One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the category “Nature”

Norfolk: Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe

Honey, TrannyVan and I are on our travels thanks to the 60th birthday party of my old mucker Les, who lives in far eastern parts. Since JJ’s funeral is on Friday in Ashburton, and Les’s party on Saturday lunchtime near Neatishead, we set off on Friday evening and finish the long journey on Saturday morning, punctuated by a few hours attempting to sleep in a layby on the A14 being buffeted by speeding traffic, and awash with the scent of stale wee.

Shelduck Art

Shelduck Art

The party is a lovely, chatty, scoffy, alcoholic affair, as I catch up with my old RAF friends of over 20 years ago. Honey and I spend the night in the local bowling club’s field. Wild flowers scent the air, and there’s no traffic other than the resident pigeons dancing tangos on TrannyVan’s roof.  We spend Sunday engaged in more talking, the eating of leftovers and recovery from the hangover. Finally, we set off for the North Norfolk coast in the sultry late afternoon.

Coast Path

Coast Path

I have a gallery of beautiful pictures of Holkham in my head, left over from my days based at RAF West Raynham in the mid-1980s.  I’m shattered and in need of peace, isolation and wild water after two weeks of emotional upset and too much alcohol. The current reality is so far from my memories that I think I must have dreamed it. There are several hundred cars and a constant stream of sun-burned people heading back from the beach. The final decision not to stop here is made by the most extortionate parking charges I’ve ever seen. Of course the place is stunning, but we execute a hasty departure and head along the coast road in search of somewhere more peaceful and affordable.

Eternity of Beach

Eternity of Beach

We turn down to the harbour of Burnham Overy Staithe, a place I don’t remember at all. There are a few people wandering along a creek littered with small boats, and a clinking like alpine cow bells as lanyards rattle against masts. The parking is free, and a sign points to Burnham Overy Beach (1 1/2 miles) and Holkham (3 1/2 miles) via the coast path, a raised walkway of red chalk atop banks of waving grasses and wild flowers weaving across the salt marshes and estuarine mud flats like a giant rag worm. It’s close to low tide, and the sun is beginning to drop as Honey and I set off.

Over the Dunes

Over the Dunes

The plants that bedizen the path include hemlock, poppies of red and mauve, wild thyme, barley and several succulents I don’t recognise. Oyster Catchers, my favourite comedy birds, wander around and fly overhead which excites Honey owing to the resemblance of their calls to squeaky dog toys, one of her obsessions. I hear a skylark over the marshes. A gaggle of Shelducks gobble their evening meal from the mud, leaving a series of dashed meandering lines like Aboriginal art. A Redshank flies off as we approach and a very vocal pair of Curlews shoots past. There is a smell of estuary mud and salty water and a tang of fish.

Watery Remains on Wrinkled Sand

Watery Remains on Wrinkled Sand

I remove my sandals as we climb the dunes, super-fine, pale golden sand crunches and sifts between my toes and the North Sea glints in the distance as we crest between clumps of marram grass. It’s cooler here, and the wind blows strong and steady along the beach which stretches for miles. Honey and I run down and trot across the high tide mark that’s littered with razor shells like a self-harmer’s convention. There are shallow pools and strips of water. We walk across wrinkled damp sand.

Skinny Dip Sundown

Skinny Dip Sundown

Finally we reach the sea. The only sounds are sea birds and the whistling gale and the constant white noise of roughened water.  There is no swell, and no swell in the sound,  which contributes to a  sense of eternal suspense. Everything is infinite.


Sea Impression

I strip off, and run naked into brownish-grey water that I’m expecting will be cold, only it’s the warmest I’ve swum in this year. The touch of the sea and the wind that blows straight and constant and the widescreen view leave me floating in a perfect suspension of time and place. The closest landscape to this I can think of is the Atlantic coast of North Devon, but this place is emptier, wilder, more exposed. There are no protruding headlands to divert the gale or the sea, no snuggled coves. I feel excoriated, sloughed.

Sun Down

Sun Down over the Burn Estuary

We dry off in the wind as the sun drops lower, gleaming from sand exposed by the ebbed tide.

Returning to our creek, we sit on the floor in the back of the van with the doors open and eat, before retiring for a peaceful night of whistling wind, lapping water and dinghy mast tinkling.

A Battering in the Erme

We trot up the path through Long Timber Woods the day after heavy downpours had left the moorland rivers in spate. Entering a large, deep pool I feel the chill of recent rain and swim in dark brown water before Maretta and I float and bump downstream over rocky shallows and falls.

