Tristan Gooley's Five Favourite British Waterside Locations

Posted on 7th June 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'There are dozens of these clues and stories and each time the tide comes in they are rubbed out and new ones written.'

The story of the British Isles is a story of water. Wherever we are in the country, water defines our landscape; from jagged, dramatic coastlines, secluded sandy beaches and secret freshwater pools, to our grandest cityscape rivers and meandering country streams. Nobody knows our water-shaped landscape better than Tristan Gooley, natural navigator and author of the bestselling How to Read Water. We gave him the enormously challenging task of picking just five favourite British waterside locations and here, exclusively for Waterstones, he explains why these locations hold a special significance.

Cover Image: Rippled Reflections of King's College ©Tristan Gooley 2017

Chapman’s Pool in Dorset has many things to recommend it. First it is not a pool at all, but a beach and this sort of dissent is to be applauded. The beach is reached by walking up and down a bit, which means that it is never crowded with selfie sticks. Gradient is to selfie sticks what garlic is to vampires.

But the real reason that this beach is one of my favourites is to be found in the water: Chapman’s Pool is where I learned to love looking at the way waves bend towards the land. I think of signs and patterns in nature like characters and just like human characters there are some that are shy to start with, but hard to ignore when we get to know them.

Chapman's Pool: Diffraction, RefractionChapman's Pool: Diffraction, Refraction ©Tristan Gooley 2017

Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes and other ancients wrote of the way waves attack headlands but spare the bays. Physicists use less poetic language but help us understand what is going on: waves bend towards the land because they always turn towards the shallows – refraction – and they spread out when they pass through any narrow gap, like the mouth of a bay – diffraction. Put together it explains why we have crescent beaches and why when we stand on them, the waves will always appear to turn towards us.

Swanbourne Lake, near my home in West Sussex, has taught me much about the patterns that form around islands, the same patterns that Pacific navigators have used for centuries to sense land that is invisible. These extraordinary navigators can feel land with their eyes closed, by lying on the deck of an outrigger canoe and sensing any changes in the motion in the ocean.

And if that was not reason enough, Swanbourne Lake is blessed with great colour. The colour of water is determined by the sky as well as what’s on, in and under the water. The angle we look from and the depth of the water are two of the biggest factors and Swanbourne is perfect for experimenting with these. Besides, on a sunny day the colours of this lake give it a character reminiscent of the Ionian coast.

Perhaps I do blend in on Putney Bridge, as I try not to get in the way of purposeful pedestrians. I thread my way to the bridge’s edge, lean over and watch the water. Nobody else stops or even slows down on this bridge, there is a tidal flow to the pedestrians. But I can’t resist noticing how the tide below is dutifully doing what the moon, sun and air tell it to. Tides are noticeably higher near full and new moons and when the air pressure drops. 

West Sands beach, near St Andrews in Fife, is famous for the opening scene in Chariots of Fire… will somebody get that music out of my head now please? Some of the best patterns in the sand will be found here, but in truth can be found in abundance on any sandy beach, anywhere in the world. Whenever water passes over sand it leaves footprints, just like those famous runners… Stop that music.

Every tiny sand ripple is a story about what the water has been up to. Symmetrical ripples tell us where the waves were breaking and flat-topped ones reveal where the tidal water has flowed one way and then another. But there are dozens of these clues and stories and each time the tide comes in they are rubbed out and new ones written. Take a look next time you’re on a sandy beach and you will see patterns and read stories that will be gone forever in six hours’ time.

West Sands BeachWest Sands Beach

A sunny afternoon spent in a punt on the river Cam is a productive use of time, by any sensible person’s measure. On the afternoon in question I enjoyed meeting old friends and one of them was called the Duck’s Bottom. We do not see the same thing reflected in the water as we do by looking at it directly on the opposite side of the water. In a reflection we see it from a new lower perspective – if you see a duck walk past at the water’s edge, you will only be able to see that duck’s bottom by looking at its the reflection in the water.

Looking across the river towards Kings College chapel I was struck by a pattern that is as delightful as it is useless. Vertical shapes can be seen in reflected in rippled water, but horizontal ones disappear. I could see the pillars of the chapel clearly in the water, but the arch between them had escaped.

Rippled Reflections of King's CollegeRippled Reflections of King's College ©Tristan Gooley 2017

How to Read Water is available now in paperback, for more information about Tristan Gooley and his work visit

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The author of the top ten bestseller The Walker's Guide unlocks the secrets hidden in the water around us, from streams and puddles to oceans and waterfalls
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