In Search of Slippery Stones

an essay

On the edge of a small rocky pool somewhere in the hills above Howden reservoir, I am standing completely naked. Water the ruby brown of malt beer gushes into one side of my newly discovered sink. On the other, the cascade continues down the water course, filling the reservoir system below. From a distance (or was it my imagination?) the stream sparkled a rich dark blue. Up close, it is brown. Very brown. And cold. I am about to swim, I tell myself – again. Moments ago the sun was shining, beaming out the last few days of August brightness. Now it has hidden itself behind the darkening clouds of a rain filled sky. It is getting rather chilly and I’m having second thoughts. Wouldn’t it be rude, I ponder, to interrupt the water’s journey from moor to bathtub? Dangerous, even? I could always just retrace my steps. I know exactly how I got here, after all. It’s the why that has long since receded into the murky dark.

Cycling out from Sheffield one fine day I’d gone in search of Slippery Stones, a plunge pool just beyond the northern tip of Howden reservoir. For a moment, I was told, the young River Derwent collects itself in a handy natural lido, providing a popular spot for outdoor swimming before it mixes with the waters of the reservoir. I’d wanted to try a “wild” swim ever since reading Roger Deacon’s Waterlog. But then, how could you not: “In the night sea at Walberswick I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through neon waves like dragons.” He had, he writes, “grown convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a new way of getting under the skin of things.” It was this submerging that I was after. I wanted to feel an entirely different element around my skin. I’d even imagined swimming outdoors to be a slightly subversive activity, albeit in the middle-class sense of the word: entirely law abiding but with a whiff of upper-class eccentricity about it.

After a quick google, I was so confident I knew where I was going that I didn’t think too much about the OS map which I grabbed off the shelf but neglected to actually place in my cycle pannier. So, two hours of peddling later, and seeing the road turn back on itself, I decided that a gated footpath marking off the wood from the road was probably the spot. I must have looked a sight: cycle helmet and gloves still on, a towel slung over my shoulders (it was raining) and pannier awkwardly lugging along in one hand. But I didn’t mind much. The stream, swift flowing and shallow, fled by me on my left, happily unaware of my presence. Ahead, on the shoulders of the rising hills, the August heather draped itself in a lilac shawl. Wherever I was, I thought, it was more than good enough.

My first mistake was to head up the hillside. In my mind, the plunge pool was at the crest of a river’s rise and not seeing another obvious path I followed a ranger track away from the valley floor. Passing gates on which today’s cobwebs still hung, I climbed steadily. The river turned marble dark and its noisy bustle grew quieter and quieter until I could hear only the dull throb of an aeroplane and the odd outburst of sheep. It was enchanting, but the water was only getting further away. Kicking myself, I retreated, wondering just how many footsteps I would have to retrace when I saw it. I would say “path” but for the entirely misleading impression that would create. Out of the corner of my eye, and with a little imagination, the river’s invitation could just be made out, not so much a track or a trail, more a slight reconfiguration of the grass blades. Stare at it too long and it disappeared before your eyes. Buoyed up, I scrambled over regardless, tracking rather than following the path’s impression. My suspicions were rewarded when I saw a small wooden style traversing a wire fence about fifty metres away. It seemed like an afterthought, this flimsy wooden addition, and so it was. A small plaque read, “Three styles – thanks Ron Archer”. Grateful for this principled alteration to the partitioned land, I thanked Ron myself as I hopped across, pleased at last to be on the right (and increasingly visible) track.

A little further on, through bracken and bog and over style number two, I spied my first potential swimming spot. The stream opened out into a largish pool over which hovered the bows of a beech tree. Things were looking up. I pushed my way through the undergrowth (well, overgrowth really, collecting bulbous squat-legged spiders as I went) but my attempts to get down to the water were thwarted by a thick bank of reeds. Casting about for alternatives, I noticed a solitary footprint in the mud pointing upstream, so I chalked up the pool as a near miss and carried on. Passing an inevitable sheep skull, I would have begun to wonder about omens had the sun not chosen that very moment to dart through the clouds. Rounding a corner, I scrambled over a rocky hillock and found ahead of me, glaring sharp in the sunlight, a beer-bottle brown pool. The water swirled and leapt as it coursed in and out but the sink itself was so still that I could see in its surface the fine limbs of a rowan tree growing precariously from a rocky outcrop on the opposite bank.

