One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Sharrah Pool, Nifty Dip

Sharrah Pool on the Double Dart, a calm, warmish winter’s day. JJ and Stephanie arrived from their ‘Wildathlon’ which involves a cycle ride from Ashburton, a run to Sharrah, a dip, and then back. Honey ran nuttily after squirrels, while I speed-walked up to join in with the dip.

The water is around 8ºc. ‘This is really quite warm’ I said as I swam from the rocks, still glowing from my 30-minute pant through the winter woods. JJ had been in for a couple of minutes by then, and some unusual strangled sounds were still audible above the surge of the river where he swam in head-up front crawl. He had the look of Conan the Barbarian on a dangerous mission. A school of kayaks overtook him as he tried to look even more cool (not difficult in this temperature) by floating casually on his back.

I began to breast-stroke upstream, quickly dipping my salty, sweaty face in the lovely, bog-brown water. Suddenly, my body realised how cold it was as the river stole the last of the heat from my muscles. I looked towards the falls, hoping that the sight of such beauty would stun the pain. Stephanie stood on the rock up to her knees, and with encouragement from JJ dunked in, pulling the kind of face you normally only see on a woman in the final stages of labour. She shot back out like a champagne cork, to be quickly joined by me. Refreshing. Yes. Very.

Saturnalia Swim, Spitchwick

The river is up, but not too angry today and the coppery water is 8°c. I decide to go without my wetsuit, and wear my wet rash vest from yesterday’s swim, a pair of patchwork hippie shorts, and wetsuit boots, plus my floral hat. The five of us plunge straight in; Joh, Jackie, Lesley, Honey and me.

Icy water squeezes my chest and sends chills like needles up my neck. We’re all shrieking and screaming, and the shrill sounds physically cut through my body. Within a minute or so, I am simultaneously burning up and numb. I make a conscious effort to unclench my shoulders and swim upstream on the slow side in staccato breast stroke. Jackie as usual is grinning broadly and swimming serenely as though the water were tropical. Lesley passes me in front crawl which splatters the surface with tiny balls of water that roll around for a few seconds before vanishing back into the river. Honey crashes festively into a holly bush on the bank.

After ten minutes we leap out and change, skin as red as holly berries. We toast Saturnalia and midwinter with gluhwein, gingerbread, mince pies, and a Bonio. 

Santa Swim, Brrrrr Island

There was a bully of a breeze blowing as I changed into my wetsuit at Burgh Island for our Christmas Eve swim. It’s a wild and beautiful spot, juxtaposed with the identikit bungalows littering the cliff at Bigbury on Sea, and the famous, Art-Deco Burgh Island Hotel. People who live around here all wear navy-blue baker-boy hats and clothes decorated with anchors, but I suspect that most of them don’t go into the sea.

White horses in abundance and a murky, slatey-blue sea beckoned and several Santas, a few silly hats and some slightly more sensible swimmers skipped into the festive fizz which glittered intermittently. Prize for the funkiest outfit goes to Jackie, who managed to look glamorous with blue skin in a giant white hair pom-pom and a Santa mini-dress. JJ started in a Santa suit, then realised it wasn’t possible to swim round in it so stripped to reveal a wetsuit. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had hitched a lift on my head, but he sadly became waterlogged and floated off towards the shore on his own. Hopefully he won’t be too cold to fly later on.

The dippers bobbed and swam around for a while and then went off for hot drinks, while eight of us decided to swim round the island. Jo, Sophie and I floated off to look at the famous gully which we were hoping to navigate. The sea was huge on the windward side of the island though, and the gap was largely invisible thanks to churning froth and spume. 

We headed back out from the rocks. I felt myself being flung around by the waves, many of which were pointed like snow-capped mini-mountains. A couple broke over me, some directly into my mouth. Occasionally a cold wall of sea walloped me in the head so hard that I was knocked backwards, my ears brimful and the sound of the ocean fading to an echo. When I rolled to breathe I had to look before inhaling. The feeling is exhilarating and occasionally scary;  you swim along, and suddenly you’re flung one way, then another, then you stop dead, engulfed. You’re picked up and lifted skywards before plummeting into the trough of a wave.