Jackie joins us off and on, having never descended a river before. We slide over slabs into effervescent pools, popping up through the spray like ice cubes dropped into G&T. 

Many of the rocks are cushioned by thick moss, so we are spared a proper battering and it’s unusually easy to stop or get clear of stronger currents and stoppers.

There’s a six-foot drop off one side of a biggish waterfall into a mini-canyon between boulders, followed by a scarily turbulent sequence of falls.

I slide off the drop and tip up as I hit the deep water, emerging to see the edge of the more dangerous cascade approaching fast. I push back, and am immediately submerged by the force of the water. I manage to escape, and Maretta follows me over. I wait and catch her hand to pull her clear.

Shivering, we leave the river and wend our way back up the path to the viaduct; the roar of the cascades fades into the roar of traffic climbing the hill.

Watch WWS’s ‘controlled descent’ of the big waterfall here, complete with cackling from the bank! (With thanks to Jackie and Sue): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvFUbB3m2mY&feature=youtu.be

Soar Mill Cove

A gaggle of us ambled along the coast path from the cliff at Bolberry Down to Soar Mill Cove on a sunny, blowy day. En route we found ourselves level with a hovering Kestrel, which Ninja Elf noticed looked like a flying heart with her curved wings.

It felt like a summer’s day on the beach with the sun, the blue sky and the sand pitted from the passing of many feet. We hung around in swimwear, although it was somewhat nippy in the breeze, and gaped at Jackie who, having swum in all weathers throughout the winter in a swimsuit, had decided to wear rubber ‘to keep the heat out’. JJ changed into his new floating shorts, which actually contained Brazilian secret padded Envy Pants, increasing the size of his arse from two garden peas to a couple of apricots.

I ran into the sea which was warmer than the puddles on the beach, and bobbed around for a bit. Most of the others set off to circumnavigate the Ham Stone, which looked wonderful. As I’m injured I stayed close to shore and then had to rescue Honey, who’d lost sight of me and run off along past the caves in a panic.

It was low tide on a spring, so we were able to explore the caves on foot. One cave went back some distance, but it was too dark inside to see much. There was a faint scent of city car park about it. It looks as though it would be easily swimmable, even on a high spring tide in decent conditions. Nearby, was a narrow crevasse in which a rock had wedged. I thought immediately of Aaron Ralston.

On the way back up, we saw our Kestrel again and watched as she floated on the updrafts like a swimmer in a bouncy sea.

Dip at Doublewaters

It’s a sparkling, warm day and Honey and I decide to wander down to Doublewaters for a dip. The trees are still naked and look startled to be illuminated by such bright beams of sunlight, like wild swimmers caught skinny dipping.

There’s a slight haze, and the wind swirls, carrying the bleats of newborn lambs, as we leave the open moor and enter the woods. We walk down the track through the precipitous valley and the tinkling sound of the Walkham river drifts to meet us.  We arrive at the granite outcrop that marks the confluence of the two valleys and their rivers. The pool where we swim is on the Tavy side and looks enticing, slightly opaque and green-tinted, framed by bare trees and barred shadows.

I walk straight in over slippery rocks and go under, swimming up against the current. The water is still pretty chilly and I get ice-cream cheeks today, but the warm air makes all the difference. The smell of baking leaf-mould reminds me of summer.  Floating on my back I hear quacking, but can’t see the ducks. A fish jumps with a plop. Honey is growling and digging her ball out of the shallows with her arse in the air. The sky is so blue against the silvery bark, lichen and ferns it seems tangible and I feel I can float up into it.

Spring in the Sea

Today we met at Wembury again – it’s become the regular, winter sea-swim for some of us. Spring is in the air and the sea, and the sun has real warmth, burning through the mist by lunchtime. We swim hard out towards the Mewstone, visible in three dimensions in the bright sunshine but never seeming to get any closer. This will be our big planned swim for when the sea warms. We cut back towards the Yealm side, and feel the power of the reef reeling us in. It’s easy to imagine ships coming to grief here as the waves build, break and suck with the funnelling effect of the submerged rocks.

Later, we change and play ball with Honey and Mary the Bull Terrier. There is a dog-hater on the beach, identifiable by her chilling laser-stares at any canines and their humans who dare to venture within half a mile.  Mary spots her at once, shoots over with her comical gambolling canter, and sticks her head into Mrs Dog-Hater’s takeaway box – which quite possibly contains minced dog burgers.

