One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the category “Bantham”

Wizardry at Burgh Island

I’ve never swum Burgh Island in an easterly gale before, but I see from the cliffs that it’s doable. It’s the day after the OSS Dart 10k so we have about thirty swimmers from around the country excited at the prospect of an iconic Devon wild swim. We walk down past the sea tractor and into warm, pale turquoise sea.

The water’s miraculously clear and I can see the cheese grater rock that scrapes a piece from my thigh. I’m exhilarated by the wild energy of the storm and the towering cliffs and wonder whether we’ll get into Death Valley.  The entrance looks spookily calm; I watch for a bit before deciding it’s safe to enter.

My companion and I swim in, and are quickly joined by several others who’d been hovering to see whether we would survive. We swim through the outer reef towards the shelter of the cliffs.

Suddenly I’m in a cauldron of pointed wavelets about a foot high, spiralling like upside down tornados. Spray flies from their tops. There’s an invisible wizard somewhere, casting spells over the sea.

Every few yards the surface of the water transmogrifies: here are sharp waves that echo the shapes of the jagged rocks above; there tiny ruffles shiver across rounded swells; a splatter of rain pocks wavelets; white horses rear with manes of spindrift. It’s still somehow clear below the surface, and we dive down through waving weeds.

We play our way through the rocks to  where the sand bar is gradually revealed by the receding tide. The gale hits us full-force, flinging abrasive water as it rips through. There’s no big swell, just a wallop of wavelets that makes swimming hard. I’m battered from side to side to front to back and keep my head down. As we leave the water I freeze instantly; not from wizardry, but from the chill of the east wind.

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.

Brollies at Bantham

It’s Kari’s idea to float down the the Avon (or Aune) estuary to Bantham carrying decorated umbrellas, partly for the spectacle, and partly to see whether we can! We slip into cool water just after high tide on a warm evening. Most of us are carrying umbrellas adorned with everything from fish and ribbons to christmas-tree decorations.

The water is still and deep aquamarine, and reflects the few puffs of cloud. As we swim out from the shadow of the boat house we are warmed by hazy sunlight. I carry my brolly in one hand and swim in side-stroke, swept along by the current like Mary Poppins. I hear laughter as the others stream water and beads from their brollies like rain in the sunshine. Honey follows, chasing flotillas of seaweed and pouncing as the mood takes her. She trails gory green sea lettuce from her mouth.

As I reach the remaining small square of sand I float face down, and watch empty shells and balls of seaweed scud by over the wrinkled sand. Wavelets hit from three directions pushing my body hither and thither, and moving the submarine flotsam in sympathy. My view is intermittently clouded by little sandstorms where opposing waves hit. I roll over and watch a couple of umbrellas drift round the point to the beach.

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