One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Birthday Burgh

A sunny, calm afternoon for a swim and beach party to celebrate the birthdays of Stephanie and Kari. Jonathan inflated red heart balloons with helium and attached them to each swimmer; my heart appropriately gathered sea-drops and hovered just above the surface as I swam.

We found the entrance to Death Valley, the fearsome gully between the island and the high part of the reef; today in the calm low tide only a ghostly presence was manifest. As the tide gently swooshed in and out, submerged seaweeds flowed one way then the other like mermaids’ hair. Pale pink rocks sang through pale blue water.

Cormorants and Oyster Catchers flew towards the land, the latter filling the air with their squeaky-toy calls. Gulls settled down to roost as the sun dropped lower.  The cool shades of blue and grey where sea met sky were infused with a pinky-peach layer like strawberry jelly in a trifle. The surface of the water assumed the texture and colour of mercury in the metallic light.

I’d have loved to dawdle, but it was way too cold so I swam the back of the island in front crawl and worked my way through the rocky maze below the hotel, before running across the sand-bar back to our spot below the Pilchard Inn. I managed to change despite the coarse shivering that indicates mild hypothermia. Then we shared snacks, home-made cakes, mulled cider and Prosecco and sang Happy Birthday as the sun set. A perfect afternoon.


In December of 2010, shortly after the unexpected and shocking death of a very dear friend, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I hadn’t swum regularly for a year or so, and following my initial recovery from bilateral mastectomy in March 2011 I began going to the pool to increase my curtailed shoulder and pectoral mobility and to regain my fitness. I soon became terminally bored, and my mind and emotions continued to churn around in one place like a maelstrom. So I began swimming outdoors, and despite some problematic side-effects and restrictions I did a fairly long swim in May of 2011 which inspired me to continue. Before long I was hooked and wild swimming had become my obsession.

Why did wild swimming, which I’d done off and on all my life and always loved and taken for granted, suddenly become so central to my life and so cathartic?

I think it has to do with being alive, and needing to feel alive. It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water. Initially I wore breast forms in my swimsuit, afraid of feeling wrong as much as I feared looking weird. But soon I stopped caring – my shape has different meanings and a different function in water than in air. Fish and aquatic mammals don’t have dugs that you can see. Unlike in our airified culture where breasts have assumed an inflated cartoon-porn emphasis, what’s fetishised about fish, dolphins and whales is their sleekness, their variousness of form, their graceful movement through the turbulent medium of water regardless of their size, blubber content, conformation or perceived beauty.

My body is at home in water; free, wild, elemental. Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.

What Does Wild Swimming Mean to You?

The Fairy Tale of Anstey’s Cove

I drive across the moors through tipping rain to meet Dangerous Malcolm – so named as the only person ever to swim to Thatcher Rock and live to tell the tale – for an aquatic exploration of Anstey’s Cove in Torquay.  The rain has pretty much stopped, and I’m stunned by the scene out over the cove which resembles a 1970s Prog Rock album cover, all fantasy rocks and glassy water, framed by skeletal trees.

It’s low tide, and as we begin to swim, I realise it’s been weeks since I’ve seen such a calm, pale sea, which merges with the rippled, dove-grey sky in a vision of utter tranquillity. We head for the witch’s hat, near which is a small doorway in the cliff. The water here is a deep azure, darkening as we near the cave. I feel big raindrops plopping onto my head. Stumbling over a submerged rock in the narrow fissure, I follow Malcolm into a magical private world. Illuminated by a skylight some yards above is a mini-amphitheatre, and at the far end a tiny, shingle beach where the turquoise sea shushes in and out. The limestone has been rounded and smoothed by the waves. At high tide, the cave must be completely submerged.

On the other side of the point is an even tinier slit which I enter warily. There’s barely any headroom and even on such a calm day there’s a yard or so of rise and fall from the funnelling effect of the narrow opening. Suddenly, Malcolm shoots past me on a surge, and I watch his head rising into the roof and his neck buckling as the sea engulfs him. For a couple of seconds I wonder where he is, then there’s a sucking noise as the sea retreats and he reappears, cackling, pretty much where I last saw him. He continues deeper into the cave, and I examine the Dead Men’s Fingers clinging to the rock, like the remains of a Dangerous Malcolm of the past.

We swim on to a large gap in the cliff shaped like a theatre stage. I hear cooing, and see two doves rather incongruously perched inside. The smell of bird shit pervades. Here the sea is a luminous aquamarine and the slabs of damp, barnacled rock are splattered with clashing rust-red sea-life which causes the colours to sing like a Matisse painting. I film underwater and don’t notice I’m being picked up by a surge until I crash backwards into a protruding cheese-grater of a stone. As I right myself and rub my elbow, Malcolm is ripped almost out of the cave through the channel to the side the rock by what looks like a river rapid. He swims back in, giggling.

