Country diary: a winter swim, and a bolt of blue

Otley, West Yorkshire: The radiant blaze of cyan down the back of the kingfisher hardly seems to belong to this planet

I walk down to the River Wharfe with a strange, restless feeling I have had since waking up. It is a specific hunger, but for something I can’t pinpoint – like craving a food I’ve never eaten, or wanting to listen to a kind of music that doesn’t exist yet.

During these lockdown months, I have visited this nearby stretch of river for a short walk on most days. There is usually something to see: cormorants, little egrets, grey wagtails, dippers, herons, roving flocks of finches. The landscape is ultra familiar, but these variations in the natural texture make every visit, however brief, a reminder of the dynamism of the living world.

Today, though, something more is needed. This internal urge wants to be fed with newness, spontaneity, excitement; all the things that are effectively denied us right now. So on an impulse, I opt for one of the few fresh experiences available, and jump into the frigid, peaty-brown river.

My first winter swim in the Wharfe; it is exhilarating, brutally cold, and brief. And it is certainly fresh. But then, just as I’m hurriedly drying myself off, a flash of burning blue shoots out from the willows.

The radiant blaze of cyan down the back of the kingfisher hardly seems to belong to this planet, never mind this temperate latitude. It has the resplendence of stars or lightning or the aurora; a bolt of plasma riding a tiny bird. The sight of such a far-fetched colour shooting through a British winter can be confounding, unbelievable. In the naturalist Michael McCarthy’s words, when you see it, your “sense of what the world can contain is actually enlarged”.

Over the past year, I have had two dozen glimpses of the kingfisher couple that lives along this stretch of river, but this is my first sighting for some time, and it feels much needed. The bird flies in a long, precise arc downriver, low above the water, its speed-blurred wings giving it the impression of a long, graceful glide. The winter light catches its back as it goes, lighting a crack in the curtain of our world with the colour of an alien sun streaking through.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

Contributor

Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: a glimpse of spring down by the river Ystwyth
Aberystwyth, Ceredigion: From the depths of dormant bramble thickets, tangled and moribund, robins called and chased defiantly as they reinforced their territories

John Gilbey

24, Feb, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: iridescent beauties, pavilioned in splendour
Buxton, Derbyshire: The drake mandarin duck ranks among the Earth’s most beautiful birds

Mark Cocker

19, Mar, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: long-tailed tits swirl high like leaves
Harlech, Gwynedd: They rank by weight as the tiniest of British birds, though that disproportionate tail gives a slightly false impression of their size

Jim Perrin

14, Mar, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: an exhalation in the alder carr
Purwell Ninesprings, Hertfordshire: I’m often drawn back to this swampy woodland in search of solace and inspiration

Nic Wilson

09, Oct, 2020 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: there’s something of JG Ballard’s drowned worlds here
West Williamston, Pembrokeshire: Sometimes a bank of mist drifts upriver, muffling all sound. It is one of the most atmospheric places I know

Jim Perrin

10, Aug, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a flicker of turquoise morphs into a kingfisher
Langstone, Hampshire: As it turns to face me, its burnished copper breast-feathers glow in the late afternoon sun

Claire Stares

01, Mar, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: for most of my walk I have the valley to myself
Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire: The thick undergrowth beyond the river path is an ideal spot for otters to lie inconspicuously

John Gilbey

22, Apr, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: going with the flow of the dipper's song
Wye Dale, Derbyshire: By one of the bridges, two dippers have built a nest: a football-sized ball of moss layered with a sense of time and season

Mark Cocker

16, Mar, 2021 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a heron he would a-wooing go
Wolsingham, County Durham: Ready for courtship, he’s immaculately turned out, wings folded like a butler’s tailcoat

Phil Gates

16, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a walk before dawn on a moonless path
Sandy, Bedfordshire: My feet swish through leaves and I’m conscious of many missteps, slight stumbles over roots and slides into dips

Derek Niemann

29, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM