Between Eynsham lock and Swinford bridge is our year-round playground. Beyond the bridge, adventure waits until currents have slowed and temperatures lifted. It is a record-breaking warm late spring when we can finally return to the river after a long Covid-induced break. The water levels have receded dramatically since our last cool dip in March and the temperature is now well into double figures. For our first long swim in months, Louisa and I tug on wetsuits and head off upstream, uncertain how far we will manage.
Emerging from under the bridge, the moored boats and the red buoys are the first to greet us back, and then the tree, not visited since last autumn, that reaches out across the river, opposite the island. We’ve been told that breeding otters are resident nearby, perhaps on the island, but we are not graced with a sight of them. Otters can roam up to thirty miles in a day but normally only go a couple of miles. This seems a sensible distance to us and as no chill keeps us from venturing further, we continue our journey, beside meandering banks of reeds and nettles trimmed with lacy white umbrellifers and shot with yellow: here a shaggy dandelion, there a proud iris, and everywhere sprinkles of merry buttercups.
Two green buoys intrude on the watery rural idyll to signal a sand bank. Sure enough, before long, my hand catches on the bottom and I adjust my stroke until, defeated, I rise to my knees then stand to wade through ankle-deep water. Now I can lift my gaze to scan more a more distant horizon where fields roll up to a copse-topped hill; a few errant bushy trees have broken free from the arboreal gathering as if to tumble gleefully down the sunny hillside. Darting past, a cormorant threads landscape and riverscape into one stunning tapestry.
We swim on. A spur of leafy reeds juts out within banks of leafy reeds disguising our path and as I look up more frequently to check my route, a supercilious swan and her silvery-soft cygnets sail smoothly through. A heron monitors the river from his office in the reeds. I picture him adjusting his wire-rimmed spectacles with a finger-tip of wing feather and ostentatiously clearing his long grey throat to command the attention of lesser mortals. Did you know that herons will eat coots or moles?
On the bank, tall thin grasses reach up from the reeds and appear as if the bristles of an upturned brush; on their tips, dark fluffy tufts that they have combed from the sky so that the glossy blue tresses of river that we swim along are the perfect reflection of a perfect morning. There is nothing that a cuckoo should do but sing; no greater act that a tern can perform than swoop. With a clink of spoon on mug, a waking boat opens its eyes to the day and curls a scent of wood smoke and bacon through the early morning air.
Onwards, to the boatyard, where in cool dark shadows, bruised and bruising behemoths squat by the bank. Restrained by ropes, their bullying menace in silent abeyance, a dusky odour leeches from their rotting hulls and lingers low on the air. Willow seeds drift snow-like over the surface of the darkened river and sinister thoughts tease my soul. When dappled light promises the return of summer, I relax and within forty strokes, the trees have released their grip on the bright day.
We have swum through Pink Hill lock in the other direction for an event and run across land to it. We know it’s getting close and each bend and curve that doesn’t reveal the anticipated landmark is a surprise. Until it is there, and we scramble out to mark our arrival with a photograph. A small dog seems absurdly pleased to see us and two signs, one in English, one in Polish, instruct us not to fish for carp.
A gentle current nudges us home and each feature that marks our route appears sooner than I expect. A family of ducks is unperturbed by our arrival back at the bridge. The day has shrugged off its early morning chill and on the bank, other swimmers are drying themselves so we exchange words of shared delight at the glory of starting the day with a ramble through the river.
Fiona Undrill, June 2020