The Waveney – a Waterlog pilgrimage
“I was swimming ten miles from the moat, where the Waveney defines the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. It is a secret river, by turns lazy and agile, dashing over shallow beds of golden gravel, then suddenly quiet, dignified and deep.”
Nowhere on my nascent journey swimming the rivers, lakes and lidos of Waterlog has been so dominated by the air of pilgrimage as my trip to the Waveney. Leaving Liverpool Street on a bright October morning, I am heading for my first strokes in Roger’s favourite river, the one he eulogises so beautifully in the pages of Waterlog. It is the closest river to his beloved moat at Mellis, a river he not only swam but also glided along in a canoe called ‘Cigarette’, finishing a trip for a Radio 4 documentary at my starting point, Geldeston Locks.For today’s swim I’m joined by Amy, an old journalist friend and veteran of the Orkney Polar Bears, a hardy group of ladies who swim the seas of those Scottish isles without resorting to such extraneous items as wetsuits. After a two and a half hour train ride through the rural idyll of north Essex and Suffolk, we arrive at Beccles and are met by Yanny, a dear old friend, former university cohort and something of a local hero. We pile into his car, throwing our bags over fire wood in the boot and driving through this stunning part of Suffolk towards Geldeston and the Locks Inn.
The Locks Inn, sitting in the midst of sodden marshes and reached via an unsealed, bumpy track, is where Yanny got married and where ‘Big Dog’ boat tours bring tourists down the Waveney from the recently refurbished and resolutely popular Beccles Lido. Parking the car, we leave the pub behind and strike out across two bridges to the Suffolk side of the Waveney. The river here marks the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, its slow-moving waters perfect for a dip no matter the time of year.
Yanny is not joining us in the water, but has come laden with spare fleeces, large towels and a boundless knowledge of the local wildlife (although he keeps the home of the nearby nesting otters a steadfast secret). Amy is first in, wearing just a swimming costume to guard against the icy current. Her hardiness is impressive, but can’t sway me from inexpertly pulling myself into a borrowed wetsuit (huge thanks to my regular swimming buddy Joe for the loan). As Amy gasps against the cold, I sit on the bank, toes in the drink and take in the scene. The marshes seem to extend for miles, without a building in sight. A row of poplar trees guard the far bank as the clouds break and a surprisingly warm sun makes me wonder whether the wetsuit was worth the hassle.
But as I slide in and quickly lose feeling in my hands and feet, I realise that extra layer is essential. Amy powers on underneath the bridge and back towards the locks, while I turn and head upstream, the huge, stratus-streaked sky a dome above me. The added buoyancy and warmth of the wetsuit allows me to turn on my back and take in this gorgeous scene, one which Roger would surely take great delight in recognising. This is a timeless landscape, the most gorgeous I have yet to visit on this journey.
I turn and swim towards the bridge, Yanny telling me about the kingfishers and otters of the Waveney as I swim a lazy breaststroke. Amy has heaved herself out on the bank and is drying off on the bank. We talk about the quality of the water, the earthy, organic smell that’s inescapable when you’re in it. I pause and tread water, looking down at my feet in the middle of the channel. This is clearest, cleanest river water I have ever swum in. I pop my head under and catch glimpses of the river bed a good seven or eight feet below. No wonder this was Roger’s favourite stretch of water.
Clambering out, I peel off the wetsuit, amazed to find myself dry and warm for once after an outdoor swim. Adjourning to the Locks Inn for warming tomato, lentil and bacon soup and a pint of the local Green Jack ale, I can see Roger sitting outside, nursing his pint just as he did for his ‘Cigarette on the Waveney’ documentary in 2005. If ever a swim were a life-affirming exercise, one which proved that indulging such pleasures is essential to my wellbeing, then this was it.