Heveningham Hall – along the lake

“I at last beheld Heveningham Hall, sunlit in Palladian splendour on its grassy hillside, with an endless lake twinkling and flashing in the sun below.”

Heaving my bike over the cast iron gate, wired shut to keep out intruders and slapped with a ‘No Bikes’ sign, I catch sight of a vintage Land Rover on the bridge. Its driver potters about and occasionally glances at me as I walk towards him.

“Graham?”

“No. Can I help?”

I realise that lugging my bike onto the grounds of Heveningham Hall and striding towards this stately home’s impressive lake might look a little odd. And so I explain that I’m here for a swim, on Roger Deakin’s trail and that I’ve made arrangements to meet Graham, the estate manager.

The driver introduces himself as Lyndon, the general manager, and whips out his phone, leaving a message for his colleague. Initial concerns give way to convivial chatter. While we wait, we talk about the water.

“It’s very clear,” he says. “In the summer people chuck themselves in off of this bridge.” I can see the appeal, but even though it’s a warm day, I won’t be throwing myself in and will certainly be togged out in full wetsuit, boots and gloves.

Lyndon explains what has changed since Roger swam here in the late 90s: how the lake has been finally completed, with the gardens now matching the detailed plans left by Capability Brown before his death in 1783. In modern times, the excavation was second only to that of the Channel Tunnel, the spoil sculpted into a rolling hill on the lake’s northern shore.

As Lyndon drives off, Graham arrives, unwiring the gate and driving down to meet me. I explain I’ll be getting in fully rubbered up for today’s dip.

“Not really swimming then,” he laughs. I offer up Roger’s maxim that otters never feel water on their skin. After a brief chat, he leaves me to it, the only sound the occasional car on the nearby road and the chug of a tractor on the farm fields back towards the house.

I’ve been swimming countless laps lately, getting swim fit in anticipation of this open water effort. I slip in off the retaining wall beneath the bridge, the slimy mud of the bottom enveloping my booted foot. I push off and start swimming east, where the lake makes its way towards the village of Walpole.

Settling into any kind of rhythm is tough, long tresses of weed waving up from the deep and wrapping themselves around my arms and legs, the same ‘submerged skyscrapers’ Roger found when he swam here. Eventually, I manage to find a straightish route down the middle of the lake. My silicone cap provides the most meagre of protection from the cold water, which causes my forehead to throb every time I dunk my head and take a long, cartwheeling stroke.

Lyndon is right though. The water here is perfectly clear and I can see deep down to where the weeds billow, much like the kelp forests I encountered off the coast of Bryher. Graham told me that when they excavated this lake, it immediately began to refill thanks to the springs which feed it. It certainly feels spring cold as the water seeps into my gloves and down the back of my wetsuit.

I swim in zigzag fashion for half a mile, reaching the far end of the lake and wading out through the reeds, the eggy stench of sulphur wafting up as I trudge through the shallow mud and out onto the grass.

I walk back along the bank, dodging cow pats and whipping off my swim hat to let the warm, late autumn air dry my hair. I half expect to see Roger walking ahead of me, mounting his bike and making his way to Bulcamp Marshes, the next step on what was his last set of swims for Waterlog. I shall be there in a couple of weeks, taking my own sweet time to complete this final part of my long mission after my drop into the nearby River Dove a few days ago.

I cycle back to the pretty village of Halesworth, my bag stuffed with wet neoprene, and mooch around the shops. Roger’s books take pride of place in the little independent bookshop and Guys are placed outside every shop, ready for the big bonfire up at Heveningham Hall this weekend. I drink tea on the high street, arms aching from a proper paddle, primed for the final wintry push on my watery pilgrimage.

With thanks to the Heveningham Hall Estate

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