Bryanston – swimming the Dorset Stour

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“I went in off a concrete slipway and swam downstream between banks of trees in water that was still and soupy, but smelled clean enough. The bow–wave I made stretched in a wide arrowhead from bank to bank.”

Pulling into Poole, the last whiff of summer carries across the salty harbour. It is warm and clear, the perfect day for a dip in one of Dorset’s most well–loved rivers: the Stour. I am making my way to Blandford St Mary, where the Stour flows around Bryanston school, the thought of the rare ‘Blandford Bomber’ black fly nipping at my ankles foremost in my mind.

Coughing up a barely credible £8.10 for a return bus fare, we judder through farm fields, the Stour glimpsed briefly from the main road. Locals hug the verge, filling tupperware with the last of the summer’s blackberries. My sorry lunch, buried deep beneath my towel, is unlikely to match the crumbles and pies these soft fruits will doubtless wind up in in the next few hours.

Armed with a map and my usually reliable sense of direction, I’m initially at a loss as to how I’m going to make my way to the upstream banks of the river. There is no towpath and the only public access in the centre of the village is a busy park. The Stour here is choked with blanket weed and reeds, clear but far too shallow for swimming.

I stick to my original plan, striding out towards Bryanston village, the path trailing up a country road where frogs lie blackened and flattened on the tarmac. The unpredictable shower of conkers thunking from crisp brown horse chestnut trees soundtracks my route towards the woods and the hidden, narrow stream.

England is going into hibernation, the first signs of gold, yellow and brown across the horizon as I drop and then rise up the hill towards the school. Skirting its edges, I drop through the trees, running down a wide track through ankle deep leaves.

The river just kisses the path here, across a narrow private road. Workmen are digging gas pipes, so I walk a few hundred metres downstream and make my descent down the steep banks towards the water. It’s a mossy, dirty mess, all tangled roots and potential falls. I slide uneasily to a stop and survey my position.

Two fallen trees mark out a 200 metre stretch here. The Stour moves slowly, the only signs of life the odd air bubble from a hidden fish and the drift of leaves falling on the still surface. Already in my bathers, I inch down towards the drink on my backside. The final drop is steeper than first thought and I have to carefully lower myself without falling in and smashing my feet on the stony bottom.

Unsurprisingly, this sheltered river is very cold. Perhaps not as much as the speedy trickle of Cowside Beck, but still enough to cause a heave of breath as I make my way into the middle. I think I catch sight of an otter, but on closer inspection my appalling wildlife watching skills show it to be just a pair of female mallards.

The pull of the current is surprisingly strong as I head upstream to the first fallen tree. I’ve not been nipped by the bomber yet, although there’s still time. The water knocks and laps against the root–mottled bank as I swim back and forth, getting into a pleasant rhythm, working out the aches in my shoulders after days hunched at my desk.

Suitably refreshed, I haul out in ungainly fashion, almost tipping backwards towards the water at one point. Lunch eaten, I bid farewell to the Stour and wander back through the steep woods towards Blandford. Ravens are settling into one already bare tree, readying themselves to oversee winter across sparse Dorset fields. I check my legs for bomber bites. Still none. Perhaps I’ve come too late in the season. Skin singing, I hail down the bus and head for home.

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