In search of Bungay Beach
“That evening, I went to Bungay in search of ‘Bungay Beach’, one of the town’s swimming holes, across the marshy wastes of Outney Common, where the river kinks into a two-mile oxbow.”
The small beach appears just a few feet after we cross a broken wooden bridge. To call it a beach is perhaps a touch generous. More a sandy, gravelly inlet that shelves steeply into the slow trundling waters of the River Waveney.
In truth, this isn’t Bungay Beach. It’s certainly not the place Roger describes in Waterlog, with dangling ropes and tangles of tree roots submerged by the bank. But neither Tim nor I care, having walked across Outney Common in what now is blazing summer sunshine. All I’m thinking of is a lengthy, luxurious dip.
We’d been told by friends that finding Bungay Beach was no mean feat. Yanny, my regular Waterlog Reswum cohort and Suffolk local had given us directions, this despite him telling me that he’d spent two days trying to find this idyllic swimming spot to no avail.
So, armed, pathetically, with a smartphone, Tim and I stride through the Bungay and Waveney Golf Club Car Park, ignoring the ‘Walkers This Way’ signs and setting off in the vague direction of a clogged ditch. I’ve been told to mind the so-called killer cows, but seeing as cows have a habit of moving around, I’m not exactly certain where we’re supposed to be avoiding them.
We clamber over a stile and wade through waist-high grass, the occasional electric blue shock of a damsel fly darting across our path. We’re soon deep into Outney Common, the only sounds the distant rumbling of the A143 and the occasional ‘Fore’ from an errant golfer.
Glancing at my less than detailed mobile map, I can just about work out that we’re about to hit the Waveney. And after skirting tangled hedgerows, we emerge onto its banks. I peer across the side and into the surprisingly deep drink. Weed billows just beneath the surface, the bank here too steep to be sure we’ll be able to get out as well as in.
It’s then I see our beach. Our Bungay Beach. Dropping the bags, we survey the scene. The cows glance at us with barely concealed contempt on the far bank as we quickly get changed. With the water at our mercy, it’s now Tim and I start discussing pike. I’m mindful of Roger’s fears, one of those ‘sudden intimations of dread’ he mentions when swimming just upstream from here.
He describes that spot as ‘the perfect pike pool’. The river here is wide and open, but I remember catching a pike as a kid in weed just like the stuff that linger beneath the surface. Tim recounts a passage from Swallows and Amazons, its characters dissecting a pike only to find a chewed up fish in its guts.
And so, with these words ringing in my ears, I stride to the water’s edge. The sandy gravel takes my entire foot as I wade in. Within two steps I’m waist deep and sinking. And so I push off through the reeds and into the main channel. The water is cool, but not freezing, the perfect temperature for shaking off the sweat of a country walk.
Tim soon follows. He screams as he dives under, shouting and hollering as he gasps for breath against what he tells me is the cold. To be fair, this is his first river swim. Maybe I’m finally acclimatised, as I find it positively mild compared to some chillier swims earlier this year.
We each settle into a languid breast stroke, taking in our surroundings. Trees dip gracefully towards the water and I swim down the middle of the river, the odd weed slicking itself to my leg as I ponder the pike below. I turn on my back and take it all in, indulge that feeling of being in nature, rather than standing and looking at it.
We go on like this for around ten minutes, until the inevitable shivers take hold. I heave myself up the narrow beach and dry slowly in the afternoon heat. Tim swims on as the sun dips briefly behind the clouds. We may not have found the right Bungay Beach, but it’s impossible not to imagine Roger nosing his way round the bend, waving as we follow in his footsteps.