One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

On Skinny Dipping (Tacky Version)

Skinny Dip, Norfolk

Skinny Dip, Norfolk

A while ago I blogged about a trip up the river Dart on a sweltering summer’s day, during which we encountered male nudity in the form of two opportunistic skinny dippers and a yogi in the tree pose. I jokingly entitled the post Hot Naked Men and Cool Dartmoor Water. Adverts for Russian Brides suddenly appeared on my blog, which my iPhone blocked owing to ‘unsuitable content’. On checking the stats I discovered the most frequent search terms are ‘naked swimming’ and ‘skinny dipping’.

Last summer in Northern Ireland a couple of men were threatened with arrest for skinny dipping.

“There are young children in these areas too…You could end up with a criminal record and placed on the sex offender register (sic)” said a police spokesperson.

Meanwhile a couple were arrested for skinny dipping, in East Lothian. Nudists can be prosecuted under the Public Order Act for ‘outraging public decency’ (Telegraph, 30 July 14), although rules vary by country in the UK. But how is this anything other than subjective?

Place these incidents in the context of the relentless sexualisation of our culture. Without even mentioning Miley Cyrus, pre-pubescent girls can be seen twerking and slut-dropping on TV (Big Fat Gypsy Weddings for example). Even an X-Factor judge commented on the inappropriateness of twerking women surrounding a 16 year old male contestant.

We’ve certainly lost the art of seduction and become entangled in the snake lock weeds of confused representation. Here hip thrusts represent female sexual empowerment packaged for the male gaze through the iconography of shagging dogs. Meanwhile, careless nudity by people swimming outdoors can be deemed offensive. Even swimming groups are not immune to the controversy. Why is this so when the context is so clearly not sexualised? In Scandinavia, naked adults routinely share saunas with naked children. So why do we inculcate our children with our cultural confusion surrounding nudity and sex?

Men have penises (shock!), whether or not they’re exposed. As an 18 year-old art student in life-drawing class I was barred from drawing male nudes (till age 21), while 16 year old boys legally drew female nudes. Presumably this was to protect my girlish sensibilities, while Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile leered and pawed young girls on prime-time tv. The times I’ve been flashed in a sexual way (a few, out of the very, very many men who have treated me with respect and kindness) the perpetrators have been fully-clothed, furtively exposing a penis and on one occasion forcing it into my hand. They weren’t swimming; in fact one was on a tube train. The water temperature in Britain mostly militates against confident flashing in any case.

Is the presence or otherwise of clothing really the issue? Of course clothing is about far more than simple protection from the weather. What we wear is a cultural statement of status and wealth, and of more nebulous values such as identity. We can use clothing to outrage as Lady Gaga knows. Why then does the law attempt to enforce Victorian, table-leg-covering mores over us when we’re naked?

Like every activity in our consumerist culture, wild swimming has become a lifestyle choice. It’s aspirational, and visually suited to glossy magazines luring city-folk with a country-living wet-dream. Can nudity possibly be a part of this? Skinny dipping is subversive in a more complex way than that of being cheeky and rebellious, not least in that you can’t sell kit to people who aren’t wearing anything. Once you’ve plunged yourself into a moorland brook on a sunny day, skinny-dipping becomes almost inevitable. What does this represent but the exposure of one’s body and soul to nature, a baptism, a metaphorical sloughing of the skin?

As a wild swimmer I know that a friendly covering of blubber helps me to withstand the nip of cold water. I can forget to shave my legs (or shave one and lose interest as a friend did recently). I can strip and leap in with alacrity, knowing that the chill will be thrilling and that the men and women I’m with are too busy enjoying themselves to judge my physique. The temperature of the water and the context is about as far from hot as you can get.

Perhaps the flagrant exposure of flesh that might be sagging, and wet hair, conspire to engender horror both at the thought of one’s own mortality and the lack of concomitant marketing opportunities. While confusion reigns over nudity, I wonder whether what our culture finds truly naughty is the joyous display of bodies in all their glorious diversity, bulging un-choreographed from the triumvirate of religion, advertising and the gym. We can revel both in youthful beauty and in ageing flesh without concealing the evidence. We plunge into waves and waterfalls and gorge on life and cake made with (gasp!) real butter. It’s far better than sex.


Foaming Sharrah

Foam Art

Foam Art

Painfully cold water at Sharrah Pool today. The recent heavy rain has left natural foam flecks, marking the meandering flows through the eddies in Australian Aboriginal art. It’s a map of the river; unseen spirit currents materialised in ectoplasm.

