Devon dip: wild swimming on the river Dart | Travel

“The joy of being down here,” Kari Furre said from her home in South Hams, Devon, “is that there’s so much choice. So what do you fancy?”

Kari was taking me out for this article: the first in a summer series of guided swims with expert swimmers. As director of the Outdoor Swimming Society (as well as an artist) she is certainly an expert, one of those names I’ve heard over time. We have friends in common, it’s our community – a game of Happy Swimming Families. “You know Carl?” “Yes, I know Carl. Do you know Tanya?” And so forth.

Take me somewhere that means something to you, I said. I trust you.

Totnes map

Early morning – the sky spreading with cloud like grey ink in water – it seemed that trust was misplaced. Kari had parked in a neat cul-de-sac off the A385 into Totnes that said “rural suburbs” rather than “lovely swim”.

“We’ll change here,” Kari said, on the pavement. We pulled on wetsuits still sandy and damp from the night before, when she’d taken me to South Milton Sands to swim through the arch in Thurlestone Rock, which stands like a massive pair of old man’s trousers a few hundred metres out. It’s not a swim I’d have done alone; I’m more of an urban bird who cherishes the boundary of a lido. “I’m actually a coward,” I confessed to Kari, once we were safely through the other side and could see the sun setting through the old man’s legs.

Jenny Landreth. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Suited up, Kari led me down a small path at the end of the road. We passed a squat brick building blossoming with bright graffiti, but still nothing that said “lovely swim”. Then we turned another corner, and I glimpsed the river through the trees. We were by water, after all. Trust restored.

Two hundred metres further along was an entry point and the first proper sight of the river Dart. I’ve swum here before, it’s home to a wonderful swim (the Dart 10k) established by Kari and the Outdoor Swimming Society. It looked much less intimidating this time around, which may be expectation, and may be the company I’m keeping. It looked flat, a smooth wide ribbon, its surface lively with willow fluff, its banks bouncy with early summer green. It beckoned me though I can’t work out how. Kari pointed at the weir to our right. “I thought we’d swim above that so the seals don’t bump us,” she said. As a pre-confessed coward I was glad, I had no desire to hang out with those nippy buggers.

Down the decked step in, we took a few moments to acclimatise, let the cool water down our suits, looking for all the world like those women who so infuriate pool swimmers, breast-stroking side by side, chatting. Only this time, “We own the river,” Kari said, smiling.

Thurlestone Rock, Devon.

Thurlestone Rock, Devon. Photograph: Alamy

Why do you swim here? I said, as if my task was to ask the most pointless question. “It’s hidden in plain sight,” Kari replied, capturing in five words the essence of the thing. There was a delicious hint of almost subversive cheek, of getting away with something. We were so near town, right under everyone’s noses yet as soon as we got in the water, it all felt miles away, not a sight nor sound of the nearby town. With no effort at all, we were not just immersed in the landscape but positively hugged by it. That’s some kind of magic at work.

This is a place Kari comes if she’s training for something, and most summers there’s a long swim to be done. “I know that here I can swim a few kilometres along, and a few back,” she said. That predictability makes it sound almost like exercise, when it’s never just that for Kari, who treats swimming as “a physical practice, like yoga”, with the aim of integrating her life, her swimming and her art. She makes beautiful objects from fish leather, which seems like the perfect act of balance.

“Shall we?” said Kari, as if asking me to dance. Heads down, we set off down the river.

River Dart near Totnes

River Dart near Totnes. Photograph: Jenny Landreth

Twenty minutes? Thirty? I don’t know, time was marked by the rhythm of the arm, the kick of the foot, the body like a pendulum, tick-tock, tick-tock. Near silence, just the small surges forward. The depth of the river changed, sometimes shallow and the colour of mossy mustard. Then we stopped, raised our heads. It was so wholly alive, such a simple thing in an eternal place – I couldn’t stop smiling. I was full of it. Kari said: “Let’s just swim to the corner, see what’s round it,” and it seemed like we could have done that all day.

At the corner, we took in a long view of water stretched ahead, fecund and dancing, tempting us on. But we turned and came back. I felt like I’d been given such a gift – swimming with Kari, this river was easy and safe, it made me welcome. She gave me this river and I’m so grateful. A swimmer on the bank took our photo. Then on with our days we went, Kari to her studio, and I for a large cooked breakfast. This is truly the life of kings. Viva the river. Viva Kari Furre.

Jenny Landreth is author of Swimming London (Aurum, £12.99) and Swell, A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Both books are available at the guardian bookshop

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