I pulled up on my Raleigh Lizard mountain bike at Marston Bridge and propped it up against the railings. Rubbing my cold hands, I turned to face downstream; there was a faint roar that could be distinctly heard under the grey winter sky.

The pewter ribbon that powered through beneath my feet like a freight train, the River Dove, was cut across 200 yards or so downstream by a frantic band of steaming, bubbling foam.

I pushed my bike along the flood embankment towards the weir which, despite the January floods, still managed to displace enough water to break the surface.

It crossed my mind that I really wouldn’t want to fall in there, a thought that returned when I was greeted by the sight of a birch tree clattering round—ten feet of mottled trunk, roots and all—in a gravelly whirlpool, filled with frothing water, where it had stood for years until this winter’s rain tore it out of the bank, like a teaspoon in a mug that had been vigorously stirred.

It was getting dark and I wasn’t sure that the Ever Ready batteries in my clunky lights would have enough left in them for the half-hour ride home; my fingers were frozen bloody solid, too, even with thick, padded gloves on.

The ride home was uneventful, although I was right about the batteries.

The Reverend Jonathan Whitby was sat with my parents at the kitchen table discussing Gran’s funeral the coming Friday; I had got on my bike to escape the miserable atmosphere, though I’d take tea, biscuits, and sympathy over that menacing, dark, and lonely water any day. It was my mate Daz who tipped me off about the river; he said it was a great place for a dip, which confirmed most of my suspicions about him.


It was Daz that brought me back to this river three months later; he pulled up at our front door on his Muddy Fox—like everything else we both had, his was better than mine—in shorts and trainers with that stupid grin on his face.

I didn’t really want to go, but the alternative was staying at home.

I’m glad I went.

The difference between January and April was stark; the angry, threatening torrent that thundered through, sucking trees into its stony depths and implying that it would love to do the same to me, given half a chance, was now a benign, gently burbling stream with swaying reeds and damselflies fluttering in the warm evening sun. I stripped down to my shorts and jumped off the bridge into the cool, clear stream.

Daz was goading me to go over the weir. ”Don’t be a fucking pussy,” he sneered. I couldn’t ignore a challenge like that.

It was a surprise to me when I went over the dam and stood up at the bottom, just up to my knees; the sill was part of a huge concrete structure that extended out 15 or 20 yards further downstream. The river bed dropped away after that for about the same distance before becoming shallow again; so shallow that it didn’t cover my ankles.


That hot, sunny spring was positively idyllic; even the looming threat of next year’s GCSE exams couldn’t spoil the sheer fun of messing about on the river. Floating down on my back on the frothing stream and looking up at a cloudless blue sky without a care in the world, it was difficult to imagine that this was the angry, grey death trap that I nervously stared at three months previously.

It was probably for the best that my exams were next year; I developed a minor addiction to swimming in the Dove. If I couldn’t find anyone to go with, I’d hop on my bike and pedal over on my own, a dangerous thing to do even given the clement spring conditions, but there was something of pure freedom about it.

Although I wasn’t the strongest of swimmers, I learned to read the water quickly. Before long, I got adventurous and started seeking out new spots to take a dip, taking hikes up and downstream for miles, although some of the best were hiding in plain sight, a minute or two’s brisk stroll from the weir.

My favourite was a beautiful, deep pool of slowly flowing, crystal clear water by the beehive pillars of the old railway bridge, six feet deep by the bank and framed by two alders; ten feet further out from the bank, the current pummelled through over gravelly shallows.

One Saturday morning, the sun had just beaten me there. As I scrambled down the bank, I saw what looked like two orange saucers; the fins of a huge barbel that bolted a split-second later, kicking up a big beige cloud of sediment with a flick of its muscular, thick tail.


I started to prefer my own company; Daz, the Fonz, Muggy, and the lads had no respect for their surroundings at the best of times and this beautiful river, surrounded by peaceful farmland for at least a mile in every direction, did nothing to change their minds. We weren’t exactly from the Bronx, but they seemed to think that leaving a trail of rubbish behind made them edgy, or at least that my insistence on leaving the place as tidy as I found it was somewhat suspect.

And strangely enough, after all my solo swims, I nearly drowned in the company of my best friends.

There were two eddies at each side of the deep pool below the weir; gently swirling water, both roughly the size of half a tennis court.

We were swimming upstream through one of them when I had a stark lesson in the unforgiving power of moving water. Without warning, the current pulled me—why me?—back and down into the depths. It felt like someone had chained my ankle to a passing car.

I yelled and my arms went up; exactly what you’re not supposed to do, apparently. How long I was down there for was anyone’s guess; it didn’t feel like a long time, to be honest, but it was still the most frightening few seconds of my life.

