Wild swim at Knettishall

I run down the mud and gravel beach and into the water at speed, my knees raised and teeth gritted. When it’s not possible to jump, the only option is to sprint; to get in quick, before the scream of protesting nerve endings can turn the body around. The water is bone-chillingly cold as it reaches my waist and moves over my stomach. I take a deep breath, lowering my torso into the river and then, a spilt second later, floating my legs up in front of me. My breathing is short and fast; snatched shocked gasps, as I kick slowly away from the weir.

I’ve swum before in this pool, at the point at which the Little Ouse sweeps into Knettishall Heath. My kids taking daring jumps off the weir’s foaming step, shouting with joy and cold. Pink piglets to be rubbed back to squealing warmth with rough towels. But today it is just me. Even the dog walkers have gone.  A grey wagtail jinks along the weir, a skittering, feathery drop of lemon. I lie still in the water and watch him; enjoying his shell-shocked bobs and the flicking tail. In Japanese folktales the wagtail is a sensual bird of love, of passion. A bird that was sent to direct husbands and wives in their conjugal duties with its fluttering, dipping thrusts. Some men were even known to carry the delicate bones of this river cupid in boxes as love charms.

The air, sweet with pollen, feels loose. Relaxed. A breeze rumples the surface of the pool, pushing the water up into dark bars that fan out away from the weir and into the reeds. I flip onto my front and head for where the pool empties into the river, keen to explore further. I kick through reeds, enjoying the feeling of the banks closing in. I’m getting into my stride now, warmed by effort and the sun that scalds the surface, turning the soft greens and tannin browns to gilded, burning gold.

At the second weir I tread water, considering my options. It’s tempting to climb over and plop back in the other side but I can’t shake the slight nervousness of jumping into the unknown. I stand, feeling the river’s spongy bed; the silt swirling up into the water like plumes of black ink. I scramble up the bank and race around the other side, my feet slapping on the mud of the path before half stepping, half jumping back into the river. A crack willow has slow dived into the water. But the tree still lives.  Catkins, like insectivorous sundew, or tiny green bottlebrushes, thrust out from the water. The tree’s branches strain the river’s flow, collecting sticks and weeds; gluing them together in a sticky, beer-brown foam. I take a breath and sink below it, kicking out hard to head further downstream. My hands tinted green under the surface and flashing like fish.

Roger Deakin, in his great ode to wild swimming, Waterlog, called the breaststroke, the naturalist’s stroke. It was, he said, a position that provides a frog’s-eye view of the world. Borne by the river it is a new perspective on everything from water vole holes and otter slipways, worn smooth by the passage of furred chests and ruddering tails to the silver glow of skudding fish. But I also know there’s so much more to see. Last week, while Knettishall’s ranger Sam Norris and I looked for the brook lamprey that are thought to have spawned in this restored river, we netted all manner of life: caddis fly larvae in sleeping bags of twig and stone; shrimp the size and colour of fingernails and Pan-headed damselfly nymphs with antlers like thorns. I think about how it won’t be long before the nymphs crawl from the water to shed their skins and transform.

I swim on; eager now to reach my own changing point, the dipping platform where I’ve left my towel.

Tracks and treasure at Knettishall Heath

This is a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine

When I first saw the Exmoor ponies they were more murmuration than herd. Galloping hard across this ancient furzy heath, they formed a twisting, athletic ribbon of dun browns and treacle blacks; their hooves pounding through the heather and into my ribcage. In truth, I think I lost my heart to Knettishall Heath that day.

The Exmoors are now grazing in winter pasture at the bottom of the river valley and I am walking around their enclosure with Suffolk Wildlife Trust ranger Samantha Gay. She is telling me about the work being done to remove fences and open up this reserve to allow these hardy ponies to roam over most of its 434 acres – a mini Exmoor in the west country of Suffolk.

The ponies look at us, but with little interest. One raises a foot and stares through chalky spectacles, steam rising from his nose and flank. Sam points them all out, telling me their names, their characters and their social standing.

These ponies are the barrel-chested engineers of Knettishall, tasked with maintaining this tapestry of habitats; grazing back the years of plantations and effectively turning back the clock to the Bronze Age. We check the corral where the ponies will be held before being “set loose” at the end of this month and Sam nods towards a neighbouring stable where barn owl and at least one little owl roost.

The stable door is painted with guano, a tar of sticky blacks and emulsion whites, while the floor is littered with armfuls of pellets. I pick up a little owl pellet and turn it over in my hands, the light catching the emerald green of beetle wing cases and the polished jet of serrated legs. It’s hard to believe this dusky mirror ball of indigestible insect was coughed up by a bird rather than hewn from the earth. It’s a rare treasure.

The barn owl pellets are almost twice as big. Fat thumbs of hair and bone. Fleshy geodes that can be prised open with gloved fingers to expose a jigsaw of shrew and vole; leg bone connected to jaw, and pelvis to tooth by twisted tendons of dark fur.

This is a time of change and becoming at Knettishall but Sam also wants to show me what has already been achieved. We leave the ponies and walk down to the river. Once heavily dredged and lifeless, the Little Ouse has been transformed. As her meanders and flow returned, so did the wildlife – water vole, kingfisher and otters.

Within metres of walking the bank we find a spraint. A wet jasmine-scented cigar of scales and tiny bones carefully placed on flattened grasses at the side of the river. It’s fresh. I go closer, poking, sniffing. I have never seen a wild otter in Suffolk and the thought of being so close to one now is exciting. We peer through fringes of teasel and reed, hoping to see what we know we will probably not; the low profile of an otter in the water, head held high, tail ruddering against the current.

We scan the bank for tracks, for the tell-tale webbed prints among the mish-mash prints of dogs. I give up but Sam spots one at the point where water meets land. It’s big. Maybe a dog otter. I imagine him watching us from close by, huffing with soft disapproval as we prod and examine his business.

Washing away the old year

My five-year-old daughter enters the river first. Elbows pumping and knees lifted high, she dashes in, her excited shrieks turning to loud yelps of surprise as the chill shoots through her.

I follow close behind, my feet instantly numb as they plunge into the tannin brown water. I find myself laughing with my daughter; laughing off the cold; laughing off the decision to go swimming at the turn of the New Year.

Grinning wildly she turns back towards the muddy beach and my wife and son who are sitting with their chins sunk deep into parkas – cradling hot chocolate and cheering us on.

I keep moving. Pushing towards the small waterfall that brings the Little Ouse into the northern edge of Knettishall Heath; my body gasping involuntarily as the water reaches my stomach. This is the slow torture of gradual immersion. I hold my breath and sink down, my shoulders and face tingling and burning with the cold. I know it’s probably just seconds, but it feels longer. Minutes. Hours even. A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.

I stand quickly and walk back to the bank, picking my way around heron tracks that I missed in my rush to get in.

Two dog walkers are returning to their car; stamping their feet in the cold. I can see them looking over as I gladly take the towel from my wife and wrap my hands around the mug of hot chocolate. My feet ache from the cold, but I’m happy, waiting for the glow to start – the delicious post-swim feeling that lasts a whole day; an earthy cosiness that makes your own skin feel like a duvet.