John’s Water, River Bure – through the mill–race

“A vigorous mill–race sped through one of the arches, darting its turbulence far out into a wide black pool which whirled evenly between dense banks of reeds and watercress. It could have been a scene from Constable. I had arrived at John’s Water.”

OS Map perched on my knee, we trundle down the single track road, the River Bure burbling to our right. Spotting the Mill Cottage and then the open–fronted cart shed in front of us, just as Roger described them, I know we’ve found the secluded, Pre–Raphaelite bathing spot known as John’s Water.

Pulling up, we unfold ourselves from Molly’s little red car, to be greeted by a solid wall of graffiti where cows have doubtless over–wintered. I pull my wetsuit from my rucksack and yank it on while reading the missives left by local tearaways. ‘I pissed here’ has an innocent charm to it. ‘Josh Parsley Is Thin’ leaves the three of us in tears of laughter. As insults go, it could be worse.

The scrawling on the inner wall of the cart–shed seems to be the only thing that has changed since Roger’s time here. The mill–race still speeds through two low–slung arches and a gravel beach slides into the black depths. Watercress dots the riverbed, the reeds swishing in the spring breeze.

Today I’ve ‘rubbered up’, the last vestiges of a chest infection preventing me from freezing myself in this icy, post–winter river. I pull on my neoprene boots and wade in downstream from the Mill Cottage. The water is knee deep and crystal clear. I watch the muddy bottom cloud as I tentatively place one foot in front of the other.

Looking up to the small beach further upstream, I spot Tim and Molly dressed for summer. There are are low, white clouds and the temperature sits stubbornly in the mid–teens, but anyone driving past would imagine them readying themselves for a day of lounging in the sun.

As I throw myself under and gasp as the cold trickles down my back, Molly wades over to join me. She stifles a yelp and pushes into the Bure. She swims fast against the current and for a brief second I can feel the icy daggers running down her arms, over her back. Soon she swims more languidly, while Tim cuts a ponderous figure, the water lapping at the top of his trunks.

A man known for his entrances (throwing himself into waves at Holkham, tombstoning into the Noe at Edale on a November afternoon), Tim doesn’t mess about. He moves his hands to his sides and falls perfectly forward. He surfaces grinning and powers off into the faster water. Their hardiness impresses me, even if they’re soon back on the banks, drying off and discussing their endorphin rushes while nattering at 100 miles an hour.

I swim on and get myself to the wall of the cottage, before throwing myself into the mill–race, the white water propelling me off downstream. Soon I’m pulling myself along the bottom, before getting to my feet for a wander. The tresses of water crowfoot hide my boots and I realise just how far we are from anything. Just as at Burnham Overy Staithe, the sense of isolation is overwhelming.

I wander back and do it all again, the rubber keeping me warm while Tim and Molly eat cereal bars and lounge by the car. I whoop with unalloyed joy as I struggle to find a stroke against the current.

Minutes later, driving back at Aylsham, two buzzards swoop on thermals, darting across empty fields. I think of Roger nosing his bike along these lanes and can only imagine how many more swims this summer holds. The possibilities are so endless, it’s unnerving.

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