One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Honey Hits the Rapids

Sharrah Pool, low water for winter, and an incredible 9ºC in the Dart today. The spooky greens and blues have pretty much gone now it’s warmed up, although there is a hint of urine-mixed with loo-blue about the rapids. Honey and I swim across the centre of the pool and I push her soggy bum up onto the rocks so she can go exploring. I glide up the central eddy and back down through the fizz, then I decide to put in some effort and hit the rapids against the current.

I reach and slide in my Kari-crawl as far as the big rock. Suddenly water surges over my head and arm, I sink lower, and almost inhale river rather than air. I realise I’m about to collide with the ledge on the far bank. I try again, eyeballs chilled as I’m not wearing goggles, and again hit the weird combination of oppositional force and lack of buoyancy.

I rest on the rock, and Honey appears on the far side of the falls. She goes in, and plummets beneath the surface, beginning to panic as her heavy, long coat combines with the foaming rapids to pull her down. I jump in and support her beneath her ribs, and we descend the river together. She hauls herself out, a matt of soggy ringlets, and tries to dry her ears by rubbing her nose sideways along the ground.

Thanks to Allan, Jackie and Plum for the photos – WWS’s camera is away being fixed…

Spring in the Sea

Today we met at Wembury again – it’s become the regular, winter sea-swim for some of us. Spring is in the air and the sea, and the sun has real warmth, burning through the mist by lunchtime. We swim hard out towards the Mewstone, visible in three dimensions in the bright sunshine but never seeming to get any closer. This will be our big planned swim for when the sea warms. We cut back towards the Yealm side, and feel the power of the reef reeling us in. It’s easy to imagine ships coming to grief here as the waves build, break and suck with the funnelling effect of the submerged rocks.

Later, we change and play ball with Honey and Mary the Bull Terrier. There is a dog-hater on the beach, identifiable by her chilling laser-stares at any canines and their humans who dare to venture within half a mile.  Mary spots her at once, shoots over with her comical gambolling canter, and sticks her head into Mrs Dog-Hater’s takeaway box – which quite possibly contains minced dog burgers.

We wander along the coast-path to Heybrook Bay, which allows us a closer look at the Mew Stone from Wembury Point, a mere half a K from here, but with a strong current through the narrows.  The fields behind the path are dotted with plump rabbits and Oyster Catchers, mingling as though at a cocktail party.

There was a moon in the pub (by a Welshman excited by a team try on the televised match), and then on the walk back a slim crescent moon rose in the sky, Venus visible as a bright point of light alongside. Or it might have been Saturn. We’re still arguing.

With thanks to JJ and Stephanie for the photos – WWS’s camera has broken!

Astonishingly Oddicombe

Thanks to Sophie for the photo

A steep walk down the lane past Babbacombe Cliff Railway; glimpses of glassy sea through naked trees. Hunks of sandstone cliff from a recent landslide litter the far end of the beach; a monumental jumble studded with grey pebbles and the remains of a hideously expensive garden.

We swim around the cliffs through nippy, chalky-blue water, and encounter a cave almost immediately.  Here the cliffs are limestone apparently stained and pitted by the sea, but a closer inspection reveals a three-dimensional mosaic of sea-life: barnacles; what looks like a variety of tiny anemones’ bodies in shades of brown; bilious algae; a burnt-orange, gelatinous, splat of a creature; Dead Men’s Fingers in white, and in the same shade of pink as Katie Price’s jodhpurs.

We enter the cave which extends far above us. Waves surge up the narrowing fissure and carry us in before sucking us back, cradled by the sea. Sophie and Susie climb a rock and discover a pool like an oyster in a dark, shell-shaped cavern.  They sit on the ledge to one side, which overlooks the rest of the cave. Matt floats in the pool and the flash from my camera illuminates this magical place, transforming it.

We swim on over seaweeds like flowers against a sea-blue sky, rocks splodged with pink and maroon algae, and constellations of starfish in orange and cream. I float into a nook that reeks of fish. Juvenile mussels line the rock, and as the swell recedes, rivulets of water run then drip down with a sound like spring rain.


