River Test – wading through white water
“Five minutes out of the village down a waterside path, I was alone in the meadows on the brink of a wide, cold-water swimming hole, scene of the noisy reunion of the wandering offspring of Mother Test. Slightly to my surprise, there were no fishermen about, so I hurled myself straight in. The water made me gasp.”
The sun completes its disappearing act just as we finish cobbling together our bags and slam shut the boot of Tom’s vintage Jag. Grey, but unthreatening clouds move in and sit low over the Hampshire countryside, keeping the temperature pleasant considering it’s mid–January.
I’ve come to this stretch of the Test, just outside Stockbridge, to pit myself against one of the colder rivers in Waterlog. Wetsuits and swimming hats are at the ready, even if my much–loved neoprene shoes appear to have gone walkabout since my last dip, in the River Noe in Edale last November.
We reach the Test via a short, muddy bridleway, which slips straight into the clear, cool waters of this fast–flowing stream. Tom and I are joined by regular swimming pal Joe. They too are fully kitted out for the cold weather. We ditch our things and procrastinate on the bank. The water is positively raging under the wooden foot bridge next to our chosen spot. It whitens as it hits the beams, all noise and confusion as it flows.
Like the nearby Itchen, though, it’s gin clear. The chalk bed is easily discernible as we peer over, although we’re not quite sure about the depth. If we can’t touch the bottom in midstream, I’ve no doubt we’ll be swept off to Southampton.
Fortunately, our entry point is fairly still and quite obviously shallow. Joe and Tom pull on their wetsuits, gloves and boots and wade in. It’s soon clear they can walk from one bank to the other, even if the Test isn’t going to make it easy to get to the far side. I follow gingerly, my feet bare. They freeze up instantly, sharp, shooting pain running up my legs. I stagger on before retreating to a grassy lump poking up by the bridge. Here I watch the chaps chatter aimlessly, impervious to the icy temperatures.
Joe attempts to swim the 30 or so metres back across, but the current and metre depth prove too awkward. Borrowing Tom’s shoes, I paddle in and give it a go myself. I can just about settle into a fast breaststroke, but it’s not nearly enough to keep me in one place as I pit my wits against the current. Instead, I wade off towards the rushes, losing my feet in a surprising clump of deep, wet sand. Pulling them free, I watch as Tom reenters with his waterproof camera and join in an impromptu photo–shoot. I splash the Test’s water on my face, the smell of the river transporting me to my summer trips last year. I can hardly wait to be able to swim outdoors every day.
As I wander about, I fail to spot any of the trout which make the Test so famous. Nor the fly fishermen of the Houghton Fishing Club who guard these waters so jealously. Our only encounter is with a pair of golden retrievers, happy to splash about in what their owner calls the dog laundry.
Roger talks of becoming numbed to the water here, its coldness still clinging on when he came in May. Our much–needed neoprene means we’re able to loll in the shallows for around half an hour before we peel ourselves free, dry off and decamp for tea back in Stockbridge.
The Test is a delightful river, a sprightly stream that’s very easy to love. Even in the depths of winter, you can feel the Pre-Raphaelite atmosphere Roger describes so perfectly. With colder days to stay for some time, I just hope more winter swims are this peaceful.
Photos courtesy of Tom Bailey.