Day 4 -9:45am, -1c
An entirely different ball game, this. Out in my garden the night prior, I looked up at the stars in the knowledge that one of the coldest nights of the year was on its way. That simple, icy clarity took my mind racing to the next morning, and what the river would hold.
And so, beginning hours before, the morning’s fear was a mighty beast, a tricksy, pervasive, all present power.
It was the most beautiful morning too. As often, the cold is accompanied by a sky of softest blue. The sun was so low she peaked surreptitiously from behind the trees on the hill. My anxiety for what lay ahead was matched by Bills, we simply laughed and smiled upon meeting at the bridge. No words were necessary.
My toes were marginally more acclimatised this morning: trotting over the grass and the frozen path taunted my feet less than expected. The air approaching the river encroached and sat on my skin. Either that or it was so dense I could feel myself cutting through it as I walked.
Our daily entry point was frozen over. This day would be wholly unlike the rest. I sensed an atmosphere at the waterside. There was no welcome today, neither was there any warning, just nature’s indifference. I felt the detachment as palpable and evident through the glacial pace and hardened icy edges.
Down to business then. We would get in with lowered expectations and with our focus very much on our physical reactions to such unadulterated cold. The time, we had agreed, was of less import, than being able to simply follow through and just bloody get in there. If we managed a minute, great. Longer – no better or worse. Today we just had to overcome the fear and focus on the physical.
Was the water that much colder when I actually went in? Undoubtedly so, and yet that extra punch somehow wasn’t in anyway unpleasant. It didn’t shock me or induce shivers, neither did it rattle my focus. I didn’t need to run back out as I had envisaged I might. But it was very different. The cold manifested itself through force and pressure – the water seemed more of a single entity – conveying togetherness, oneness and a simple whispered message that told me ‘I am here.’ The first minute passed and disappeared along with any residual feeling in my extremities. I could feel the cold enter me in the most euphoric way, like a slow release of ice moving down my spine. It felt otherworldly. My awareness was very much on the body, and enjoying the moment and the feelings that came up as and when they did. Like an internal gauge or tap I was adding a cooling salve to my core. It felt ancient and right.
Despite this though as we careered quickly toward the two minute mark my memory and thoughts returned, shrinking the expanse in my mind, reminding me of the sharp, spiky cold that awaited me on the riverbank. This led quickly to a flash of fear and concern that I wouldn’t be able to deal with its attack and so we pulled ourselves out and grabbed for our towels.
I dressed the body as speedily as I was able. I say ‘the’ body as it didn’t feel like mine. So frozen, my fingers didn’t work or bend and my feet were hardened lumps. They were part of my body, yes. But not reactive in any form. Pulling on my clothes, and especially my socks, stung. It was a battle that held my mind as empty as the water. The desire to cover my body was primal, The lack of fingers, toes and feeling lent the whole experience an air of removal – that I was indeed separate – there was me and there was my body, one living inside the other but noticeably distant.
With tea came a familiar warmth and my mind eased. I surveyed the scene for what it was: the most beautiful and serene the river had ever been. The sun was rising behind us, warming the hills on the other bank, colouring it autumnal orange and brown, juxtaposing it with the silver and green of the side in the shadows. The sky was myriad shades of blue, each as beautiful and as fragile as the next. This felt like an achievement above all others: I was strong in nature.
Day 5 – 10am, 5c
A slightly later start today, it being Boxing Day.
Going to the same place every day is amazing. That routine helps you see the changes that are taking place, internally and externally. On all but one of the days so far we’ve been graced with the presence of a grey heron, who hunts along this stretch of water. Everyday a different position but his presence is constant. The watchman of the water.
The river itself today isn’t that different, but a solid unchanging flow in a world in flux. This morning has brought home to roost once again that whilst the place is unchanging the conditions never stay the same. Looking out of my window earlier, the lack of frost and the ‘high’ temperature lulled me into a false sense of security. Now here, the wind buffeted me and blew through my fleece menacingly. I had definitely underestimated the elements, not least by bringing fewer layers. The anger of yet another storm, this one, Bella, was still thick in the air. Periodic strong rain worked together with the wind to help me see my mistakes clearly, giving me my first pre-river shiver of the week. Despite the six degrees of difference between day 4 and today this somehow now felt equally daunting. I was mindful too of the potential windchill on a wet body, which added to my nerves.
Getting closer, the Avon is, without exaggeration, a mini sea today. Winds bash from the west and produces regular small waves on the surface of the river, smashing into and over the weir with a ferocity that was new and fresh and dangerous. White water appeared across the width of the river in little crescents, like commas in nature’s story. My place in the narrative seemed increasingly less certain in watching this billowing fury unfold in front of me.
Once in though, I felt a swifter acclimatisation to the water than before. Icy cold it was, of course – it’s still December – but I felt the cool flow down my spine very early and I couldn’t help but relax into it. From there I felt definitive moments of warmth and comfort as though I was regulating my temperature in a way that hadn’t been possible before. I was in control of it, and calmness seemed to be the door to that control. The water was lapping and splashing against me every second or so and this brought me further into the sensory memories of being in the sea and further deepened my sense of relaxation. Closing my eyes I was able to inhabit this space. The repetition of the waves served to provide timely reminders or stimulus to my awareness which was able to rest in how the body was simply feeling. I accepted whatever I discovered without judging it and watched the aches and burns dispassionately. Remaining untroubled, my mind was free of all but experience.
We hit two minutes in no time at all and, with us both feeling comfortable, added another fifteen seconds to our time in the river. My worry over wind chill returned at this point, meaning we left the water then, when realistically our bodies knew they were capable of more. Reflecting on this moment later the thought that my mind and body had two different intelligences was a wondrous discovery which felt very true in this moment. Our body’s intelligence is our intuition.
Our old friend arrived again not long after we have scurried up the river bank and started to clothe ourselves. Somewhat more questioning than the last time, of our behaviour in what would conventionally been described as absolutely minging Scottish weather, he stood and gathered a clearer picture of what these two wet madmen were up to. Although a man of few words those he spoke were serendipitous once again. ‘Just upstream’ he said, ‘it’s much deeper. Just ‘afore the burn. That’s where we all learned tae swim, the weans fae Strathaven.’
I couldn’t resist an opportunity like that. Deeper, better water. Swimming in the very spot the generations before me had learned. That was a narrative I could buy into. Tomorrow would be exciting.