West Dart at Hexworthy – through the bridge

“A cold dip in the West Dart River by the stone saddle bridge at Hexworthy came along just in time. I threw myself into a deep pool just upstream, gasping at the shock, and swam down into the stony salmon–haunts below.”

Four days of cooling sea swims in Lyme Regis have steeled me for the cold waters of the West Dart. The river appears on our right, crashing over rocks as Tom eases his vintage Jag around sharp corners, tapping the car’s twin horns to warn oncoming drivers of the approach of four water–hungry wild swimmers.

We arrive at Hexworthy bridge as the skies open, rain skittering off the windscreen as we rummage through bags for neoprene shoes and waterproofs. Outside, Keeley hunkers down under a brolly as Joe and Tom struggle into wetsuits.

Lyme has given me a hardy edge (or a dampened sense of my own stupidity) and so I’m going in without the the protection of my trusty swimming condom. The shower has passed and so I galumph across the grass, crunch over the gravel beach and dive into the central pool under the bridge.

The West Dart is absurdly clear. Even out of my depth I can see the rocks on the riverbed, bubbles rising as fish disappear at the first sight of a slightly unhinged human in black protective boots and green swimwear.

I push myself into the current and slide off under the bridge. The cold of the English channel has worked wonders and the nip of the moor’s fresh water doesn’t affect me greatly. Like Roger, we’ve arrived after a long car journey, albeit an hour from Exeter rather than a cross country schlep from Suffolk. Still, the water eases out my cramp and loosens the nasty knots which have accumulated in my back, which seem to have flowered after weeks hunched over a laptop writing.

Tom and Joe slip in quickly and wade off upstream. I turn to join them, thrashing out a front crawl to try and fight the West Dart’s urge to push me downstream to the sea. A dipper undulates overhead, but I lose sight of its progress. The hefty rocks upstream must make the perfect spot for him to splash about and hunt prey for his nesting young.

Keeley watches on, camera in hand, gingerly treading over stepping stones onto the gravel island at the centre of the stream. After reeling off a few snaps, she heads back to the bank, where I make a beeline for her and the proffered towel and flask of tea. I dry off, before seeing Tom and Joe still enjoying the far off current. I can’t resist a second dip, chucking myself in upstream and letting the river take me away through a swirling eddy in zippy fashion.

Sufficiently braced, I make my final exit. It’s time to warm up and head off. We’re going in search of Roger’s secret Sherberton Stream, where the waters are supposed to be colder and even clearer. I neck the last dregs of black tea as Tom and Joe peel off their wetsuits. We jump in the car, nose over the beautiful bridge and on towards more an even more secluded spot.

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