“For Lynne, passing it down the line didn’t need to end at her death. ‘People can swim and take me with them,’ she said. ‘Take my spirit with them.’ This idea of a continuum, of teaching the ones coming after us, giving them skills, leading them towards possibilities — it’s like we’re a family. So yes, I’ll take Lynne’s spirit with every splash of salt water on my face, take it and pass it down the line.” Jenny Landreth in Swell: A Waterbiography
In December 2010, paramedic Lynne Roper was diagnosed with breast cancer. By March 2011, ‘terminally bored’ with post-operative pool-based physio, she began swimming outdoors. Physically daring — she’d seen active service in Iraq with the RAF — but with a poet’s eye for nature, she was soon at the heart of the West Country’s wild swimming community: an unofficial wild water midwife inspiring others to ‘read water’ and take educated risks as she did.
From 2011 until 2015 (when the brain tumour that would end her life began to make itself felt), Lynne kept a journal of swims in over 60 wild West Country waters. Bel Pool, Mel Tor, Sharrah, Spitchwick, Horseshoe Falls, Fingle Bridge, Bugle Hole, Burgh Island: Like a swimmer’s version of the Shipping Forecast, Lynne tracks through the seasons places few know and less brave — freezing pools in hollowed-out Dartmor tors, sea caves stuck about with Dead Men’s Fingers, rivers in full spate where bouyancy is lost suddenly in froth and bubbles.
‘Foam maps the movement of water in Sharrah pool, and there’s an eddy I haven’t seen before on the far side; the current from the cascade reaches three-quarters of the way down, and circles in a spiral back up the far bank, like stirred coffee. Usually, there are rock-studded shallows at the lower end of the pool where you drift gently aground before the river is forced in a rapid through the narrows, but today the surge completely covers the rocks and there’s a real danger of being swept over. No swimmer would survive that trip…’
But even in the wildest of swims, Lynne’s attention floats a while on still, small moments: crab apples clinging to a branch become ‘fruity tiara on a tipsy granny at a barn dance’; rushes and foxgloves ‘bend like animal pelts’ in the wind; below the falls of Tavy Cleave, water is ‘the colour of ginger cake made with black treacle.’
By turns lyrical and adrenalin-fuelled, solitary and communal, Wild Woman Swimming: A Journal of West Country Waters is book for wild swimmers and nature lovers alike.
Edited by Tanya Shadrick as a Selkie Press book with a preface by Jenny Landreth (author of Swell: A Waterbiography) and an introduction by Sophie Pierce (Wild Swimming Walks Dartmoor and South Devon).
First extracts from Lynne’s diaries – ‘Spitchwick’, ‘Sharrah’ and ‘Thurlestone Rock’ – are available in Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers & Wild Swimmers (Frogmore Press, 2017)
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