Caught by the River

Back in the Wissey

Joe Minihane | 24th May 2018

Wild swimmer Joe Minihane makes the pilgrimage back to a river close to his heart.

I have been here before. Where the Wissey slips beneath the road bridge and slides from the never never land of the MOD firing range into the woods outside of Ickburgh, I have stood in the shallows of this pool and dreamt of my shoulders being loosened on the torrent of white water that rifles its way into the clear shallows and on towards the tea-stained Great Ouse, The Wash, the North Sea and beyond. I have dreamt of my mind one day edging towards stillness.

That was five years ago. My wrist was in plaster and my mind was an anxious mess. Halfway through my journey retracing Roger Deakin’s Waterlog I had come to this distant corner of Norfolk’s Breckland despite these afflictions, watching as the gang of swimmers I had helped form tested an old rope swing for strength and belly-slid across slick pebbles, the sun of early September shining through burnished leaves. I waded in waist-deep, held my plastered arm high and tried to settle my mind. I failed. I have wanted to return ever since.

Today is a crisp spring day. There is hope on the green tinged banks at the end of a long, bright day. The whirring of goldfinches. The pip pip of Great Tits. The far off ee-ik of a tawny owl. Arriving on the single track road, which peters out to dirt as it reaches the edge of MOD land, we park up behind a small van, hopes of a long, quiet swim dashed by company.

A trio of anglers claim they are tickling for trout. We are unwilling to disturb them, and so make off along the bank to explore. The forest floor is carpeted in bracken and dead branches, a narrow desire line cleaving close to the water. We have come to finish up the film my friend Ben has been making based on my book, Floating, exploring the positive effects of cold water on anxiety. As we wander and chat about my previous trip here, my mind’s eye sees Roger Deakin, decked out only in Speedos, goggles snapped tightly across his wild mass of grey hair, swimming downstream, enjoying this first burst of sunshine after a cold and miserable start to the year.

Back where the water tumbles into the wide pool, the fishermen have packed up their kit and gone in search of a more promising spot. We are left alone and so I strip down to my shorts and subside into the water. It is gin clear, sharp on the skin, as if the springs that burst open beneath the forbidden zone beyond have flooded the area with a life-affirming elixir. There is a delicious coldness and the water thankfully lacks the unpredictable punch of the sea I have got used to over the winter. I swim a broad, arcing breast stroke against the current until my arms ache with the effort and I let myself be carried away with it, staring up at the sky through the branches and their young, hopeful growth.

I sit with my shoulders beneath the surface and close my eyes, a gentle throb of yellows, oranges and reds appearing in the darkness. I can remember my first trip here so clearly. That day we walked from the grass car park of St Peter’s Church, following the track for a mile, my wrist aching. I had only recently learned to label my anxiety, to understand how it played at the edges of my mind and burst through at moments of its own choosing. I walked alongside friends and yet I walked alone, in a world of my own, lacking clarity, desperate about my inability to get into the river and feel its pull, its push, the way it could work my mind to stillness.

Now, today, I know how to reach that measured state without having to subside into a river or throw myself with abandon into the churn of the English Channel. But that doesn’t mean to say I don’t want to, or that I don’t feel its positive effects on my mental wellbeing. I never regret a swim, but perhaps these days I don’t always need one like I did back then. It is a lesson learned the hard way, through therapy, self examination and hours spent outdoors, looking for a way for nature to soothe and ease my worries. Water is one of many cures.

I push myself back into deeper water for one last go around the pool. The rope swing has gone, so I opt against jumping in and instead wade out, up the gently shelving beach which drops down from the road, where I stood, watching, five years ago. The Wissey has been good to me. Finally, I have swum here. I let the endorphins and dopamine course through me, give myself over to this feeling, the one I used to chase, the one I can’t quit, the one I know now can only last fleetingly. That is its joy. That is why I have come back here.


Floating: A Return to Waterlog is out now via Duckworth Overlook. Joe Minihane takes to our stage at this year’s Good Life Experience to discuss the book – more info here.

Ben Cox’s film based on Floating is out in June.