A beautiful, February morning, dead-calm, turquoise sea and a low, winter sun gleaming through gossamer clouds just above the horizon. We swim out from the beach in glassy water over sand wrinkled by winter storms. Kelp hangs upwards. The sea chills me, but I feel the promise of spring in the sprinkling of warmth from the sun.



A chilly, still, slightly overcast afternoon and a very low tide. The scent of seaweed and fish. A dog charges round, chased by increasingly frantic owners, playing with a long-dead rabbit. The peach-coloured light brings out the steely blue-greys of the sea, and the sun forces her way through intermittently with wondrous effects. Beams of light splay around the Mewstone, and the horizon is briefly lit by a line like burning phosphorous.

The water is cold, around 7.5ºC, and my face freezes painfully. Several people are seriously under-dressed for the occasion, and even Pauline grimaces for several seconds before launching into a solo synchronised swimming routine. Joh, on the other hand, appears to be entering the water wearing a puffa jacket while the Ninja Elf is recognisable only by her squeals, muffled through the balaclava.

We swim out, then return fairly quickly with cold hands and numb toes. A fast change and we refuel with two types of cake. As we leave, we’re enveloped by the distant sounds of kids laughing and the slap of Honey’s feet as she gallops along the wet sand.



Maidencombe Madness

South-Easterlies scuppered our plans to explore along the coast at low tide today, with a hefty swell and a force 4-5 wind. The sea churned with dark red sand, and transmogrified into that tastefully dull taupe colour currently found on so many interior walls. The shallows were a chunky winter soup of seaweeds and flotsam. 

Swimming out to sea I plunged head-first through heavy breakers. As I swam, wave turrets hit me from all angles and I began to swallow water. Looking round, I realised we’d been carried alongshore and were close to the rocks. Spray splattered the air. I struck out seawards and then back along towards the beach, pushed and pulled by the surging water. Dangerous Malcolm meanwhile appeared on the rocks, and walked back around to the beach before returning to the sea; he told me later he’d been unable to swim away against the force of the waves and had to land instead.

Back in the relatively calm area off the beach, I floated around and played in the surf, watched by sandstone cliffs the colour of dried blood. Every roaring breaker dissipated into fizzing, Fresian patches of foam.

Snowy Sharrah Magic

High on Dartmoor, the Double Dart slows briefly between two sets of rapids to form Sharrah Pool.  There are plenty of breathtakingly beautiful places on this stretch of river, but Sharrah is special. It’s enchanting, entrancing, and it never fails to throw buckets of Dartmoor pixie-dust at anyone who sees it.

Today there is a sprinkling of snow and it’s still falling as we arrive in the glade by the pool. The temperature hasn’t gone above freezing for days; it’s  3ºC in the river. The water is much paler than usual and has lost its deep coppery gleam and black depths. By the rapids, it’s almost turqoise, and there’s a gelid, greeny tint that I’ve never seen here before.

Pam, Sarah and I wear wetsuits, boots, gloves and hats. We slide into the river and swim up the eddy towards the top falls. Ice creeps through the neck of my suit. I dip my face under and taste pure chill; my lips freeze almost immediately. We reach the rapid and throw ourselves off the rock. It’s like jumping into a beautiful cocktail made with creme de menthe and the most effervescent volcanic water. The bubbles burst fast on the surface in a shower of sparks like fireworks, and I can hear the fizz above the roar of the waterfall. Then I shoot along as though in the tail of a comet.

Snowflakes drift past. Icicles coat the rocks at the falls, and it’s hard to tell them from the gushing spumes of water. The boulders in the glade are iced with snow. Honey jumps between them, following us upstream.

My fingers slowly freeze from the tips down, and after fifteen minutes or so I’m forced to leave this magical water world. We change, eat shortbread and drink hot chocolate. We dip our fingers in warm water from a flask. Mine are blue and the intense pain whirls me back to my childhood of wet wool socks in wellingtons and winter chilblains.

With thanks to my new friends from Hampshire OSS who shared the magic.

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