River Windrush – racing water, freezing feet and hissing swans
“About a mile downstream from Burford on the meandering footpath to Widford, I found the finest oxbow bend I have ever seen. Sheep grazed the meadows, and the cropped grass was in wonderful condition, springy and deep green. At the narrow turkey neck of the oxbow were two old pollard willows…I slid into the upstream side of the oxbow, and swam all round it almost back to where I had begun.”
We first catch sight of the oxbow bend from the A40, high on the edge of the valley above the River Windrush. It appears, from the briefest of glimpses through the car window, just as Roger described it. The pollard willows, the swirl of the water as it curves back on itself.
Parking up in Burford, we emerge from the warmth of the car into a chill breeze nipping at our ears. I’m beginning to wonder exactly why we’ve chosen to attempt a swim Roger indulged in on a late August morning, all swimming trunks and gleeful summer energy, when the first few nascent days of spring have just been snuffed out. It is, after all, February, hardly a month renowned for its wild swimming opportunities.
Still, we sling on our backpacks, pull on woolly gloves and head for the banks of the Windrush. Today I’m joined by Joe, a Waterlog Reswum regular and man hardened to cold water thanks to our trips to Hampstead Mixed Ponds and Tooting Lido. Jools, a good friend and former colleague, not to mention lapsed triathlete, is also along for the ride.
Reaching the oxbow, there appear to be a few obstacles. And I don’t just mean attempting to struggle into our wetsuits. A fence cuts off the peninsula, our fears of hopping over compounded by the distant ringing of gunshots. The water, despite the recent lack of rain, is also high and moving fast. But most terrifyingly of all, a pair of swans are patrolling the river, chasing off a gaggle of geese with a few flaps of their wings and a spot of hissing.
Attempting the entire round of the oxbow seems a touch churlish in these circumstances. And so, donning swim caps, goggles, waterproof cameras and that much-needed neoprene, we decide to stay just upstream of the bend. The banks of the Windrush are broken by a few feet and the main body of water, clear when Roger visited, is churned up and murky as I pop my naked toes in and let out a small yelp of pain.
Soon, I’m battling the current, following Jools and Joe as they settle into a strong, steady front crawl. Heading into the middle of the stream, it’s impossible to make headway, the water pulling me ever backwards, until I manage to find shallower ground. By now, my unprotected feet are numb and so I kick on. I turn onto my back and take in the scene. Light grey clouds, the necks of swans like periscopes on the horizon. Occasional cars pass by on the nearby road, drivers looking on with a mixture of mystification and horror as they see three grown men dressed as if ready to swim the channel pottering around in this small Thames tributary.
Where the water laps at the grass, it is fresh and clear, making me long to come here when the levels are lower and the riverbed gravel visible from the surface. I’m desperate to try the whole bend and be flung, ‘…ever outwards with its centrifugal force’. We continue for a few minutes more, me swimming a fast breaststroke next to a submerged hawthorn bush, while Jools busies himself with an athletic front crawl against the stormy current.
Hauling ourselves out and drying off by another pollard willow (alas not one of Roger’s), we laugh in amazement at the fact we’ve managed a wild swim at this stage of the year. Just as Roger would have seen it, the oxbow bend hasn’t been cut off into a lake by the forces of the water yet.
This part of England always feel to me as if it’s timeless, and it’s hard to imagine much is different now compared to when Roger swam here in the late 90s. The fence across the bend, perhaps. But I don’t doubt that Roger’s love of a spot of trespassing would have meant he’d have tackled the Windrush in 2013 just as he did back when he was writing Waterlog.