One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

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.


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