One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

Thurlestone Rock with Lumps


Thurlestone Rock, icon of the South Devon coast, sits around five hundred metres off shore at high tide, sturdy legs astride, and just begs to be swum through. It’s near the end of a reef that runs perpendicular to the shore; the reef is legendary for its beautiful underwater garden of seaweeds and aquatic creatures. I’d not swum here before, and the 40 knot south-easterly whipping up the sea promised to make the swim slightly more sporting than we had expected it to be.

As we walked down the short track to the beach, our swim buddy JJ told us that on arrival he’d been immediately accosted by a local, who exclaimed at the perilous state of the sea and informed him that anyone attempting to swim would certainly be drowned and dashed onto the rocks. This was clearly an exaggeration, although we did have a chat before getting in about the best route to take, and decided to stay on the lee of the reef and to swim beyond the rock and around to the far side before deciding on whether to swim through.

Shore Breaker

The steeply-shelving beach means that the surf rolls almost to the shore before breaking directly downwards with great force.  So you have to run in between waves, and hope to be out beyond the breaking zone before one gets you and smashes you onto the shingle like a piece of kelp ripped from a rock. Unfortunately, a couple of our group got caught and found it a bit too heavy to carry on. I followed Pauline in, timing my entrance for the little gap between the breaking of one wave and the arrival of the next, and diving forwards into the approaching breaker so I’d gone through just before it broke.

Once we were heading off-shore it became much easier to swim through the rollers.  You just go with them, breathe when you can, and try to stay in touch with a couple of other swimmers. As we neared the reef, I noticed that the swell had grown and was big enough to intermittently obscure the Thurlestone from view. I found it much harder to swim smoothly, and was rolled almost onto my back a couple of times. I did the usual water-swallowing, but managed not to inhale any for once. I looked up at the rock, and saw regular wild swimmer Maretta and her 12 year-old daughter Bexi, on her first wild swim and looking as though she was born in the sea and sliding through the swell like a little seal.

On the way out

The sea was an opaque greeny-blue through my goggles as I swam, and when I stopped and looked at its surface it was the colour of pewter. The sun was low and partially covered by clouds; it emitted a chill light that glinted off the wavelets ahead. I swam out a little way past the rock, which was sideways on to me then, to take some photos. I tried to work out how high it is. It’s probably only 30 feet or so above the sea, but somehow looks much larger. It’s made up of two rock stacks that lean in towards each other and touch around fifteen feet above the sea. There is a fissure running vertically from the point where the leg stacks meet. The rock is dark and jagged with a texture like bark on an ancient oak, and its outline is broken further by the silhouetted sea birds that cling to its summit – cormorants and gulls with beaks pointing skywards.

I swam back to the other swimmers, and looked over towards the hole which was just visible at an angle. The waves, some around six feet high, were smashing into the stack nearest the shore at an angle, splatting spume across the rough surface like whipped egg-whites. The crazy angles of the sea made the arch look quite menacingly mad. Pauline told me they’d decided it was too dangerous to go through, so everyone began to swim off shore-wards down the side of the reef.

Big Lump, Rock Behind

Sea Birds on the Rock

I watched the waves for a bit, and looked behind to see how quickly they were coming. Some were smaller than others, and I began to wonder whether I could make it through, and, if not, whether I could push off the far side of the arch with my legs and escape a bashing that way. ‘You’re thinking of going through, aren’t you?’  said JJ. Hmmm, yes.

Me De-Flowered and Splatted

There was a quick discussion. We reckoned we could make it between waves. We were now pretty close, being pushed by the swell towards the rock.  ‘We’re already committed, let’s just body-surf through’ said Pauline…so we went for it. I swam towards the nearest, offshore stack of the arch, so that if I was washed off-course I might hit the gap. A wave came through and I put my head down and swam flat out through the hole, shooting out of the other side with a rush of adrenaline to find we’d made it; me, Pauline, JJ and Wee Man Martin, all laughing and shouting with the exhilaration. I looked back, and realised we were still very close to the rock, and that there was a huge wave approaching; it hit the arch and the small rock next to it and surged and broke over the top. The water on this side, made more turbulent by its route through the stone, foamed and churned in sympathy with our little gang of excitable swimmers. We bobbed around for a bit, took a couple of quick snaps, and swam bravely away towards the shore, over the reef.

