One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Dipping on the North Teign

We stride over Kes Tor on a blustery day with little bursts of rain and sun and scudding clouds. Honey jumps through a bog and snaps at the cotton tails as they bob back and forth in the gale.  I glimpse the North Teign in the distance, narrow and straight as it crosses the common and hear the tinkle of water through the wind and the squelching of the rain-sodden turf as we tread. My hair slaps across my face and even the hairs on my arms are blowing horizontally.

We cross the tiny clapper bridge and walk through foxgloves, thistles and bracken, every so often stepping across one of the tiny gardens secreted within peat-holes. Walla Brook joins the river as it begins its plummet into Teigncombe Cleave, just above a holey rock that sits above the water like a wild lavatory. (My friend Jackie tells me this is the Whooping Cough Stone, where if you pass a child with Whooping Cough through the hole s/he will be cured). We discover a small horseshoe falls, but the flow is too fast to get near today.

We dip and swim in a lovely pool enveloped by mountain ash, blackthorn and gorse.  A the sun comes out the water glows like a winter fire reflected in burnished copper, adding to the frisson of the chill as I dunk under.  I try to swim, but keep grounding on submerged rock slabs slimy with brown silt. The wind swoops upstream and ruffles the surface which glints like a shoal of fish.

We wend our way back up stream past the pong of a dead sheep, her body dissolved  like the Wicked Witch of the West beneath a splatted fleece and gently curving horns. Upstream from the clapper bridge I float on my back in the shallows, water rushing one way and the wind the other, while rushes and foxgloves bend like animal pelts in the wind. Bruise-grey clouds gather behind.

Spitchwick Sundown

Honey and I crawl through the dismal Dartmoor landscape, drained and limp with the fog that has smothered us all day.  As we descend into the Dart Valley our view is suddenly brighter. I look up and see a patch of blue appear through parting clouds. Plum, Honey and I climb into a watery world illuminated like a Medieval bible. We swim against the chill current and bathe in sunbeams which reflect and ripple across the rock face above us like a river of light.

Sausages and Cider

Poor Teri had to postpone her Sausage and Cider beach party owing to the usual stormy summer weather, so we met at Wembury a day late.  In accordance with stereotypes, the women swam while the men fiddled with the barbecue (actually more of a farmhouse range which required a fork-lift truck to move) and the kids played in the shallows. 

The sea was a balmy sixteen degrees, murky green and studded with fragments of weed following the storm. A lovely swell cradled us as we swam, while we added to Queenie’s marine phobias with talk of Conger Eels rising up at dusk, big-mouthed Basking Sharks and other monsters.

For once, the breakers were manageable and body-surfing back in was as easy as  pie. Teri emerged wearing a dark and glossy kelp wig like a dishevelled Kardashian, if there is such a thing, while Queenie did some ‘dynamic jumps’.

We sat around in the evening sunshine and ate sausages in baps, drank mulled cider, and finished off with a wonderful Nigella chocolate and Guinness cake.

Messing around video here:


Tinside Lido

It’s a sunny day with a nippy on-shore breeze. Plymouth Hoe sparkles under the bright blue sky as I walk towards the railings. And then it appears, the turquoise Art Deco joy that is Tinside Lido, curving out over the sea, flags waving, fountain spewing from its centre, positively screaming ‘Dive In’! This isn’t a normal swimming pool: it’s almost circular so you can swim in arcs rather than lengths; it’s rippled water is illuminated by the sun; it’s refreshed by the sea-breeze; and it’s filled with sea water. We swim, dive and play before sitting on the concrete bench to warm and dry our chilled skin in the sun.

Crazywell Pool Pop-Up Lido

Today we swam wild with a difference, spending the afternoon at one of my favourite spots where Alex Murdin had created a Pop-Up Lido complete with lifeguard chair, red flag, and FM radio broadcast. On the blustery high moor, surrounded by green, tussocky grass, we swam in the silky spring water of Crazywell Pool. I duck-dived under into an orange glow like Katie- Price’s reflected tan, and popped back up with tingling skin to watch clouds wandering overhead.  We speculated on the colour of the water, and the cause of the warmer patches which are like little baths in which to float and warm up.  A typical lido, perhaps?

BBC News Report here:


Mewstone? In This Weather?

Well, we tried. It’s blowing a hoolie and there’s officially a six to eight foot swell. The Mewstone taunts us from the maelstrom, highlighted by spray from the surrounding reef; there’s no way we’ll make it there today. Most of the gang have failed to show, and John our safety-kayaker decides it’s too frisky for him to paddle through the surf so he opts to ‘photograph you guys drowning from the beach’ instead. Sophie does some body-boarding while JJ, Hugo and I go for a swim.

The water’s warm and churning, and I swim and either dive through the waves as they break, or shoot up to the top and push and plummet off the back. I grin through the constant rumble and hiss of crashing waves and foam, imbued with stormy energy. As we swim beyond the surf, we hit the crazy choppy area where wind, tide and currents meet. We’re walloped and whipped and flung. There’s a whiff of sewage from the Point.

White horses break as we crest, and spindrift runs towards the shore in the squall that hits us around half-way to the Mewstone. Small wrinkles cover bigger wrinkles in the gusting wind. Rain splats into my face and partially washes the sticky brine from my skin.

