One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Stormy Hoe

Pauline and I looked over the railings on Plymouth Hoe into the maelstrom below. Wooo Hooo! Down the steps we went to the now invisible little beach, dodging the waves that surged over the walkway. Pauline is acclimatising for a Channel relay so she sat shivering on the steps in her cossie and her new yellow ‘Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming’ hat, hoping that the spray would serve as a gentle introduction to the fast-cooling sea. As I struggled with my wetsuit zip, I heard a shriek accompanied by a crash and clatter and Pauline vanished in a vast white cloud. I watched the step where she had been as the spray dispersed, but she was no longer there. I scanned the sea. After twenty seconds or so I spotted a flash of yellow about fifty yards out. Luckily, Pauline was still attached to it so I plunged in and followed her out.

Waves the colour of pewter smacked my face and I bounced in all directions as I tried to swim a course to the buoy that appeared between the lumps in a series of increasingly crazy angles. Pauline and I laughed and pinged around in the briny, watching the spray flying and smelling the scent of stormy sea. On the horizon, near the breakwater, two warships sheltered. The brightness of the horizon narrowed to a slash as a bank of swirling cloud loomed overhead, reflecting the temperament of the sea.

We swam from buoy to buoy, often exceeding the 4 knots speed limit with a little help from Neptune. Finally, having reached maximum exhilaration, we set off back in and were dumped inelegantly on the shore. Stripping off, Pauline shed a beach load of shingly sand from her swimsuit.

Plymouth Hoe

It’s a beautiful morning and the sea sparkles, grey Naval ships are silhouetted on the horizon. We descend the Art Deco steps, worn into natural shapes by eighty years of storms and tides and trip through the stones on the tiny beach. Joh’s Dad beats us in, and immediately returns to the shore as though attached to a bungee. ‘You need to stay in for twenty minutes to get the benefits!’ I say. He gives me an old-fashioned look.

Joh, Pauline and I swim to the buoy marking the edge of the swimming area, then turn parallel to the rocky shore. If you venture too far out here you’re liable to be sunk by a warship, mangled in the propellers of a cross-channel ferry, or surprised from underneath by a submarine (up periscope!)

After a while we float and enjoy the view: Smeaton’s Tower and the big wheel on the shore; Drake’s Island over towards the Tamar; and the Breakwater a couple of miles out in the Sound. Turning back, the current is surprisingly strong around the tiny promontory, and swimming a few meters further from shore than Pauline and Joh I suddenly realise that I’m way behind them. We stop and allow ourselves to be washed onto a concrete headland and dive in a couple of times.

I look up at the sky; icy blue and bisected by a cloud the colour and shape of a flatfish skeleton.

Wild Swimming in Civilised Splendour

Torquay Seafront at Night

There’s something about approaching the sea on a November evening, under wreaths of coloured lights. Low tide, cold concrete steps, chilled sand, water that feels warm as summer. We swam in the dark, a few stars twinkled above and the lights reflected in the water. Floating on my back my feet froze till I drew them back under the blanket of sea.


Dumpy Lumps at Blackpool Sands (Devon)

A beautiful November day; cool blue sky and a faint mist, and blowing an on-shore hoolie. Fine, ginger-coloured shingle and opaque, greeny-turquoise sea met in a foaming clatter of shore-break; the retreating waves left with a sound like summer rain.

We porpoised through the surf to the waves that rushed diagonally across the bay. They grew in stature as we swam out to sea, cresting through white horses and dropping into troughs. In the distance, spray splattered the reefs marking the edges of the bay. I felt I could swim forever out to sea, cradled by waves.

Turning back reluctantly, I aimed for the group on the shore and swam along the waves, rising then dropping precipitously. Finally I raced for the shore between breaks, and avoided being slapped into the beach. It looked and smelled like summer.


Allan, Jackie, Joh, Helen, Jo, Stephanie, Jonathan

Shore Support

Isabella, Mr Helen, Honey

Comedy Moments in the Surf

Jonathan, Jo

Moon-Gazey Swim

Part One: The Odyssey

‘There will be a passing band of heavy rain, which will have cleared by the time we get there’ said Dan the Fish, Weather Forecaster to the Stars. ‘We might even see the moon’.

We were due to meet at 6.30pm in New Bridge Car Park for our Moon-Gazey Swim on the Double Dart.  At 5.40, at home in Mary Tavy,  I heard through the sound of the deluge hammering on my roof, a faint ‘bong’ from my laptop.  It was a Facebook message from Dan: ‘It will stop raining now. Right now. It is written in the stars. Mars has gone into retrograde and Pisces is rising. Russell Grant is dancing the American Smooth’.

Despite Dan’s assurances, several people managed to find suitable excuses. Then the hardy Torbay contingent were forced to turn back when the outboard on Allan and Jackie’s car broke down, Dangerous Malcolm was swept away on the pavement outside Jackie’s house, and Queenie, heading for her first Double Dart swim, made it all the way to the wrong bridge.

Honey and I drove tentatively across the moors, our little Jimny periodically vanishing under a bow wave. The water on the road at Dunnabridge was two feet deep in places, and was heading straight down the hill to the West Dart. But we made it through the rain, and arrived at New Bridge to see Martin, Marie and Helena sheltering in their car which bobbed around the car park like a fishing float. We waited for Dan. Finally, at 6.45, the red Volvo screamed up in a cloud of spray. The door opened. ‘I told you it would stop raining’! he grinned.  ‘Oh…’ he said as a few naughty drops splatted into his face.

We’d already checked the water level which was way too high for a swim at Sharrah and rising fast, so we set off for Spitchwick. As we changed in the car park, we realised that it actually had stopped raining, rendering Dan’s forecast accurately tardy.

Part Two: The Swim

We sprang straight in to chilly water, shrieking with the cold. The smell of peat and the distant roar of the cascade faded as I went under. Even here on the slow side of the pool the current pulled hard, and it took me several minutes to get upstream in front crawl. Swimming across to the cliff we were swept downstream through the dark fast, grabbing the rocks and clinging on, feeling the pull of the river.

Honey, compelled by some fascinating scent or other, kept swimming head-first into a bush on the near bank; I heard a rustling crunch, and could barely make out a white blur like the moon behind the tangle of branches. As I pulled her out and pointed her towards the step she turned and shot straight back in using a combination of super-doggy-paddle and a leaping dive. I retrieved her again, and she dived back in. I persuaded her to get out, and she careered back into the bush from the top in a crash of splintering wood, snorting and snuffling.

The river was a couple of feet higher than usual. Drifts of leaves stroked us as we swam through brief flashes of copper. The sky cleared and stars appeared.  The wispy white clouds began to reflect moonlight, and finally the moon rose above the trees; we swam in the shadow cast by the cliff, looking across the common to where hawthorns stood petrified like cartoon witches in the glow. A mist appeared like ectoplasm and wrapped itself around the distant trees.

Weather Forecaster

Dan the Fish

Fellow Swimmers

Marie, Martin, Helena, Dan, Honey

Foiled by the Weather

Jackie, Allan, Malcolm



Silvery Light

The Moon

Warm Pub with Lovely Hot Chocolate 

Tavistock Inn, Poundsgate

From Flounder to Dolphin with the Guru of Wild Swimming

I’m Devon born and bred, and learned to swim at an early age. I spent much of my youth in rivers and in the Atlantic surf; one summer my mum had to cut my long hair off owing to a mole-sized salt-water matt. For as long as I can remember, I was able to swim through big rollers, go under to avoid a breaker and stay there, get out of a rip, and float through pretty much anything.  If riled, I could do a couple of hundred meters of front crawl fairly quickly for an amateur. When I took up wild swimming in earnest and began to do longer swims, however, my previously satisfactory swimming style was rapidly exposed.

I swam with Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimmers from Aveton Gifford to Bantham, and found myself gasping and out-of-breath, various concoctions of sea and river water with microscopic flora and fauna filled my sinuses and ran down the back of my throat, and my neck cramped from looking towards the far horizon in search of the other swimmers (bless you Mother Duck Pauline for staying back with we Ducklings). I met an impressive swimmer who’d done a Total Immersion course, so I watched a video and bought the book. I still didn’t get far, and googled my nasal water problem. Apparently I had an anatomical anomaly that prevented my nose from closing off properly, so I bought some horribly uncomfortable nose-clips. Then I went to a couple of taster lessons with the local Queen of wild swimming, Kari Furre.  I can only describe what happened next as an aquatic epiphany.

