Magic runs like a river through our lives, if we just get out of our heads and let it run freely. And it never ceases to leave me breathless and laughing when it visits.
Growing up on Dartmoor we didn’t do wild swimming because it was a concept that didn’t exist (in those days it was just plain swimming). I learnt to swim in the river in my village in the summer holidays, but the idea of swimming in rivers in winter, or in disused quarries and moorland pools, would’ve been met with a few raised eyebrows. There would be the inevitable wry smile and ‘are you feeling alright, maid?’
There was one woman (Judy) I knew who was fearless and swam every day of the year in the river Dart, where we lived. I was in awe of Judy as a teenager. Hardy and fearless, she was, but over the years and in the course of many moves, we lost touch. Often when I went swimming on Hampstead Heath at the ladies’ pond, I would think of Judy and how ahead of her time she was.
When I first came home to Dartmoor, hearing that I loved a bit of river swimming, one of my newest friends gave me the gift of a book by Lynne Roper, called ‘Wild Woman Swimming’. If you haven’t read it I would really recommend it. It’s basically Lynn’s diary of her swimming trips around Dartmoor and the nearby coastal areas over the last few years of her life, before she died (very early) of cancer.
Her personality really comes through in her writing, and she talks about a regular group of friends that meet and swim together at various places across the moor. She is so warm, irreverent and evocative, that I feel like I know her (and them), and I have quite envied her the group. I have tended to swim alone, partly because of COVID, and partly because I don’t know anyone who swims as often as I do. Instead I have been going on little Lynn-inspired pilgrimages to her favourite spots, a bit too nervous to seek out a group. (Spot the introvert!)
Lynn and her friends used to love swimming at Sharrah, a pool that requires a bit of determination to get to. Last week, when I attempted to walk there, I had to turn back part way. There is a waterfall you have to cross, and that day - after a lot of heavy rain - it was completely impassable in my walking boots. This weekend I wanted to revisit, so I set out just after sunrise, took my wellies, and parked at the end of the trail.
As I got out of the car I realised there was a group of women gathering, all looking like wild swimmers. So I struck up a conversation and asked they were. They were just meeting to swim at a spot nearby. There were heavy storms overnight and they expected Sharrah to be quite unsafe, so had decided to go to a different bend of the river, where the water would be swooshy but not unswimmable. Then as if by magic, who should step out from behind the group than Judy, the river swimmer.
I am not sure who invited who, but for the first time ever I swam with this lovely group. They were so welcoming, and very quickly put me at my ease, especially the thing about not being much of a swimmer (I’ve never done the front crawl in life!) And as if finding Judy wasn’t magical enough, during the course of our post swim chatter, as we rushed to get dressed before the rain set in again, it became clear that I was in fact swimming with Lynn’s Roper’s friends. Serendipitous, or just a late Christmas present from Lynn, from one wild woman to another? I’ll let you decide that one.