Country diary: I swim on behalf of the life in this river

I’m just five minutes from the car when I hear the first rumbles of thunder. I could probably get back before the heavens open. But it’s months since I’ve been in the Dales, and the promise of time with the river has been sustaining me all week. So I continue.

Ten minutes later, my commitment is wavering. I’m splodging through a deluge that is washing the last of the snow from hollows, slipping on mud, glad of my wellies but regretting the jeans. Do I really want to swim?

It’s an act of faith to keep going. Faith and a hint of rebellion. The Wharfe was recently listed as one of the most polluted rivers in England, yet part of it, at Ilkley, is also an official swimming site. For its name to be synonymous with filth is an outrage. Even this stretch in Grassington, miles upstream from the better-known polluted part, is not completely safe. Still, I swim, at my own risk and at least partly in protest. After all, I have a choice whether or not to be in this river, but the life that exists in it does not.

The mood of the water matches my own: dark and choppy. Rain hammers on my hood, forcing my head down so that my eye is caught by a swatch of colour at the water’s edge. It’s a sherd of bright blue china. I ruminate on broken plate, broken river, broken system, broken trust.

A trickle of curlew song, fluid as rain, brings my gaze skyward, and up there is another fragment of blue. By the time I reach the rocky constriction of Ghaistrill’s Strid, with its mossy islet and tumult of white water, the overhanging sycamores glitter with sunlit raindrops, and a chaffinch delivers his version of water music – a cascade of notes with a musical trip at the bottom.

My swim is short – the water still carries the bright bite of snow – but the sun is warm enough that I can potter on the rocks afterwards, air-drying for the first time this year.

The next thing to make me look up isn’t a sound, but an inkling. A barn owl is sliding over the water at head height – perhaps the darkness of the storm has roused it early. It turns its alabaster doll-face and we’re present to each other for an unfathomable moment.

A lucky break, a break in the clouds, a breakthrough.

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