Wave breaking over the Thurlestone

JJ De-Flowered

I floated face down and tried to see the reef garden, but the turbulent water made visibility poor. I glimpsed through the murky, pale turquoise water some pale grey rocks with swirling seaweed rooted firmly to them, but that was it garden-wise. But who could be disappointed after the fun of the swim and the crazy surf through the Thurlestone?

JJ, Pauline, Martin

I managed to avoid being dumped by the surf at the shoreline, and ran for it over the shingle of small, smooth quartz pebbles to the beach. We were all high as teenagers at a rave. We’ll have to swim it again to see the garden said Kirsty through a mouthful of mint tea and home-made biscuit. The Thurlestone squatted behind her in the distance, surrounded by silver sea.

Fellow Swimmers

Pauline, Jonathan (JJ), Stephanie, Martin, Kirsty, Maretta, Bexi, Joanna, Amanda, Jane, Debbie, James, Marie and a couple of others…

De-Flowered Thurlestone Virgins

Pauline, JJ, Wee Man Martin, Me

Splatted by A Big Wave


Support from the Shore

James, Abby, Thin Boy Finn, Maggie the dog, Assorted Robinsons, Mr Jo.

Eater of Everyone’s Biscuits


Oaty Biscuit Recipe

St Delia

Spitchwick: Ice-Cream Head, Crab Apples, Crazy Bitch

Honey and I popped over to Spitchwick this morning. It’s a warmish autumn day, with a slightly chill breeze. There’s still some heat in the sun which pops out occasionally from behind puffy, greying clouds illuminating the ponies grazing on the common by the river. We can smell their gorgeous, horsey scent and, in Honey’s case, the mouth-watering whiff of tottering heaps of steaming dung.

Dartmoor Ponies grazing and pooing by the Double Dart

It’s 11 degrees in the water today, so I decide on a wetsuit because I want to swim for at least 30 minutes. As I enter the river down the stone ‘steps’, I notice a Dipper who performs his jerky little dance from a rock by the island before dipping under the water, then zipping away downstream. His cream bib makes his low-level flight visible for a little while. Honey potters around in the shallows, then swims across and back. I can hear her breathing in little puffs as she passes.

The water today is mirror-black on the far side. The leaves on the trees behind are turning and their full height is reflected as though soaked into the water. On the near side I can see coppery patches here and there, but for the most part the gravelly bottom has been obliterated by huge drifts of autumn leaves and twiggy debris from last month’s stormy weather. The leaves blacken as they decompose, and the newer ones – orange, greeny-yellow and tan – glow randomly through the peaty water like jewels, flashing in the current.  When I step in, I sink to my ankles in the spongy layer then slide to the side as my foot hits a hidden rock. It’s safer to just swim, so I leap forwards and plunge straight under before turning to head upstream against the current on the far side, where it’s deep.

The water of the Double Dart smells and tastes of the moors: chill, fresh, pure and peaty. I swim in front crawl to warm up, and the water beneath me is black as night. Silver bubbles arc from my hands, which glow disembodied through the water in an eerie, copper light. Icy rivulets push through the neck of my suit and down my back like shivers from a ghost story. And then it hits: full-on ice-cream head for the first time since the spring. I try to swim through, but have to stop so I float on my back, arms outstretched, in a cross. The pain in my forehead subsides and I can hear only my amplified breathing in my submerged ears. Blue sky, clouds, oak trees, and the edge of a backlit cloud. I begin to turn in the current and stay there for a while, before swimming again. After the third go, the ice-cream head is no more so I carry on, upstream to the top end of the pool, then back down at four times the pace, then a float around, then back up and down the pool till I start to feel cold again.

I can hear Honey growling and barking from the bank, and stand up to watch her. Her hair is soaked and curling, and she’s charging around the common in a zig-zag pattern with a stick in her mouth. Occasionally she tosses and catches the stick, arse and loopy tail waving, having a big, doggy laugh. I love that a wild swim affects my dog in the same way that it affects me, or maybe we’re both just crazy bitches?

