Last week, moored in Llangollen, I managed to do a bit of wild swimming. I often do a bit of that – some would say ill advisedly – in the ponds on Hampstead Heath and it is the closest thing to having my crumpled brain ironed smooth that I can possibly get. Horseshoe falls in Llangollen is basically a massive weir formed of a great semi-circular pool some 100 meters long and 20 meters in width. It was built, fact fans, by Thomas Telford (the industrial revolution's version of Bob the Builder) in 18-oh-something to keep water from the river Dee flowing into the newly dug Llangollen Canal. We had stopped in a beautiful cutting, framed by rolling meadows with oaks and horse chestnut trees all overlooked by a huge brooding hill, its red stone showing like a fresh cut in its lush green skin. The wounds were in fact 100 years old, made by quarry men plundering this rise and countless others in the area for slate. Heather and gorse coloured the neighbouring hills purple and yellow and the sheep grazed in impossibly green meadows that fell right down to the canal edge. On this dank grey typical summer morning we cycled the two miles from this spot over arse-bruisingly bumpy towpath to the very source of this canal; the River Dee and Horseshoe Falls.
I had gone there intending to swim, but I was in no hurry about it. As Alan got out his book, I sat next to him on a rock as dog-walkers and joggers passed us, not really to take anything in or get a feel of the place – although it was dramatic and beautiful, a deep round valley edged by soft green hills and woodland, the water like a bowl of liquid silver under the grey sky – but because I had that morning noticed that all the Lycra in my costume was shot to buggery and it hung around my bottom like a turkey's neck. I did not particularly wish to share this with the people of North Wales. So I waited for a bit and once the coast was clear I slipped into the water off a huge flat slate rock, smoothed by the thousands of bums that had sat on it over the years.
The river water was cold but invigorating. Now, I know that “invigorating” is one of Those Adjectives. You know the ones, words like “Interesting” or “Informative” that people use instead of saying “more boring than John Major's pants-drawer” or “shite”. However, I must explain that to an outdoor swimmer “Freezing” is of course a given. “Freezing” is what water generally feels like when it has been carelessly left outside somewhere, anywhere, in Britain. But, much as the Eskimos have exactly 91 different words for snow, a wild swimmer (as I rather racily enjoy being called) has approximately 19 different words for freezing*. “Invigorating” is the kind of freezing that puts you on the delicious borderline between surprise and pain. It feels almost unbearably cold for approximately seven and a half seconds and then, just before you give up and get out, your body is flooded with pain killing endorphins in a scrumptious tingly wave that starts at the centre of your body and glows outwards like an explosion of hot chocolate. Most unfortunately, it never quite glows outwards far enough to reach your extremities, and that is why you eventually blunder out of the water, as I did. But not before I had spent 20 minutes or so sending giant bow waves sweeping out and away from my slow breast stroke. The water felt smooth and it lapped languidly against the shores either side of me as I swam. Halfway through the swim, wanting to feel the heady almost-warm sensation of skin that is so much colder than the air, I emerged from the water to explore other areas of entry to the falls. I toddled around bare footed and saggy swimsuited to three other little doorways to the water all beside alder trees, those great water lovers that, like me, see a bit of water and have to put their feet in and have a paddle. I felt like a six year old, inwardly giggling with delight as I managed to clamber down over the giant vein like roots of one alder, some 200 years older than me, into a sandy bottomed hollow filled with tiny fish. Once my hands were yellowed with numbness I climbed out, my whole body feeling like a giant menthol sweet - all tingly and numb - and cycled into Llangollen to reward and rewarm myself with a hot chocolate in the overpriced tea rooms.
The following morning brought summer along with it and my second swim was in the golden heat of the day. The sunlight showed the water to be clear and deep, the colour of black tea and full – so the local fishing-mad teens told me – of trout and chub. I went in by the 200 year old alder, wading first to enjoy the silky river sand between my toes and then, once I had done enough gasping and fannying about in the excitement and dread of the shoulders going in and being glooped over with icy water, I dived in. I swam across the weir this time to a little island in its cente and waded out onto it in the shade of a massive old oak. The land was planted with crops – brassicas I think, cabbagey anyway – and the summery sounds of distant voices and running water were punctuated at times by the hoot of the old steam engine taking people to and fro in the woodlands beyond the falls. The water looked too delicious on this hot day to stay out of it for long so I ran for it and whooshed and whooped my way back in. The sun exploded off the water in hundreds of tiny diamonds as I disturbed the surface and it moved beneath me, slowly but with considerable force towards the edge of the weir. It was like swimming in a brimming teacup. Since this tea was pretty damn far from piping hot however, I got out and had to have my useless hands warmed by Alan. It was 20 minutes before they got their colour back. I then put them to good use shoving cake and pork pie into my mouth as a reward for my hard-as-nails-ness.