I glimpsed the others around forty yards away, and swam towards them. Then I saw Sophie briefly illuminated by a flash of sunlight against the dark cliffs, swimming along the crest of a huge wave with her blue fins waving, like a crazy mermaid. The wave smashed into the rocks and Sophie vanished behind the next swell and I didn’t see her again.

On the seaward side of the island, the rollers came at us from behind and we had a bit of a turbo charged surf towards the hotel. The sun broke through again and I felt the warmth on my chilled face and saw the bubbles made by my stroke mingle with the foam and turn silver in the turquoise sea. Some of the shore team waved from the top of the island.

We tried to reach the beach through the rock reef, but it was too rough so we headed back out and round the edge. Talking to Kirsty I was slurring my words and realised my mouth was frozen. We looked around but still couldn’t see Sophie. Then, after a few minutes, she reappeared in the shallows with JJ in tow, having lured him to Mermaid’s Pool, a serene oasis beside the hotel.


Mother Duck aka Pauline

Fellow Swimmers Through the Rough

Kirsty, Stephanie, Dave, JJ, Sophie, Jo, Lauren

Best and Least Suitable Swimming Costume


Santa’s Elf


Crazy Christmas Mermaid


Lured onto the Rocks


Chilled to the Bone

Jo Elf and Safety

Brrrrrr Island Pun © 


Stormy December Hoe

I thought it would be simple to get into the stormy Sound at low tide, however the rocky shore scuppered our easy entry and my bare feet were protesting seriously at the battering they were taking. The water temperature had dropped to 10.9°c since our swim last week, a small but noticeable difference.

Murky, slatey-green sea slapped our faces, bodies rocked randomly in the ragged waves.  Our view of the Hoe was misted by spray. We swam around the point, striking out a little way to avoid being dashed onto rocks. After 45 minutes I was chilled to the core.

I stood on the wet concrete under the arches and stripped while the wind stole the last of the warmth from my body. My feet had no feeling and my hands fumbled with my clothes.

Clutching my hot cappuccino later, I was tempted to pour it into my boots.

I’d forgotten my camera, but JJ had his – thanks to him for the photos.

Fellow Stormy Swimmers

JJ, Alice, Allan, Pauline, Joh, Rosie, Geoffrey.

Solo Japanese Tourist


Double Dart, December Chill

It’s December, the air temperature is 7°c, and the water temperature 6.5°c. Honey and I stride through the woods, dead leaves squidging underfoot like soggy cornflakes. We stop opposite Wellsfoot Island.

In the summer, I dislike swimming here; Holne cliff exerts a looming oppression over the otherwise lovely pool beneath. Today it’s inviting: blue-black water glinting in the blue-grey light; the surrounding space expanded by the view through denuded winter trees; and the soughing of the rapids like a lullaby. The tiny red sandy beach on the island is partly hidden by a drift of dark twigs a couple of feet deep. Behind is moss and dessicated bracken the colour of a fox’s pelt.

I change into my wetsuit and Honey swims over to the Island, where she rootles around and finds an old shoe which provides her entertainment for the duration of my swim. I walk carefully over the rocky bed to the deeper water, and feel the change from my last (11°c) swim here. I dive forwards and the river slashes me like a blade. In her winter guise she’s lost her silky, peat-scented enchantment and become a steel-hard witch with the taste and texture of bootleg vodka.My hands, face and neck burn with cold and I feel my blood freezing. A flock of kayakers zip by; one of them shouts “People think we’re mad!” I swim hard through the current to the bank, then lie on my back watching the ice-blue sky till the cold is too much. As I change, tendrils of mist emanate from my skin. We start to walk back and I realise the scalding heat I feel is actually the frost radiating from my bones.

Access to Waterways in England and Wales

Did you know that in England and Wales we have no legal rights to access inland water for swimming, kayaking or any other activity? I’ve copied an e-petition submitted by a fellow wild swimmer below. Please follow the link, sign and pass it on!

