Hambridge and the levels – drain swimming

“I swam just outside Hambridge in one of the long straight drains across the flat grazing meadows on West Moor like tall mirrors, It was about fifteen feet wide and four feet deep.”

I have developed a strange affinity with flatness. Over the two years and more of following in Roger’s footsteps, I’ve found the swims under huge Fenland skies to be among the most inspiring. Dips where I feel like a speck on the landscape make me feel insignificant in a rather enjoyable way.

Driving across the Somerset Levels, water dashed across the roads in streaky puddles, I’m hoping for more of the same in the West Country. I’m in need of something a little less depressing than paddling through a river which skirted so close to a main road, like the nearby Isle.

Tom and I cross the old Westport Canal, now disused, and follow the long, grassy path towards the turn off I’ve picked out on the map, a route that will take us to a parallel drain, the one in which Roger swam. An electric fence is strung tight along the bank, aimed at stopping cattle getting out and, of course, humans getting in. I found this kind of obstruction near Farleigh Hungerford. Apparently rights of way mean nothing in these parts.

The pair of us roll under the orange wire, caking our jeans in thick brown mud, and traverse a barely there stile. Cattle gawk at us as we stride on, one protective mother eyeing us as we walk past her and her calf, bold as brass. In the far corner of this field, doubtless liable to flooding, we find the drain. It’s about a foot deep, four feet wide and looks more like a ditch than a swimming spot.

I baulk and spin on my heels, announcing to Tom that the old canal, now itself a drainage channel, is where I’ll be swimming. Back on its banks, I get into my now damp wetsuit by a wooden bridge and slide in. I feel the cold run down the back of my neoprene and slip into my gloves and give a small shudder. This is nothing like those vast Fen swims I’ve indulged in at Burwell Lode and the River Lark. The water is filthy, blue green algae rearing up towards my clasped mouth every few strokes. I resolve to swim to the next bridge, but the cold and the dirt stop me in my tracks after a couple of hundred metres. I drop my feet to turn back and immediately lose them in deep, silky mud. I think of eels and swim hard towards Tom and the dry of my towel.

Once again, this isn’t a bucolic spot. Perhaps the time of year is wrong, even if Roger too came here in autumn to pick apples with friends and swam in his wetsuit like me. But there’s a sense of achievement of having seen and done another swim. We walk back towards the car and decamp to Ilminster for pints and winter chatter. There are just a handful of Roger’s swims to go and any annoyance at these scruffy dips is put into perspective by the stunning summer and the promise of a final few wilder adventures.

Images courtesy of Tom Sutton

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