Slicks of uprooted weed marble the sea, and I hit one as I swim. It slows me and pulls at my arm. I’m breathing on the downwind side, swimming at an angle to the waves, and timing my breaths for the point where I feel myself dropping off the top. But this time I’m slapped by a witch’s hat wave that smacks me in the face just as I inhale; I cough salty water through my abraded throat for a couple of minutes before I can breathe again.

I decide to make my way to shore, while JJ and Hugo continue on for a few minutes. I keep my eye on the Church and head back against the tide which is now retreating. I’m quite scared as I watch the backs of the breakers rush the beach, and I know they’re too strong for me to body-surf. I decide to swim hard and look out behind as I breathe.

When a wave is about to break it towers up and steepens while its lip teeters before curling into a sneer, after which, like a school bully, it gets you.  So I stop, face it and dive underneath to avoid the washing-machine effect. They come at me fast in the breaking zone and It’s hard, frantic work for a couple of minutes, with barely time to catch a breath between.

Suddenly I’m through, and I can surf in where the worst of the energy has dissipated. I stagger to the shore and look back to spot Hugo and JJ who appear after a few minutes. Hugo is wiped out by a huge wave, loses his prescription goggles and has his body bent in ways it’s not supposed to bend. The sun appears and lights the foaming surface so that it gleams like fish-skin.

Lower Spitchwick

Cold, windy, dank and grey; summer on Dartmoor… Faye and I enter the dark metallic waters of the Dart in the pool above the Cresta Run. Chilly shivers travel through my skin and I want to get out. Looking up it’s a shock to see the summer greens of ferns and trees. I force myself to swim, hating the creep of cold as my hair wicks water. Gusts of wind ruckle the surface as they pass. We clamber down the shallows towards the corner current, its passage marked by little white-capped moguls.  I feel my body being picked up and flung along as I swoop round the bend.

Oddicombe Talk and Swim

Firstly, a huge thanks to the wonderful Sophie Pierce and Matt, aka Daniel Craig, for a fascinating, informative and entertaining talk on the history of Wild Swimming in, and the geology of Torbay which we enjoyed enormously. Among many notable discoveries, Sophie and Matt had uncovered a cine film from the 1930s showing a group of local women executing perfect swallow dives from sixty-foot cliffs into the sea; a local diving champion and Olympian trained in the same spot. This practice has now been turned on its head to feet-first, reviled and criminalised, and is called ‘Tombstoning’. I can’t help thinking we are so much more dramatic than our predecessors who had far more to worry about than we do. There’s a book of the talk to follow, and I’ll post a link on here when it’s ready.

Following the talk, we descended on the Cliff Railway to Oddicombe for a rainy, choppy swim. We frolicked into the turquoise water en masse through dumping waves, which resulted in some interesting shrieks.The sea is a good degree or two colder than the moorland rivers at the moment, and while I was mostly anaesthetised by the cold I felt a squidgy bump on the arm, which turned out to have been a jellyfish. I wasn’t alone and one swimmer was stung on the face. A couple of swimmers found their what-lies-beneath-the-water-phobias surfacing, the most common of which involved being nudged or mouthed by the infamous Torbay seal-with-the-sense-of-humour.

A couple of us had discussed the sewage outfall following the recent storms on the way down; swimming and bouncing through the briny I saw a white shape which I assumed to be a sanitary towel – Queenie and Stef laughed openly and informed me it was a cuttlefish. A reiteration of the power of suggestion on the mind, and of course I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

Sharrah High

Betweeen summer storms Catherine, Gill, the dogs and I wend our way through squidgy mud and damp air to Sharrah.  The river pounds and rumbles, and none of the lower pools is swimmable. We are hit by a grizzly roar where the waters are forced through the narrows above Bel Pool Island.

Sharrah boils burnt orange today, another colour I’ve not see here before. A beery foam head floats atop the eddy and cakes our chins so we appear to have been caught mid-shave. My arms and legs glow the colour of a Posh spray-tan. Huge bubbles appear and process downstream, held above the surface by little foamy floats.

Swimming flat out into the beer head I adjust my stroke so’s I can sweep it away from my face. It smells slightly off, like the whiff of an over-ripe cheese, but the water is beautifully cool and smooth and fresh as summer rain. Eddie the terrier is almost engulfed, while Socks the collie panics when she loses sight of one of us and emits a volley of alarm-barks. Honey drops yet another ball into the river and spends the swim trying to dig it up from between some tree roots.

I decide against braving the top of the rapid current, and go in below the big rock. Even there I’m pushed under by a down-surge and get that helpless sinking feeling, where you know you can’t float and just have to go with it; it’s a reminder of how it feels not to be able to swim. The river spits me back up and I spin slowly in the current.

Moon Gazey Swim With No Moon

As is usual for Devon Moon Gazey Swims, we drove to Bovisand through tipping rain and floods with windscreen wipers on double speed. I’m sure I saw the moon as a faint glow through the clouds, but it certainly wasn’t gazeable. Sky and sea were the slatey grey that soaks up light. A band of ripped sea weeds and shells mulled around in the shallows, but the rain had stopped. Several people had their toes nibbled, possibly by the famous Wembury Bay Cuckoo Wrasse. Who needs to pay for a fishy pedicure?

Ann and her kids arrived half an hour late having been horribly lost in the lanes, but they gamely ran into the sea and had a fine time body-surfing. Gulls and a cormorant bobbed around and fished nearby. Walking from the water over wet sand, we left our footprints among those of the birds.

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