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Diary of a Wandering Swimmer – a swing rope to the past

Kate Gillwood was born in Galashiels, Scotland, raised from three years old in Yorkshire, found herself in London for 30 years and eventually escaped back to Scotland. She was raised to swim in rivers (the Wharfe at Appletreewick, for example), open air pools (Otley) and the sea, so open water swimming is not new. She started taking part in organised events about 10 years ago, putting on a wetsuit for the first time for the Great Scottish Swim in 2011. Now living just a few minutes from Portobello beach, one of her favourite things is to start the day with a sneaky swim in her local waters. She also likes to explore new swimming spots and share what she finds. However, with the current lockdown restricting her physical movements, she’s resurfacing memories of childhood swims, such as this one here.

The swim

In 1975, I was awarded a certificate for swimming 10 yards. It was an important part of my swimming journey and the first of several pool swimming certificates I achieved. I was 9 years old. My mum was as always right there cheering me on, something I have had from her all my life. This is dedicated to you Juniemoon, from your water baby, thank you for inspiring my love of the water.

The following summer, we would drive down the farm track in Mum’s old Triumph Herald and stop at the gate to put our 10p into the slot the farmer had cut into an upright scaffold pole. I would be bouncing around in the car, desperate to get out and jump into the natural bowl-shaped pool in the river. And that would be it for hours, only getting out to eat a cheese and pickle sarnie with some Seabrooks crisps, bought from the bread van that would come round the estate once a week.

And this was our summer treat, to spend days out in the countryside, breathing in the clean air and enjoying the freedom of the fresh water.

Mum would park the car in the field near the bank of the river. We would put towels on the ground to sit on (except I never did much sitting) while avoiding the spear thistles and sheep poo. Yellow flashes of Bird’s-Foot Trefoil and the pale white Clover were all around.

The river here was probably only about 25m across but the dark water ran slowly before dancing over the rocks further downstream, and so created a safe place to play. The grassy bank gave way to a small beach-like area allowing for a smooth entry and exit. This the older generation (my Aunty Lilly and Uncle George) access to join me in my small rubber dingy. This vessel was my mum’s safety mechanism that she used in various swimming spots over the years, including on a rope off a Welsh beach, but I’ll share that story another time.

In my memory, it was always sunny and warm enough to swim (in the summer of 1976 it were crackin t’flags), so I would stay in the water till my lips were blue and Mum had to force me to get out, the cry of “one last go” in her ears.

There was one time I had to perform a rescue. I am guessing I was the nearest but my big sister, who I have always loved fiercely, managed to get pulled into the rapids further downstream accompanied by dramatic cries for help. I can’t really remember what happened, but I have been awarded the family accolade for having ‘saved’ her. I think she just needed grabbing and pulling back, and she was fine. It was the 1970s, nobody panicked if a kid fell over. (Note to my big sister…do you remember the clackers?)

We would swing off the rope tied to the tree on the opposite bank and drop into the water squealing. It was fun. I was so very fortunate. I was happy, we were happy. This is one of the best memories of my childhood that I will always treasure.

The location

This is the River Wharfe at Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales National Park where there are loads of great places to swim. The specific place we used to swim was right off the village on farmers’ land which people were allowed to access (by an honesty payment of 10p into the scaffold post). I don’t think you can get to the river there anymore but you can walk to somewhere nearby and the village is also near to Burnsall which is a popular spot for visitors and swimmers.

You get to Appletreewick by coming off the A59at Bolton Bridge south of the Dales, which is near the town of Skipton, going up the B6160 past Bolton Abbey then at Barden go right onto Strangs Lane which takes you across the river then take a left at the T-junction to the village. The same road takes you to Burnsall. Alternatively, you can stay on the B6160 and carry on to Burnsall. You can also get there from the east via the lovely little town of Patley Bridge.

Like any river, the Wharfe is prone to swelling, rapids and undercurrents with many obstacles to be wary of but it can be so much fun.

Contact me

If you have any suggestions of places I could swim email me on k.gillwood4@gmail.com or find me on Instagram @kategillwood4

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