I live in Wild West Dorset. A popular holiday destination for so many reasons. An area of outstanding natural beauty it has The Jurassic Coast with its stunning beaches, cliffs and popular section of the South West Coast Path, lush rolling countryside, market towns, literary history and so much more…
But as a local living here in the summer it can sometimes feel a little over crowded. My anxiety levels definitely increase, and I easily become stressed by the influx of people, traffic, noise and litter. Places I’d usually consider a wild sanctuary are now busy and bustling with human activity. I feel like a wild animal cornered.
It is this time of year that I begin to avoid the coastal areas and head inland into deepest darkest Dorset. Sea swims are now reserved for early mornings only, before the beach becomes busy, and I find myself exploring local woodland, rivers and lakes. In search of a bit of freedom, and the peace and quiet I so crave.
One such place is Fiddleford, near Sturminster Newton in North Dorset. The River Stour is one of the few rivers that is recommended for wild swimming in this county, and it passes Fiddleford Manor feeding into a lovely mill pool. It’s been on my radar for a while and with the July heatwave it seemed like a good time to go and find it. So, on a summer’s morning, with our 11 month old puppy, I jumped in the van and set off in search of adventure.
Aware that even the most rural spots inland can get busy in summer, I set off early. The temperature already 20 degrees by 8:30am, a sure sign of a scorching hot day ahead. But travelling away from the coast and into North Dorset the roads were less busy with most traffic heading to the beaches. I could feel myself physically and mentally relax, and despite my sat nav telling me our destination was an hour away, I had faith I was doing the right thing.
Arriving in Fiddleford the free car park was empty, and all I could hear was the sound of water coming from the trees, and goldfinches chattering in the hedgerows. With the pup on a lead, and a towel under my arm, we set off along the narrow country lane with the sound of a cockerel crowing at us as we passed the old Manor farm yard.
On first glimpse of the water, I breathed a “wow” as damsel flies flitted around us and the water cascaded down the sluices and into a welcoming pool edged by reeds and weeping willow. The landscape itself appeared timeless and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a Thomas Hardy novel.
With no-one else around my four legged friend and I were eager to investigate, and hunted out a suitable place to enter the water. In no time at all we were swimming among the fishes and dragon flies, surrounded on all sides by this picturesque setting.
It never ceases to amaze me how the water can still the mind. How, as soon as my body is immersed, I am fully present in the moment. No anxiety. No mental chatter. Just breath. Just peace. My inner wild child is contented, and I somehow feel a sense of resilience, as though all is well in me.
I often find myself swimming solo, mostly because I can really engage with my senses and fully appreciate the experience, but also because I am very much at the mercy of my mental health. When I am anxious, or low, it is often a spur of the moment decision to get outdoors and do what I know makes me feel better. Conversely, if I am having a good day then I often just want to run with it, while I’m in the flow. Neither scenarios lend themselves to prior arranged swims.
I am aware of the risks of going solo though, and I do mitigate against this by always telling someone where I’m going, and researching the location before I go. I enjoy swimming with my local group of sea swimmers when I feel able to, and also have a great sense of loyalty to the monthly Mental Health Swims group I did my first ever winter sea swim with. But a solitary swim is sometimes the only remedy I can access.
Today though, I have a swim buddy. I look across at my pup, swimming like an otter, delighted with his new skills. His confidence is off the scale! I feel so happy that he is enjoying it as much as I am.
Feeling reconnected, and refreshed we walk back through the fields, the hot summer sun beating down on us. I swear there is a more vigorous wag to the puppy dog’s tail post swim. I also detect a familiar spring in my step.
Another adventure, and another wild swim for the soul.