As late summer gives way to autumn, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with bodies of water (both my own and external ones). I’ve just returned from a research trip to Cumbria, where I immersed in the burns and the lakes, noting the warmth of the lakewater, but the similarity of the temperature of the water in the mountains from those of the Dartmoor hills.
On Dartmoor, folkloricly speaking (is that even a word?) we tend to have a suspicion of still waters. If it doesn’t move, it can’t be natural. In childhood, I learnt to swim in a pool in the river, formed by the strategic building of a dam. We didn’t swim in the disused quarry, or the moorland pools. There were whispers of unknown depths that couldn’t be measured even with the longest church bell ropes, or of shadowy figures that moved about them in the night. Similar to the folklore of the Salopian meres, we too have abandoned villages at the bottom of deep waters.
I find my preferences for water, even now, leaning towards the flowing waters – the Walkham, the Dart (both east-west and double Dart), the Lyd. Practically speaking, I know I swim with the fish, but I’m less easy about swimming with leeches and other creatures. A recent moonlight swim in the sea of Cornwall had me having a mini freak out at the sight of jellyfish. I might worship nature, but there are some aspects from which I prefer to keep a distance.
I also like swimming in the colder months. In summer I struggle to share my body of water with unknown humans; in winter they are less likely to be there. The tingling sensation of plunging yourself into cold water disappears in summer. It might be paddling on the edge of masochism, but the endorphin rush isn’t the same in warm water.
When you come to swim in a body of water regularly, you realise it has a personality of its own. I’m not the first writer to point this out. Fiction readers may have come across Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, a fabulous set of stories that feature the gods of the lost rivers of London. Since our earliest beginnings, humans have endowed rivers with mystical or deific properties, and people have left offerings at springs and rivers from the earliest times. This of course has happened all around the globe. It’s not just modern pagans who chant to the river, it’s been happening for all eternity. In my own practice, I often immerse myself in the water and either song or recite poetry to the rivers I bond with. Hearing it gurgle back it’s own poetry, of water g