One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Twenty-Five Go Wild in Dorset by Enid Blyton

Before the Kidnapping

Before the Kidnapping

The excitement and hub hub at St Marina’s, the Devon Wild Swimmers’ boarding school, was reaching fever pitch as Halfers approached. Aunt Queenie and Kate the Farmer’s Wife had promised the children a wonderful adventure in wildest Dorset, complete with spiffing picnics of jacket potatoes, chilli, pear and almond tarts, lettuce, hard boiled eggs, cake, and lashings of wine and beer!Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 20.48.34

As they piled onto the coach and headed for the Station the swimmers were all terribly hungry and thirsty and simply dying to swim through Durdle Door. StephAnnie insisted that this should be at least an hour after lunch in order to avoid cramps. “Pish!” said Les, crossly. It won’t matter because we’ll simply be dashed to death on the terrible rocks! What an adventure!” She rubbed her hands together gleefully. “But Lesley, I’m a lifeguard..” sobbed StephAnnie, crying again. “Don’t call her Lesley! She won’t answer!” chorussed the others, excitedly. “Woof!” said Honey and Spencer, a big mongrel and a small but well-connected Urban Fox Terrier.

Aunt Queenie had to make several trips in the pony and trap from the station to Yoof Hostel Cottage, since she was only expecting Five of them, plus a bitch and a dog. “Oh piffle, children! You’ve thrown my plans into disarray – you and your unpredictable school friends!! Never mind, there’s lashings of wine and beer and I’m sure Farmer’s Wife Kate can cobble together a few enormous meals from fresh local produce and tinned tomatoes from her capacious larder!” She said happily.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 21.20.16“Good old Aunt Queenie!” chorussed the Famous Twenty-Five. “We can’t help it if none of us knows our arse from our elbow when it comes to organising an adventure!” “Woof!” said Honey and Spencer. “Aunt Queenie, I can’t open the door!” said Michele, crossly. “I think it’s locked!”

“Haven’t they taught you anything at that expensive boarding school? Feel along that ledge, scratch the lumpy stone, pull the tree branch four times, push on the loose rock and then ring the bell so the lovely Farmer’s Wife Kate will briefly pause from baking heaps of gorgeous shortbread and let us in!” Laughed Aunt Queenie.

The Farmer’s Wife appeared at the door smiling, and clouds of flour and glitter went all over the smaller children’s faces. “My, you look like little Halloween Trick or Treaters!” Roared the Farmer’s Wife! “Come in and I’ll show you my Secret Smugglers’ Passage!” She put her hands on her hips. “Oooooooh! Gooody!” said Linda and Joh. “Sod that, where’s the gin?” said Plum, crossly. “Woof!” Said Honey and Spencer. “And cake?” asked Helen, hungrily. “I’ll have all three!” said Fiona, “I’m not used to this fresh country air and mystery and adventures, except for little ones in Tooting Bec Lido and Hampstead Ladies’ Pond!” And so they had a simply spiffing evening of catching up and scoffing an enormous spread, with lashings of wine and beer and gallons of Rose Hip Vodka. 

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The next morning after a simply enormous country breakfast and lashings of Beecham’s Resolve, the Famous Twenty-Five sat down for some extra lessons by Lou, who had been asked by Aunt Queenie to tutor the children whose school reports had left a bit to be desired. Lou turned out to be a rather exciting tutor and soon the whole gang were up the creek in Arne having a spiffing mud fight and swimming to a small, jolly top secret island, where they landed and posed in front of the No Landing signs for some terrific snaps taken with Jackie’s waterproof Box Brownie. They even identified several hundred species of estuarine birds!

Later, after an enormous lunch of venison killed accidentally by Lynne and Joh and butchered and spit roast by Farmer’s Wife Kate, the Famous Twenty Five all went down to the sea. “But where is Spencer the Urban Fox Terrier?!” Shrieked Fiona. 

