One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Lovely Lyd

Another stunning spring day, and I was foiled in my plans to food-shop thanks to the pathetic petrol-queueing mayhem that gridlocked Tavistock.  So off we went for a long walk and a swim instead – who needs food?

I love the moors on days like these: the hazy, dreamlike view of Brat Tor and Widgery Cross; the smell of sheep-wee; the bleats of the ewes just loosed back out to lamb; the intermittent early skylark songs; occasional bumble-bees on gorse flowers. 

I slid in on the shadowy side at Witch’s Pool and swam into the light to warm, golden water.  Rambling downstream, dipping in each of the sequence of tiny pools, pushed under by waterfalls and sinking through crystal bubbles, I drifted into daydreams.

Dip at Doublewaters

It’s a sparkling, warm day and Honey and I decide to wander down to Doublewaters for a dip. The trees are still naked and look startled to be illuminated by such bright beams of sunlight, like wild swimmers caught skinny dipping.

There’s a slight haze, and the wind swirls, carrying the bleats of newborn lambs, as we leave the open moor and enter the woods. We walk down the track through the precipitous valley and the tinkling sound of the Walkham river drifts to meet us.  We arrive at the granite outcrop that marks the confluence of the two valleys and their rivers. The pool where we swim is on the Tavy side and looks enticing, slightly opaque and green-tinted, framed by bare trees and barred shadows.

I walk straight in over slippery rocks and go under, swimming up against the current. The water is still pretty chilly and I get ice-cream cheeks today, but the warm air makes all the difference. The smell of baking leaf-mould reminds me of summer.  Floating on my back I hear quacking, but can’t see the ducks. A fish jumps with a plop. Honey is growling and digging her ball out of the shallows with her arse in the air. The sky is so blue against the silvery bark, lichen and ferns it seems tangible and I feel I can float up into it.

Skinny Dip at Black Rock

Honey and I pootled over to the River Lyd this afternoon for a revivifying skinny dip in Witch’s Pool.  As we wandered upstream through the valley, Honey disturbed a young vixen who shot out under her nose from a gorse thicket and zig-zagged off up Widgery Tor, her brush going like a metronome to balance her flight. Honey continued to sniff excitedly in the thicket, having missed the entire escape.  I also forgot to take a photo, despite having my camera in my hand. We then saw an elderly man who reacted in much the same way as the vixen had, and shot off up the tor perpendicular to the track in order to avoid us.

We scrambled down the steep valley side and I stripped quickly, sliding into the chilly pool from a granite boulder.  I ducked under the clear brown water, and as I popped back up and floated through the familiar ache of cold skin, a skylark sang overhead echoing the tumbling course of the little river. Honey played in the shallows and the elderly man reappeared around a hundred yards away, freezing in a cartoon pose as he caught sight of me, before hurrying off back downstream. I dried by jigging on the grass to the clacking whistle of a Wheatear, although I couldn’t see him. I thought as I always do when we come here of the young  soldier whose verse, written during a leave shortly before his death,  is attached to Black Rock above a wooden bench:

Are we not like this moorland stream,
Springing none knows where from,
Tinkling, bubbling, flashing a gleam,
Back at the sun ‘ere long,
Gloomy and dull under a cloud,
Then rushing onwards again,
Dashing at rocks with anger loud,
Roaring and foaming in vain,
Wandering thus for many a mile,
Twisting and turning away for a while,
Then of a sudden ’tis over the fall,
And the dark still pool is the end of all.

Is it? I thought as I turned away,
And I turned away to the silent moor.
Is it? I said and my heart said ‘nay’,
As I gazed at the cross on Widgery Tor.