The river decided that it had had enough of my hapless, panicked thrashing and spat me out onto the gravel.

Water spewed from my nose; I got to my feet and, 15-year-old that I was, scrambled up the steep bank, ran back up to the bridge, jumped and let the current carry me on my back over the weir again, back to those stony shallows.

As I climbed out onto the warm grass again, the thought crossed my mind: I’m fucking hard.

The lads didn’t think so. As we rode back home in the Fonz’s rusty Ford Fiesta, I brought the subject up, only to be met with derisory hoots and shrieks.


The Friday night kickabout on the Rec was another highlight of the week for me, at least for the first ten minutes. Most of the local kids weren’t really into football and would lose interest as soon as the usual gaggle of nicotine-stained, shell-suited teenage slags, with permed hair and bruised necks, turned up; the game would go from eight- or nine-a-side to three or even two. This Friday was no exception; the slags had ruined it as usual, to the point where even the hardcore—the lads who were genuinely interested in football—gave up and went home.

That’s how I found myself alone, doing sprints up and down the football pitch, halfway line and jogging back then the whole length of the pitch and back. I normally took a while—probably 30 seconds or so, never counted—to get my breath back, but this time I was relentless. Where did this energy come from? Sprint, jog, repeat.

I was probably on my third full-pitch sprint when I saw a figure sprinting towards me. Dunky. I stopped running near the centre spot and he did as well.

Turned out that he’d just knocked the wing mirror off a parked car and was keen to get home before the owner of said car caught up with him. It was while we were talking that I noticed that everything was much more, well, intense; it felt like living in a 1970’s cine film. Colours were intense, too intense to be discounted as spring evening sunshine; everything was yellow, blue, green, and red. Sounds likewise; birdsong from the woods nearby was piercing and somebody’s front door closed with a strangely satisfying clunk a few hundred yards away on Clays Lane. It felt like some kind of trance. I’m not lying; it wasn’t unpleasant.
Dunky legged it off towards the railway. In those days, before everything was fenced off, you could cut across to town over the tracks, turning a thirty-minute walk to a ten-minute one, which was handy. Especially when you’d just vandalised someone’s car for no reason…


My newfound energy didn’t last long. As soon as I got home, I collapsed on my bed. Sometime later, I woke up and staggered to the toilet, where I threw up everything north of my appendix.

At about three in the morning, I went to the toilet with a greater degree of urgency, this time to empty the other end of my gut; there was nothing to tell between my dark green, bile-ish vomit and dark green, bile-ish diarrhoea. I’d clearly swallowed a lot of river water earlier that week.

Any disappointment at sleeping through The James Whale Show was tempered by the fact that The Hitman and Her was about to start. I plugged my earphones into the telly and started dancing silently to “Kick That Rhythm” by King for a Day. This was not normal behaviour.

My solo disco session was disturbed by the toilet flushing, shortly followed by Dad’s voice:

“Turn that fucking TV down!”

Sometime late that morning, I woke refreshed and with an astonishing clarity of mind. I didn’t have the insane raving desire to sprint of the previous evening, but an incredible general sense of well-being and generally being switched on. It was satori-like bliss.


The next Saturday, I woke with an unshakeable purpose; water didn’t hold any fear for me. I was the master of the elements and I was going to exploit my newfound sense of power over my surroundings.

It wasn’t quite light yet when I pulled my bike out the shed and hoisted myself onto the saddle. Fresh batteries in those huge, clunking lamps.

Pedalling through Branston to the subway, I got onto the narrow path down the side of the A38. Stopping at Barton Turns to eat a piece of cake I’d put in my coat pocket, it occurred to me that I was probably insane. No fear; the water awaited.

Before long, I veered off the path into Alrewas. The village was silent, save for the cooing of a wood pigeon as I made my way to the canal.

The towpath had been baked hard by unseasonal heat. Britain sizzling in the seventies! That didn’t sound as odd to me as it would to someone from a less temperate part of the world. It was warm enough for me.

After a few minutes of pushing my bike, I came to the bridge and looked down. The canal joined the River Trent here and the dark brown water gurgled slowly with a menace that unsettled me somewhat. Even the swaying vegetation looked hostile.

My eyes turned downstream to where a familiar sound came from; that muffled roar of angry, frothing water reassured me. The plan had been to jump from here. I now realised that I couldn’t do that, so wheeled my bike off the bridge onto the river bank.

Stripping to my shorts, I gingerly started to walk across the weir sill. The roar was deafening here and a frisson jolted me in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Sure enough, I felt myself start to slide down the silkweed-covered concrete towards the pool. Don’t fight it, I thought.