IMG_2149They all spread out, peering over the sheer cliff to the churning seas and jagged rocks below. Oh, where could Spencer the Urban Fox Terrier be? Could he have been blown by the howling gale from the terrible cliff? Could he have been kidnapped? They searched and searched, through gorse and undergrowth and massive landslides and down rabbit holes. “Now let’s think” bleated Baa. “Didn’t Kate the Farmer’s Wife mention her Secret Passage?” She shoved another piece of shortbread in. “I thought she meant in a book” said Alison, looking confused. “A book?” chorussed the others! “Yes, a passage in a book!” Shouted Alison, annoyed.

“Well if you’re not going to be sensible I’m going to eat heaps of freshly-baked shortbread and lay into lashings of wine and beer while wringing my hands and mourning the loss of my darling Spencer the Urban Fox Terrier!” sobbed Fiona.

“Let’s go and find the Farmer’s Wife!” Shrieked StephAnnie sensibly, while starting to cry.IMG_2136

“Come on then” said Les. “That’s enough of the silly girly emoting!”

They all ran back up the cliff, only stopping several times in panting heaps to regain their breath. All that shortbread weighed rather heavily on their young legs! They arrived nauseous and out of breath at Yoof Hostel Cottage, where they found Farmer’s Wife Kate baking a vast slab of ginger bread and an enormous vegan, gluten and additive-free risotto.

“Farmer’s Wife Kate! Please tell us where your Secret Passage is!” they shouted. “One at a time, please children! Here, have some of my freshly-baked bread slathered with country butter. And when you’ve finished that the ginger bread will be cool enough to eat. You can wash it down with lashings of wine and beer!”

Everyone was silent as they scoffed the feast, which took some time as Farmer’s Wife Kate had baked simply enormous amounts! “Right my dears, let’s enter my Secret Passage where I’m sure we’ll find Spencer the Urban Fox Terrier, and also perhaps an evil gang of money launderers and smugglers intent on destroying our most sacred National Institutions!”

She wandered down to the wine cellar, stamping four times on the bottom step. A small hole opened up in the wall. Then Stephanie poked around in it with a big chopping knife. There was a grating sound under the rug and Poppet and Honey felt a rumbling under their feet before they plummeted down a hole, complete with the rug! There was a pause while everyone stopped eating, and a distant splash from far below.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 20.37.11“Poppet! Honey! Are you there?” They shouted.

“Yes, luckily it was a flying rug. We’ve landed right on top of an evil gang of money-launderers and smugglers, who had kidnapped Spencer the Urban Fox Terrier to use as a prawn to persuade some bankers to lend venture capital in order to buy up a private health care company and take over the NHS! I’ve knocked them out and Honey has rescued Spencer and I have pulled the evil criminals safely up onto the rocks from where the Police can arrest them when they come round. Is there any shortbread left?” Said Poppet, hungrily. “Or I could manage a prawn cocktail.”

Everyone cheered. Poppet, Honey and Spencer swam out of the Secret Tunnel and appeared in the churning seas under Durdle Door! “Stop! It’s far too dangerous!” Shrieked everyone as they whooshed through before being dumped by a huge wave onto the shore. “My, what an adventure!” Shouted everyone.

“Is it tea time?” said Allan, hungrily. “All this salt water is making me thirsty!”

Enormous Churning Seas

Enormous Churning Seas

Winter Water at Spitchwick



Rachel, Honey and I meet for a late afternoon dip at Spitchwick, and are pleased to see another, bikini-clad wild swimmer whom we don’t know.  We do know that the water has chilled, but nothing can prepare us for the shock of the winter-level temperature today. The autumn twigs and leaves are piled high on the riverbed, and you might think the soft duvet underfoot would help with the cold;  you’d be wrong. It’s like lying naked on the steel floor of a commercial deep-freeze. Poor Rachel slips on a hidden rock and goes straight under, inhaling the chilled water and coughing for several minutes. Eventually we are able to pootle with staccato strokes through dark water in which golden leaves are suspended. Low sun adds dreamy magic.