Captain Nigel Duncan Ratcliffe Hunter, of Lydford, killed in 1918 aged 23


Thatcher Rock: Crossing the Gut

Thatcher Rock – an innocuous-looking, volcano-shaped island speckled with sea-birds and bright green vegetation, a couple of hundred meters off Hope’s Nose. Now this is where things get scary; to get to the Rock, you have to cross the little channel attractively-named The Gut. The bit you swim from forms part of a promontory on the edge of a large bay; the combination of narrow channel and point of course means fast tidal currents.  The only person we know who has achieved this, and who was named for this very feat of derring-do, is Dangerous Malcolm. He and Sophie had hatched a plot to stage a group assault.

When we arrived just before high tide, the sea was the colour of a storm cloud. A shower quickly passed, and we made our way down to the cliff’s edge, from where we scrambled down the narrow, slippery track to the cliff fall near the beach. Finn, Guardian of the Keys, had brought a yellow umbrella and used that to fly down like Mary Poppins. Ninja Elf had met a German family and invited them – they bravely followed us over the edge for their first Devon Wild Swim despite their obvious misgivings.

In order to stake a claim to the Rock, JJ had brought a Jordanian flag, and Jackie had made a Devon Wild Swimmers flag in turquoise and red, which she gave to Dangerous Malcolm. There was some hilarious discussion about where to put the poles. Dangerous Malcolm has recently been cultivating a rather luscious and spiky explorer-type, perma-frosted beard. With his stocky frame and rubber swimming hat atop his neoprene hood, side flaps flipped casually up, he resembled the love-child of Scott of the Antarctic and Amelia Earheart. JJ, in an attempt to float his legs for his upcoming Channel swim,  has allegedly gained a kilo by eating lots of cakes. Next to Dangerous, however, he looked like Tinkerbell going through an Emo phase. Dangerous openly stole his Jordanian flag and tossed it into the Gut, safe in the knowledge that his claim on the Rock was now to be unchallenged.

We plunged into gin-clear sea as the sun appeared, following Sophie and her coterie over fallen rocks piled up like sugar cubes. For the first time in months my face didn’t freeze. I swam easily and arrived at the Rock in what seemed like a couple of minutes; I stopped and trod water, then realised I was heading away from the little gaggle hanging on to the rock at about 2 knots. Bearing in mind we swam at slack tide, this was pretty impressive. The cries of gulls and the stench of fish surrounded us. I swam hard to the up-current side of the island, and spent a while floating and watching the Shags, perched and silhouetted along the top of the Rock like gangs of 1950s bikers with their slick quiffs.

Around the back were more Shags, a couple of birds I didn’t recognise, and some Cormorants. The sea here is deep, bluey, and clouded by semi-dissolved guano. As JJ  and I rounded the corner to the sheltered side of the island, Dangerous Malcolm and flag executed a perfect landing. JJ went to help with the erection of the flag while I took photos from the sea, buffeted by an increasing swell.

Finally we set off back across the Gut, where the current appeared to have slackened slightly more. I made a couple of adjustments and got back fairly swiftly. In the shallows were more sugar-cube rocks covered in lettuce-green algae, and several types of delicate weed, one in bright orange. We clambered back up the cliff, happy and thrilled to have been involved in such a magical swim, and to have made it back without being swept away up the coast – a definite possibility on a spring tide.

Baywatch Exmouth

It’s a good idea for a wild swimmer to master the necromancy of wind, tide, currents and waves; and so it was that my friend Steph the Ninja Elf and I went to Exmouth to do the RLSS Beach Lifeguard Qualification.

The first hint that this might not be as simple as running up and down in slo-mo with artfully tousled hair and a rescue tube came when Steph noticed that the run and swim times for different age-groups in our Beach Lifeguard Manual stopped at age 39.

The second came in the pool when Bongo, our 23 year old course-mate, swam 400m in around thirty-two seconds and then told us how much faster he’d been as a youth, when he would finish the swim before he’d started.