I’m forced to stand for a while waist-deep in biting water, till I swim upstream. A man sat on the bank smiles and waves, I manage to gurn back. The others perch on elephant rock, past which the tongue of the cascade roars. We each have a go, swooping in ruffled bubbles before spinning out at the bottom.

Allan has a second dip at Black Rock, but it’s too cold for the rest of us. He shivers hard as he dresses.



Gollum on Elephant Rock

Gollum on Elephant Rock

WWS Book Review: River Suite

Book Review: River Suite by Roselle Angwin, with photos byVikky Minette

Book review: River Suite

As a wild swimmer and writer I find endless inspiration in wild places and wild water. Reading the poetic interpretations of others, however, is a wonderful way of gaining a different perspective that refreshes one’s own imagination. So, I was enormously excited when I found this extended poem about the OSS’s and my favourite river, the Dart.

River Suite is a limited edition book by local poet Roselle Angwin and photographer Vikky Minette. The poem traces the Dart from Cranmere Pool, the common source of five rivers high on Dartmoor

here where the heart of Devon clenches tight
and squeezes out its rivers
like arteries clotted with granite

Roselle’s imagery is magical and varied as befits a writer whose soul is in Celtic myth and legend. Vikky’s photography mirrors the poetry; close ups of the river where water and light and the riverbed meld into fleeting images of living, breathing beasts: a ghostly bird of prey swooping across a cascade in black water; phoenix feathers in golden ripples; reptilian scales in bronze shallows.

The poem evokes the isolation in this wilderness, the insignificance of people, the river spirits and the unique atmosphere that bewitches all who immerse themselves in or wander alongside the Dart.

if you were to shout here
the wind would carry your words away like birds

As the Dart descends from the moors to the cultivated “soft lands” she becomes tidal and her waters slow and spread with Roselle’s words, before the towns and roads

where the cars leave their litter of plastic and dead birds
a pheasant’s rainbow fading or a torn tumble of badger
Thence to the sea where the rhythm builds like wind chop
come down to the shore
come down to the shore
come down to the wild singing sea
oh slip night’s skins
oh shed your fears
oh come and swim with me

A beautiful book; inspirational, watery, feral, mysterious, joyful. Beyond a wild dip in the Dart’s secretive pools, what more could you ask for?

To order this limited edition go to  http://roselleangwin.wordpress.com/books/ and follow the River Suitelink. Click the drop down menu under ‘Buying Books’ at the bottom right of the page and select River Suite.

WWS Book Review: Dip, Wild Swims from the Borderlands

Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands by Andrew Fusek Peters

andy-p1This dream of a book communes with my wild swimmer’s soul. Andrew Fusek Peters is a writer and long-time wild swimmer. Recently, clinical depression left him hospitalised and barely functioning, struggling to find a reason to live. When after six months and the correct medication he began to recover, he undertook a year-long journey dipping around the Borderlands of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches where he lives, and writing about his experiences. This was Peters’ route to understanding and the restoration of his health and connections to family, friends and water.

Peters uses delightful imagery that reveals his warm and observant humour, poetic nature and essential connection to the environment. “Today, the wind whips round the beach like a bossy horse rider, encouraging walkers and waves to go faster”. It’s weather and seasons and wild water that provide the metaphors that frame and excavate Peters from his experience of being engulfed by the fog of depression. This is his description of how he feels immediately after an icy swim:
“And although the day is damp and the cold rain is scribbling zigzags through the air, and grey is not a colour but the appellation of whole months that have been and are still to come, I feel synaptic, almost giddy with stars, my limbic brain coursing with ideas; banks and boundaries breached and flooded with language and life.”

The borderlands he explores meander geographically and metaphysically, between his “beanpole” body and ponds, rivers and waterfalls, and land and sky, England and Wales, life and death, health and sickness. When Peters attends the funeral of an old schoolfriend, Charlie, who “was unable to heal himself”, it’s a watery metaphor that helps Peters to deal with it.

“…the rabbi takes us back for final prayers…And she reminds us that there is a small basin on the way out and that we are welcome, both Jew and Gentile, to wash our hands if we wish. The water is the symbol, and our act a way of marking our transition from departing the place of death to entering that of life once more. Yes, finishes the rabbi, you must grieve, but also you must live”.

The atmospheric black and white photos are taken by Peters and his then teenaged daughter, Roz. Her poignant blog post printed at the end of the book is heartbreaking in its deeply perceptive explanation of her father’s illness.

“It now strikes me that his illness left him stuck at the bottom of a silted lake. We wanted, desperately, to catch him with hooks, suddenly yank him from the depths – dredge him up in an instant. Instead it was an agonising process of waiting for the dark liquid to drain away, drop by drop”.

Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands is as beautiful and uplifting as it is visceral. From shivering conversations with other wild swimmers I know that many of us have struggled with physical or mental illness. Peters magically captures the nebulous intangibles of a fragmented mind, spirit and body, and allows us to experience how wildness and frigid water reform those pieces into a whole human being.

WWS Book Review: Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book: Everything You Need To Know About Surf, Sand and Rips by Dr Rob Brander ISBN: 978 1 74223 097 9

Purple dye marks a rip current

Purple dye marks a rip current

The rip current is the bogeyman of the sea. The confusion engendered by its behaviour and what to do if you get caught has imbued this beast with a reputation such that swimmers fear its very name. This is partly justified; in both Australia and the USA around 100 people a year drown in rip-related incidents, while between 2006-2011 in the UK, RNLI lifeguards rescued 12,607 people from rips, around 11% of whom were swimmers. The biggest problem however is that people don’t understand rips or what to do when they’re in one. This book by coastal geomorphologist Dr Rob Brander (named ‘Dr Rip’ by Lifeguards in New South Wales for his habit of pouring purple dye into rip currents) is therefore an essential addition to the sea-swimmer’s library.

Dr Rip begins with a fascinating discussion of types of sand and the ways in which different sentiments collect in certain places and form different types of beach. This is important, because the type of beach largely dictates the type and size of waves, which in turn affects the formation of currents such as long-shore drift and rips, and whether these are fixed rips or unpredictable flash rips.

There are several categories of wave which Dr Rip describes in detail, along with specific dangers associated with each. From this section I now know for certain that the wave which wiped me out behind Burgh Island last year in twelve-foot swell and scared the bejesus out of me was a freak reflected wave combined with an incoming one, because there’s a description of how such waves form and a picture of a similar one in the book. You will also learn not to try body-surfing a plunging wave or a surging wave, and what to do when a big wave decides to break on top of you – a frequent occurrence for we year-round sea-swimmers and dippers.

There’s a chapter on currents with an in-depth analysis of rips. A rip current (it is a current, not a tide) is a ‘river’ flowing from the shore through an area of breaking waves. It’s a key way in which water from breaking waves returns to the sea. A rip won’t drag you under, it’s dangerous for a couple of reasons: firstly, they appear to be areas of calm in white water, and therefore attract swimmers; and because people who are not competent swimmers or who are not educated about rips get caught and are pulled out of their depth, or try to swim against them because they don’t know how to get out. So the first important point is how to spot a rip; there are plenty of handy hints and excellent photographs to help you develop this essential skill, along with advice about where, and where not, to swim.

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that there are no absolute rules. Dr Rip simply discusses the various options which are of course different depending on your ability and fitness. So you learn a couple of ways of swimming out of a rip, or how to attract the attention of a lifeguard. Some rips will run you a mere 50-100m off shore and return you to the shallows after a couple of minutes, while others are monsters; one in New Zealand, for example, took Dr Rip a good 1km off shore, and while they are normally narrow, they may be up to 50m wide and travel at the sprint speed of an Olympic freestyler.

There’s a chapter on tides which, Dr Rip explains, are a type of wave. We also learn that tsunamis are surging waves which accounts for their huge destructive power; there’s a fascinating discussion on the reason the 2004 tsunami caused barely any damage in the Maldives, despite running straight over the islands which are almost entirely at sea level. Other considerations, such as weather, erosion, and the problems associated with thoughtless and poorly-informed shore development are also included.

There’s so much information in this book, all illustrated with wonderful photographs from around the world, that it’s probably necessary to read it two or three times. I grew up (or rather survived my childhood) on the Atlantic coast of Devon, and there is plenty here that I didn’t know. Dr Rip has a life-long fascination with the subject (he collected several hundred jars of sand over his youth which were confiscated by customs when he moved to Australia) and is an expert in the science of beaches and how they work. He writes in an accessible style while also managing to explain some fairly complex processes in an easy and entertaining way. There are some lovely touches of humour. You will even learn how to survive a shark attack (swimming with a friend immediately reduces your chance of attack by 50%!) There’s also information on fossicking on a beach, rock-pooling, and where and how to build a decent sandcastle.

