One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Spitchwick: Ice-Cream Head, Crab Apples, Crazy Bitch

Honey and I popped over to Spitchwick this morning. It’s a warmish autumn day, with a slightly chill breeze. There’s still some heat in the sun which pops out occasionally from behind puffy, greying clouds illuminating the ponies grazing on the common by the river. We can smell their gorgeous, horsey scent and, in Honey’s case, the mouth-watering whiff of tottering heaps of steaming dung.

Dartmoor Ponies grazing and pooing by the Double Dart

It’s 11 degrees in the water today, so I decide on a wetsuit because I want to swim for at least 30 minutes. As I enter the river down the stone ‘steps’, I notice a Dipper who performs his jerky little dance from a rock by the island before dipping under the water, then zipping away downstream. His cream bib makes his low-level flight visible for a little while. Honey potters around in the shallows, then swims across and back. I can hear her breathing in little puffs as she passes.

The water today is mirror-black on the far side. The leaves on the trees behind are turning and their full height is reflected as though soaked into the water. On the near side I can see coppery patches here and there, but for the most part the gravelly bottom has been obliterated by huge drifts of autumn leaves and twiggy debris from last month’s stormy weather. The leaves blacken as they decompose, and the newer ones – orange, greeny-yellow and tan – glow randomly through the peaty water like jewels, flashing in the current.  When I step in, I sink to my ankles in the spongy layer then slide to the side as my foot hits a hidden rock. It’s safer to just swim, so I leap forwards and plunge straight under before turning to head upstream against the current on the far side, where it’s deep.

The water of the Double Dart smells and tastes of the moors: chill, fresh, pure and peaty. I swim in front crawl to warm up, and the water beneath me is black as night. Silver bubbles arc from my hands, which glow disembodied through the water in an eerie, copper light. Icy rivulets push through the neck of my suit and down my back like shivers from a ghost story. And then it hits: full-on ice-cream head for the first time since the spring. I try to swim through, but have to stop so I float on my back, arms outstretched, in a cross. The pain in my forehead subsides and I can hear only my amplified breathing in my submerged ears. Blue sky, clouds, oak trees, and the edge of a backlit cloud. I begin to turn in the current and stay there for a while, before swimming again. After the third go, the ice-cream head is no more so I carry on, upstream to the top end of the pool, then back down at four times the pace, then a float around, then back up and down the pool till I start to feel cold again.

I can hear Honey growling and barking from the bank, and stand up to watch her. Her hair is soaked and curling, and she’s charging around the common in a zig-zag pattern with a stick in her mouth. Occasionally she tosses and catches the stick, arse and loopy tail waving, having a big, doggy laugh. I love that a wild swim affects my dog in the same way that it affects me, or maybe we’re both just crazy bitches?

On the walk back I notice that a crone of a Crab Apple tree, bearded with lichens, has shed her load of pale yellow fruit. We stop and I pick them up in my towel leaving the ones that lie in horse-shit for Honey, who is partial to a windfall apple or ten. She tries one but declines the rest, possibly because they’re a little sour, or because the horse poo is not fresh enough, like sour cream. Gazing up at the tree, I see a sprinkling of crab apples still clinging to the branches and looking, against the greeny-grey lichen, like a fruity tiara on a tipsy granny at a barn dance. The music of the river fades as we walk away.

Crab Apples

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