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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The battle-scarred dartboard,
and its accompanying scoreboard, almost worn through.
The first, nourishing Guinness,
The skew-whiff leatherette sofa behind.
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.
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.
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?
Swinton Bike Insurance are offering a prize-draw:
Exmoor – monsters and minnows
A sudden bout of vomiting (my partner’s son’s) meant our planned tour of Southern Ireland was scuppered, so we sulked for a few days before settling on Exmoor. We decided to spoil ourselves to make up for the disappointment and booked this place:
I had to learn a polka for a friend’s wedding in a few days, so I had to pack my accordion. The VFR had little trouble, but we were pretty cosy with two side-panniers, a top-box, the accordion bungied in front of the top-box, J- my partner- and me. Tight!
All I’d known of Exmoor before then was Butlins. This time, there were no yellow-coats, just seething fields of heavy corn, ancient woods and hidden valleys. The VFR is a heavy bike but, as we joined the B3188, it plunged easily into the sinuous, tree-tunnelled fringes of Exmoor.
We stayed at Yarde, soon discovering the landscape is dense with holloways, high hills and quick-running streams. Owls accompanied our later-than-planned pub walk to Stogumber with their plaintive calls.
I had been nervous about taking the VFR, J and myself up Porlock Hill. Wikipedia states that it is `a very steep hill with gradients of up to 1 in 4 and hairpin bends.’ It is the steepest A-road in the country. I’d asked several locals if motorbikes went up- they all seemed confident that they did. Thing is, I’m not tall (5’7″) and the combination of heavy bike, pillion, 1:4 gradient and hairpin bends seemed challenging. There is a get-out, a toll road for less intrepid travellers. That decided it.
There is an ominous sign replete with dire warnings at the beginning of the hill.
We cruised past, it mattered not. J and I don’t use a motorbike intercom system, so I doubt whether she was aware of how psyched I was. Every sensory nerve was firing, a steady mantra of `low gear… use clutch… perfect line…’ looped in my head. The gradient suddenly tilted upward and we were committed, there was no way I could even attempt a U-turn now. The V-four engine pulled smoothly in 2nd as the first hairpin scrolled toward us. Then, somehow, it disappeared behind us with barely a conscious manoeuvre. Following the racing line (though not at racing speed) with a deep lean to the left, the second hairpin passed without incident. Unseen, inside my helmet, I gave a slight `woop’ and grinned, then pulled back on the throttle.
We parked further on at County Gate, a National Trust car-park with massive views
trekked along the coast there and did some painting. On the way back, as the sunset gave way to a chilly evening, we decided to hook a right off the A39 onto the New Road which flows smoothly down into the Doone Valley.
We were both gradually overwhelmed by the weathered, simple beauty of what the road revealed. It is not easy biking- tiny lanes, loose gravel and blind bridges- but it was a valley of unceasing allure. The Oare Water ambles darkly along the valley floor under stone arch bridges, fish darting into shadow. Faded, Georgian manor houses hide just beyond sight amid rambling gardens of rhododendron. A fox and his vixen froze at our passing, then padded away in opposite directions. We parked up and stood by the river, breathing deeply and feeling like we had stumbled backward in time. Apart from the cooling motorbike, there was no outward sign of modern technology for miles.
Reluctantly, we left. It was late twilight, we were hungry. The road wound its way back toward the A39, then perversely morphed into a far more challenging series of hairpins amid steepness than Porlock Hill. Somehow, despite my tiredness, I managed to ride us safely upward but there was no avoiding riding up the wrong side of this capricious lane.
Our getaway on Exmoor ended too soon. We had come here to soothe the regret of missing Ireland yet, we hadn’t spoken of Ireland once. The polka was learned, stresses purged, new roads embedded deep in our memories and pledges made to return on the motorbike to this happily underpopulated corner of Somerset.
I couldn’t read the signal. A man driving towards me flashed his headlights repeatedly, wound down the window and proffered his fist toward me. Something wrong with my bike? Someone who recognised me? No, a police speed-trap I’d already sped through. My dull mind half remembers that I could have been doing 44mph in an arbitrary 20mph zone. Great.
My head’s been gone since visiting my upstairs-neighbour in a nursing home this morning. It was a glorious day, earlier. The sun utterly distinct, a gold disc amidst clear autumnal blue, leaves everywhere shifting into their burning death-throes. For weeks, since visiting Ron in July at Bath RUH, I’ve been meaning to/not quite getting around to/saying that I was going to phone the hospital to see how he was faring, to make another visit. On our only visit, my daughter, J and me huddled around Ron’s bedside and exerted every muscle of concentration to listen to his barely intelligible monologue. In the forty five minutes or so that we were there, he stitched together his life story for us. Glimpses. A fleet of ghost ships passing in mist.
He’s 93. He worked on the shipyards in Scotland, as did his father. He almost became one of the Scot’s pipers. He fought in Burma. He moved to Portsmouth with his family to work on the docks, then settled in Keynsham. He didn’t have children. He met and married Marjorie late in life.
They only had fifteen years together before she died.
Ron has lived alone for over twenty years.
The cherry tree that he planted on the front lawn in memory of Marjorie became diseased, then withered and died last year. He bought another one and planted it in the hole left after the landscape gardeners had winched out the stump. It didn’t take and also died. Ron wasn’t sentimental about it.
