Tuesday 05 August 2008
“I’ll pick you up at 4.15” Al Petrie on my voicemail as I stepped off the plane from Zurich (that’s another story). I was cutting it fine. My Zurich suitcase was packed for swimming, albeit in a slightly warmer climate, with rather soggy costume and towel cunningly stashed beneath my waterproof so as not to render everything else damp. I had just enough time to change flip-flops for Crocs, pick up an extra jumper and a couple of pairs of socks. Lucy Petrie had been called for an audition and would be joining us the next day. So it was just me, Al and Mark Sawyer, our Commanding Leader.
We arrived in Symonds Yat East, HQ for our proposed 33 mile swim from Sellack Bridge (just south of Hereford) to Monmouth, in good time for steak and chips and a few beers (essentials when preparing for a long swim!). We were bowled over by our location: towering cliffs behind us, the ancient Saracen’s Head Inn, B&B cottages and a hotel right on the bank of the Wye. On the opposite bank, nestled into the steep hill, the village of Symonds Yat West connected only by the Ancient Hand Ferry at a £1 a throw or a 10 mile road trip. We eyed up the water, it did not seem to be flowing quite as fast as expected…. We attached Mark’s size-of-a-small-saucer-does-everything watch to the chain on the ferry and dunked it in the river. It read 18.1C. We felt encouraged.
We awoke the next morning to drizzle and tucked into a hearty breakfast, after all we were going to need it. Our hunky canoeist, Mick, arrived looking like something out of a Boys Own adventure story and whisked us off in his Landrover which he parked mid way between the start and end of the swim which, due to the meandering river and Mark’s cunning planning, were only a mile or so apart. There we met Ben, our second canoeist. We stripped off, stowed our stuff, raring to go. “How about a briefing” suggested Ben. This was a first for them, escorting swimmers. Ah yes! Health and Safety never takes a day off!
So it was decided: Ben would lead the way looking out for hidden objects, rocks, branches, etc. on which we might impale ourselves, knock ourselves out, etc. and Mick would bring up the rear, making sure none of us had drowned. Seemed a good plan. Mark, in charge of the itinerary, assured us this would be a 1 ½ hour swim.
We waded into the fast flowing river: it was ankle deep. We waded further: it was still ankle deep. Ben assured us it would get deeper further down river. We plopped into the water and drifted down, trying not to scrape our bellies, knees, toes on the river bed. Soon the water was deep enough to swim. We stroked cautiously, not yet confident, stopping occasionally to admire the glorious scenery. Now and then we’d approach some rapids where the river suddenly ran much faster. Ben would steer us into the deepest part and we’d whoosh over the rocky river bed with the occasional scrape to elbow, knee, foot. It was exhilarating! Before we knew it we had been swimming for 40 minutes and had rounded a big curve in the river. The half way point, we were making good time. Or so Mark thought. We were soon disillusioned by Mick. Nowhere near halfway, wrong curve, oh dear!
We continued, not noticing the rain, swimming, pausing to admire more stunning views, rushing over more rapids. Over an hour and a half into the swim Mick assured us we had in less than an hour to go. Al was keen to finish. Eventually the sandbank which marked the beginning of the end came into view. Mark and Al, fed up with ankle deep water, scaled the bank and started running down the field, only to be foiled by a barbed wire fence and returned to the river. We reached our destination, Backney Common, the smallest piece of common land in England, about the size of an average London garden. We had done it, a rollercoaster 7 ½ mile swim in two and a half hours. We were elated! We strode off to the pub for more food and beer. We also needed to go back to the drawing board and review the afternoon’s itinerary. Mark’s calculations were dubious.
After lunch we paddled the canoes 3 miles down to Wilton Bridge in Ross-on-Wye where we had agreed to meet Lucy. It was raining hard, the raindrops bouncing off the river. We beached the canoes under the bridge and climbed up onto the road. There was Lucy running towards us. Perfect timing!
Mark and Al would continue to paddle, so it was Lucy and me. Raring to go Lucy was soon way up ahead. Wanting to swim with her, and knowing she would not want to stop and wait in case she got cold, I asked Al and Mick to tow me, but no matter how hard they paddled they couldn’t catch up. Ben was better at finding fast water than Mick. I was getting cold so decided to swim on. Suddenly I caught Lucy. We stroked together, occasionally breast-stroking to better admire the magnificent view. Marvelling at the way the river carried us onwards, making every stroke feel powerful. The river widened and deepened meandering slowly through the valley. Al and Mark jumped in, a herd of deer raced up the hillside into the forest, a whoop of swans glided out of our way wary of these strange splashing creatures. Goodrich Castle loomed high on the lush hillside. We approached Kerne Bridge, and beyond an island on a bend. The water rushed through the narrow gap. Ben instructed us how to go through without being swept to the far bank and entangled in the overhanging trees. As we entered the fast moving water we turned sideways, swimming hard across the current. We shot out round the corner into the middle of the river unscathed. We had done it! 5 ¾ miles in 1 hour and 50 minutes. Phew! We clambered up the steps to a warm grassy bank and changed into rather damp cloths while Mick and Ben went off in search of the Landrover to take us back to the Saracens Head for more food and beer. We slept well that night!
The next morning dawned bright and dry. We would start at Lower Lydbrook, cutting just over 2 miles off the 9 mile stretch back to Symonds Yat. After a flying start down some rapids the river was wide and deep with high banks and towering cliffs. It flowed gently, pushing us along, the sun warm on our backs. After about an hour and a half I suddenly got bored of swimming, I missed the excitement of yesterday’s rapids. But soon we arrived at The Saracen’s Head, much to the amusement of some Italian students.
Over lunch we discussed The Big Rapid. We were all a tad nervous, including Mick and Ben who spoke of helmets and other safety measures. We were all feeling slightly swum out. Exhaustion had crept up on Al, the swim compounding a week’s holiday in Scotland entertaining 7 children. So we easily agreed to ride the rapids in the canoes. As we swept down them we concluded we could have swum them, but that was easy to say from the relative safety of a canoe!
We were in no hurry to start swimming. The river flowed gently on, as flat as glass now, reflecting the dazzling landscape, sunlight playing on the water. We drifted easily on with the odd bit of competitive paddling to Mark’s refrain of Hawaii 5 O. Two miles to go and we were back in the water. High on the ridge above us, lorries trundled by on the A40. In the distance Monmouth Bridge, the finish. 45 minutes later we sprinted the last few hundred meters to the steps of the rowing club.
We lay on the grass in the sunshine drinking hot sweet coffee, waiting for Mick to arrive with the Landrover. We had swum from England to Wales, 23 miles in 7 ½ hours over 2 days covering 33 miles of the stunningly beautiful Wye River.
We felt triumphant!
By Margy Sullivan