Floating on my back, my ears dipped just beneath the surface of the water, listening to the swaddled sounds and holding my breath against the freezing water thrilling my scalp, I thought: maybe The Rolling Stones got it slightly wrong…
I’ve been coming to this ford in the river for months. Sometimes with energetic children leading the way, sometimes dragging them apathetically behind. Sometimes solitary and anxious, sometimes contentedly alone. And each time it works a different magic, tailoring its medicine to the moment. It’s not quite that ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ It’s more that if you don’t know what you want – if you’re too overwhelmed, overloaded or overwrought to stop, breathe and take a good look at yourself – then it’s okay. Nature will give you what you need.
The ford is a 10-minute drive from our new house, in a semi-rural area of Norfolk that we’d visited for perhaps a total of four hours before signing on the dotted line. We found it on the map when we were house-hunting, and circled it thinking: “When we move, this is the sort of people we’ll be. The wild-swimming sort. The energised, invigorated, in-tune-with-nature sort”.
Then we forgot all about it for six months, till one hot and fidgety day the house expelled us from its stuffy interior and we found ourselves propelled into the car, tapping the postcode in the satnav as if on auto-pilot.
Once there, we stood on the bank of the river, momentum suddenly dissipated. Other families splashed, a group of teenagers played tinny music, an older couple balanced their dog on a paddleboard. But the water looked dark and cold. The banks slippery. We stood on the side, shifting from foot to foot. Then: deep breath, go. We ploughed into the water, the children’s eyes widening at the shock of the cold. Half way in, the water circling our hips, there was a moment of reversal, the children wrenching our hands back to the bank.
When out of nowhere, a family who we’d never met before and have never seen since, splashed up and offered one of their two giant rubber rings.
The kids clambered in, fell out, and were drenched in the shared sense of elation. They queued alongside small goosebumped strangers for the turn to ride the rope swing and plunge, bubbling, beneath the surface. They came up fresh, pink and smiling, as if an overheavy old skin had been shed.
Since then we have been back countless times and the river never fails to deliver. Driving down there alone with just the dog, I let the water lap at my anxieties till they’re worn smooth (my calm building in inverse proportion to that of the dog, who sits nervously on the bank, wary of the water and whining). On lethargic afternoons, I drag my sulky limbs down to the riverside, for the cold water to let off fireworks in every cell. Then I dry off by the car – clumsily pegging a towel to my chest with my chin, and wobblingly pulling jeans over clammy thighs.
The whole exercise takes maybe 20 minutes. Back in the car, nothing has changed, and yet somehow, something has shifted. It reminds me of my very favourite poem, ‘The Peninsula’ by Seamus Heaney, which – to me at least – chronicles this power of nature’s to somersault your internal world in a quiet, intangible way: “And drive back home, still with nothing to say/ Except that now you will uncode all landscapes/ By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,/ Water and ground in their extremity.”
Hattie Garlick is a freelance journalist based in Norfolk. She writes for The Telegraph, The Guardian, Financial Times and The Times.
This article, specially commissioned for land&water, first appeared in our 'Warm Glow' zine (October 2021). Portrait by Danny North – see more from the series in our online exhibition.