One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Moonlight and Mizzle: Autumn Evening Swim in the Double Dart

We formed Devon Wild Swimmers this spring, and have yet to arrange a moonlight swim where the moon actually appears through the Devon mizzle. But one of the universal traits of Wild Swimmers is the refusal to be deterred by poor weather, along with the ability to find fun in anything. There’s a saying that:

‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.’

If your only options are a swimsuit and maybe a wetsuit, and you’re going to be getting very wet in any case, this assertion becomes largely defunct. Who cares about clothes? However, the Dart is what’s called a ‘flashy’ river, and it’s impossible to swim there if the water is too high. A pessimistic weather forecast had me worrying it would be too dangerous, so the swim was cancelled. Dan the Weather Man (a fellow wild swimmer) then assured us – under threat of being barbecued if he was wrong, and with a Facebook link to Mr Fish’s famous duff forecast added to the discussion – that this side of the moor would be OK. So it was that six humans and two dogs met at New Bridge on the Double Dart river on an overcast Saturday evening, in order to walk up to Sharrah Pool for a swim.

We wandered in the Dartmoor dusk through the ancient woodlands of the Dart valley carrying our swimming gear. The river was up slightly, and a cool 12 degrees C. We were cocooned by the woodland, enveloped in her damp, earthy smell, and the sound of the river ebbed and flowed according to the distance of the track from her banks and the closeness of the rapids. The light was fading properly as we finally arrived at the stile near Sharrah, where we had a sudden, brief glimpse of the moon dribbling silvery light through the clouds, and silhouetting the gnarly branches and remaining leaves of the sessile oaks and beech trees. From there we made our way down through the glade to the flattish rocks on the riverbank, assailed by the roar and the fizzing energy from the upper waterfall.

I dived straight in to a prolonged struggle with a delicately-perspiring body, a damp wetsuit and new booties – neoprene outers, pretty red soles, and comfy and warm red fleece lining – a complete sod to get on. I looked towards the pool, black as ink and topped with specks of foam from the waterfall. Finally, I was able to get in, desperate for the feel of chill, silky water and the refreshing taste of peat. The water seeped into my wetsuit and chilled me beautifully, so I struck out in breast-stroke upstream towards the falls, duck-diving under the water to cool my sticky and sweaty face and de-midge my hair, then feeling the cramp of ice-cream neck from the cold.

Behind the shadow of the boulder in the centre of the river is a still pathway where you can swim unimpeded. We all met at this rock, and climbed around it to the edge of the rapid that runs from the falls down the far, steep granite bank to the bottom end of the pool.  Standing on a submerged ledge, we flung ourselves downstream into the current, that was visible as creamy, beery foam surging past. The ride through the dark and the spray is exhilarating, as you feel your body being gathered up in the rapid and you let the river take control.

If you’re quick, you can escape from the rapid on the far side and climb onto the rocks. I did this, and watched as a couple of my friends’ white faces materialised from the rapid the the dark and shot past me like meteorites. Then I jumped back in to the space-black water, hearing the whoosh as I plunged down, down, down, waiting in the dark to feel my feet touch the bottom before bouncing back up, gasping. Large raindrops plopped in for a moment, then the drizzle returned to mingle with the spray from the falls.

We changed on the bank, happy and laughing and not too cold at all. On the walk back it was completely dark, so we used head-torches. The muddy, rocky path was splattered with autumn leaves. Some had fallen with their underneaths upwards and, sprinkled with drizzle droplets, they glowed in the torchlight like reflective strips on safety gear. Fungus became more visible on crumbling trees, dense and white. The sounds of the river came and went. We met another friend on the path, and walked back to New Bridge for a barbecue. The sky began to clear, with cirrus cloud back-lit by the moon and the odd glimmer from a star. A Barn Owl screeched like a ghost in the woods.

Fellow Swimmers

Jackie, Candy, Allan, Lesley, Honey.

Jumping in the Dark

Support from the Bank

Luca, Lilli and Giles

Barbecue Meat


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