The third involved getting to grips with the rescue tubes, by which time we were too tired to even attempt to look good and too out of breath to hum the Baywatch theme-tune again. I had thought ‘porpoising’ was simply forging head-first, arms overhead through a wave – wrong! Porpoising is the Beach Lifeguard technique for entering the sea with a rescue tube and involves a five-mile run through dry sand, sprinting to knee-depth with the loop at the end of the eight-foot strap over your head and one shoulder, throwing the tube out and to one side, diving gracefully into the sea and hitting the sand, grabbing the sand so as not to be wiped out by a wave, resisting hyperventilating with cold-shock, pushing off the sand with one leg while trying to disentangle the rescue tube strap from your other leg while your neck is hyper-extended, after which you briefly appear – like a porpoise – above the waves before plunging back in and repeating the manoeuvre once or twice more because it’s ‘faster’ than swimming.

You then swim flat out to the casualty while keeping your head up supposedly so the casualty doesn’t vanish while you’re not looking, but actually because the strap is still wrapped round your neck and one leg, before you throw the tube at them without knocking them out with the metal clip, persuade them to turn around so they won’t attack you, clip the tube around them while they scream, punch you, rip out a hunk of hair, and pull you under with the strap because you’ve forgotten to slip it over your head and it’s still wrapped around one leg.

After this, you’re expected to tow the casualty – formerly your friend but whom you are now starting to dislike intensely – back to the beach while they laugh openly at your gasping attempt at swimming with ‘urgency’. You hug them supportively and act looking at them in a caring way while you carry them ashore, resisting the urge to knee them in the back and stamp on their head. Instead you deposit them gently on the beach, wrap them in blankets, and give them your last Rollo. You then trip over the strap. When you act as casualty for Bongo he attempts to asphyxiate you by grabbing your face with his huge paw, allegedly to prevent a breaking wave from occluding your airway.

Finally, if you’re still alive, you have to carry a ten-foot malibu board at speed through a howling cross-wind down a mined RNLI slipway to the sea while putting a fiver in the collection box, find the sea with eyes screwed up against the sand-storm, throw the board in and attempt a half-submerged bunny-hop alongside, followed by a second leap and a graceful kneeling landing on said board which is now supposed to be speeding purposefully in the direction of the unconscious casualty. You then execute a warp-factor, two-armed paddle to deep water, flip the board over next to the casualty while inhaling a wave, paddle sideways while coughing up seawater on the up-side-down board to try to catch the casualty who’s being swept away at 5 knots by the estuarine current while the wind and waves push you in the opposite direction, before inhaling sufficient air to turn the casualty over and give five rescue breaths, and then whipping the casualty’s hands over the board and hanging on to them with the freezing numb fingers on one hand, while grabbing the far edge of the board with the other and raising one knee to the lower edge and leaping from the water like a spawning salmon with the result that the board flips back the right way.

After this the casualty is miraculously supposed to be lying on the board in the right place to allow you to hop onto the back without sinking or pushing the nose under, and self, casualty and board are all facing the shore, ready for you to paddle self and casualty back to the beach with your face buried in the casualty’s bum while trying to resist blowing your nose on his wetsuit and having a quick nap.

Throughout the entire rescue you have of course been keeping one eye on the beach where Andy the Instructor is rapidly flapping his arms which are holding a shark-warning flag and simultaneously spelling out in your newly-learned Lifeguard Sign Language a critique of your efforts so far, the speed and direction of the current, warnings of approaching dumping waves, a reprimand for not knowing how to tie a head-bandage, a request for you to sign back three types of rip current, and a record of which bits of your kit passing dogs have just pissed on.

To our utter amazement, we both passed, although it was made quite clear that we’re too slow to get actual Beach Lifeguard jobs on beaches longer than twelve feet or with a tidal range of more than two inches. Nonetheless, a fantastic week during which we learned a huge amount. Thanks to Andy from East Devon Training whose extensive knowledge and experience, humour and tea were imbibed to largely good effect; to Steph’s German chocolate biscuits which are the secret of her twelve-pack; and to Bongo Ben for making us laugh and showing us how to be a proper Beach Lifeguard.

And very special thanks to the puppy who performed CPR by jumping on my chest and licking my face while I was unconscious on the beach.


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