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Lakes Suffolk Swims

Shotford Bridge, February 2020

Our adventure started at Shotford Bridge, a spot just outside Harleston recommended on the Wild Swimming site – in Roger Deakin’s favourite river, the Waveney.

“Ideal for a quick dip on a summer’s day” according to Wild Swim, it was a different prospect in late February. While it wasn’t raining now, it had been pretty much all week, and for most of the winter. One look at the Waveney – the colour of milk chocolate, high and moving very fast – told us there was no way we’d be having our open water baptism here. I felt if I dipped so much as a toe in I’d be immediately taken downstream to Bungay and beyond.

But we’d spent months talking about this, procrastinating over wetsuits and neoprene socks, and there was no way we were going to be defeated on the first attempt. Fortunately the Waveney valley here is peppered with lakes and pools, and the valley’s largest – at over 100 acres – was right behind us. Almost exclusively the preserve of private fishing, it seemed to us a very Deakinesque thing to do, stealing a swim under the disapproving gaze of fully paid up permit holders.

The Waveney at Shotford Bridge

The roads beside Weybread Ocean Pits – as the large lake is known – were strewn with fishermen hauling gear out of their cars, plus a couple of dodgy looking types furtively pacing around a grubby van (“definitely poachers” said Matt). The more we drove around in front of these gloomy looking people, the more self conscious I became. Doubtless Roger D would by now have stripped naked and launched in with wanton abandon. Having then swam two laps of the lake he’d probably have given the anglers a history of public access to open water, and discovered at least one new species of newt or something. All in the time we’d spent looking for somewhere to park. It was time for action.

Stopping at a passing place opposite the fishermen, we spotted a track leading away through trees. Investigating, we found the track led down a steep embankment which gave way to the massive grey expanse of the Ocean Pits Lake. Safely hidden from the fishermen across the road, out of the cold easterly wind, and not a soul in sight. The only living things I could see were a pair of grebes bobbing way out on the water. This swim was ON.

The water level was so high the grassy bank on the lake’s edge was under two feet of water, the small concrete steps of the path vanishing straight into it. This afforded us just one small step each in which to change into our suits. The logistics of getting wetsuited up are a challenge at the best of times, without attempting it on a steep incline with barely enough room to put two feet down together. Cue much hilarity, swearing, and no small grievance to my herniated disc.

This was the first test of our suits, and in damned cold water (around 4 degrees). I’ll admit to being apprehensive. My only previous experience was with a £20 summer wetsuit from Penzance Sainsbury’s, which in the cold waters of Penzance Lido was like wearing no wetsuit at all. But clearly the Orca TRN suit I’d bought was the real deal. Insulating, and with Dead Sea grade buoyancy, it was clearly worth every penny.

And the swim itself? All I can say is it was marvellous. Were it not for the cold biting at our hands and feet I dare say we could have stayed in longer, but common sense prevailed and after 20 glorious minutes we were out and doing the wetsuit shuffle in reverse. Having not yet bought the next most essential piece of open water kit – the changing robe – we were baring far more of ourselves to the elements than we would have liked, but there really wasn’t a soul in sight to worry about.

Within 10 minutes we were in a tea shop in Harleston while the rain lashed down, feeling very pleased with ourselves. As a first swim it had a bit of everything, and luckily (given we’d spent heavily on equipment) we weren’t in the least bit put off. Thinking these lakes would make a terrific swim in warmer weather, we resolved to return.

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