As we exit, I swim face-down. There is sand as pale as a bald pate in winter, tufted with clumps of seaweed like an early Elton John hair-transplant. I roll onto my back and see that the tops of the cliff are similarly adorned with fine-twigged bushes. I already know this is a world bursting with life, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re exploring the body of a fairy-tale monster.

The cold gets us in the end, and we decide it’s sensible to return now, so we swim back in front crawl. I struggle to stay upright on the rocky beach and lean forwards with my hands on my knees. I glance back at the surreal world we’ve just left; it seems like a dream.

WoooHooo Wembury

An onshore wind and a rising tide on a mostly overcast day. The blue-grey light flattens the Mewstone into a predatory shark’s fin on the horizon, and a stand-up paddle-boarder seems to walk on water like Jesus. Surfers ride the breakers towards the reef below the Old Mill. The cloud breaks briefly over the sea leaving a silver puddle shimmering like a net full of mackerel in the distance.

We leap through the surf wooo-hoooing; every so often we wimp out in the teeth of a monster wave and dive under, chilly water surging down through the necks of our suits. I hear white noise, and the roar of the big rollers reaches a crescendo as they break. Ducking under, I am surrounded by the same sounds muffled through my swim hat, mingled with bubbles as I exhale. The water is a dull greeny-turquoise, murky with smashed fragments of green-brown seaweed.

We swim for around forty minutes, buffeted by the crazy sea, rising then crashing back into troughs, lips shrivelled with brine. I can feel the wind ripping the warmth from my head. The Mewstone mermaid is calling us, but we’re cold and it’s way too rough for even JJ and his fins to obey. We’ll save that swim for the spring.

Fellow Swimmers

JJ, Stephanie, Helen, Joh

Shore Team

Dan, Finn, Honey and Dexter Doodle Posh Poodle.

Painting of the Mewstone

Turner (JJ can be seen to the left of the ship)

Lumpy London Bridge

A chilly-willy winter’s day with a brisk south-easterly tousling the white-capped swell. It’s almost low tide, and the tiny beach at Peaked Tor Cove is rocky and draped with glistening seaweeds. The raw slap of sea soon becomes tolerable and then exhilarating, and I strike out round the rocks through opaque, pale turquoise, buffeted and bounced by the chop.  Waves fling spray into the air around the arch, and water sluices through from behind.

We head for the sea-cave, and watch for a while but it’s too dangerous. Rollers surge in to the narrow inlet and, split by the submerged rocks, churn around inside making escape difficult. The sea billows increase as we approach the back of the arch to see whether that might be passable. JJ cannot be dissuaded and he sets off with Hugo and me watching carefully to see whether he makes it. We catch an occasional flash of his blue hat amid the maelstrom, then swim round to find he’s reappeared in a rather more dishevelled state than when he entered. Startled eyes and a wonky, frozen mouth soon remodel into a grin. He says he got stuck in a little pool left by the retreating waves for a bit, but still offers to go back with me. I’m tempted, but feel cold now so I decline.

It’s easier returning with the wind and waves. From time to time the sun partially breaks through leaden clouds and shoots rays of light to glimmer off the surface, like an illustration in a children’s bible. As I roll to breathe I see a low-flying cormorant, neck extended, a couple of feet away. I arrive at the beach and manage to effect a staggering, shivering exit onto the pebbles. The contrast in how I feel by comparison to yesterday is dramatic. The sea is warmer than the river, but it’s still cold. I think it has more to do with the way that the character of the water changes with the temperature. Chilled river water is metallic and hard-edged; cold sea water while abrasively salty is somehow softer, bouncier and, well, more cuddly.

Fellow Swimmers

Allan, Jackie, Rosie, Stephanie, Geoffrey, Mark, Hugo, JJ, Plum

Chilling on the Beach


Not Quite to Heel


F*#@ing Freezing Fingle

Two weeks of non-swimming with a virus and I was so ready for a refreshing dip with Dan in the Teign at Fingle Bridge. Honey and I arrived and walked to the bridge; a scene of muted winter-woodland colours livened by splashes of fox-coloured beech leaves. The river here is murkier than the Dart, the colour and temperature of brass monkeys.

