Country diary: moss and ivy have taken over this wild swimming pool


Gilsland Spa hotel stands empty at present, dominating a promontory above a wooded gorge, with far views to the north Pennines. Victorian tourists came here for the mineral springs – both sulphurous and chalybeate – and its romantic scenery. A path, wide enough for crinoline or horse and cart, leads steeply down through beech and sycamore. The bank above is sprinkled with the yellow stars of lesser celandine and a tumble of daffodils. Below, the hillside drops away, covered in bluebells and the fresh green of woodrush.

Descending towards the River Irthing, we take a side path soft with crushed leaves, narrowing and weaving among spring greenery to the “chink chink” of chaffinches. With such little rain, the polypody ferns on the mossy trunks are dried and curling, and the river that I’ve seen in spate runs slow. All around in the deep gorge, the song of a wren echoes.

Through a tangle of branches we make out a large rectangular pit surrounded by a low wall: a Victorian swimming pool. Its sides, where bathers once stood, are half-hidden by the glossy emerald leaves of wild garlic. Inside, everything is draped in moss and ivy: the walls and tiled channels, the metal brackets, the pale saplings, a fallen tree – its sprawling limbs decaying where it fell.

I walk down steps where people would have entered to swim. It’s spongy and moist underfoot. Many autumns have contributed to a depth of leaf mould that supports the encroaching woodland flora: creeping buttercup, water avens, hart’s tongue ferns, dog’s mercury, bittercress and wide spreads of opposite-leaved golden saxifrage. Revelling in the damp humus, the acid-green of Chrysosplenium oppositifolium looks as though sunlight is falling through the trees. Its tiny flowers are without petals; the brightness come from the golden sepals and yellow flushed leaves.

Peeling back the moss, I run my hand along the curved edge of an overspill basin. I imagine holding on to its smooth ceramic as I splash and kick water behind me. Now the only sounds are of the river deep in its chasm, and the liquid sound of a blackbird singing.


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