What the river means
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.