It’s dusk on a September evening and I can hear the calls of owls back and forth across the river. The sky and the estuary are draining of colour and everything feels soft and muted. A steel ladder at the end of North Quay leads down into the water, and my feet feel cold on the rungs.
This is Sharpham on the River Dart in Devon. Swimming here has become a regular ritual since the sudden death of my son Felix when he was just 20. Tonight, a few months on, I am here with some friends who I have been swimming with for years, since way before this terrible event tore apart my life.
One by one we descend the ladder and strike out into the dark silky waters of the Dart. The river laps around our bodies, and we quietly swim upstream. A fallen dead tree, its limbs stark and black, looms out of the water, festooned with dark brown bladderwrack which is gradually colonising it. As we push against the flowing tide, I feel the silent support of my friends, swimming beside me.
Upstream, on a hillside, is Sharpham Meadow, where Felix is buried. When I visit his grave, I can see down to the river, a serpentine shape through the land, flowing down to the sea which is visible in the distance. Afterwards, I usually head down to North Quay, from where I can see back up to the burial ground as I swim in the river below. The water is an elemental connection between us.
Upstream is our home on the edge of Dartmoor, where I have swum in the Dart for over twenty years. This river has been a constant in my life, particularly as a mother, with countless walks beside it and paddles and swims in it with my sons as they were growing up. We have our own names for the various pools on the moorland stretch near our home: the Double Jacuzzi Pool, the No Bathing Pool, and Felix’s Pool to name a few. The latter was discovered by Felix when, aged about 10, he diverted off the main path and disappeared. We followed him down and found him playing on some granite ledges by the water, by what turned out to be the perfect pool for children. It was here that we instinctively returned, in March 2017, to throw daffodils in the water in his memory, when we had the shocking news that he had died while away at university.
Felix had developed epilepsy when he was 13, and it had proved difficult to treat. He was on medication, but still suffered from seizures, despite several experiments with different drugs and dosages. It was an enormous trial for him but we never expected it would take his life. But that is what happened. After being uncontactable for a few days, he was found dead in his room. A post mortem concluded he had died of SUDEP – Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy.
Our lives were thrown into a living hell. The shock of it, the cruelty of it, the grim unreality of it. Yet even in those first, nightmarish days when I was living in a fog of despair, I felt a primitive need to get in the water, to swim, to lose myself in the river and the sea. My friends took me to our treasured places on the Dart, which provided reassurance and familiarity. The crystal-clear water running over the granite, the bubbling cascades and the sheer beauty of the Dart gorge were uplifting and therapeutic. They took me to the sea, where the vast expanse of salt water was both physically restorative and mentally calming. Swimming was a comfort, a balm, a point of absence, and yet at the same time a point of connection to life itself, and back to Felix.
Water makes up about two thirds of the human body, and it sustains life, and this, I think, is maybe why being in it feels so elemental. When swimming I feel I somehow become part of the natural landscape, which is where Felix is now, he is buried in the ground and has returned to the earth.
The water also feels like another world, another dimension. When I’m swimming my thoughts are smoothed out, my mind is less agitated, and I return to a more basic state, away and apart from the normality of human existence. To a certain extent I lose my sense of self, which parallels my loss of my son.
Swimming has always been important for my happiness, my health and my wellbeing, but since Felix died it has become even more essential, bound up in my life and in my routines. It has become one of my mourning rituals, something I can do that gives me time and space to grieve. I swim in the Dart below his grave, and upstream where we had many happy family times. I swim in lakes, sea and rivers old and new, and the water, wherever I am, brings me back to my essence, to my connection with him.
My swimming friends have been with me through thick and thin, through the before and after of Felix’s death, quietly there, quietly present. There is something inherently supportive about swimming friendships, maybe it’s because when you’re in the water together there is always the unspoken knowledge that you need to look out for each other, to stay safe. And those shared magical experiences, where you feel you’ve really lived, create a special bond.
And so now, on a cold winter’s day in 2021, four years after he died, here I am again, descending into the Dart, as it runs below Felix’s grave, feeling the chilly water as it runs over my skin and down to the sea and away into the vast depths.
Sophie’s memoir about grief, landscape and swimming, is crowdfunding with Unbound. You can read more here.