On the walk back I notice that a crone of a Crab Apple tree, bearded with lichens, has shed her load of pale yellow fruit. We stop and I pick them up in my towel leaving the ones that lie in horse-shit for Honey, who is partial to a windfall apple or ten. She tries one but declines the rest, possibly because they’re a little sour, or because the horse poo is not fresh enough, like sour cream. Gazing up at the tree, I see a sprinkling of crab apples still clinging to the branches and looking, against the greeny-grey lichen, like a fruity tiara on a tipsy granny at a barn dance. The music of the river fades as we walk away.

Crab Apples

A Frisky Swim off Looe

I met up with Cornwall Wild Swimmers this morning at low tide for a swim around Looe Island. I made that sound simple; actually I couldn’t find them to start with, and my request for directions to the beach from a local with a Cockney accent was met with the response: ‘at the end of the river’. Thanks. When I eventually arrived, the sea was flat and pale turquoise and the sky was clear. In we went, and away we swam – in front crawl on account of my companions being the marine equivalent of racing-snakes…racing eels?

view from the beach, island hiding further out to sea

Forging through the salty water – well, I thought I was till I looked up and noticed the others slightly ahead of me – I flew over kelp beds, ginger-brown and luscious, splodged with some unidentified white stuff that resembled seagull shit. Popping my head up for a moment, I floated alongside Cormorants that perched, black Brylcream boys, on the part of the reef  that pokes above the surface. Suddenly, I became entangled in a patch of weed that snaked around my arms and legs, like swimming through Medusa’s hair. I swallowed a good quart of water, smelling that poo-ey, seaweedy scent, and disentangled myself. Slipping through in breast-stroke, I found a channel through the weed and sped up again, noticing the distant ripples in the sandy bottom. Here I was faced with beautiful, deep-red weeds, suspended upright in the water, with arching fronds each terminating in a pom-pom like a poodle’s tail. We could see the island ahead of us, wooded and with a couple of cottages visible on the right-hand side.

As we left the shelter of the bay, a squall blew up and we were met with a suddenly frisky wind and speeding wavelets that slapped our faces like angry strumpets. We pushed through, and hit another kelp-field, this time the reef to which it was attached was closer to the surface. As we neared the island, a large sign became visible: NO LANDING.  Richard and Pauline igonred this advice, while myself and Maggie decided to return to the shore. We were now being pulled parallel to the shore, and tossed around on the wavelets that were hitting us side-on. I really enjoy this kind of tussle with the elements, so I continued to breathe on the down-wind side, and then noticed my lovely poodle-tail weeds pushed out horizontally by the current. At this point I realised what we were up against. Maggie, who is rather slender for a wild swimmer, was worried about being cold and about the current, so she asked me to keep a close eye out for her – then immediately took off at the kind of speed that would give Becky Adlington a swim for her money. Floundering along, rolling from side-to-side in the chop, I stopped occasionally to keep my promise; I thought I caught sight of Maggie’s red hat on the horizon once or twice, but it could have been a buoy. Luckily she made it back to shore in one piece, considerably ahead of me.

In we go

At one point we had to swim round some nets, taking the upwind side. It was quite hard to spot where we were going, although it became calmer as we approached the shore. I heard a splashing behind me, and there were Richard and Pauline, having wisely also decided against circumnavigating the island because of the weather.

I always feel as though I’ve had six pints of scrumpy when I stand up to wade from the sea, with a vision in my head of looking like Ursula Andress, but actually resembling in my shiny, black wetsuit a pissed sadist who’s seen better days. But it’s how you feel that counts, and I felt great.

Fellow Swimmers

Richard, Pauline, Maggie, Rachel.

Shore Crew

James, Abigail, Mr Maggie.

Chief Eater of Ice-Cream and Chips and Jedward Impersonator


Hello world!

