The Malverns – Severn swimming

“Next morning I drove out of Wales through the Black Mountains to the Malvern Hills in search of springs and open air pools.”

Like Roger, Tom and I are high and dry on the Malvern Hills. Fences and warning signs are everywhere as we walk to the end of a dead end lane and reach Gullet Quarry. A family picnic down by the water’s edge, two labradors frolicking in the deep, cold water. But there will be no swimming for us here today.

In my ignorance, amid a search for a Malvern swimming hole (something Roger failed to find), I alighted on this spot after flicking through Daniel Start’s Wild Swimming. But the signs warning of prosecution if we take a dip, plus a small memorial plaque, tell us clearly that this is no place for a late summer swim.

A cursory search on my smartphone reminds me of the details. Two men drowned here within the space of one week in July 2012. Under Malvern Hill Conservators byelaws, it is illegal to enter the water. Many locals had wanted the quarry drained. It is no surprise. Spring fed pools are notoriously cold and tragedies seem to occur regularly in them.

I tell Tom about my trip to Henleaze, another quarry pool, albeit one with a swimming club and full time lifeguards. The pool here doesn’t seem unlike the one in central Bristol.

We tread carefully through mud back towards the car and decide to sniff out a safer place for a paddle. Tom pulls out and we head for the Lower Lode Inn near Tewkesbury, which sits on a wide stretch of the River Severn. I had wanted us to experience the Brine Baths in Droitwich as Roger had. But these have been shut since 2009 and plans for them to move to a new brownfield site are still up in the air. It seems this part of England is blessed with springs and salt water, but precious few swimming holes. Replicating Roger’s journey here is not proving easy.

At Lower Lode, the odd camper van and tent dot the bank as we pass the riverside pub and a sign saying not to to swim off the slipway. We walk a short way upstream, dropping down the steep banks to small staging posts designed for anglers, which also provide convenient entry points for water hungry wild swimmers like us.

After reccying a few, we pick a spot with plenty of room for both if us to change and hop in. The water is murky and I can see straight away that we won’t be wading in. I go first, lowering my legs onto a crossbar about two feet beneath the surface. The water is freezing, far colder than anything I’ve experienced all summer. Rain and cold weather are clearly beginning to take their toll. Launching off, I tread water as Tom drops in and lets out a loud gasp as he settles into a breaststroke.

We swim in large circles, careful to avoid the currents of the central channel and the attention of swans on the far bank. Despite being in this huge, long river, there is no one else around. Hidden from view, we chat about recent dips and winter plans, commenting on the cold as it nips at our fingers and toes. At the sight of an approaching boat, we decide to haul out, drip drying on the wooden platform.

I feel invigorated as we pause at the pub on the walk back. But I can’t get Gullet Quarry out of my mind. Is what I’m doing safe? And am I cautious enough? The thought lingers as we make our way back towards Oxford, the cold of the Severn still on my chest.

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