Louise and Kari at Sharpham

Kari has trained in both the Total Immersion and the Shaw Methods of swimming, so rather than thrashing through the water you begin by finding your balance and developing mindfulness; put simply, you live in the moment and experience the feel of your body floating in water, rather than fighting it. It’s all very Yogic, and your relationship with the water starts to change. Once you’ve got the hang of that, you start learning to glide and to slow your stroke down. You roll from side to side as you swim front crawl, and breathe by humming a controlled stream of bubbles underwater, then allowing your head to go to the side with your body as it rolls, where you inhale calmly and slowly. This might seem odd, but as everything comes together you swim faster by using fewer strokes. After a single, two-hour lesson, I was able to swim front-crawl in heavy swell throughout a circumnavigation of Burgh Island. Barely any water went into my throat. Either my anatomical anomaly had been miraculously cured by Kari’s Yogic vibes, or my poor breathing technique had been to blame…

Since then, I’ve had five more lessons and my swimming buddies have been as stunned as I have by the transformation in my swimming. I’ve watched under-confident swimmers blossom and undertake their first wild swims. I’ve even learned to swim butterfly! Shoals of swimmers of all abilities and experience are now joining the new Swim Clinics run by Kari – who I can best describe as a Guru – and her ‘organiser’ Louise; I’ve attached the link here for those of you who live close enough. For those who don’t, it’s really worth looking for a TI or Shaw teacher in your area.


Foggy Foggintor

The Approach to Foggintor via Yellowmead

The mist is descending and the wind is picking up as Honey and I walk along the bleak track to Foggintor Quarry. The approach looks like something from a post-apocalyptic movie in this grey, November light. Most people imagine Dartmoor to be a wilderness, but it’s a man-made landscape. The earth has been quarried and mined for millennia; Foggintor and neighbouring Swelltor were hollowed out in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their granite now lives in the walls of Dartmoor prison and some other famous landmarks, including Nelson’s Column.

The Way In

As  we draw alongside the entrance to the quarry, we see a little vista opening up through the passageway to the centre of the tor.  Juicy green turf, ivy-green mosses, and little ponds of lettuce-green weed entice us through to the pool. Sheer cliffs rise around fifty feet from the slatey water, which is being whipped into wavelets. From time to time, I watch the progress of a gust of wind as it agitates the surface causing a swirling, transient, opacity. The smell of sheep-wee fades.

I change in the chill wind, and swim towards the tiny islands. The water is cold and satiny. I pass over tumbled heaps of granite and occasionally scrape my hand or my knee; sometimes I notice them in time and bank like a low-flying jet-fighter negotiating a canyon. When I look up I see the cliffs begin to fade like ghosts into the mist.

I love being in the womb of what was once a tor;  I think of how the heart was ripped from her, and how nature has mended her wounds with a skin of turf and moss. The spring has bled into her exposed core and filled it, making a place for animals and birds to drink and wash, and for me and Honey to swim.

Wildwoman Jet Fighter Banking Round a Rock

Foggy Foggintor

Foam and Bubbles: Autumn at Sharrah

I drove across the moors through splatting showers, sunshine and rainbows. Heavy rain overnight had raised the river considerably. Foam billowed on ginger and dun water, and kayakers littered the surface by New Bridge. We walked up the track through squidgy mud and the scent of leaf-mould, once rendered speechless by a glade of zinging yellow leaves still clinging to the trees.

Sharrah appeared through the warm, woodland colours, black water speckled with white flotsam. Today the pool had lost her tranquility, and the surface was in a slow boil.  Upstream towards the waterfall the river surged and spray misted the view. I swam towards the falls from the nearly submerged rocks, feet like ice. The cacophony of the cascade intensified and swirled around. The river fought me, forcing me backwards and so I switched from breaststroke to front crawl, puffing from the cold, and with an icy chill reaching my brain through my face.  When I made it to the eddy, it was filled with turrets of beery foam like drifts of partially-thawed snow.  I reached the central rock, grabbed it and then flung myself into the rapid, shooting downstream among strange little bergs formed from bubbles the size of my head.

Maretta shoots the rapids

As I swam, gold and orange leaves flashed past my hands like autumn fish.

Fellow Swimmers

Maretta, Becky, Dan, Maggie, Honey

Swimming Nearly Naked Upstream But Never Getting to the Rock

Dan the Fish

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