One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

A Bit of a Battering Around the Mewstone

We finally arrange a Mewstone circumnavigation on a day when the weather and sea conditions are relatively good. There’s a bit of an onshore breeze, a two to three-foot swell and good visibility. I had planned the swim based on advice from Dave Curno, a yachtsman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of tides and currents around the area who had given us a tide talk a few weeks back. He suggested we should swim anticlockwise at high tide plus three hours, when the apparently random currents should be at their most accommodating. It’s a serious swim out to sea, to an island which sits out in the channel tidal stream in deep water. This picture is complicated by the funnelling effect of the Plymouth Breakwater, the Yealm estuary current, and the shallow narrows between the Mewstone and Wembury Point.

We set out for the famous island accompanied by four kayaks. It’s a hard swim into the breeze and the chop and there is a strange illusion by which the Mewstone appears to get further away like a ship dragging its anchor, before suddenly growing closer and becoming touchable. Jess and I arrive shortly after Queenie and Jo, while Max and Marisa the two racing eels are already heading around the back. We spot a huge cave and swim over but it’s not accessible at this water level, though it looks ripe for exploration on a higher tide. 

Cormorants pose with beaks to the sky, jagging the silhouette of the cliff while gulls wheel overhead.  We head up the western side of the island which is striped in horizontal waves of nut brown, black and grey-green, topped by a crenelated and tussocked hillock. It looks like the body of a cuddly jellyfish, not at all what I was expecting.

Approaching the seaward side we are hit by some sizeable swell. From our low-level view we see the tops of sails leaning into the wind, and then a jet black shard of rock like a shark’s fin thrusting from the sea at an angle of forty-five degrees. Waves splat and rush up the flat surface, foaming back down.  The sea is petrol blue and turbulent, and we feel nervous without a kayak in view.  We press on because the current between the Mewstone and Wembury Point from whence we came is fast and flowing out to sea.

We are buffeted and bounced, and our view ranges from water only, to the crews and decks of the nearby yachts, to the tops of their sails. In the other direction is the rest of the sinister, shattered rock slab which from here looks like a Gothic cathedral plummeting to hell. Waves crash and boom. I catch an occasional distant glimpse of white water which marks the position of the reef to the Yealm side. These lethal rocks are named The Slimers and we want to avoid them. I’ve seen the gully between them and the island on Google Earth and Dave has told us there should be two metres of water there at this time. He’s right and we swim over weed and rocks with plenty of water to spare. I’m panting with the effort of swimming so hard; it’s too strong a sea in which to relax.

Here a ridge rises steeply at an angle like the spine of a stegosaurus, and secreted in the hollow towards its base is a small stone building incorporating a roundhouse. The spine and the cottage are washed on their seaward side with yellowy-green lichen. This must have been the home of the infamous prisoner of the Mewstone, who chose banishment here in  preference to deportation to Australia in the nineteenth century. I wonder how this hasn’t been sold by Stag’s as an ideal second home renovation project for an Investment Banker like pretty much every other vernacular Devon building. 

We exit the gully and are momentarily confused. I spot Wembury Church in the far distance and realise we were about to head for Plymouth. Then Lindsay and Claire materialise on the horizon in their kayaks like bedraggled sea angels to escort us back in.

The waves are mostly with us, and we should be able to swim easily but it’s a struggle. I’ve lost my rhythm, am very tired, and am starting to get cramp in one calf and the other hamstring. Consciously relaxing, I manage to shake it out. It’s impossible to glide because of the buffeting so I have to grit my teeth and go for it. My mouth and throat are raw with salt water, and my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I dream of my bottle of water back on the shore and swim harder. Breathing to the left, I realise the Yealm current has pushed me over towards the Point so have to swim at an angle into it to get round the rocks to the beach.

Finally I see pale sand and surf in on two tiny waves. I’m greeted by cheers from some of our friends who’ve come for a little swim and waited for us. The adventure has taken the faster pair around one hour and forty minutes, but we’ve been nearer two and a half. I have just enough energy left to do a little dance on the beach.

There’s some wonderful historical information on this blog: http://matteringsofmind.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/mewstone-and-starfish/

The Intrepid Cormorant of Mel Tor Pool

Stef, Honey and I wander up past Sharrah towards Mel Tor Pools. As we pick our way through the undergrowth, Stef exclaims and points: ‘Look! A Cormorant!’ I’m slightly confused, thinking she must mean a Heron…She sees my disbelieving look and tells me she’s wearing her contacts.  I look again, and perched on a rock in mid-stream is indeed a rather handsome Cormorant. He throws a few poses as we creep up on him, cameras at the ready, and begins to vibrate his throat and exercise his impressive hooked beak. Stef tells me about her friend who had his hand badly lacerated by a Cormorant while swimming wearing a wetsuit; the bird probably mistook it for a fish. She puts her hands in her pockets.

