One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Wicked Wembury

Dark clouds begin to glow as the moon staggers above them. It’s hard to judge the height of the surf as we wade in to water the colour of lead; you don’t see approaching breakers, but rather sense a looming presence. Wave lips flash with spray. A couple are big enough to have to duck under, while others break into our faces as we jump. My legs are grabbed by glossy kelp which slides down my thighs like a drowning bogeyman. The ghosts of waves fizzle on the surface before vanishing. Honey howls from the beach – it’s too rough for her to swim with us and she’s on the lead.

Moonlight glints off tipsy wavelets and silhouettes Wembury Church, and the lights of the Old Mill look like the orange eyes of a Halloween pumpkin. I levitate up waves in the dark then plummet, watching their speeding backs then turning to glimpse the darkly distant shark’s fin of the Mewstone. My skin is alive and burning with salty chill. Mesmerised by the moon I gaze as a curl of cloud breaks over her face. Wicked.

Our friend Helen is about to have her baby who has been nurtured by the waters of Devon since conception. It was too rough for Helen to swim tonight. Helen, I wish you and your baby love, and the happy magic of wild water.

Salter’s Spirits

The air’s not that cold, but the water nips then burns like horseflies. It’s dead calm, and autumn colours mist the trees. Lazy bright leaves wend downstream in the copper-black water. As I swim my breath condenses and creeps along the surface like a spectral breeze. I float across the current and my body swirls around and down towards the distant cascade; its music surges like rainfall as I pass. Honey fossicks under the bank. Her cream fur silhouettes hanging tree roots like giant ribs so that she appears to have been swallowed by a fossilised whale.

Tunnel of Stars and Dead Man’s Cave

After days of biblical deluge it’s sunny and clear. We scramble over the rocks at low tide into refreshing, Mediterranean-blue sea. We discuss Kari’s plan to swallow dive from the peak by the beach, in a tribute to the beautiful photos of 1930s Torbay women found by Sophie and Matt for their forthcoming book. The rock thrusts skywards like a warrior’s statue, and we can see that the water below is mined with barnacled boulders which will be invisible at high tide. It will be difficult to research this now that local knowledge has died out.

We didn’t exactly swim today, our progress was more a series of aquamarine wanderings. Beneath the jagged limestone arch I dive and find hundreds of starfish dotted around, warm yellow through the turquoise water like a Van Gogh painting. Sue tells us that Dead Man’s Fingers are more properly termed Sea Squirts. We decide that these splendid, multifarious specimens should be re-named Dead Man’s Testicles, or as Kari suggests, Sea Bollocks.

It’s a neap tide and we can see a slash of sun through the cliffs. The sea glows petrol blue and swells before pulling us into the light in a heavenly, near-death experience.  We emerge close to the corner cave, and swim in through a trail of taupe scum and fronds of seaweed from the recent storms. I ponder why anyone should want to paint their home in taupe when they could choose aquamarine or starfish yellow.

The cave narrows. Rough ginger rocks are splattered with debris resembling strips of flesh. We are pushed up into the narrowing gap with the rise of the sea. I dive down and snake through the ribbon of blue; my claustrophobia disperses. Strange how not being able to breathe is comfortable when immersed in such beauty. We burst out beneath the arch; it feels like emerging from a wardrobe after a trip to Narnia.



Dogless at Ladram Bay

We descend the hill through an ugly rash of caravans and blue signs pointing out everything from Swimming Pool to Caravan Sales. We reach the slipway and halt ahead of the NO DOGS sign. According to several websites dogs are allowed here, and Max, Michelle and I have chosen this place partly for this reason. We walk Frankepedo and Honey along the cliff path instead. A man with a Midlands accent rudely tells Michelle to put well-trained and innocent Frankie on the lead. The dogs are returned to the cars before we swim.

There are numerous people wandering around the caravan park, but there are only two others on the beach and the sea in the area below the slip smells of poo. This is not dog shit, but the result of untreated human sewage outfalls following recent heavy rain. I can accept dog bans on some popular beaches in summer but this is ridiculous. A fledgling gull huddles into the shingle; presumably she’s trying to avoid being banned too.

We edge out through painfully large pebbles into water that’s murky with red sand. We swim over bumpy waves into a maelstrom of wild seas between the fabulous sandstone stacks which are filled with holes like Hobbit Houses. It’s stunning, and lifts my spirits. Luckily, you can’t see the visual effluent of caravans from the sea.

Slapton Spa

A coterie of wild swimmers gather in late afternoon on Slapton Sands. It’s a stunning day, but a cheeky easterly wind knifes through skin and bone as we trot to the sea. The waves rear up and dump in a clattering roar, and the shingle tinkles like rain as the waves recede. Jackie is wiped out and emerges uncharacteristically bedraggled, but bravely continues to bounce in the aquamarine swell. Black backed gulls wheel overhead.

We return to shore, and take turns to soak in the portable wood-fired hot tub placed here for the day. ‘Hot Tub’ is way too prosaic a term for such a marvel; it’s an experience of extreme contrasts. The little attached wood-burner heats seawater which magically wafts through a pipe into the tub. It’s the same water in which we’ve just swum, yet it’s a different animal. Heat diffuses through our chilled skin. Meanwhile the salty Slapton gale whips past our faces. The briny scent mingles with whiffs of wood-smoke. We wallow and giggle, cooking slowly while we drink champagne, eat a series of exceptional cakes, and finish with coffee and Bailey’s.

Honey stares with deep concentration at our cake, but her love of water – fortuitously – does not extend to baths. The sun drops and silhouettes the spa chimney, while the spray from the surf mists the horizon.  Looking seawards it’s like an infinity pool. Finally, I have to let someone else in. Leaping from the tub I dash for my Robie and manage to change before the gale steals the warmth from my body.

To hire the hot tub, and for more hot tub events, see:


Mystical Meldon Pond

Meldon Dam is spectacular with Royal Wedding-scale bridal veils of overflow. We cross the clam over the dark and flooded West Okment and squelch through the woods. Suddenly, through autumn trees illuminated by bright sun, a delicious, turquoise pool materialises. It’s as though a chunk of sea has dropped from the sky to stun us in this world of amber waters and green turf.

The leaves are starting to turn, and their greens and golds are mirrored around the edges of the pool, refracting their tints through the water so that the ocean colours turn with them and become indescribably autumnal. The sky is a bright, cool blue and fish-boned with diaphanous clouds. I feel the nip of autumn in the air and the burn of clear, cold water on my skin.

A wall of rock like a fairy-tale castle teeters over us as we swim. The luminous grey is smooth and streaked with limestone trails that are almost indistinguishable from the ripples reflected off the surface of the pool. Ivy trails down. Our two new wild swimmers are enchanted, and so are we.

Meldon Pond is a flooded limestone quarry which is around one hundred and thirty feet deep. The links  below are transcripts of some oral history of this magical place.





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