I’m  here to tell you about my wild swimming  adventures, often accompanied by an assortment of similarly wild people and, usually, by my dog Honey (aka The Honey Monster, aka Attila the Honey). We travel around Devon and Cornwall finding places to swim, year-round. We plunge into the sea, into river pools, down waterfalls and (little) rapids, and up and down estuaries with the tides. We swim in warm sun; cold, driving rain; mizzle; frost and snow; by moonlight; and in the dark. In addition to my contemporaneous blogs, I’m adding a few retrospective blogs of swims from earlier in the year as time allows, so watch out for those in the Archive. Thanks for reading 🙂

Moonlight and Mizzle: Autumn Evening Swim in the Double Dart

We formed Devon Wild Swimmers this spring, and have yet to arrange a moonlight swim where the moon actually appears through the Devon mizzle. But one of the universal traits of Wild Swimmers is the refusal to be deterred by poor weather, along with the ability to find fun in anything. There’s a saying that:

‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.’

If your only options are a swimsuit and maybe a wetsuit, and you’re going to be getting very wet in any case, this assertion becomes largely defunct. Who cares about clothes? However, the Dart is what’s called a ‘flashy’ river, and it’s impossible to swim there if the water is too high. A pessimistic weather forecast had me worrying it would be too dangerous, so the swim was cancelled. Dan the Weather Man (a fellow wild swimmer) then assured us – under threat of being barbecued if he was wrong, and with a Facebook link to Mr Fish’s famous duff forecast added to the discussion – that this side of the moor would be OK. So it was that six humans and two dogs met at New Bridge on the Double Dart river on an overcast Saturday evening, in order to walk up to Sharrah Pool for a swim.

We wandered in the Dartmoor dusk through the ancient woodlands of the Dart valley carrying our swimming gear. The river was up slightly, and a cool 12 degrees C. We were cocooned by the woodland, enveloped in her damp, earthy smell, and the sound of the river ebbed and flowed according to the distance of the track from her banks and the closeness of the rapids. The light was fading properly as we finally arrived at the stile near Sharrah, where we had a sudden, brief glimpse of the moon dribbling silvery light through the clouds, and silhouetting the gnarly branches and remaining leaves of the sessile oaks and beech trees. From there we made our way down through the glade to the flattish rocks on the riverbank, assailed by the roar and the fizzing energy from the upper waterfall.

I dived straight in to a prolonged struggle with a delicately-perspiring body, a damp wetsuit and new booties – neoprene outers, pretty red soles, and comfy and warm red fleece lining – a complete sod to get on. I looked towards the pool, black as ink and topped with specks of foam from the waterfall. Finally, I was able to get in, desperate for the feel of chill, silky water and the refreshing taste of peat. The water seeped into my wetsuit and chilled me beautifully, so I struck out in breast-stroke upstream towards the falls, duck-diving under the water to cool my sticky and sweaty face and de-midge my hair, then feeling the cramp of ice-cream neck from the cold.

Behind the shadow of the boulder in the centre of the river is a still pathway where you can swim unimpeded. We all met at this rock, and climbed around it to the edge of the rapid that runs from the falls down the far, steep granite bank to the bottom end of the pool.  Standing on a submerged ledge, we flung ourselves downstream into the current, that was visible as creamy, beery foam surging past. The ride through the dark and the spray is exhilarating, as you feel your body being gathered up in the rapid and you let the river take control.

If you’re quick, you can escape from the rapid on the far side and climb onto the rocks. I did this, and watched as a couple of my friends’ white faces materialised from the rapid the the dark and shot past me like meteorites. Then I jumped back in to the space-black water, hearing the whoosh as I plunged down, down, down, waiting in the dark to feel my feet touch the bottom before bouncing back up, gasping. Large raindrops plopped in for a moment, then the drizzle returned to mingle with the spray from the falls.

We changed on the bank, happy and laughing and not too cold at all. On the walk back it was completely dark, so we used head-torches. The muddy, rocky path was splattered with autumn leaves. Some had fallen with their underneaths upwards and, sprinkled with drizzle droplets, they glowed in the torchlight like reflective strips on safety gear. Fungus became more visible on crumbling trees, dense and white. The sounds of the river came and went. We met another friend on the path, and walked back to New Bridge for a barbecue. The sky began to clear, with cirrus cloud back-lit by the moon and the odd glimmer from a star. A Barn Owl screeched like a ghost in the woods.

Fellow Swimmers

Jackie, Candy, Allan, Lesley, Honey.

Jumping in the Dark

Support from the Bank

Luca, Lilli and Giles

Barbecue Meat


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