When the ambulance came to take Ron, the whole street turned out.
Eric and Catherine, the Polish neighbours from two down.
David, the life-weary motor-biker from next-door.
Diane, the deranged woman above him.
Liesel, the kind, but unmoored woman from next door again.
My next door neighbours, Pat and Kevin, elderly and frail themselves.
Malcolm, the gloomy man from above who surreptitiously pours weedkiller from his window onto Pat’s wisteria.
No doubt Clarke, Patricia Clarke, the elderly widow who once toured America on a motorbike in the 50s watched from within the gloom of her flat.
Ron knew everyone here. He picked up the papers for some of the elderly people, did odd jobs, mowed people’s lawns. On his lawn, the grass remains thick and lush, though the border is now overgrown.
Pat and Kevin came with me to St Theresa’s, Corston, the nursing home where Ron has been moved to. A former nunnery, it’s now corporately owned, redecorated with uplifting daffodil yellow walls, plush carpets, warm lighting. It wasn’t immediately clear where reception was, so I wondered along a corridor. A woman parked in a wheelchair lolled to one side against a wall. Her thin, grey and white streaked hair was wet and pinned up, she had probably just been to the in-house hairdresser and was now awaiting redelivery to her room. Last night, the nurse from the home had warned me that Ron was not the man I’d last seen a few weeks ago. She’d strongly urged that, if I wanted to see him, I’d better come today. A nurse took us to Ron’s room and went to get an extra chair. We left before she had time to return with it.
He was sunk down into a deep cot-bed. The blue-spotted sheet that covered him showed how shrunken he has become. He was curled into the foetal position, jaw slumped to one side, leaving his mouth agape, a dark wedge. His eyes, too, have been pulled back into his skull. They barely opened. Pat and Kevin sat and stood at the side, not speaking. I went to the foot of his bed and tried a few words.
It’s a really beautiful day outside.
The staff here seem very kind.
It’s a really nice place you’ve found yourself in.
Ron, mate, I just wanted to say that we’ve all been thinking of you.
The kids have been watering your plants on the balcony with the hose.
They stopped a few week’s ago., the plants are past it now.
I nearly said go well when we left, a phrase I sometimes end texts to my loved ones with. Pat went to the side of his bed and said that she is going to take seeds from the flowers in his borders and, each time they flower, she will think of him. When it seemed the right time to leave, I just gripped the end of the bedstead and said
Bye, Ron. Take care.
I wanted to give his shoulder a squeeze, or hold his hand. One of the most wretched things about being alone, and old, must be no longer being touched. Slowly, simple human contact becomes a lost thing. We’re not related, he’s just my neighbour. Keep it light.
How can we cross these borders?
As we left, Kevin said goodbye in his distinctive, retired G.P. voice and Ron’s face shifted a little. He twisted his head towards us, his mouth widened- a hollow, pained wail came out from deep within. We stood still until the sound died away. I think I looked briefly at Ron, but then down at the floor. We left him, then walked back down the corridor. We had been there less than ten minutes. As we walked, Pat mentioned that the thing most noticeably absent was his characteristic smile. She’s right, he was always smiling. He bore the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that he has lived with for years with quiet stoicism. He never complained, albeit the occasional apologetic, self-deprecating remark.
Later, when we were parking back in Keynsham, we drew alongside Ron’s nephew. We wound our windows down and held a conversation between our two cars for nearly fifteen minutes. Pat talked across me in her particular, very slow manner. Each. Word. Punc. Tuated. With. A. Full. Stop. Her words are kind, they just take a very long time to be a sentence. Kevin, her husband, sat behind me, like one of my children, leaning toward the window and chiming in occasionally. Martin thanked us for the visit. He took my phone number. He mentioned that Ron had managed several sounds during his visists over the last few days. Each time, they sounded like help.
Now, sitting on my bed, remembering, I just hope that it wasn’t frightening, that our presence today didn’t terrify- the obvious, distanced farewell. Maybe we were only shadows, maybe there was only darkness with glimmers of recognition, muted sounds of well-meaning tones. I know now that when my time comes, if it is to be a gradual deterioration, I want, very much, for my sweetheart and my children to take me outside. Somewhere away from cars, and double-glazing, and framed prints that I didn’t choose. Away from the company of dying strangers to a field on a hill with a breeze. That would be fine. There is a view of just such a place, the tump, Kelston round-hill, from Ron’s window, as if within reach.
[Ron passed away later that day.]
In my mind, the dark roads had already unfurled themselves ahead of me, the broken white line flickering to my right. I had begun to lean into corners that unspooled from the dense night beyond.
So, when the journey was aborted by a stomach bug, that particular anticipated experience was severed from this time-stream. Last night’s midnight-run from here, through Wales to Pembroke Docks was left hanging like an ellipsis. To be continued…
Mastering the disappointed child-within is decorous, and necessary. As my mother would gladly attest, I’m predisposed to sulk. This last-minute cancellation of our motorbike trip to Eire is prime sulk material, I could (un)happily use up this kid-free week in a heavy funk. Yet, somehow, I won’t. The ferry can be re-booked, there are refunds on the air-b-and-bs. A bumble bee is surveying the lemon balm, and my sweet-heart’s foot is resting against me.
Next year _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _