One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the category “water”

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.

Skinny Dip at Black Rock

Honey and I pootled over to the River Lyd this afternoon for a revivifying skinny dip in Witch’s Pool.  As we wandered upstream through the valley, Honey disturbed a young vixen who shot out under her nose from a gorse thicket and zig-zagged off up Widgery Tor, her brush going like a metronome to balance her flight. Honey continued to sniff excitedly in the thicket, having missed the entire escape.  I also forgot to take a photo, despite having my camera in my hand. We then saw an elderly man who reacted in much the same way as the vixen had, and shot off up the tor perpendicular to the track in order to avoid us.

We scrambled down the steep valley side and I stripped quickly, sliding into the chilly pool from a granite boulder.  I ducked under the clear brown water, and as I popped back up and floated through the familiar ache of cold skin, a skylark sang overhead echoing the tumbling course of the little river. Honey played in the shallows and the elderly man reappeared around a hundred yards away, freezing in a cartoon pose as he caught sight of me, before hurrying off back downstream. I dried by jigging on the grass to the clacking whistle of a Wheatear, although I couldn’t see him. I thought as I always do when we come here of the young  soldier whose verse, written during a leave shortly before his death,  is attached to Black Rock above a wooden bench:

Are we not like this moorland stream,
Springing none knows where from,
Tinkling, bubbling, flashing a gleam,
Back at the sun ‘ere long,
Gloomy and dull under a cloud,
Then rushing onwards again,
Dashing at rocks with anger loud,
Roaring and foaming in vain,
Wandering thus for many a mile,
Twisting and turning away for a while,
Then of a sudden ’tis over the fall,
And the dark still pool is the end of all.

Is it? I thought as I turned away,
And I turned away to the silent moor.
Is it? I said and my heart said ‘nay’,
As I gazed at the cross on Widgery Tor.

Captain Nigel Duncan Ratcliffe Hunter, of Lydford, killed in 1918 aged 23


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.

Lumpy London Bridge

A chilly-willy winter’s day with a brisk south-easterly tousling the white-capped swell. It’s almost low tide, and the tiny beach at Peaked Tor Cove is rocky and draped with glistening seaweeds. The raw slap of sea soon becomes tolerable and then exhilarating, and I strike out round the rocks through opaque, pale turquoise, buffeted and bounced by the chop.  Waves fling spray into the air around the arch, and water sluices through from behind.

We head for the sea-cave, and watch for a while but it’s too dangerous. Rollers surge in to the narrow inlet and, split by the submerged rocks, churn around inside making escape difficult. The sea billows increase as we approach the back of the arch to see whether that might be passable. JJ cannot be dissuaded and he sets off with Hugo and me watching carefully to see whether he makes it. We catch an occasional flash of his blue hat amid the maelstrom, then swim round to find he’s reappeared in a rather more dishevelled state than when he entered. Startled eyes and a wonky, frozen mouth soon remodel into a grin. He says he got stuck in a little pool left by the retreating waves for a bit, but still offers to go back with me. I’m tempted, but feel cold now so I decline.

It’s easier returning with the wind and waves. From time to time the sun partially breaks through leaden clouds and shoots rays of light to glimmer off the surface, like an illustration in a children’s bible. As I roll to breathe I see a low-flying cormorant, neck extended, a couple of feet away. I arrive at the beach and manage to effect a staggering, shivering exit onto the pebbles. The contrast in how I feel by comparison to yesterday is dramatic. The sea is warmer than the river, but it’s still cold. I think it has more to do with the way that the character of the water changes with the temperature. Chilled river water is metallic and hard-edged; cold sea water while abrasively salty is somehow softer, bouncier and, well, more cuddly.

Fellow Swimmers

Allan, Jackie, Rosie, Stephanie, Geoffrey, Mark, Hugo, JJ, Plum

Chilling on the Beach


Not Quite to Heel


F*#@ing Freezing Fingle

Two weeks of non-swimming with a virus and I was so ready for a refreshing dip with Dan in the Teign at Fingle Bridge. Honey and I arrived and walked to the bridge; a scene of muted winter-woodland colours livened by splashes of fox-coloured beech leaves. The river here is murkier than the Dart, the colour and temperature of brass monkeys.

We walked up through the gorge, nippy air and diaphanous mist curling from the river’s surface. Sounds came and went; the crash of Honey hurtling after squirrels, the odd drift of birdsong, and watery plinks and tinkles, then a crescendo of white noise from the salmon leaps below Castle Drogo. We had hoped to dip here in the crazy cold jacuzzi, but the surge of angry water looked wilder than our bodies could withstand.

I wore my surfing wetsuit and boots. Standing thigh-deep in the pool I felt the icy fingers of 6-degree water scratch their way up my calves. My hands burned with the cold, my head felt as though it was in a vice and my vision was blurred by the mist emanating from the water. The effect was of a freezing migraine. I managed to swim for around a minute before leaping out.

Dan bravely floated up and down wearing only his budgie-smugglers, though I suspect his budgies were hiding higher up. He leapt out with skin glowing brighter than the logs in the pub wood-burner where we warmed up afterwards.

Sharrah Pool, Nifty Dip

Sharrah Pool on the Double Dart, a calm, warmish winter’s day. JJ and Stephanie arrived from their ‘Wildathlon’ which involves a cycle ride from Ashburton, a run to Sharrah, a dip, and then back. Honey ran nuttily after squirrels, while I speed-walked up to join in with the dip.

The water is around 8ºc. ‘This is really quite warm’ I said as I swam from the rocks, still glowing from my 30-minute pant through the winter woods. JJ had been in for a couple of minutes by then, and some unusual strangled sounds were still audible above the surge of the river where he swam in head-up front crawl. He had the look of Conan the Barbarian on a dangerous mission. A school of kayaks overtook him as he tried to look even more cool (not difficult in this temperature) by floating casually on his back.

I began to breast-stroke upstream, quickly dipping my salty, sweaty face in the lovely, bog-brown water. Suddenly, my body realised how cold it was as the river stole the last of the heat from my muscles. I looked towards the falls, hoping that the sight of such beauty would stun the pain. Stephanie stood on the rock up to her knees, and with encouragement from JJ dunked in, pulling the kind of face you normally only see on a woman in the final stages of labour. She shot back out like a champagne cork, to be quickly joined by me. Refreshing. Yes. Very.

Access to Waterways in England and Wales

Did you know that in England and Wales we have no legal rights to access inland water for swimming, kayaking or any other activity? I’ve copied an e-petition submitted by a fellow wild swimmer below. Please follow the link, sign and pass it on!

Put public access at the heart of the proposed ‘New Era for the Waterways’

Responsible department: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The government is calling 2012 ‘A New Era for the Waterways’. It has said it believes that “millions more can enjoy our canals & rivers”. And yet, people in England and Wales do NOT currently have a clear legal right to access inland waters. / People love our waterways – the growing popularity of outdoor swimming, ‘wild’ swimming and canoeing show this. But people often find themselves confused, being ‘moved on’, breaking the law or (perhaps worst of all) staying away from inland waters altogether, because it is not clear where they are allowed to paddle, wade, kayak, canoe & swim. / The time is right for change. The ‘New Era’ will fail if many people cannot access inland waters in the ways they choose. But the government is currently drawing up legislation and forming a New Waterways Charity and there are obvious opportunities to amend the law. We therefore call for the government to put public access to inland waters at the heart of the proposed ‘New Era for the Waterways’.


London Bridge and Fun in a Cave

Secreted just round the corner from Torquay Harbour is a tiny beach from where you can swim around jaunty rock islets to London Bridge, a limestone arch jutting from a small headland. It’s chilly in the December sea, and we laugh at Stephanie bobbing in her wetsuit and holding her hands out of the water to keep them warm.

We’re floating in deep turquoise, and pale slabs of tumbled cliff litter the seabed. The bridge leans tipsily against the headland, its arch a precarious conglomeration of vertical slabs, gravel and earth.

We are sucked through, and I lie on my back beneath the jagged silhouette as the sea slaps against the rocks.

Further on, Sophie has found a cave. We swim towards it, a tall, dark slit rising from petrol blue sea in the corner where the headland meets the cliff. Generations of barnacles crowd the limestone forming a pock-marked skin of bumps and promontories, acned by a splattering of white and yellow whelks. Water and weed run off as the waves ebb, and the sound echoes and intensifies as we near the entrance to the cave.

Jonathan, Queenie and I follow Sophie in. Overhead there is darkness except for a crack of light far above, but we are suspended in luminous turquoise water that shooshes with the pulse of the ocean.  We whoop and cackle when a big wave pushes us up and up towards the cave roof, and scream as we drop back down.

There are supposed to be Conger Eels here in the womb of the cliffs, and we await the snap of giant fishy jaws from beneath. I have a sudden shock as I bob under and see an eel-like strand of weed curling around our legs.

Fellow Swimmers

Stephanie, Sophie, Rosie, Dan, Becky, Allan, Jonathan, Queenie

Shore Crew

Janus and Finn

To view Video Links of the cave swim see under Blogroll

From Flounder to Dolphin with the Guru of Wild Swimming

I’m Devon born and bred, and learned to swim at an early age. I spent much of my youth in rivers and in the Atlantic surf; one summer my mum had to cut my long hair off owing to a mole-sized salt-water matt. For as long as I can remember, I was able to swim through big rollers, go under to avoid a breaker and stay there, get out of a rip, and float through pretty much anything.  If riled, I could do a couple of hundred meters of front crawl fairly quickly for an amateur. When I took up wild swimming in earnest and began to do longer swims, however, my previously satisfactory swimming style was rapidly exposed.

I swam with Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimmers from Aveton Gifford to Bantham, and found myself gasping and out-of-breath, various concoctions of sea and river water with microscopic flora and fauna filled my sinuses and ran down the back of my throat, and my neck cramped from looking towards the far horizon in search of the other swimmers (bless you Mother Duck Pauline for staying back with we Ducklings). I met an impressive swimmer who’d done a Total Immersion course, so I watched a video and bought the book. I still didn’t get far, and googled my nasal water problem. Apparently I had an anatomical anomaly that prevented my nose from closing off properly, so I bought some horribly uncomfortable nose-clips. Then I went to a couple of taster lessons with the local Queen of wild swimming, Kari Furre.  I can only describe what happened next as an aquatic epiphany.

Louise and Kari at Sharpham

Kari has trained in both the Total Immersion and the Shaw Methods of swimming, so rather than thrashing through the water you begin by finding your balance and developing mindfulness; put simply, you live in the moment and experience the feel of your body floating in water, rather than fighting it. It’s all very Yogic, and your relationship with the water starts to change. Once you’ve got the hang of that, you start learning to glide and to slow your stroke down. You roll from side to side as you swim front crawl, and breathe by humming a controlled stream of bubbles underwater, then allowing your head to go to the side with your body as it rolls, where you inhale calmly and slowly. This might seem odd, but as everything comes together you swim faster by using fewer strokes. After a single, two-hour lesson, I was able to swim front-crawl in heavy swell throughout a circumnavigation of Burgh Island. Barely any water went into my throat. Either my anatomical anomaly had been miraculously cured by Kari’s Yogic vibes, or my poor breathing technique had been to blame…

Since then, I’ve had five more lessons and my swimming buddies have been as stunned as I have by the transformation in my swimming. I’ve watched under-confident swimmers blossom and undertake their first wild swims. I’ve even learned to swim butterfly! Shoals of swimmers of all abilities and experience are now joining the new Swim Clinics run by Kari – who I can best describe as a Guru – and her ‘organiser’ Louise; I’ve attached the link here for those of you who live close enough. For those who don’t, it’s really worth looking for a TI or Shaw teacher in your area.


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