There is nothing better than swimming in the ice cold lakes and rivers of Southern France in May. But it wasn’t planned this way.
The holiday was originally going to be a beach-bum-sea-swimming week on the coast somewhere near Perpignan. But that changed when my girlfriend Elizabeth bought me a book entitled Wild Swimming in France. So that was that. The plans changed and we headed to the Corbières region and le petit village of Lagrasse where we found one of the best campsites I can remember. Perched high on the hill overlooking the medieval village with its high arched bridge curving over the trout bloated Orbieu, it was the perfect spot to explore the regions waterholes and rivers.
We didn’t even have to go that far. For on our first night we swam in the river right there in the village. The cold icy waters soothing our aching legs after the long drive down from Lyon. A couple of beers by the waterside on a sultry late spring evening watching the pond skaters dance and pirouette on the oily water was a million times better than the crowded bars of Lyon in the pouring rain.
The next day after breakfasting on mackerel and dried sausage – a personal favourite of mine – and strong sweet milky coffee, we headed for what was the highlight of the entire trip: the Gorges du Terminet.
Walking down through the forest from the road we came to the waterfall we had been looking for. And what a sight! A large pool surrounded by tall beech and deep green ferns, three tongues of water cascading down into the brooding cauldron below.
We swam and froze and it was incredible. But the best was yet to come as we scrambled up the gorge to find a set of deep sparkling pools. The last one being the most spectacular. A dark abyss of seemingly endless depth fed by an icicle thin waterfall cascading down from the upper part of the gorge.
It was foreboding and menacing and it took me a while to enter the black water and swim across. Once there, and with renewed courage, I started climbing up the bare rock to the left of the waterfall to reach the narrow ravine that led into the heart of the mountain.
At this point the diameter was no more than a couple of metres, the high walls of the gorge towering above me on either side. It was scary as I was now on my own, out of view and contact from Elizabeth. I felt a terrible sense of isolation. If something happened, hit my head or fainted, I’d be dead before she found me. My body already shaking from the cold.
But I buried my fear deep in the pool and swam up the ravine as far as I could go, touched the back wall, said thank-you to the gods, turned back and started climbing back down. But it wasn’t as easy as coming up. Whether I was suffering from mild hypothermia or just frightened by the loneliness, it took me five attempts to get down. When I finished the descent, I plunged into the deep pool and quickly swam back to the shore to dry off and eat a bar of chocolate as quick as a pig eats a bucket of swill.
We then walked back down the gorge and up to the car at the top of the pass. Exhausted yet totally exhilarated. Nature serving up a feast of pure opium for the soul once again. Magical and giddy with excitement as we drove back to the campsite to drink the wine that we’d picked up at the village: a couple of bottles of the local Marselan and Cabinet-Franc served up with fried eggs and lardons from my camping pan. And then sleep to rival that of dead men.
The next day we mooned about the campsite reading and drinking coffee before heading off to find the pools and lake at Ribaute, a mere 5 km from the campsite. We were disappointed! Not because it didn’t rival yesterday’s spectacle – it was a fantastic swimming spot in its own right – but it was bank holiday and half the village were there.
Luckily the lake was on hand: Olympic sized. Perfect for doing lengths and a total contrast to yesterday’s short sharp bursts in the arctic waters of the gorge. Plus it was hot, a nice 28 degrees, allowing us to gently slide into the lake like seals once we’d eaten the pizza bought from the mobile van cleverly parked up near the swimmers. It’s a myth you know that you can’t swim after eating!
The following day we went to Carcassonne to buy gas for the stove. But quickly came back to swim in the two remaining entries in my book. Needless to say the book contains hundreds of swims. And of course is only a fragment of the swims on offer. For there is swimming everywhere.
This I realised after reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog a few years ago in Bristol. The book I suspect that inspired the author of the book I was reading and countless others responsible for the resurgence in this beautiful art of wild swimming.
For too long we have been educated that the only place to swim is the sea or the swimming pool. Yet to swim in a crystal clear river surrounded by forest or steep gorge is one of the greatest pleasures there is. Yes be careful! Use your head, don’t swim in the Rhone, don’t swim at night, don’t swim alone if possible. If you do these things, it’s far less dangerous than driving a car. Or even riding a bike. And if you see signs saying Swimming Prohibited, make your own decision. I.e. ignore them. They are there to satisfy the lawyers and the health and safety. People who should be ignored anyway. And lastly don’t wear a wetsuit. You may as well stay in bed wrapped up in your duvet. If you are going to swim. Swim for Christ’s sake! Let your skin breathe for once.
The two final swims at St-Pierre-des-Champs and St-Martin-des-Puits were also delightful, if cold, due to a strong wind that had blown up from the west. So it was good to crack open the new gas cylinders back at the campsite and eat piping hot sausage and tinned lentils with more fresh Corbières. What a wine!
The next day was Friday and time to start heading back to Lyon. Albeit slowly. We drove to the Hérault Valley where we camped by the river and in the morning swam in its strong currents. Again, truly magical swimming with a family of portly barbequers looking on from the pebbled beach in wonder as though we were giant otters.
For the last night we headed to the Ardeche and in the morning swam. And by God, it was cold. Colder than the pools at Terminet, colder than the sea at Maenporth in Cornwall in winter, colder than all the cold baths I’d had at school. But it was the last swim of the holiday and I would have swam in ice if I had to. Plus I felt pure and alive after. More alive in fact since sledging down a mountain in Poland on a tea tray in 2001.
Shortly after, we packed up and headed back through the towns and villages of Ardeche, back into the Rhone-Alpe region and back to Lyon. Ready and waiting for the next swim in the cold blue waters of France.