River Isle – in the shadow of the 303

“In a wild stretch of the River Isle, a mile upstream from Ilford bridge, I stumbled on the perfect swimming hole. It was marked as a fishing spot by a little wooden square pegged in the bank… A fast flowing gravelly rill poured into a sudden pool ten feet wide, causing the fallen willow leaves in the river to rise like pike spinners out of the depth.”

Tramping over long wet grass, my socks turning spongey inside my knackered trainers, Tom and I make our way upstream from Ilford bridge. What promised to be a washout has turned into a bright, if damp autumn day. Ravens circle overhead, cawing as they swoop down to feed in the ploughed fields.

I can hear the River Isle to my left, hidden away behind tall, deep nettle beds. Occasionally, there is a break in the stingers and I can see down the steep banks into the mucky waters, steaming at pace back towards the bridge, swollen with the morning’s downpour.

Over the past two years I’ve become adept at finding Roger’s specific swimming holes, but this one eludes me. We traipse up and down the mile from the road, but there is no sign of a fishing spot with wooden landing. Access to the river is virtually impossible downstream from the little wooded area which my predecessor suggested made the Isle so icy when he visited.

It seems Roger also missed out one rather crucial detail in his characteristically bucolic description of his swim in the Isle. The A303. This thundering arterial road provides a constant aural assault the further we walk upstream and there is no way it wouldn’t have been the same when he came here. The road’s been a main route to the south west since 1933. Second rate Britpop bands mythologised it in song the year Roger first laid his plans for a swimmer’s journey through Britain.

I try not to feel too downhearted about this glaring omission, but can’t help but think about my trip to the River Dove in Suffolk a few weeks back, a messy swim spot which was nowhere near the Arcadian vision I’d had lodged in my mind.

Peeling off the main path, I duck into the wood and find a convenient alder to hang my clothes on, pulling on the wetsuit and carefully lowering myself through tangled brambles into the Isle. Its speed reminds me of the chalky streams around Winchester, albeit much more silty. Initially, the water is shallow, but as I wade against the current it deepens just down from a gravel beach and I’m able to swim hard against it, before turning and being flung back towards my kit.

Tom wisely stays on dry land, reeling off pictures and exploring closer to the road. He too can’t quite believe that the the A303 gets nary a mention in Waterlog. I try to let the sounds of the river drown it out. The creek of a fallen willow across the main course, the rush of water over sharp stones, the last of the year’s leaves ruffling in the breeze.

I clamber out and we wander back to the village of Puckington and our next swim, pleased to have come and immersed myself and glad to have witnessed changes and differences, even if they’re tinged with disappointment.

Images courtesy of Tom Sutton

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