The next day – our last in Llangollen – and I was in a stinking mood. The weather had gone totally shite again after getting us all excited the day before, and we had been in the valley long enough for the hills which once had rolled passed jollily to begin seriously now to loom. The sky was grey as week-old porridge and the wind was brutal. Alan got it into his head that what I really needed to cheer me up was to strip down to a wrinkly cossie in these Arctic conditions and go for a dip in cold water. Outside. Now of course I know this is exactly what I had done on the previous two days, and I have sat here describing it to you in all nice flowery language. And of course I knew that once I was in it would be more like a bracing experience than a deeply unpleasant one. So of course, I know – and knew at the time – that Alan was in fact right. But I had a cob on, so was buggered if I was going to admit it. So I moaned and moped about until eventually he did something which I suspect he began immediately to regret. He said “I'll come in with you”.
Off we cycled, then. On the bank as we gingerly peeled back layers of protective woolly clothing (August – I mean, really!) and squinted against the wind, I had a sudden image of the sign pinned to the noticeboard at Hampstead Ladies' Pond; a sign that you read diligently the first time you go and then nonchalantly ignore completely on subsequent visits. The sign says “Warning! Cold water immersion shock can KILL!!!!” The exclamation marks and capitals are probably mine, but that is basically what the sign says. It goes on to explain that if you have not done a bit of gradual acclimatisation, the shock of really cold water can send you into spontaneous cardiac arrest. As Alan got down to his trunks it struck me that although he is a strong man and no way weedy, I have in fact seen more fat on a chip. There would be no subcutaneous blanket-layer protecting him from the ill effects of the “invigorating” water. He had done no acclimatisation as I had in my two previous swims at the Falls and plenty of others this year in ponds and on beaches in all weathers. Jesus Christ, he was shivering in the wind already and he was bone dry. I suddenly began to get the fear that he would be “invigorated” to death. Valiantly he pinned his long dark hair up into a top knot that made him look like a samurai warrior in Bermuda trunks and grinned not all convincingly. I couldn't watch. I went in off the slate rock and made encouraging noises as he began to stride into the cold black iced-tea doing a passable impression of a rabbit staring confidently into a set of headlights. The fact that he, in his words “allowed myself to fall in” probably saved him a great deal of prolonged discomfort in the long run and he instead went straight into the watery world of pain that accompanies an incredibly, unbearably cold swim. Gamely he swam out from the bank, but his lips had turned blue by about two minutes in. We swam to the island of cabbages and squatted in the silty mud, still in the water, while Alan's conscious mind caught lazily up with his outraged body across the water. “You alright?” I asked, pointlessly. “Yeah” came the vague reply. This was total bollocks. The man was in pain, clearly. But was he in “Cold water immersion shock can KILL!!!!” pain? He had certainly gone white. And his breath was laboured after a bit of exertion that would not usually tax him, he is pretty fit. I decided I might have had a hand in killing my boyfriend just because I had woken up with a it of a mardy arse that morning. “Think I'm gonna swim back and get out” he said, although from his cold-benumbed lips it came out more like “Finb iyb unna swimmack an geddowd”. OK matey, I thought, I am not going to leave your side just in case you spontaneously carp it. I had done my Lifesaver badge at Guides, so I was pretty sure I could make an attempt at pulling him out with only a moderate risk of drowning us both. Alan climbed out of the water and stayed motionless, wrapped in a towel for some time; a postiton he would mimic throughout the rest of the day wrapped in various thick garments as his body warmed and is brain very slowly thawed. I stayed in for a bit, at eye level with the ducks and damselflies, marvelling with them at what a difference a little cold water acclimatisation and a subcutaneous layer of pork pies can make to a wild swim.
*Actually, there are 20 Wild Swimmer terms for “Freezing” . Here they are:
Warm (i.e. only cold-ish)
Cold as the bloody tomb
Spirit crushingly cold
Nippy (what a swimmer will say about “Suicidally cold” water to someone watching from land)
Scrotum-tightening (ladies are also permitted to use this term)
Not too bad ('aaargh, this hurts so much!')
Ooh! (actually almost warm)