We gathered in Dedham Mill Pond car park to meet the Dedham River Swimmers for a Solstice Swim on Saturday 24 June at 8pm. It had been a warm day and the sun was going down, it felt exciting to see who would be joining us? We met Kevin Sheath who was leading the swim and several swimmers who had travelled quite a distance, one lady all the way from Norfolk. There were questions about suitable clothing and temperature and people were clothed in everything from simple bathing costumes to swimmer’s wet suits, so it was a relief when Kevin tested the water with his thermometer and proclaimed it 22 deg C, bathwater temperature! We put on swimming caps, mainly to be seen, so that Kevin could do a quick head count and make sure none of us had got into difficulty, and I think all of us were wearing some kind of shoe too.
After some discussion about whether to swim upriver or downriver, we decided to head towards Flatford where the river was shallower (in most places here you can put your feet on the bottom), and also where there were more places to get out. There was a friendly group of 8 swimmers and it was good to take to the water at this time of evening with the sun setting. We waded in and amazingly it was like bathwater! The light over the landscape and on the water was beautiful, warm and soft – it made this feel a very special and memorable occasion. Finally taking the plunge, there was no cold shock and our eyes adjusted to the new viewpoint, with crowds of flies and mosquitos just a few inches above the river, which were a fascinating sight and no problem at all. As we swam, people began to spread out and different conversations struck up, some people regularly swim in this water all year round, yes even in January, whilst some of us are complete beginners, the last time we swam in rivers was as children. Kevin says he often gets adults talking to him from boats as he’s swimming, asking if the weed will drown him or if he’ll catch Weil’s disease (usually only found in stagnant waters, but best to protect any cuts if you have any) whilst children look on enthusiastically! Have we lost our relationship to landscape and water, do we need to be braver and re-wild ourselves?
The experience of this midsummer swim in the evening with the sun going down was rich, luxuriant and life affirming. Yes, we met and saw or nearly saw very interesting wildlife – a kingfisher darted across the river, we swam head to head with a family of swans and their signets and managed to avoid eye contact and let each other pass without incident and towards the end of the swim was an egret. But really the most beautiful thing was to be out in the water, appreciating the landscape from a new level, hearing the sound of moving water, noticing the light and its effects as the sun set, being with friends and new acquaintances and simply luxuriating in a very large bath of a river at an optimum temperature – this celebration of the solstice will remain in our memory for many years to come.
Afterwards we gathered, shivering a little and wrapped in towels, to share our thoughts and eat cake, yes cake! We’d not thought of cake, but what a treat and thank you to Rachel aka Sirbalius Caticus for bringing it, providing energy to replenish our supplies. We think we’ve caught the bug, no not Weil’s disease but wild swimming – take us to the river!
Thanks to John Milne for lending moral support and taking some fantastic photographs.