We check our Cormorant over; although they do come inland, I’ve never seen one this far from the coast. He doesn’t look unwell or injured and is apparently sunbathing. These birds look black in the sea, but here I can pick out his beautiful grey and tan plumage, his orange 1960s lipstick, and the fish-scale markings on his wings. Eventually, having worked his way through his full repertoire of model postures and improbable yogic neck-manoeuvres, and had his photo taken from every angle, he flies casually upstream.

We dump our kit on the bank and wade across the river in swimsuits and bare feet. The water is pretty heavy and Honey struggles to stay away from the cascade so I have to keep grabbing her. We make it across and scramble up to the main pools over squidgy leaf-mould, occasionally stopping to remove a holly leaf from a foot. The water is unfortunately too high so we climb back and shoot down the long pool with the current. Our Cormorant, who I think I shall name Livingstone, is again perched on his rock; as we approach he flies off, downstream this time. I swim back over with Honey and keep nudging her upstream so she makes it safely to the bank.

We stop to play at Sharrah on the way down, of course. A couple of Yellow-Banded Dragonflies swoop overhead, bright against the blue sky. On the far bank where the gorge rises sheer above the river is a small grotto where water still pours after the recent rain. It drips from the hanging vegetation, while light splays from the river’s surface and reflects in dancing ripples on the wet rock. ‘Beautiful Desmoiselle’ damselflies scoot above the glowing amber water in the sunlight, metallic turquoise wings flashing. A yellow wagtail bobs on a rock nearby.

Balmy Breakwater

I don’t usually do organised swims, but it’s really not possible to swim from the Breakwater to Plymouth Hoe without some serious official planning, thanks to the ships, cross-channel ferries and submarines which regularly pass through. This swim was in aid of the Chestnut Appeal for Prostate Cancer and Children’s Hospice South West. We left by boat from the Mayflower Steps, and motored out in sunshine over dead calm seas. You could practically smell the testosterone from the serious swimmers, who flexed their muscles and discussed their planned split times. I swim on a different planet! We jumped ship close to the Breakwater, above which peeped the Mewstone, some  2.25 miles from the finish point next to Tinside Lido.

I meant to stick with my little pod, but felt quite claustrophobic among the melee of swimmers so I sped off to find some space and lost them almost immediately. In the end I stopped looking and decided I’d better swim properly since there was no longer anyone to chat to, so I concentrated on my stroke and kept going at a nice steady pace. Despite the official notice from the Queen’s Harbour Master, boats sailed through the swimmers a few times, including one large yacht whose crew completely ignored the shouts of the safety team.

The sea was balmy and opaque with mashed seaweed from the recent storm. I got into the zone, aware only of the bubbling sound of my exhalation and flashes of landmarks as I inhaled. The sun warmed the left side of my face. Every so often I pulled my head up to see my spotting points of  Smeaton’s Tower and the big wheel. They seemed to stay as tiny dots for ages before suddenly growing as I neared the Hoe.

Approaching the yellow buoy I realised my line was off, and felt the current pushing me to the east. I adjusted my course and swam harder, but was being swept fast away from the finish towards the Plym. I was forced to swim the last 20 minutes in top gear. I noticed the previously yogic, steady bubbling of my exhalations had become walrus-type snorting echoing through the water. I imagined other swimmers panicking and wondering what horrible sea-monster was approaching as the sound hit them. Finally, I felt the bottom grow nearer and my hands brushed the sand. I looked up to see a packed beach, and staggered ashore. We were all wearing facial algae which resembled five o’clock shadows in gingery brown, and my voice had dropped an octave thanks to a sore throat from the salt water; I could easily have secreted myself among the bewhiskered Folk singers on the terrace.

Crazy Wild Sharrah

 The morning deluge is long gone, but the moorland rivers are still rising at tea-time when we meet. Kayaks are spread around the car park, a rare sight in the summer. We peer over the parapet as we cross New Bridge and are scared. Walking up through mud and dripping trees, we hear the river seethe; it’s creamy with foam and the colour of dark chocolate. Parts of the path have fallen away over the summer with the constant rain. 

Foam maps the movement of water in Sharrah pool, and there’s an eddy I haven’t seen before on the far side; the current from the cascade reaches three-quarters of the way down, and the eddy circles in a spiral back up the far bank, like stirred coffee. Usually, there are rock-studded shallows at the lower end of the pool where you drift gently aground before the river is forced in a rapid through the narrows, but today the surge completely covers the rocks and there’s a real danger of being swept over. No swimmer would survive that trip. The water is relatively still at the near bank below the entry spot, and we decide we can safely return and exit here. I scan the river for fallen trees, but it looks clear.

We enter the beautiful, chill river and swim with difficulty upstream. It’s like being jostled by beefy Emos in a mosh-pit; arms and legs are bashed in different directions while our bodies vibrate with the roaring bass notes of the falls. I whack my foot on a rock, having not realised I’d been pushed so far over. We collect foam Rocker quiffs and Village People moustaches on the way up to the big boulder where we are able to balance and experience the upper cascade. The energy suffuses me; spray and surging water pulse in time with my blood. I dive forwards and feel like a surfing dolphin in the boiling chocolate water, sinking now and again as I lose my buoyancy. 

