"It is a long-held superstition in Herefordshire that the river will take, then leave alone for another year"

This was bought home with a vengeance in news reported in the Hereford Times of January 1940. While the country was preoccupied with the onset of the Second World War, a tragedy of epic proportions occurred much closer to home, with the deaths of four children in the river from drowning. They had been playing on ice opposite the Bishop’s Palace. The sequence of events played out in newspapers are almost too much to bear.

Two years later, in the summer of 1942, pupils of Felsted School, who had been evacuated to the safe havens of Goodrich from Essex, were enjoying ‘bathing’ practice in the Wye, when a 15-year-old member of their party drowned.

Much later, in the summer of 1974 at Symonds Yat, another two drownings prompted calls for an outright ‘swimming ban’. The appeal came to nothing.

The lure of the river holds strong, however. Despite the obvious dangers, generations have discovered, and continue to enjoy, the delights of swimming in the Wye in the most breath-taking scenery. On a summer’s day, soft grass underfoot, the lapping sounds of water, birdsong, the Wye is at its most tempting and seductive, as many have found. 

Janet Preedy, 79.

‘I must have been taken on the river from the day I was born.’ Janet Preedy.

Three generations of the Preedy family ran the Hunderton Ferry, rented from Hereford Council. Janet, who can still read the weather from the river’s appearance, took over on her father’s death and recalls forgotten swimming place names, busy summer Sundays, her father pulling a drowned child from the river and almost drowning herself. The ferry ceased in 1965 shortly after Lord Beeching’s railway cuts shut down the local line, opening the railway bridge nearby as a river crossing for pedestrians.

Janet still lives within minutes of the former Hunderton Ferry launch. Access to it is now overgrown and little that surrounds this once bustling river crossing gives any indication of its past life. When she was a girl, she had an early and frightening lesson:

‘I must have been about ten and I put a ring around my waist and I dived off this landing stage on the opposite side of the river and of course it slipped and went around my feet and I couldn’t get my feet out and I was being held upside down. I was nearly drowned. It was my fault. If it hadn't been for my sister’s fiancée jumping in I think I would have drowned. But it’s a funny thing when I first went under I panicked a bit and then I got calm and I thought, “Oh somebody drowns ever year under the water,” and I stopped panicking. And the next thing I knew I was breathing in fresh air!

Joan Lloyd, 95

‘Oh, I loved the water. I was always swimming in the river. But I’ve been swimming even when it’s in flood.’ Joan Lloyd.

For some, old habits are hard to shake off. When is it time to finally hang up your swimming cap and goggles? The answer for some is never! In her youth, Joan’s favoured swimming place was the river. This astonishing 95-year-old still swims daily, though in the warmer municipal swimming pool. Brought up close to the Wye, she is the one of the last surviving members of the extended Jordan family, builders and hirers of pleasure boats on the Wye. Joan was a regular at Hereford Beach:

‘I love the river. I think it’s because I was brought up on the river practically. Even when my daughter was old enough, I used to take her down to the Victoria Bridge paddling. My grandmother, who was over at Wyebridge House, used to sound a gong to say it was lunch-time. We used to pack up then and go over for lunch. We did all sorts there, like diving off the end of the canoe. I knew where all the holes were up the river. Up past the Wheatfield stream there’s like a pool and we used to swim in there. And before you get to Belmont there was a farm, Walls Farm, and I used to take our Alsatian up there and swim across the river with him and back.’

Such free and easy days, where the days were long and the sun shone all day.

Bruce Wallace, 76

‘We used to climb over a style and walk down to the beach opposite the old General Hospital. We went there and we caught minnows and got wet and had a really good time.’ Bruce Wallace.

In 1948, schoolboy Bruce Wallace left war-damaged Coventry with his family and moved to Hereford. His garden backed onto Bradbury Lines, later to become the Special Sir Services (SAS) camp: ‘As boys, we used to roam everywhere, even at a very early age. Today you wouldn’t be safe to do it.

‘There were about six or seven of us lived in the road and we were friends and a lot of these friendships went on for decades. We used to walk down to the river through the Hinton estate. At that time, where the King George’s playing fields used to be, there was a farm and there were cows in the field, we used to climb over a style and walk down to the beach opposite the old General Hospital. We went there and caught minnows and got wet and had a really good time.’

Adrian Howard, 74

‘It’s the best place to learn. Plenty of water!’ Adrian Howard

Adrian Howard worked for the Woodland Trust as a maintenance and woodland manager for 27 years. Most of his work was on Little Doward. Now semi-retired, he continues to look after the Woodland Trust’s cattle there. He was born in the lower lodge of the Wyastone Leys in 1944. His grandparents lived in the riverside cottage below the grand house selling drinks to passing tourists. When it came to swimming lessons, sometimes, the ‘chuck him in and see if he floats’ method worked, for some anyway. Not a practice we would advocate by the way:

‘I learnt to swim in the river as a child. Down by Huntsham Bridge there was a pebble beach, but it’s gone now. The bigger boys always chucked you in. I should think most of the local kids swam in the river in those days. It’s the best way to learn, to find the dangers, climbing trees and all that.

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