I stripped off and sat on the edge of the grass. The teasing light had routed, robbing the water of its sparkle but I took a deep breath and placed a foot onto an obliging rock a few inches below the surface. It was chilly, not arctic. Encouraged, I added another foot and waded out a little. Under the souls of my feet, undisturbed by the eddies above, I could feel the silt of the hillside crunch amid my toes. With nothing to do but lie back, I let the cold flow over me from neck to toe. The shock of the temperature took me over. Everywhere the smooth cold water suspended me in the stream. I let out an involuntary “ho”, a mixture of surprise, delight and fear. Then my mind started to scramble about. It wanted some part of my body untouched by the water to warm itself on. I tried to swim, or at least gesticulate vigorously, but found that I too had nowhere to go. I could lounge about in complete luxury, my bottom on the stream’s, my head above the water, but there was not room enough to outrun the cold. Instead I sat like some child being bathed in a washtub, all the time emitting more “ho’s” than a malfunctioning draw-string Santa. Wading back to the bank, I fished myself out and gave thanks to the warm afternoon air. I lay on the prickling grass, slightly hysterical still, wondering quite why I had done that to myself. I’d only been in the water for about a minute but, looking down, I found my body was cold, hard and shining, like sunlit brass.

The thought, “that was stupid,” was swiftly replaced by, “I want to do that again!” Ditching my pannier and belongings, I set out upstream, determined to find a more spacious bathing spot, perhaps even these elusive stones. I hopped, tripped and leapt my way up the water course for about half an hour. Everywhere the water collected in pools but nowhere was there enough space to swim, let along plunge. Slippery by name, I thought, slippery by nature. At one point, on a corner where the stream curved away from the vista of the valley, I found the foundations of a three-roomed structure waiting silently. I envied its past owners’ their isolation, if not the midges which were just beginning to wake, sending their screeching solos down my eardrums as they zoomed by. But the stones were nowhere to seen. At the top of the valley I scrambled in anyway, splashing about like a toddler once more in the coke coloured water. I think this time I managed about two minutes.

Towelled dry and warmed by the returning sun, I strolled back to collect my things. I hadn’t swum, but I’d given it a good go. Making my way back through the same bracken and sheep-shorn grass as before I was just beginning to think about the ride home when I found myself at the first pool I’d encountered an hour or so earlier. It was bigger and deeper than the others and although still surrounded by that tricky bed of reeds, they somehow seemed less imposing than before. Not thinking too much, I dropped my things and half hopped, half leapt, ungainly and giggling, down to a handy island of earth that stood out from the river bank. I soon found myself if not treading water at least doing a passable impression. It was too deep to sit so, taking a deep breath, I let my head sink under too. The noise was astounding. Water and stone rabbled around as if the whole hillside was falling down in a swirling cacophony of energy and violence. Coming back to the surface I stood in shock, realising suddenly why people are baptised in rivers. Under the water’s assault, the mind clears. The world becomes immediate, beautifully unignorable. Beneath the swirling surface, an extreme form of meditation takes place, returning all things to the present. You can well imagine a transformation taking place down there. Returning to the warm air, it could easily feel like rebirth. Glancing across the pool once more, I suddenly remembered my purpose and tentatively stretched out. A stroke! A single undeniable, unsightly stroke! On the other side of the pool I crumpled abruptly on the rocks but, for one triumphant moment, I had been completely suspended in water. I had swum. I walked back to my bicycle feeling lighter than before.

Once home and reacquainted with the map, my mistake was obvious. Instead of following the road all the way to the end, I’d stopped at its furthest westerly point, just before it curves back on itself before heading north. I hadn’t been splashing in the Derwent at all but the River Westend and my chances of finding Slippery Stones had been precisely zero. But by then, swimming once more in the memories of cold water currents, none of that seemed to matter very much at all.


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