We walked up through the gorge, nippy air and diaphanous mist curling from the river’s surface. Sounds came and went; the crash of Honey hurtling after squirrels, the odd drift of birdsong, and watery plinks and tinkles, then a crescendo of white noise from the salmon leaps below Castle Drogo. We had hoped to dip here in the crazy cold jacuzzi, but the surge of angry water looked wilder than our bodies could withstand.

I wore my surfing wetsuit and boots. Standing thigh-deep in the pool I felt the icy fingers of 6-degree water scratch their way up my calves. My hands burned with the cold, my head felt as though it was in a vice and my vision was blurred by the mist emanating from the water. The effect was of a freezing migraine. I managed to swim for around a minute before leaping out.

Dan bravely floated up and down wearing only his budgie-smugglers, though I suspect his budgies were hiding higher up. He leapt out with skin glowing brighter than the logs in the pub wood-burner where we warmed up afterwards.

Wild Naked or Wild Wetsuit?

Having been struck down by flu, I’ve been lubbing around on dry land and pondering the most contentious issue among OSS members which – it might surprise you to know – is: Wetsuit or Non-Wetsuit?


Some wild swimmers wear wetsuits year-round, others only in winter. Wetsuits have some big advantages; in particular they add buoyancy and increase your endurance in colder water, while also providing some protection from scrapes and bruising if you’re swimming in rocky waters. They allow you to spend time exploring without getting cold. Those new to Wild Swimming might find that a wetsuit gives them confidence, and allows them to acclimatise to colder water by spending longer in it. Many of them will undoubtedly ditch the suit at least some of the time as they become more experienced. All of us who swam around a stormy Burgh Island on Christmas Eve wore wetsuits; the swim takes around and hour, and there is nowhere to get out once you’re committed so it seemed daft to risk hypothermia and death, not to mention wasting a Christmas Dinner. I was pretty cold by the time I’d finished, despite swimming regularly in chilly waters. I’m sure there are a few people out there who could tolerate this swim non-wetsuit in winter, but I suspect they are few.


Devotees of Non-Wetsuit swimming tend to be even more evangelical than your average Wild Swimmer. The first thing that struck me on noticing the repeated use of this term was the the negative phraseology; that aficionados of this habit prefer to define themselves against those who in the view of some are the lepers of Wild Swimming – the wearers of wetsuits.

Swim in budgie-smugglers or a bikini, or naked, and you feel the water rippling along your body with no barriers to your enjoyment or the chill.  Be like a fish! Over time, and with regular exposure, you will acclimatise to low temperatures, although your endurance will be limited by comparison to those who use neoprene. Eat heartily and maintain a layer of bioprene (body fat) and you will further increase your ability to withstand low temperatures. I admit to sympathising with the view that this is a big part of what Wild Swimming is all about, and I have a deep respect for those people who swim year-round in the nuddy or near-buff.

What’s Wild Swimming About?

So how do we bridge the river? The key factor for me concerns why I love Wild Swimming, and the ways in which I benefit from it. Wild Swimmers are a disparate bunch of people. They encompass all ages and backgrounds. Some of them like swimming flat-out for five miles, others like bobbing around in the shallows, and a few like swimming out to sea in storms, exploring sea caves, or shooting the rapids in fast-flowing rivers. I share something in common with all of them – we love the water and the outdoors, although we experience it in different ways and are passionate about different aspects of it. We meet up for all kinds of swims all over Devon and Cornwall, and we choose which ones we’d like to do. There are no rules, no directives saying what you should wear, or whether the conditions are too cold or too dangerous, or too silly. You should see some of the hats! This semi-anarchic freedom defines Wild Swimming.

My own approach to wetsuits is that I will wear one when I feel like it, or when I feel the need for a longer swim and conditions are cold or difficult. Sometimes I wear surf shorts and a rash vest. I revel in the touch of wild water on my wild naked skin, but I’m also hugely attached to being thrown around in a winter sea for an hour, or spending five hours descending the Double Dart on a cloudy, windy summer’s day without getting hypothermia or leaving acres of skin behind on a boulder.

I’d like to propose that we stop worrying, and simply wear what makes us happy and confident. The other day I listened to a radio broadcast featuring my buddy JJ, where the presenter had misunderstood the concept of Wild Swimming and coined the term Wild Naked Swimming. This, I feel, is infinitely more descriptive than Non-Wetsuit Swimming and holds an appropriate literal and metaphorical frisson. I’m sure someone will start on swimsuits next, but what’s a sliver of lycra between water and skin? So I’d like to formally abolish the term Non-Wetsuit. At the risk of making a rule, you are into either Wild Naked Swimming or Wild Swimming, or both. Nobody minds! Dare I ask for comments?…


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