Freezing Magic

Freezing Dreamy Magic

Saunton Sundown

Dimpsey Bobbing

Dimpsey Bobbing

I’m working in Bideford again today, so I meet Andrew for a dimpsey Atlantic swim at Saunton. The air temperature has plummeted and there’s a frigid northerly blowing. The tide’s around two thirds out, so we change in the shelter of the cliffs and trot down through the exposed widescreen beach. The first shallows are icy, but as we get to knee height the water warms so that it’s infinitely preferable to go under.

The sea is dark, the same shade of slate as the puffs of cloud overhead. I’m lulled by the whoosh and foam of gently breaking surf as I float. The bank of cloud on the horizon obscures the setting sun from view, while the sky glows peach and palest blue and a crescent moon hangs tipsily over the estuary. Orange light shivers on the surface, distorted by long rollers and the latticed ripples formed by the wind as it whips offshore.

We stay in slightly too long, bobbing, swimming and body surfing. As we run back up the beach my feet begin to freeze and by the time we reach the car park I’m numb to the ankles and able to sprint straight over the stony ground with no hobbling whatsoever. Well perhaps ‘sprint’ is too strong a word…We warm up in TrannyVan with ginger tea and a chat.



Dimpsey Seascape

Widescreen Seascape

Dart Meander: Totnes to Sharpham

Wading in at Long Marsh

Wading in at Long Marsh

Honey and I stay at Bantham overnight, after spending a few lovely post-Burgh hours in the pub with Helen, Baa and Hugo. We still manage to be late for our Dart swim (the first part of the Dart 10k route), thanks to the inhabitants of the Bantham Ham warren who lead Honey crazily astray.  After Kari becomes uncharacteristically officer-like we manage to get the correct number of vehicles (although without some of the kit) to the end of the swim at Sharpham before heading back to the start at Long Marsh in Totnes. We’re only around fifteen minutes late starting for this tide-dependent swim, which is shockingly efficient by our usual standards.

This is the first time I’ve worn my wetsuit since December, and I’m mighty glad of it when I try dunking my face into the chill flood waters. It’s early morning and low, autumn sun and cold river and alchemy conjures a rare beauty of the kind that inspired the Romantic poets. Sun glints in soft-focus from lissome water while reeds and trees gather mistily on the banks. Rowers glide past almost silent, while V-formations of geese honk overhead.

The river is opaquely brown yet tastes fresh and clean. As we approach a marsh inlet I hear a tinkling of water draining; there are whorls where wrecked bladderwrack spins and I feel the whoosh of the tide pulling seawards. There’s a slight whiff of earth and salt water. Even as we reach the Sharpham vineyards the river is barely brackish and knee-depth. Invisible creatures move upstream. their progress marked by trails of bubbles.  We wade, sucked by estuarine mud, to the bank.




Molten Sun at Burgh

Burgh Sunset

Burgh Sunset through a Wave

Underwater GoPro still from Video


Sunset, high tide, pretty flat. We set off and split into a fast and a dawdler group the latter of which is somewhat delayed by the time Helen sorts her goggles; absolutely no chatting involved. The sea is beautiful, warm and welcoming. As we approach Death Valley from a clockwise direction we’re assailed by crazy rebounding seas which always fascinate me; water somehow peaks and points and twirls here, and mirrors the portcullis of dark rocks pointing skywards.



Queenie who has swum across from Bantham, decides to go through the maelstrom reef on the final bend. Helen and Baa and I follow, but after a foaming, sucking, rising and falling and dumping and churning minute or so I wimp out and turn back. Still missing a bit of my derring do… Nonetheless it’s exhilarating. As we swim round to meet Queenie,  the cliffs and our faces glow orange; we’re pushed up by the swell in petrol blue metallic seas and the sunset is smelted through the tips of the waves in a stunning deep red splurge, before forming briefly into a molten ball on the horizon.

These shots are all video stills from my new GoPro Hero3 Silver Edition which was mounted on my forehead while we swam. I’m in the early stages of working out how to maximise its potential.

Choppy Seas

Choppy Seas

More Friskiness

More Friskiness

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