The water had a velvety softness to it, and from the surface was the colour of linseed oil. Once I was thigh-deep though, I saw how pure and clear the water really was. Perched on smooth river stones, I could see my feet and toes vividly, and even pick out the current flowing around my legs. Steeling myself, I ducked below the water, opening my eyes as I did so. The water was violently cold, and slammed out my air. The chameleon water surprised me once again, in its ochres and muddy greens, with silvery air bubbles swirling upwards. I always feel a profound calm underwater, even when slammed by the coldness of it. This water was very cold; May rainwater that had tumbled down from Exmoor. It felt wonderful.
I had followed the river upstream from Watersmeet. At the confluence of two waterfall-looping rivers, there is an Edwardian fishing lodge turned National Trust tearoom, tucked in to the curve of the gorge that carves its way down to Lynmouth. Tracking the water uphill in thick mist, the green of the trees and bracken gave the place a Primordial feel. I was half expecting to hear Dinosaurs bellow, or glimpse Rambo between the trees, setting deadly traps. It was wild. With fine Exmoor rain sheeting down, I could have been in a rainforest or tropical jungle, but for the cold. As ever, I felt a mixture of excitement and dread as I prepared myself for my wildswim.
At every turn there were tantalising swimming spots, be they deep pools or cauldrons carved out by the white, flowing water. There was a fierce contrast between the foaming white waters and the slick, black rocks that it flowed around. Not being able to see what lies beneath is half the thrill for me. I could have picked any number, but I was on a quest to find Long Pool, described as ‘an eerie, tunnel-like swim between high gorge walls. Very deep’. To my dismay the path rose suddenly away from the water, and I felt almost a pang of separation. Nevertheless, crossing over the water I found Crooks pool. It was a horseshoe-shaped, deep pool ringed by cliffs on one side and a sloping pebble beach on the other. I found my ‘Frog’s Eye View’, as Roger Deakin described it. It was a magnificent sight.
As if claiming a swimmer’s fee, within minutes the water had claimed both of my flipflops. The current had insidiously scooped them off my feet, burying them in the fine-grained silt and pebbles of the riverbed. Far from annoyed, I was fascinated by yet another quality of the water. Screening my eyes from reflections on the surface, I could gaze down and see the riverbed with absolute clarity, but only for a moment. The water would slide and swirl, concealing the depths. Yet in a heartbeat my eyes would focus again and pick out trapped leaves, worn down boulders and snagged driftwood. Alas, no footwear, but then I had picked brown, hessian footwear, now perfectly camouflaged by the waltzing water and its busy riverbed. As I walked back afterward, my bare feet felt every step. Almost every step, that is. I am now in love with moss, and the brief, seductive relief it brought me.
Copyright Tom Tide 2017