I was delivered to the river bed with a thump that knocked the wind out of me. Somehow, I retained the presence of mind not to gasp. Sheer terror gripped me for an undefined moment as the force of tumbling water pinned me down and I didn’t know which way the surface was through the opaque murk. Then I looked up and saw the sunlight, just as the current spat me out—or did I out-muscle the current?

That first inhalation as I broke the surface was one of the best breaths ever. Away from the tumult of the weir, the pool was surprisingly benign; I trod water for a few seconds, then kicked out towards the bank.

I rolled onto my back on a sandy patch which turned to gravel nearer the river and burst out laughing, not stopping for some time. Thankfully, it was too early even for dog-walkers.


There was one more place to visit that morning. With the white noise of the weir slowly fading into the distance, I pedalled off towards Kings Bromley.

My route took me straight through the village and down a quiet lane that soon lost its tarmac, then narrowed to a narrow track. The handful of small cottages along the track looked peaceful and cosy; I decided there and then that this would be where I lived when I made my fortune. By a gravel pit in Staffordshire.

But I had other things to do there and then.

Locking my bike to a wooden gate, I looked out over the lake. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. The weekend sailors would all still be in bed, and the anglers wouldn’t be allowed on here until the Glorious Sixteenth. I had the whole of Manor Park Lake to myself!

The bank was quite high at this point and it took a while to find my way to the waters’ edge through trees and nettles; I definitely got stung there, although the adrenalin was coursing through me and I didn’t feel it.

The gravel crunched underfoot at first, then dropped away into depths unknown. I pushed out for my goal: a small, scrubby island about 50 yards away.

Although my primal fear of water—most of it, anyway—seemed to be a thing of the past, I still felt a little relieved when my fingers brushed the gravelly lake bed in the island margins after a short, steady effort.

Pulling myself up to my feet, I took the opportunity to savour the fruits of my effort; a solid piece of sandy land, about the size of a lock-up garage, no birds or other creatures, some grass, a bramble and some sorry-looking gorse. Somebody had almost certainly swum out here before—there was no evidence of human activity, such as litter—but I didn’t personally know anybody who had. The thought crossed my mind that I should have brought a flag with me.

My final goal was going to be the biggest challenge. Once more, the lake bed dropped away and I took a deep breath and pulled my arms back, kicking for the gap in the bank a couple of hundred yards further off.

The Trent ran between Manor Park and Saddlesall, the lake on the other side, and the two were joined to the river, an inlet to allow sailing boats through. If I could get across there and over the river, I could claim to have swum between two districts, not an easy thing to do in landlocked England. I mean, the nearest tidal water to here—Cromwell Weir, also on the Trent—was 50 miles away, for goodness sakes.

The gap grew steadily closer as I huffed and puffed towards my destination, the morning sun warming my back through the cool water. It was a pleasant sensation. As I got nearer, I planned to stop at the bank and plan my next move.

I never got there.

The first thing I saw was the tree floating about 20 yards ahead. Then I noticed that it was slowly spiralling around, like that birch in the flooded Dove.

Sheer terror gripped me; I turned and started to kick away. Lakes are supposed to be still waters! For a few seconds, it felt like I was being pulled into that huge eddy, swirling with brown river water. I kicked and struggled just as hard as I did at Marston; having my head above water and being able to breathe was a definite advantage, though.


I flopped onto my back for the second time that morning in the gravelly shallows and started laughing maniacally again; my love affair with wild swimming wasn’t over, but I had gone from doing it for fun to wanting to prove something, and now—mercifully—that desire had gone as quickly as it came.

Scrambling up the bank, I took a stroll across to look over the eddy and the dark, deep gap below me; the brown, gurgling river; the outlet on the far bank, which seemed so close that I could have reached out and touched it; and, finally, the calm, blue, tree-lined waters of Saddlesall on the other side.

A surge of wistful disappointment flashed through me. I’d bottled it. On the other hand, I’d probably used up all of my luck getting this far.

Sure enough, as if to confirm that thought, a huge gob of water smacked the back of my head. Then another, and another. I looked up; the sky had turned black as the heavens opened.

The nettles and brambles covered the bank. It was the kind of place we would have liked to play when we were kids, pretending to be in troops in somewhere like Vietnam.

This thought kicked my mental jukebox into life; “Paint it Black” by the Stones.

Maybe “Gimme Shelter” would have been more appropriate.


The walk back to my bike in the pouring rain through chest-high greenery took ten minutes and took me through the grounds of a nursing home. Nobody seemed to notice me, thankfully.

As I pedalled away in squelching trainers and the greenery gave way to rain-lashed tarmac and soggy red brick once more, I realised that it would be better to stick to the Dove this coming summer. But I was alive.

And soaked to the skin.