River Wharfe – in the shadow of Bolton Abbey

“On a bend in the river below the abbey ruins, there is a wide sandy beach and I fully expected to see John The Baptist rise up amongst the bathers and bless them all for having the sense and self–reliance for going swimming in the wild.”

The beach below Bolton Abbey’s hollow shell is deserted as the gate thunks behind us and we take the bridge over the Wharfe. It’s a dank Yorkshire day, a hazy sun glinting over the horizon. Summer is slipping south for another year and the race is on to swim the last of Roger’s dips before the need for hats, gloves and extra thick wetsuits.

Crunching over the gravelly sand in walking boots, I struggle to imagine this inland beach being clogged with adventurous wild swimmers. All attention away from Henry VIII’s brutal handiwork on the opposite bank centres on the stepping stones downstream, where the occasional adventurous walker ignores the signs posted by the estate about loose cobbles and stride out over the water.

As a gaggle of visitors let up a cheer when one of their party reaches the other side, I slip into the Wharfe unnoticed. It is bitterly cold, on a par with the azure waters of Scilly two weeks ago. The river trundles here before sliding past the stepping stones and racing over the weir and down to another beach where fresh signs warn off any wild swimmers from entering.

When I swam up the road in Gargrave back in July, the water of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal was a mucky brown. Here it is an orangey, peaty brown, like a Jura burn. The deepness of the meander makes it possible to indulge in a proper swim, where I can peer down and see my rubbered up feet kissing the boulders on the riverbed.

While Dave takes pictures of the abbey I nose away upstream and am readying myself for the iciness of the autumn air on my shoulders when a loud shout goes up from the stepping stones. I swing back to see I’ve been joined in the water by a portly gent who’s lost his footing. His forlorn wading is a sorry sight and I can’t help but feeling he may as well have bought his bathers and joined me. I don’t imagine he has a towel and a get a swell of needless anxiety thinking of the sopping wallet and phone in his pockets as he finally gets out and trudges miserably back to his family and friends.

We head back to the car, my chest so cold it feels as if it’s been pressed into a vice. A few deep breaths see me right and we drive away through Burnsall, tracing the upper reaches of the Wharfe as it dips and darts around hulking rocks, way up to the tiny village of Hubberholme and the stunning St Michael and All Angels church. Despite being a long–time lapsed Catholic, I pad along the flagstones and offer up a prayer for tomorrow and the looming descent into Hell Gill.

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