Rain in the night, heavy and hissing and thrumming with wind. Rain in the morning, gentle in the grey light of just before the dawn. Waking to a soft damp morning, a blanket of cloud over the valley, rain dripping from the balcony railing, air soft and damp with autumn.
Walking up a valley beside a river rushing and pouring down a stoney bed, wet leaves on the path the exact red of a setter’s coat, birch leaves like shaken gold coins, beech husk crunching underfoot, through woods of green and gold. A lawn appears before us, close rabbit-bitten grass, surrounded on two sides by silver birch and hawthorn red with berries, and on the other two sides by a curving wooded cliff at the foot of which the river flows peat dark and deep. Grey rocks make an impromptu flight of steps from the lawn into the water where it runs shallow on this side of the curve and the bottom is golden sand.
Casting off clothes in the still damp air, down over the rocks and the water biting cold. Wade deeper and then push off, gasping, breaststroke down with the current while my breathing settles and my body adjusts. Ah yes. I remember this, this cold, this immersion. I can do this. Head under for crawl, stroke up against the flow, rocks on the bottom twenty feet down clearly visible through the tawny water. Autumn leaves floating like drops of sunlight. Tiny fish darting away when we swim up into the shallows. Ice-cream face from the first proper cold swim of the season. Body glowing and tingling, relaxing into the swimming, up and down, rotate and drive from the hips so that my core throws my arm forward, my body fully extends, and I feel the big muscles in my back engage on the pull. Breathe easy, stroke stroke left, stroke stroke right, rolling from side to side and relaxing into the rhythm. Up and down in this perfect natural pool until at last I feel I should get out before I get chilly.
A little too late, for then comes the after-drop as chilled blood starts to circulate again, shivering into clothes on the damp grass, shaking despite layers. I regret my warm woolly hat, stupidly left behind at the B&B. Olivia’s thermometer says the water is 14°, not so cold, but after a summer of 17° at the Lido and wetsuited swims I am unacclimatised to chilly temperatures. But then the sky clears magically of clouds in mere minutes and the sun comes out. We move out from the shade of the trees and stand soaking in its warmth, drinking hot coffee and eating homemade flapjacks and watching two buzzards riding the thermals upwards over the woods. One is effortless, circling and rising higher and higher with mere flicks of its wings. The other, perhaps younger, makes heavier weather of it, soaring for a few seconds and then flapping, soaring and flapping. I am a bit like that buzzard, still not accomplished enough to ride the water so effortlessly, but I am improving, I will learn. One day I will swim like that.