“I left my clothes near the bridge and walked barefoot on the warm sand along the over bank upstream for a mile and drifted back down, swimming gently with the current, pushing between the sensual weed, past more sandy bathing bays and sun-hollows in the miniature reedy dunes along the banks.”
Leaving the car on a grassy verge just past Santon Downham’s iron bridge, the fast–moving clouds above Thetford Forest are threatening rain. The air though is warm and clammy. The thought of a brief dip during a passing shower keeps me going as we wade tentatively through the shoulder-high stinging nettles which line the Little Ouse’s narrow towpath.
Tim and I have driven down to the sandy Brecklands from Norwich, in search of the first spot in Roger’s epic swimming tour from East Anglia, north through Yorkshire to Jura in Scotland and returning south via Northumberland.
We find the cooling waters of the Little Ouse exactly as Roger describes them. Water crowfoot sways nonchalantly just beneath the surface, the sandy mud of the Brecks squelching up to my ankles as I drop down the bank and into the water’s shivery embrace.
A huge dragonfly buzzes across my line of vision as I make my first, purposeful strides to the middle of the river. The water here is little more than thigh deep and deliciously cooling. Wading in further, a light rain starts to fall as a shaft slips through the grey cloud, lighting up the splashes which pock mark the surface.
I drop in quietly and breast stroke against the current, before turning and allowing the river to ease me back towards the iron bridge. I chat with Tim, who remains on the bank, geeing himself up before heading in. The shallow depths make the Little Ouse a great river for exploration – there’s no need to worry about treading water or losing your big toe to an errant pike. The glassy clear water sees to that.
So instead of nosing my way upstream, a fools errand seeing as I can hardly move forward when I settle into any kind of stroke, I walk further up and swim back. Rather like Roger but without taking a mile-long wander through the weeds and clouds of midges which congregate near the banks.
There’s also the small matter of some inquisitive swans. With Tim in the water, I retreat to dry land to find my camera, only to see him being caught in a classic pincer movement. A pair of adult swans saunter upstream while a trio of cohorts make their way down, sending Tim back to the shallows and the safety of the bank.
We dry off and ponder our next trip, a few miles north to the River Wissey at Ickburgh. Despite the rain, this has been a stunning dip. The water is indeed ‘crystalline and sparkling’, just like Roger found it all those years ago. Where a lack of change on the Itchen down at Winchester has left wild swimmers unable to enjoy its delightful flow, the fact everything on the Little Ouse remains the same means it’s still the perfect river for passing a summer’s afternoon. Angry swans aside.