Magazine article The Spectator

Headfirst, Sometimes Sideways, I Was Swept Down a Treacherous, Rain-Swollen River

Magazine article The Spectator

Headfirst, Sometimes Sideways, I Was Swept Down a Treacherous, Rain-Swollen River

Article excerpt

'Father of three drowns in Welsh holiday tragedy'. This was the news-in-brief headline you nearly read last week.

The father in question would have been me. Like all such incidents it came completely out of the blue. This is a thing I've noticed: you never wake up that morning with a spooky feeling of impending doom. One minute you're carrying on as most of us do: as if we're immortal or, at the very least, guaranteed to live to a very ripe old age. And the next:

'Whooah! If it isn't the Grim Reaper, hovering above me with his sickle!'

It happened like this: there's a lovely house we take for two weeks every August in the Welsh Borders, and one of the many splendid things about it is that there's a small river - the Edw - flowing past the bottom of the garden.

When the kids were younger it was great for paddling and catching minnows in. As they've grown older we've started using it for more adventurous stuff, seeing how far you can go down on bodyboards and rubber boats, jumping from a rock into the only deep-ish pool, that kind of thing. But you can only really manage this - just - when it's in full spate. Otherwise, you're much better off going for a proper swim and dive in the Wye where it's deeper and faster and more satisfyingly dangerous.

Anyway, I don't know how your weather has been in the rest of the country, but in the Welsh Borders it has been tipping it down something rotten. About the only upside is the effect it has had on our little river, which has been transformed from a clear, tranquil, gurgling stream into a raging brown torrent. Great for bodyboarding the kids decided. Reluctantly I agreed to go with them.

The reason I was reluctant was because it was a miserable day and I wasn't altogether convinced that the minimal excitement I'd experience floating not all that fast down a muddy stream on a bodyboard was quite enough to make up for the risk I'd catch a chill. But when the kids are begging, what can you do?

So we float down the river on our bodyboards. 'Isn't this brilliant, Dad?' says Boy. And it is, quite. Not exactly up there with the Cresta Run in the pure adrenaline stakes. But enough to make me think: 'Hmm. Might just do this trip one more time before I dash for the hot shower.'

Below the bridge is where the course ends.

After that point, the river gets much more steep and treacherous. You definitely wouldn't want to go down there in its current condition.

So, I pick my way awkwardly to the bank where Boy and his friend Ludo are waiting for me.

Very awkwardly. Even though I'm wearing special grippy water shoes, I find that for every step I make towards the bank, I'm being dragged another two steps downstream. It's both absurd and annoying. I've done this dozens of times before. Why am I making such a meal of it? Have I misjudged the volume and power of the water cascading towards me?

Then I'm gone. I don't know exactly how or why it happened but what I do know is that I've lost my footing and I'm being swept downstream, my board ahead of me, dragging me forward headfirst by the string attached to my wrist. And the suddenness and shock and breathtaking ghastliness of my predicament are so great I can't quite believe it's happening to me. 'This is one of those moments when you die!', I think, almost amused by the ludicrousness of the concept.

And you know how in books and films where they're fording a violent river and one of them is swept away and you think: 'Ah well, if that happened to me, I'd just be washed downstream and swim to a bank and escape'? …

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