I return to the top but this time stay longer with the flume and try to enter the circular eddy, but am ripped past. I have to swim flat out to escape to the near bank, my body bending like a banana. I’m panting with effort and exhilaration. Huge raindrops hit my head, and I float on my back in the eddy while the rain forms little fountains on the surface and the oak overhead bends and rustles its leafy tambourine in the gale.

We barbecue in the rain, talk, and drink wine and beer. A couple of kayakers stop for a chat on their way past.  We wander back through the pitch black woods well after nightfall. The foam on the surface of the river glows and illuminates its passage down the dark gorge.

Sparkly Sharrah

We meet up with some visiting wild swimmers from Dorset to show off the enchanted jewel of Devon wild swims, Sharrah Pool.  The sun has fought through the clouds by the time we arrive; the river’s surface sparkles above amber shallows and dark depths. A Dipper flashes by.  The water is noticeably chilly, and once I’ve acclimatised I dive under, swimming along the bottom through an aquascape of tumbled rocks, blurred through saffron silt and goggle-less eyes. My hair drifts like a hydra around my head.

A camper leaps in to join us, followed by another couple whom we don’t know. The two boys with us are grinning, effervescent as the bubbles they swim through. Their mum is perched on the edge of the cascade like the birth of Venus.  We float and shoot the rapids, swim upstream, and sun ourselves on rocks. A Beautiful Demoiselle darts around the bank, flashing deep turquoise.  The Sharrah virgins are predictably entranced.

Aveton Gifford to Bantham

I’ve been drafted in as an escort for this swim, down the beautiful Aune (Avon) to Bantham, which is a part of Kari and Louise’s open water Swimming Weekend.  There are swans with cygnets around, and someone has added Beware Mad Swan in marker pen at the bottom of the car-park sign in Aveton Gifford. Blue sky with mackerel clouds and bright sun make the river water glow greeny orange. As it’s a neap tide we have to walk a bit more than usual through sqidgy mud and shallow water, all part of the wild swimming experience!

As I swim I hear honks from passing geese. Mud seamlessly gives way to sand and shells; tufts of sea-lettuce point the way.  I taste a tang of salt, then feel the chill on my feet and hands where the denser seawater has sunk beneath the warm blanket of the river. The underwater landscape is pocked with shells and coiled rag worm casts like tiny Inca temples. A large fish crosses beneath me, but I have no idea what species it is. 

The easterly wind hits as we round the bend near the village. The current from the receding tide is breathtaking here, and you can see where it runs fastest as the breeze has whipped the turquoise water to  a frenzy.

We stop briefly, then decide to swoop down with the current, exiting before the rip pulls us out to sea. Many of our swimmers haven’t done this kind of thing before, but all of them are game and trust us!  We shoot past the summer holiday world of the sand bar on the corner; it’s littered with people laughing and enjoying the sun, in stark contrast to the wild isolation upstream.

We exit at the estuary mouth; a sparkling vision of rough water, blowing spray and sunlight, through which Burgh Island hovers in the distance like Avalon.

Finally, I had a gorgeous late lunch from the Gastrobus in the car park at Bantham: A giant cheese straw (warmed in a cast-iron oven) with pesto and red pepper tapanade, all home-made and served with charm and friendly banter.  Highly recommended.

Details of Kari and Louse’s Swim Weekends and other courses are here:


Moon Gazey Swim With Moon!

Following our lovely swim around Burgh Island this afternoon, Queenie, Kate, Honey and I stay chatting in the pub before driving down to Bantham at nightfall. There we find Sue who’s travelled all the way from North Cornwall for our Moon Gazey Swim. A faint smudge of light through the clouds on the horizon behind us, like a distant glow-worm, raises our hopes of the moon putting in an appearance.

There’s enough light to feel the shapes of the dunes and I sense the sea before I see it, swelling like molten pewter. The lights of the Burgh Island Hotel glitter in the distance. It’s high tide so the earlier surf has died down to a gentle swell, which is just as well since there are rips here. Kate sets up her chair on the beach while the rest of us strip in the chill air, splattered by occasional rain drops. Sue has no kit with her, so we trot naked to the sea. The sand is damp and hard beneath my feet and the cool breeze tickles my salty skin.

We wade in over smooth kelp. The water creeps up my body like an incipient shiver; the shuushing of distant breakers swirls around in the breeze so that sound and sensation are indistinguishable. I recently learned that the music of waves is created by thousands of bubbles of air which vibrate and ring underwater like little bells. I feel the bubble bells through my skin as I swim, and phosphorescence sparks from my arms. We are mesmerised, and wave our arms through the water with fingers splayed. Ducking under, eyes open, green glints blossom like tiny neon lights blurred through a rainy window.

We’re quite far out, floating between sea and sky.  As we turn back the moon creeps above the clouds and illuminates a trembling, silvery path to the shore.

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