Sunday, 23 August 2009

Jumping on the Wild Swimming Bandwagon.

Our Wild Swim Road Trip Mecca: An idyllic plunge pool beneath a secluded waterfall.

'Wild swimming' is nothing new, but I only heard about it last week when my adventuring cohorts Dukes and Stef called me up to suggest the latest in our long history of road trips and camping adventures. Before that, I'd always thought it was called 'skinny dipping' and was something a pair of frustratingly pretty girls, with whom I smoked weed as a teenager, did in the canals and quarries throughout summer with mysterious older guys who could drive, wore rings on every finger and had better drugs. Me and my infantile pothead mates were naturally never invited.

Wild swimming, of course, refers to the traditional act of bathing in naturally occurring wild water rather than man-made public pools. The term spans everything from old fashioned Huck Finn waterhole capers through to McGinley-esque sylvan frolicking. It differs from skinny dipping insofar as it is clothing-optional and the emphasis is nonsexual. Wild swimming is bathing as nature intended: good clean fun in the great outdoors.

Wild swimming whispers a polite 'fuck you' to swimming pool bureaucracy. And swimming pools for that matter.

I must confess I'm no water baby. At school, swimming lessons seemed like an absurd sadistic pantomime. I would watch bemused through the sting of chlorine and hair gel as impressionable classmates jockeyed for pointless badges to sew on trunks they would soon outgrow. Proper smartarses, meanwhile, trawled for a coveted plastic brick while wearing their pyjamas. All the while some cretin with a whistle and tracksuit-stiffy would lord it round the echoing poolside phweeping the fuck out of my spazzy swimming technique.

I hated swimming until my adolescence when I began going to the baths with the naughtiest guys and girls from my estate. Almost by instinct, they broke every rule on a snotty 70s poolside sign designed to wring every last drop of pleasure from a pastime humans have been doing unrestricted since the dawn of mankind. Particular emphasis was placed on defiance of smoking and petting protocol, and, for a brief period, rebel swimming became the highlight of my social calendar.

In my element: On a road trip in the back of a van. A multitude of sensory deprivation techniques were required to contain my excitement.

So as I sat in the back of a van heading north-east with my best road trip buddies, I was positively bursting with excitement. We were on a mission to wipe our asses on the shiny red tracksuits and P.E. shorts of whistle-blowing swimming teachers and arrogant pool attendants throughout the land.

Music selection usually comes down to me, and for this journey I chose feverish Motown classics. When we hit the lonely windswept plateaus of the godforsaken North Moors, I took the wheel and calmed myself down by playing 'Suffer Little Children' by the Smiths on repeat until I was overwhelmed by bleak emotion and my passengers confiscated my iPod.

This fence is there for a reason: If it were wintertime we'd tumble 60ft down a slippery gorge and be tossed to our deaths by the raging currents below.




Our destination was a little-known plunge pool beneath a waterfall, and even if I wanted to reveal the location I remember few details other than to say we stayed on a campsite near the beach in Robin Hood's Bay, drove inland about 20 miles over desolate moors, walked woodland paths, trekked down a gorge and traipsed back along a river to get there.

Robin Hood's Bay is a quaint fishing village trapped in the past on the North East coast, near Whitby. It is popular with hikers, cyclists and goths, all of whom rub shoulders with the village's tiny population in The Bay's two old-man pubs. I've been to The Bay twice and each trip is another blog in itself really. It is possibly my favourite place in England, and not just because it has no cellphone reception.

Plunge Pool Overview: Descending the gorge we caught the waterfall in our sights but a sheer drop meant we had to go the long way round.

Getting to our makeshift swimming pool was a mission in itself. There was a public pathway through woodland, beside which a steep gorge dropped about 60ft to a waterfall with a river below. We hopped the fence from the path and scaled down to the river. Being late summer, the waterfall in the distance looked pretty tame and the river was shallow, but the immediate base of the waterfall promised a big drop where the water gets very deep very quickly.

This is known as a 'plunge pool' and is created over many winters when the river and waterfall are raging. The force of turbulent water and rocks dropping 60-odd feet onto the river bed erodes a deep end, sometimes nearly as deep as height of the waterfall itself.

Bounding along the dried-up river.

As we neared our wild swim Mecca, I found myself bounding ahead with enthusiasm. This surprised Dukes and Stef, both confirmed outdoor types who normally mock me for my aversion to water and my tender-footed approach to anything muddy.

Indeed, they revealed they'd invited me because I'm a sucker for road trips and camping, but had assumed I wouldn't bother with the swimming part. They told me they'd expected me to sit on a rock smoking cigarettes and doing my hair. I have to concede that nine times out of ten they'd probably be right.

Dukes, knee-deep in plunge.

We paddled in a dried up river ankle-deep until we reached the waterfall, then stripped off and swam in the small pool of water which fast became knee, then waist, then armpit, then head-high. I was first in the drink and found the tranquil, relatively contained bathing environment far more inviting than large bodies of water which, traditionally, try their hardest to scare and drown me.

Me and Dukes, up to our armpits in plunge.

It was a warm sunny day but the water was bloody freezing! It was painfully cold, the sharp riverbed stones cut our feet to ribbons, and we all felt a bit sick a few days later. Nevertheless, it was a gazillion times less boring than any heated, sterile, health-and-safety-regulated affair.

As we spent the next hour or so basking in the streams of sunlight, drinking beers, admiring the scenery and taking intermittent dips beneath the waterfall, the gorge echoed with shrieks and curses and laughter. Good times!

OK, so skinny dipping on acid with frustratingly pretty stoner chicks is probably amazing too. But I could happily settle for second best: simply being on an adventure with my mates, having good clean fun in the great outdoors.


PHOTOGRAPHY: by Stef Witton on vintage instant cameras using expired 35mm film.

SOUNDTRACK: Van Morrison – 'And It Stoned Me'; The Smiths – 'Suffer Little Children'.

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