Wild Swimming in France, a chat with Daniel Start
DIFFERENT points of view and experiences are the stuff of travel books, but for nature lover, Daniel Start, his collection of remote swimming places found in France offers a frog's eye view of the country.
Daniel has written, Wild Swimming in France, that takes you darting through the waterways on a river watch like a wild pike, recording every flickering reflection and sun bathed pool.
The result offers up a complete guide to France's remote watering places, perfect for an alternative leisure day out.
A natural sciences graduate and government science advisor, during his time off Daniel whirled around France for twenty six weeks dipping in to ten or fifteen water points daily, such is his love of swimming outdoors.
By amassing this knowledge Daniel is encouraging thousands to breathe, dive, put their head underwater and look about at the beauty of the watery environment.
As I found when talking to Daniel recently there was no resisting his enthusiasm to get people to jump in. But if there is an étang close to you, what should you look out for?
"If it is in a rural area with nothing running into it then there is no reason why it should not be exceptionally clean, it is just rain water," Daniel said.
"Unless there is any reason for it to be polluted, assume it is clean. As for mud and green things, that comes down to personal preference.
"If you want very clean water you really have to go to a highland area, lowland France or lowland England are not so clean. But you are going to get some mud, it is part of the geology but it is not dirty."
It seems that years of chlorinated swimming pools had instilled fear without grounds.
"It is a bit scary but then why not tiptoe in and have a swim?" Daniel said. "Keep your head out of the water if you are concerned. Go with someone else, never swim alone, walk around it and look in it, check there is no oil or dead fish in it.
"If you are worried do breast stroke, don't do front crawl, and only go in for twenty minutes."
"If you are really worried, cover any cuts with plasters but this is all quite extreme stuff I think," said Daniel.
This is reassuring. In fact, the rivers in France and Britain are generally in a far better condition than in days gone by.
"I think the rivers in Britain are cleaner than they have been in living memory. They are far cleaner than twenty years ago. I swim downstream from Salisbury a lot and it comes out as Grade A.
"In France, the rivers and lakes are quite a lot cleaner again partly because of the lower population density," Daniel said.
Our rivers are now cleaner? I thought Daniel was kidding, but again there's that disquiet again. After all, hadn't comedian David Walliams in September 2011 caught Thames tummy swimming in polluted water?
In fact, I learned there are a few no-go areas when planning a wild swim, and weather conditions also play a part.
"I think there are two very specific situations where you should never swim in rivers from a water quality perspective," Daniel said.
"Apart from rivers running through urban areas, the two key times you should never swim are during a flood and an extensive drought.
"During a flood, all the waters are big and turbulent and all the sewers will overflow with untreated sewage. In drought the water levels become very, very low and a lot of the water that is in there will be run off from fields or discharged from local sewage works.
"When Walliams swam he was advised by everybody not to swim in the River Thames , he disregarded warnings."
So the flood of legs back to their amphibian roots and floating carefree in remote lakes is open to all. Certainly many have realised the joy of this, as people are making a return to their local watering hole to find seclusion, peace and an escape from day-to-day stress.
Some of the evidence of this change can be seen in the success of Daniel's first book, Wild Swimming, which has sold 60,000 copies, while his website has 15,000 members on the email list.
"I think there should be more places where you can go swimming without paying," Daniel said.
"France is particularly good in that they have three categories, baignat interdit, baignat surveiller and baignat unsurveiller which means you can swim there but there is no lifeguard and it does not cost anything."
But as Daniel said these days when people are getting overloaded with stress, or spend too long on the smartphone, we want to get away from the crowds.
"You can actually go online in France to find all the official places but what we have done is found wild ones off the beaten tracks because the official ones are all very busy.
"In the wildness of France we have recorded places that you would not consider or even find, these are free days out that are exciting, fun and different."
It's certainly the case that in France as long as you don't leave litter or damage the area, and ask where necessary, there is a laissez-faire attitude.
"Often I would go into the villages and talk to villagers and they'd say 'Oh we would never swim here it is too dirty', but you go down to the lake and it is crystal clear.
"Although the laws in France as far as I understand are pretty similar to the UK, locally though, French landowners seem to be a lot more lenient.
"When I was swimming in a river, the farmer would be there tending to his tomatoes and you could just pitch up by the side with a picnic.
"There is more space in France and there is probably more tradition of letting people use tracks and use rural places that everyone can use. You can pretty much walk everywhere.
"France has over 3,000 monitored lake river and sites," Daniel said. "Many of the places we have found are on the same river course, but they might be away from the town or they might be in a slightly more secluded place.
"Many of the locations are in the upper reaches of the rivers such as in the Massif Centrale or high up in Provence."
Back at the nerby étang, and having disturbed a frog in the soft mud, I watched a translucent blue tailed damselfly zip past, keeping my head above water and make tentative breast strokes, I sensed the changing temperatures and light, with Daniel's words echoing through the depths.
"I think you are slipping into the cool wonder of nature you are taking a frog's eye view of the world and you know when you get out you feel the urge to get back in, it is almost an addictive pleasure."
By Carol Miers
THE COMPETITION HAS NOW CLOSED
Win a copy of Wild Swimming in France by Daniel Start
All you need to do is leave a message below, something like 'please enter me into the competition' is all that is needed, but make sure your email address is correct.
I'll then pick a message at random as the winner. Closing date for the competition is Monday, June 25, 2012 at noon Paris time.