Walnut Tree Farm: The moat
“The warm rain tumbled down from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”
All roads lead to Mellis. From the tired track up the spine of Jura to the sandy lanes of Bryher. From the high passes of the Rhinnogs to the worn paths of Dartmoor. All of them have been leading me here, to this little village on the edge of the country’s largest common, to this narrow turning up an unsealed road. To Walnut Tree Farm.
It is an impossibly glorious spring day when we arrive, Dad and I, sweaty in his little hatchback as we kill the engine and hear the creek of steps from the side of the barn.
Jasmin appears and greets us warmly. The owner of this Elizabethan farmhouse which Roger called home until his death in 2006, she has kindly agreed to let us come, mooch around the fields and the old shepherds huts and, most importantly, to swim in the moat.
A deep bark emanates from the bowels of the house as we turn the corner, the lawn dewy and lush, the moat slipping away at its far edges. The bark becomes louder as we reach the heavy old kitchen door and as Jasmin heaves it open, Hercules bounds out. She grabs him by the collar just in time and he jumps at us excitedly, sniffing these new guests with great gusto.
“There are some lovely ladies on the common that Herc’ can smell from here,” grins Jasmin. “I’m afraid you’re just going to have to stay inside,” she says to Herc’, pushing him back through door. We follow, accepting cups of Earl Grey while peering at stacked bookcases, running hands over bare beams.
The spring warmth has come as a happy surprise and as we sip tea outside, Hercules’ whinnies and cries from the kitchen falling on deaf ears, I almost forget why am I here. That this is it, the end of my journey. After an interminable and wet winter, summer is showing itself again. The swims which lie ahead of me will be of my own making, not Roger’s.
I sit nodding as Dad and Jasmin talk, taking it all in. I try not to get lost in big thoughts. That an idea a man had while swimming in that moat just a few metres away, a man I never met but admire greatly, sent him off around the country swimming. That that idea sent me on his trail for almost three years and has at last brought me back here, to where it all began.
I’m getting itchy for a swim now, the heat bouncing off of the cream walls and lending everything the air of a June afternoon. Jasmin told me before I arrived that when she had swum in the moat last Easter it was ‘painfully, panic-inducingly cold’. To that end, I have packed my wetsuit, but know it would be sacrilege to peel it on.
I stand and wander back to the car, grabbing towels and waterproof shoes and gloves, as if they can afford me some kind of protection from the searing cold. Dad whips out a natty pair of blue and white striped shorts and yanks them on beneath a towel. I can’t think of a better person to share my last swim with.
Jasmin cackles with delight as we reach the end of the moat and dip our hands in and blush.
“I told you.”
We chatter about wetsuits for a while before I realise that I am prevaricating, stood here in a bizarre get up of shorts, shoes and gloves. She gropes beneath the surface for the submerged ladder which Roger placed here all those years ago. I tip toe forward and find the first rung, the second. I lower down to my thighs and listen as Dad and Jasmin egg me on. I push forward and out into the deep, green cold.
It is, of course, freezing. But not awful. Not awful at all. The pollarded trees make this a beautiful, open swim, my bow wave slapping the banks. I think of the newts and larvae ensconced in the deep silt below, untouched since Roger last turned out the weed. The kingfisher which Jasmin says makes intermittent visits throughout the summer. And I keep my head high to hear the searing birdsong, vast, musical, chaotic. I can pick out the clack of great tits, the whirring of goldfinches. But everything else is beautiful white noise.
I hear a cheer go up from the bank and a hard huff of air as Dad slips in behind me. I look back to see him following me to the far end, where the trees throw deep shadows and the silt rises up. I tumble back and catch him up as he turns and paddles back towards dry land, watching as he scales the ladder and hops across the grass.
I take one last look back and wonder how many lengths Roger would have done to complete his daily mile. Scores, I’m sure. There and back is enough for me. It is only April, after all. I dunk my head under and feel giddy, elated.
Jasmin and Dad smile as I grab my towel and rub myself dry. I think back to those first swims, across London from Tooting Bec Lido to Hampstead. The silent rush of the Wissey a year later, my wrist in plaster. The slap of the sea at Mothecombe last summer. The high rollers at Dungeness. All of them have led me here. And at last, I am done. This swimming journey is done.
With thanks to Jasmin Rowlandson