We wander along the coast-path to Heybrook Bay, which allows us a closer look at the Mew Stone from Wembury Point, a mere half a K from here, but with a strong current through the narrows.  The fields behind the path are dotted with plump rabbits and Oyster Catchers, mingling as though at a cocktail party.

There was a moon in the pub (by a Welshman excited by a team try on the televised match), and then on the walk back a slim crescent moon rose in the sky, Venus visible as a bright point of light alongside. Or it might have been Saturn. We’re still arguing.

With thanks to JJ and Stephanie for the photos – WWS’s camera has broken!

Astonishingly Oddicombe

Thanks to Sophie for the photo

A steep walk down the lane past Babbacombe Cliff Railway; glimpses of glassy sea through naked trees. Hunks of sandstone cliff from a recent landslide litter the far end of the beach; a monumental jumble studded with grey pebbles and the remains of a hideously expensive garden.

We swim around the cliffs through nippy, chalky-blue water, and encounter a cave almost immediately.  Here the cliffs are limestone apparently stained and pitted by the sea, but a closer inspection reveals a three-dimensional mosaic of sea-life: barnacles; what looks like a variety of tiny anemones’ bodies in shades of brown; bilious algae; a burnt-orange, gelatinous, splat of a creature; Dead Men’s Fingers in white, and in the same shade of pink as Katie Price’s jodhpurs.

We enter the cave which extends far above us. Waves surge up the narrowing fissure and carry us in before sucking us back, cradled by the sea. Sophie and Susie climb a rock and discover a pool like an oyster in a dark, shell-shaped cavern.  They sit on the ledge to one side, which overlooks the rest of the cave. Matt floats in the pool and the flash from my camera illuminates this magical place, transforming it.

We swim on over seaweeds like flowers against a sea-blue sky, rocks splodged with pink and maroon algae, and constellations of starfish in orange and cream. I float into a nook that reeks of fish. Juvenile mussels line the rock, and as the swell recedes, rivulets of water run then drip down with a sound like spring rain.

Maidencombe Madness

South-Easterlies scuppered our plans to explore along the coast at low tide today, with a hefty swell and a force 4-5 wind. The sea churned with dark red sand, and transmogrified into that tastefully dull taupe colour currently found on so many interior walls. The shallows were a chunky winter soup of seaweeds and flotsam. 

Swimming out to sea I plunged head-first through heavy breakers. As I swam, wave turrets hit me from all angles and I began to swallow water. Looking round, I realised we’d been carried alongshore and were close to the rocks. Spray splattered the air. I struck out seawards and then back along towards the beach, pushed and pulled by the surging water. Dangerous Malcolm meanwhile appeared on the rocks, and walked back around to the beach before returning to the sea; he told me later he’d been unable to swim away against the force of the waves and had to land instead.

Back in the relatively calm area off the beach, I floated around and played in the surf, watched by sandstone cliffs the colour of dried blood. Every roaring breaker dissipated into fizzing, Fresian patches of foam.

Snowy Sharrah Magic

High on Dartmoor, the Double Dart slows briefly between two sets of rapids to form Sharrah Pool.  There are plenty of breathtakingly beautiful places on this stretch of river, but Sharrah is special. It’s enchanting, entrancing, and it never fails to throw buckets of Dartmoor pixie-dust at anyone who sees it.

Today there is a sprinkling of snow and it’s still falling as we arrive in the glade by the pool. The temperature hasn’t gone above freezing for days; it’s  3ºC in the river. The water is much paler than usual and has lost its deep coppery gleam and black depths. By the rapids, it’s almost turqoise, and there’s a gelid, greeny tint that I’ve never seen here before.

Pam, Sarah and I wear wetsuits, boots, gloves and hats. We slide into the river and swim up the eddy towards the top falls. Ice creeps through the neck of my suit. I dip my face under and taste pure chill; my lips freeze almost immediately. We reach the rapid and throw ourselves off the rock. It’s like jumping into a beautiful cocktail made with creme de menthe and the most effervescent volcanic water. The bubbles burst fast on the surface in a shower of sparks like fireworks, and I can hear the fizz above the roar of the waterfall. Then I shoot along as though in the tail of a comet.

Snowflakes drift past. Icicles coat the rocks at the falls, and it’s hard to tell them from the gushing spumes of water. The boulders in the glade are iced with snow. Honey jumps between them, following us upstream.