Put public access at the heart of the proposed ‘New Era for the Waterways’

Responsible department: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The government is calling 2012 ‘A New Era for the Waterways’. It has said it believes that “millions more can enjoy our canals & rivers”. And yet, people in England and Wales do NOT currently have a clear legal right to access inland waters. / People love our waterways – the growing popularity of outdoor swimming, ‘wild’ swimming and canoeing show this. But people often find themselves confused, being ‘moved on’, breaking the law or (perhaps worst of all) staying away from inland waters altogether, because it is not clear where they are allowed to paddle, wade, kayak, canoe & swim. / The time is right for change. The ‘New Era’ will fail if many people cannot access inland waters in the ways they choose. But the government is currently drawing up legislation and forming a New Waterways Charity and there are obvious opportunities to amend the law. We therefore call for the government to put public access to inland waters at the heart of the proposed ‘New Era for the Waterways’.


Wrecked at Charlestown

To get to the sea at Charlestown, you pass the Museum of Shipwrecks and a couple of tall ships in the dock. Cold, grey sea and splatting rain marked our arrival and we set off on a proper swim, by which I mean full throttle and no exploring. One of the Plymouth contingent was so fast she left a wake, and as Hugo said ‘kept going back and forth between groups like a labrador’.

It was calmer than it’s been for a while, so swimming was easy. We headed from point to point and stopped occasionally to regroup, watching people watching us from the harbour wall and the nearby beaches. A group of cormorants sat on a rock; I was tempted to join them.

Eventually, we turned back. I got into the zone and kept going through my tiredness, swimming alongside Kirsty. We realised we’d been pushed too far by the current, and had to swim back towards the beach through a miasma of poo. I finally got my feet down a few feet from the steep, shingle beach and staggered to the shore. A wave around four inches high knocked me sideways before my blood-pressure had adjusted. I was completely unable to stand, and was washed around in the wavelets, spreadeagled and wrecked on this shore like so many ships before me.

We changed in the wind tunnel at the top of the beach. I warmed up helping a puffing Hugo out of his new wetsuit, which is formed from several overlapping layers like a corn cob. Between grunts, he issued a barrage of death-threats to Pauline as she photographed the event. Sadly, she believed him so no photos here!

London Bridge and Fun in a Cave

Secreted just round the corner from Torquay Harbour is a tiny beach from where you can swim around jaunty rock islets to London Bridge, a limestone arch jutting from a small headland. It’s chilly in the December sea, and we laugh at Stephanie bobbing in her wetsuit and holding her hands out of the water to keep them warm.

We’re floating in deep turquoise, and pale slabs of tumbled cliff litter the seabed. The bridge leans tipsily against the headland, its arch a precarious conglomeration of vertical slabs, gravel and earth.

We are sucked through, and I lie on my back beneath the jagged silhouette as the sea slaps against the rocks.

Further on, Sophie has found a cave. We swim towards it, a tall, dark slit rising from petrol blue sea in the corner where the headland meets the cliff. Generations of barnacles crowd the limestone forming a pock-marked skin of bumps and promontories, acned by a splattering of white and yellow whelks. Water and weed run off as the waves ebb, and the sound echoes and intensifies as we near the entrance to the cave.

Jonathan, Queenie and I follow Sophie in. Overhead there is darkness except for a crack of light far above, but we are suspended in luminous turquoise water that shooshes with the pulse of the ocean.  We whoop and cackle when a big wave pushes us up and up towards the cave roof, and scream as we drop back down.

There are supposed to be Conger Eels here in the womb of the cliffs, and we await the snap of giant fishy jaws from beneath. I have a sudden shock as I bob under and see an eel-like strand of weed curling around our legs.

Fellow Swimmers

Stephanie, Sophie, Rosie, Dan, Becky, Allan, Jonathan, Queenie

Shore Crew

Janus and Finn

To view Video Links of the cave swim see under Blogroll

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