The golden hour is upon us. Sal and I head out for an evening swim down the towpath from Bell Weir Lock. Sun-soaked Dutch barges spill with sunflowers and I can smell summer in bloom – a green deliciousness which reminds me that we don’t have to stray far on this earth to lose ourselves. We can do that right here, in nature. Deep in a river, sheltering in a rainstorm, climbing a mountain. The joy of river swimming is just that – by moving, it allows you to be still.
We enter the water from Runnymede pleasure grounds (under the willow) and decide to swim around the graceful curve of river, in the direction of Magna Carta Island on the hunt for the ancient Ankerwycke Yew, a National Trust marked trail steeped in legend and romance. At 2,500 years old and with a thick muscular girth, some 30 ft wide, many historians think England’s oldest tree was witness to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Others speculate that this is where Henry VIII first courted Anne Boleyn. Yet, today this intriguing piece of nature is shrouded in the Surrey countryside, in the shadow of St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine monastery.
The only problem is it lies on the opposite side of the river. So, we swim across, navigating boats and swans, to continue our adventure by foot. We spot a discrete exit point and clamber onto a muddy bank. Our endorphins are kicking in now as we pace through this dense canopy in our wet cossies. This exploration is both delirious and dreamlike, madcap and where nothing is quite what it seems – we’re in our own topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland. Dripping from the river, we stumble on a couple who stop and stare, clearly confused by our bedraggled demeanour. Bemused, they direct us towards the tree –in the direction of tangled undergrowth. Then a man walking his dog pauses momentarily to ask us ‘have you lost your boat?’ before cracking a smile. He’s clearly awestruck. Or dumbstruck. Or both. But we’re on the cusp of discovery and feel euphoric.
And then. WE FIND THE TREE. Or Sal thinks she does. But I already know what the Ankerwycke Yew looks like – because I’ve seen it. It’s a magnificent, mountain-shelf of a tree. An ancient, extraordinary living and breathing sculpture, almost fluid in form. With gnarly, gristly knotholes, this dark creature is concealed, almost burdened by the weight of its own branches. Or by history itself.
We shelter under its canopy, as Sal grabs the camera. Immediately she explores its hidden depths, its contorted curves and cartilage, tactile pockets and folds. I want to climb right inside it, sit beneath it and lean against it. There’s a pure sensory enchantment in its power and presence. And as we wind our way back across woodland and swim back towards the hotel, we know that we’ve experienced natural history at its best, up close and personal. Our wild, rare and precious life is just simply that. Surely we need more of these pocket adventures.
Emma and Sal trained are qualified open water swim coaches and passionate about introducing the physical and wellbeing benefits of cold water swimming. You can get in touch with them at @mhshampton, or drop Emma a message directly via Instagram: @swimwritem to hear more about bespoke individual swims.