My fingers slowly freeze from the tips down, and after fifteen minutes or so I’m forced to leave this magical water world. We change, eat shortbread and drink hot chocolate. We dip our fingers in warm water from a flask. Mine are blue and the intense pain whirls me back to my childhood of wet wool socks in wellingtons and winter chilblains.

With thanks to my new friends from Hampshire OSS who shared the magic.

Birthday Burgh

A sunny, calm afternoon for a swim and beach party to celebrate the birthdays of Stephanie and Kari. Jonathan inflated red heart balloons with helium and attached them to each swimmer; my heart appropriately gathered sea-drops and hovered just above the surface as I swam.

We found the entrance to Death Valley, the fearsome gully between the island and the high part of the reef; today in the calm low tide only a ghostly presence was manifest. As the tide gently swooshed in and out, submerged seaweeds flowed one way then the other like mermaids’ hair. Pale pink rocks sang through pale blue water.

Cormorants and Oyster Catchers flew towards the land, the latter filling the air with their squeaky-toy calls. Gulls settled down to roost as the sun dropped lower.  The cool shades of blue and grey where sea met sky were infused with a pinky-peach layer like strawberry jelly in a trifle. The surface of the water assumed the texture and colour of mercury in the metallic light.

I’d have loved to dawdle, but it was way too cold so I swam the back of the island in front crawl and worked my way through the rocky maze below the hotel, before running across the sand-bar back to our spot below the Pilchard Inn. I managed to change despite the coarse shivering that indicates mild hypothermia. Then we shared snacks, home-made cakes, mulled cider and Prosecco and sang Happy Birthday as the sun set. A perfect afternoon.

The Fairy Tale of Anstey’s Cove

I drive across the moors through tipping rain to meet Dangerous Malcolm – so named as the only person ever to swim to Thatcher Rock and live to tell the tale – for an aquatic exploration of Anstey’s Cove in Torquay.  The rain has pretty much stopped, and I’m stunned by the scene out over the cove which resembles a 1970s Prog Rock album cover, all fantasy rocks and glassy water, framed by skeletal trees.

It’s low tide, and as we begin to swim, I realise it’s been weeks since I’ve seen such a calm, pale sea, which merges with the rippled, dove-grey sky in a vision of utter tranquillity. We head for the witch’s hat, near which is a small doorway in the cliff. The water here is a deep azure, darkening as we near the cave. I feel big raindrops plopping onto my head. Stumbling over a submerged rock in the narrow fissure, I follow Malcolm into a magical private world. Illuminated by a skylight some yards above is a mini-amphitheatre, and at the far end a tiny, shingle beach where the turquoise sea shushes in and out. The limestone has been rounded and smoothed by the waves. At high tide, the cave must be completely submerged.

On the other side of the point is an even tinier slit which I enter warily. There’s barely any headroom and even on such a calm day there’s a yard or so of rise and fall from the funnelling effect of the narrow opening. Suddenly, Malcolm shoots past me on a surge, and I watch his head rising into the roof and his neck buckling as the sea engulfs him. For a couple of seconds I wonder where he is, then there’s a sucking noise as the sea retreats and he reappears, cackling, pretty much where I last saw him. He continues deeper into the cave, and I examine the Dead Men’s Fingers clinging to the rock, like the remains of a Dangerous Malcolm of the past.

We swim on to a large gap in the cliff shaped like a theatre stage. I hear cooing, and see two doves rather incongruously perched inside. The smell of bird shit pervades. Here the sea is a luminous aquamarine and the slabs of damp, barnacled rock are splattered with clashing rust-red sea-life which causes the colours to sing like a Matisse painting. I film underwater and don’t notice I’m being picked up by a surge until I crash backwards into a protruding cheese-grater of a stone. As I right myself and rub my elbow, Malcolm is ripped almost out of the cave through the channel to the side the rock by what looks like a river rapid. He swims back in, giggling.

As we exit, I swim face-down. There is sand as pale as a bald pate in winter, tufted with clumps of seaweed like an early Elton John hair-transplant. I roll onto my back and see that the tops of the cliff are similarly adorned with fine-twigged bushes. I already know this is a world bursting with life, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re exploring the body of a fairy-tale monster.

The cold gets us in the end, and we decide it’s sensible to return now, so we swim back in front crawl. I struggle to stay upright on the rocky beach and lean forwards with my hands on my knees. I glance back at the surreal world we’ve just left; it seems like a dream.

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