The man in the tree was certain to jump, and I couldn’t stop him. Flying through my wake in a pale pink flash he dived deeply, and I waited, frozen in mid-stroke until he broke the surface, like a whale from the weedy depths. On most rivers so near a town, such a leap of faith would normally herald a visit from the emergency services, but not in Bungay; Suffolk’s swimming capital and the chilly eastern extremity of my bikerafting escapade.
While the Waveney is a wild-swimmer’s paradise, wending its way through the pools and shallows of South Norfolk, or North Suffolk – the river being the watery border of the two counties – it’s also brilliant for boating. Of the 96% of English waterways usually out of bounds to the public (shameful statistic, I know!) the Waveney is one of only a handful with an access agreement allowing people to enjoy mile upon mile of quiet, clear water without taking their solicitor along for the ride. Not only is a hassle-free day guaranteed, there’s also a designated canoe trail with launching platforms – a godsend when ‘portaging’ (fancy French for slogging around) the five ancient watermills below the quaint little town of Harleston, where I inflated my raft, strapped on the Brompton bike, and floated off downstream.
Backed by undulating hills, the Waveney valley is renowned for its idyllic beauty and abundant nature. Tall poplars poke green heads above rambling woodlands, and beneath the river moves; sneaking drunkenly among alders and willows like an early morning reveller, before bursting into the sun and gossiping gleefully over gravel.
As I drifted along, pairs of geese cut across the big sky above, their wings hanging in the air like sharks’ teeth. In these remote places, the birds are often timid but be warned – they can be pretty fierce at nesting time. I was chased by a Canada goose, and countless swans scrambled to escort me off their territory, bundling fluffy cygnets to safety in the reeds. Apparently a swan can break your arm with one flap of its wing, and if the kamikaze brute that savaged me in Bradford, or the ‘Terror of Cambridge’, feathered criminal ‘Mr Asbo’ are truly representative, then I’d not bet against it. Personally, I prefer kingfishers, and the wooded Waveney is the perfect habitat for them. Falling out of the trees and buzzing upstream like giant blue hummingbirds, they fly like the insects they hunt and leave canoes well alone. One flew past as I stopped for lunch on a flinty bank at Earsham, searching for fish hiding in the sandy shallows.
The river is brim-full of history too. All the mills date from Norman times, and on the outskirts of Bungay stand the remains of its eponymous castle, built in 1165 by local warlord Hugh Bigod as part of his plans to rule East Anglia and dominate the city of Norwich, neither of which came to fruition. Now strangled by ivy, the ruined keep marks the entry to the town and the ‘Bungay Loop’ where the river slides silkily behind a row of characterful cottages, kitchen doors flung open, tempting the otters with the smell of freshly-baked bread.
Most of the swimmers – like my man in the tree – make their splash at Outney Common, where the Waveney skirts a peninsula of grazing pasture and there is a bank-side campsite, where it’s possible to pitch within diving distance of the river. As daylight’s scattered embers burned the western horizon over the Common, I retired to my sleeping bag, repeating the old adage, “red sky at night…” with such ill-advised vigour that I managed to persuade myself not to bother with the tent – after all, it couldn’t possibly rain – so I simply wrapped its shell around me and lay cocooned like a caterpillar in a crackly leaf, waiting silently for darkness to fall.
Or so I hoped, for within moments I’d attracted quite a crowd; barking dogs straining at my ankles and campground staff thinking I was some sort of dossing vagrant, demanding payment while a witty assortment of ‘motor-home’ owners breezed by, smugly enquiring, “lost your tent?” and “what will you do if it rains?” Despite the gathering clouds I remained, nonchalant until the early hours when I awoke to the spine-tingling splash of rain trickling down my face. Deciding to call it a night and pedal valiantly to the Wensum, I coined myself a new proverb: Never ignore the weather forecast!