I remember being acutely conscious of the dank weather, my acne-d shoulders, the moss that yielded beneath my feet. The blinding, euphoric nerve-storm of plunging into the void beneath the cascade.

I didn’t have time to linger. My daughter had a half day, and I needed to travel back in good time. I ran parts of the beautiful river path, took a few short cuts and jogged back along the Brecon canal, conscious of who I wished was with me, and how blessed life can be.

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#34 Embracing the craic, the folk in the yoke

Shoulder muscles straining with low-speed clutch work, I disgorged the motorbike out of the ferry’s maw down slippy metal gantries.

Stadium-sized sodium lights highlighted steady drizzle- Rosslare docks at dawn- our first sight of Ireland.

The ferry had left Wales at 2:15am, and the passage across had been like a giant sleepover. Adults drugged by driving and children snug in onesies sprawled across sofas, armchairs and on the carpet, snoring, snoozing, or getting up to stagger sidelong into walls towards the toilets, gently rocked by the Irish sea.

We breakfasted at Wexford, opposite the statue of John Barry. The town had a quaint, forgotten air, looking out on a choppy little bay with a single fishing boat. Several spiegeltents decorated the front beside the empty railway line.

Heading northward, we crossed the bridge at Enniscorthy. The River Slaney followed alongside us, brilliant and fast flowing. We stopped at Carlow, our tired eyes arrested by the bricked-up windows of many of the stone cottages lining the approach road.

carlow1

The high street was more depressing. It was a greyish morning, but the uniform grimness of cheap bars, betting shops, 1Euro shops and Polski Skleps seemed relentless and mean.

Three restorative cups of tea drunk, we headed out and north again, stopping briefly to stretch out under a wind-bowed hawthorn among psilocybe semilanceata on a hill by Ballintlea. The Wicklow Mountains, blue-tinted like a stage backdrop, reared up in the distance, far beyond the agricultural plateau formed of County Laois, County Kildare and County Wicklow.

We continued through dull Portloaise and the cynical architecture of Tullamore (admittedly skirting the town centres) until we finally reached our log cabin near Rathconrath. We had travelled 657km in 20 hours. Tea, and oatcakes with peanut butter sent us plummeting into unconsciousness within minutes of arrival. When we woke, hours later, the sky was already dimming. We roller-coastered along the swooping R392 into Mullingar for supplies, promising ourselves our first real Irish Guinness at the unassuming looking petrol station/grocers/bar we passed.

Top-box loaded with wine, cheese, potato farls and bread, we side-stood the motorbike and went into Gunnings at about 6:30 pm. The door opened into a plain little shop. There were several customers with their groceries, and each nursed a pint of Guinness on the shop counter. Facing us, was an ecclesiastical-looking wooden screen with a frosted glass door. We walked through, and found the bar.

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It’s hard to properly describe Gunnings’ rugged simplicity and worn charm. Every surface bears some evidence of age and long usage. Each element seems to have achieved balance with its neighbour- the stone floor, the wooden parquet ceiling.

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The battle-scarred dartboard,

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and its accompanying scoreboard, almost worn through.

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The first, nourishing Guinness,

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The skew-whiff leatherette sofa behind.

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All things felt right and, despite being still fully leather-clad, we felt we were now actually somewhere else. There were only three other people in the bar, the young barmaid, and two men in earnest discussion on bespoke log-hewn bar stools.

John and Anthony

One and a half Guinnesses in, I went over and asked the nearest man about Irish roads. To the newcomer, it’s not obvious what the broken yellow line on the fast N-roads denotes (it’s a hard-shoulder). The question was reciprocated; I explained where we’d come from, where we were staying. He knew our host. I called J over and we introduced ourselves properly. John introduced Anthony, and explained that they’d been at a wake most of the day. Somehow, within minutes, John had invited us along on a drive to another bar. We had meant to head home, cook dinner and rest up (we were due at a dance festival in the early hours the next night, we had been travelling for 20 hours), that was the sensible thing to do, the responsible choice.

Obviously, we said yes.

John had soon threaded us deep into a knotted network of lanes that we had no chance of remembering. It was somehow like becoming children; aided by fatigue, excited by chance, we absolved ourselves of responsibility. I rediscovered a treasured, long forgotten word my old landlord from Tipperary had taught me: yoke. It means thingamajig.

I videoed a fragment of the journey, talking about Gunnings:

We arrived at The Beech Tree at Streamstown, and found a warm welcome. The landlady lent us plates to make our own sandwiches on, and John and Anthony let us be awhile. Another Guinness in, and we felt ready to mix and were introduced around the bar.

Beech tree Guinnesses

We had another Guinness and a half (known as a lady – worth having as it comes in that corset-shaped glass), said our farewells and headed back out.

John suggested we went back to Gunnings. Why not?

But now, it was different and charged with life. The modest space was filled with people, movement and music, talking, clamour, folk airs on aeolian pipes, melodeons, a whistle, a guitar, singing. We had flowed automatically into the bar and now, immersed deep in the throng, we took in the array of glad, open faces. John introduced us to many, most of whom were farmers, or former farmers of beef cattle. We were given snuff, more Guinness, I was given a lesson on the melodeon, discussed the styles of music played (the waltz, the horn-pipe, the jigs, the reels)…

More Guinness, more music and more talk until, 7 Guinnesses and a lady down, we finally had to rest. Martin, cheerfully sober, sustained by the snuff he’d shared, drove us to our cabin and bid us a goodnight. It was, it had been, and it won’t be forgotten.

Generous, honest, warm, hospitable people, all gathered together, embracing us easily into their midst.

How can it be that something so clearly natural felt utterly unfamiliar?