What the river means

Project Calm - - Contents -

THE SWIM­MER Sarah Di­tum, colum­nist, critic and fea­ture writer

The wa­ter I learned to swim in was prob­a­bly like the wa­ter you learned to swim in: warm, safe, chlo­ri­nated. The dif­fer­ence be­tween that and river swim­ming is this: river wa­ter is alive. That can be dis­con­cert­ing. The squirm of mud be­tween your toes, or the alarm­ing slither of an al­gae-coated rock where you try to put your foot down. The snatch of pondweed when you kick. The sil­ver dash of small fish flit­ting around your an­kles; a flurry of feathers as a cu­ri­ous duck lands nearby. The in­sis­tent tug of a cur­rent, draw­ing you cross­wise when you’re used to plough­ing along in lanes.

And then there’s the cold. While pic­nick­ers and sight­seers en­joy a sunny day up on the banks, I’m down at the wa­ter’s edge, no doubt look­ing ab­surd, dan­gling my wrists in and splash­ing my up­per body un­til I feel as pre­pared as I can be for the shock of im­mer­sion. It al­ways is a shock. A gor­geous, cleans­ing shock that chases out dull every­day thoughts and fo­cuses you on what you are: a liv­ing body in liv­ing wa­ter, to­tally aware of your sur­round­ings, find­ing un­ex­pected strength in ev­ery limb as you pull your­self along the river.

Beauty, con­nec­tion, move­ment... Three writ­ers share their ex­pe­ri­ence of the River Avon in Som­er­set, Eng­land.

THE PHO­TOG­RA­PHER Slan Lewis, writer, au­thor, and pho­tog­ra­pher

It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s a balmy sum­mer’s evening or a chilly win­ter’s day – there’s some­thing spe­cial about the del­i­cate colours and the shady light by the side of a river that makes tak­ing photos a joy. Per­haps it’s the re­flec­tions on the wa­ter, or the mag­i­cal mi­cro worlds you can dis­cover if you look closely – lily pads, wa­ter skaters, del­i­cate rip­ples in the river’s sur­face – there’s al­ways some­thing that I want to cap­ture with my camera. I travel around the world writ­ing about and pho­tograph­ing far-flung des­ti­na­tions but I of­ten love to sim­ply take pic­tures of the lo­cal River Avon, and re­turn­ing reg­u­larly means I’ve pho­tographed it when spring wild­flow­ers are bloom­ing next to it, when happy kids jump off pon­toons into it in sum­mer, when au­tumn scat­ters the river with golden leaves and when win­ter turns the tem­per­a­ture down to teeth-chat­ter­ingly freez­ing and frost cov­ers on the banks. Pho­tog­ra­phy is all about stepping back and re­ally see­ing a place, but my river is al­ways chang­ing.

THE ROWER Jules Tay­lor, ed­i­tor liv­ing, in Som­er­set

I started row­ing on the River Avon last year. Be­fore then, I hadn’t paid much at­ten­tion to it; apart from an oc­ca­sional walk or cy­cle ride along the nearby path in sum­mer months. Now though, it’s in my thoughts ev­ery day. Each morn­ing, on my com­muter train to work, I gaze through the win­dow fol­low­ing its con­tours as it me­an­ders, al­ways on the look-out for early­bird row­ers lucky enough to be on the wa­ter. I’m more aware of the weather now too: how much or how lit­tle rain­fall there’s been and how that will af­fect the river’s wa­ter lev­els; I no­tice the strength of the wind and won­der how it will change the river’s sur­face cur­rent.

The chang­ing sea­sons have the most dra­matic ef­fect on the river and ob­serv­ing them from a new per­spec­tive is a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. In a row­ing boat you sit low in the wa­ter and look up and around at your sur­round­ings. Spring brings buds and blos­som on over­hang­ing trees along the river­side; early sum­mer is the time to watch out for cygnets (there are king­fish­ers and cor­morants too); in au­tumn, golden leaves can cling to oars and rud­ders, but are worth the haz­ard for their beauty; while win­ter’s lack of veg­e­ta­tion seems to widen the river, al­low­ing an ex­tended gaze to the fields and beyond. Row­ing is phys­i­cal and fun, there’s great ca­ma­raderie, and it gets you out­doors, con­nect­ing with na­ture.

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