We have just returned from ten days in France staying in a friend’s house in the Languedoc. This was somewhat of a homecoming for me as the last time we visited this house was the summer before the accident, when the winding roads, rocky rivers and steep mountain paths were just one big adventure. The accident, of course, rendered those things impassable for me. The stony roads and rivers inaccessible to wheelchairs and perilous on crutches.
The intervening four years since our last visit, we have selected our holiday destinations based primarily on their accessibility for me. Whilst I have nothing against family resorts and flat beach side boardwalks, it was nice to once again be able to venture off the beaten track. My mobility is vastly improved from even a year ago, when I was still relying on a stick when tired. Along with increased stamina and much better balance, so my confidence has grown. Walks that I would have disregarded even six months ago as too risky, I am now willing to try.
We were loaned a copy of a book called Wild Swimming France, which lists gloriously hidden swimming spots throughout the country. Our mission was to tick off every listing that was under a two hour drive from our holiday home.
Every day we packed a bag of swimming gear and bought a baguette or two and headed off on a magical mystery tour to locate waterfalls, gorges, plunge pools and rivers whose locations were unravelled by wonderfully vague directions, such as “look for a small layby next to a stone wall”.
The Languedoc is the foothills of the Pyrenees, so there was much clambering down small goat paths and climbing up rocky banks to contend with, but the results were well worth it. Most of the time, we swam in splendid isolation, except from on one memorable occasion we were joined by a mink catching his fish supper and another when we disturbed a cloud of iridescent butterflies by a river deep in a forest.
The tall, imposing mountains or Pics hung over our bathing spots, either surrounding calm, reed fringed lakes or looming heavily over crisp, clear mountain rivers. The quality and warmth of the water in stark contrast to the peaty, cold waters of our habitual Dartmoor swimming spots.
I only came unstuck a couple of times. The first incident happened after I had managed to drop down a large rocky outcrop to reach a wide bathing pool in a river. After we had swum, I realised that I was stuck down there. I was unable to climb back up the way that I had come down. My weak knee prevented me from swinging my leg high enough to reach a foothold. A supremely ungraceful rescue attempt was launched by my husband and children, who working as a team pulled me up by my good arm whilst shoving me up by my bottom. Thankfully we were without spectators for that.
On another occasion, I slipped on a slimy stone on a riverbed and landed unceremoniously on my bottom in the shallow water. I always fall heavily as I instinctively try to protect my broken arm and leg. Whilst I was unhurt, it did occur to me that we were a long way from any help (although we bizarrely received more mobile coverage up a French mountain than we have ever gotten in our Dartmoor village).
For the ten days that we were in France, we only visited a public swimming spot on three occasions, twice to local outdoor pools and once to a man made lake in a nearby town, which came complete with inflatable water park for the children. I took advantage of the children’s hour long water park admittance to try out the inflatable paddle board hire on the lake.
The very scant security briefing before I took my hired board out was a masterclass in foreign language mime. I understood barely one word in ten that the instructor said and he clearly had real problems with my terrible French. The only true moment of clarity came when I tried to explain that I had ‘mal de jambe’ complete with wincing face and a display of my scars. ‘Mon Dieu’ he muttered with a stricken look. I understood perfectly. ‘Mon Dieu’ indeed.
I may not have looked the picture of elegance whilst paddle boarding but I did at least redeem myself by not falling in. The inflatable board was narrower than the board I tried previously at Roadford Lake and so was harder to balance on, but I still loved the moment when board, water and paddle achieved a perfect rhythm and the slight breeze from the water cutting through the intense sunshine was glorious.
We took a family vote on where to spend our last day. The children voted for Rennes-les-Bains, where hot springs flow directly into the river and the fish are plentiful in the mineral-rich waters. We took it in turns to bathe in the small rocky pool directly under the hot springs which was as warm as bathwater before heading downstream where the river deepened enough to allow the children to jump from rocks.
Now we are back in the UK, we are all keen to try a similar project around Devon and Cornwall, so do you have any secret swimming spots that you have discovered or recommendations for books on wild swimming? I would love to hear your thoughts.