Swanbourne Lake in Sussex snakes back into the chalk cliffs of the Arun Valley. It has been a boating lake for decades and half a dozen creamy rowboats are still available for paddling through its turquoise waters. Before that, it held the freshwater supply for the castle in nearby Arundel.
However, it is the lake’s everyday behaviour, not its history, that holds special significance for author Tristan Gooley. Its brightly coloured shores were a beautiful location for him to practice the timeless skill of reading water.
‘I had been inspired by the expertise of the old seafaring cultures,’ he says, ‘such as the Vikings or the Polynesians from the Pacific Islands. By reading ripples and waves, these navigators could detect land miles before they could see it.’
“The reflection of the trees comes in at a low angle and – like a skimming stone – bounces off the lake into your eyes”
By regularly venturing to Swanbourne Lake, Gooley familiarised himself with these patterns on a smaller scale: ‘You can see how ripples act around an obstacle such as a rock, a reed bed or even a clump of water lilies,’ he says. ‘They are the same signs you can see near ocean islands.’ What he has observed at Swanbourne has added to his collection of water behaviours, which now number more than 700.
What is also special about the lake is its shallowness. For Gooley, this makes it an example of how light reflects across water. ‘On the nearside, if you look down, you can easily see the bright, clear colours of the lake bed, thanks to light penetrating the water from directly above,’ he says. ‘On the far side, however, you can see the dark greens of the forest. That is because the reflection of the trees comes in at a low angle and – like a skimming stone – bounces off the lake into your eyes.’
However, knowing the physics behind it all doesn’t reduce the charm of the lake’s dappled shallows one bit.
This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.