Well Creek and Middle Level Main Drain – Fenland swimming

“I drove on west … through Salters Lode and Nordelph to Well Creek, where I bathed in the Middle Level Drain in the evening sunshine.”

The rumble of an HGV is the only sound I can hear as I slip off of the retaining wall and into Middle Level Main Drain. Plastic bottles, clinging to the waters edge, bob and slurp as I push myself against the current and into the main channel, away from the road bridge and Mullicourt Aqueduct.

Tim stands behind me, looking on ominously as I manage about 50 metres of breast stroke before turning back to give him a report on the water. ‘It’s very deep and pretty nippy, plus you’ll feel the current immediately’. This is not the bucolic river dip he’d imagined and a surge of guilt courses through me as I watch him strip down to his shorts and drop his feet into the scummy drink.

Trailing Waterlog has taken us to many delightful swimming holes. And while the surrounding Fens have their own special beauty, jumping into a large drainage channel was perhaps not what Tim had in mind when he’d agreed to join me for this leg of the journey. Still, he’s game.

In a flash, he’s joined me. He surfaces and gulps for air. He’s had no chance to ease himself in and so swims speedily to the middle and paddles for a few moments, before I pull myself up and out and give him a helping hand onto the grainy concrete spot where we’ve left our clothes.

For an hour before our swim, Tim and I have strolled along the banks of Well Creek, which passes over Middle Level Main Drain right by our chosen spot. Where the two channels cross, signs boldly spell out that trespassing is an offence and that we’ll be liable to £5,000 fines if found tramping on this ground. A ‘No Swimming’ sign warns of currents, which bubble strongly as the drain narrows beneath the pretty creek.

It’s enough to ward us off swimming over the narrow, watery bridge. It’s at this point I feel most keenly the differences between myself and Roger. He thought nothing of swimming across Well Creek and pushing himself beneath it when all the warnings said not to. He blamed Enid Blyton for what he called this ‘laddish behaviour’. I blame my unwillingness to follow his lead on my childhood need to please authority.

Either way, I feel a pang as my arms ping free from my wetsuit and I realise I can’t bring myself to swim in both places at once. After my furtive dip in the forbidden Itchen last summer, I can’t help but feeling I’ve already shown willing in my attempts to emulate Roger. But perhaps this isn’t about that. Perhaps this is about discovering what I love (and dislike) about wild swimming in the places where Roger came for Waterlog, as opposed to trying to simply ape his every move. There’s something hugely liberating in that thought.

Still, the swim in this remote Fenland stream is striking. The deep cut channel and the wave of distant oil seed rape, coupled with glaring spring sunshine, can’t fail to put me in a good mood. It might not be the pretty waters of River Bure or the icy daggers of the North Sea at Burnham Overy Staithe, but surely that’s the point. The landscape here is marked by water. Everything is reclaimed, as the waterways which cross the fields attest. I wouldn’t be learning about wild swimming on these islands if I only dropped myself in clear streams and languid bays.

I take one last look at our patch before we walk back along Well Creek to the car. Two wet patches are slapped on the concrete where Tim and I heaved ourselves free. Litter is abundant. This is a modern river bank, for good or ill. We press on, a second dip in the Great Ouse on our minds.

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