My only criticism is in the sometimes confusing format where summary sections are placed in mid-paragraph rather than at the ends of the relevant chapters, but it’s such a great book it’s well worth overlooking this minor annoyance rather as you would a sand fly bite. By the way, before you warm yourself up on your nippy winter sea swim, did you know that sharks are attracted by the smell of wee?

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book comes very highly recommended for anyone who swims in the sea.

WWS Book Review: Open Water Swimming Manual

Lynne Cox has had a long career in extreme open water swimming. She broke the English Channel record, for men or women, aged just fifteen. Since then, she has swum the Cape of Good Hope, the Cook Strait in New Zealand and the Bering Strait from Alaska to the Soviet Union to name but three. One of her key achievements is in pioneering endurance swims in very cold water; through her methodical approach and with help from her team she has been instrumental in the science and understanding of the physiology of cold water swimming.

It was the chapter on heat and cold that I found most interesting and useful. There is detailed discussion of the acclimatisation process, and one thing I hadn’t realised is that if you are fully acclimatised to cold you cannot be simultaneously acclimatised to heat, which makes hyperthermia (overheating) a real risk – not something you would expect in an outdoor swimmer. Cox gives sound advice and lists of signs and symptoms to look out for with both hyperthermia and hypothermia.

For me as a wild swimmer who enjoys the spontaneity of swimming outdoors, much of this book is redundant. However, if you’re keen to plan an extreme endurance swim I’d suggest it would be hugely valuable. The essence of Cox is that she clearly loves swimming and part of that comes from her enjoyment of the environment in which she swims. However, she plans all her swims like military operations, a fact borne out by her relationship with the US Navy SEALS with whom she has trained and taken advice, and the book contains comprehensive Risk Assessment and Seal Mission Planning sections. When embarking on a swim across the Bering Strait or around the Cape of Good Hope, I can see the value in this. If you fancy a quick trip up the Dart for a mess around in a waterfall http://wildswim.com/horseshoe-falls, this approach is somewhat excessive.

Cox covers everything here, from swimsuits and chafing to sunscreen, from waves to fog and wildlife. Much of the information is in summary form from her chats with other people, and is not in a great deal of depth. This is, however, a manual and it’s probably the most comprehensive one you could find if you were planning a Channel swim, for example. In this case, there’s some informative advice regarding the importance of finding the right pilot, and how to go about it.

Cox includes discussions on motivation and mental preparation, and also technique and training guidance. There’s a fair amount of information on finding swimming clubs and groups which is only applicable to the USA, and I hope that the publishers might consider the value in updating an edition for the UK or Europe owing to the large potential market here.

Cox’s background is in competitive swimming, and she worked with an Olympic coach for many years. This goes a long way to explaining her approach, which is very much goal and achievement-based. So, if you have a general interest there is a fair bit of overkill here, although you’ll undoubtedly find a range of useful information and for me the chapter on heat and cold alone is worth the cost of the book. If you’re into extreme swims, then it’s an essential addition to your swimming library.

Assault on Frothy Rock

This is what wild swimming’s all about. More from our gorgeous friends in Argyll. Watch the video!


Our most exciting and arduous storm swim yet took place a few days ago when we swam out to Frothy Rock, fully wet-suited.  I hadn’t realised how tiring it would be to swim in a wetsuit and was pretty tired out by the time I got there.  With a full Westerly blowing in and big waves breaking, we were keen to get onto the rock; this proved almost impossible!  It took all my energy to swim against the current, but Capt. Duggie advised a sideways approach and I managed it on my sixth attempt.  Clinging on like large black limpets, we enjoyed the sensation of being in a car-wash, with lorry loads of water being dumped on top of us as the waves broke relentlessly.  Ever resourceful, Capt. Duggie had fashioned a little boat to mount his Go-Pro on, which he towed behind him to get some great video.  You…

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Double Weather Bomb Dip

They’re at it again! Weather Bomb Swimming on the West Coast of Scotland.


We’ve been keenly anticipating this “Weather Bomb”, forecast widely for the past few days.  Scary looking graphs and diagrams indicated massive waves and terrific squalls of wind.  During the night the wind increased to a howling gale and so, mid morning, the hardy group gathered for our Weather Bomb Dip.  The Polar Bear was the only un-wet-suited swimmer – full marks to him for bravery.  We were lucky to get a superb sunny spell, with white wave tops and spray and deep green water and we spent fully half an hour in a sort of giant washing machine type situation, shrieking and yelling with exhilaration.  Capt. Duggie disappeared almost out into the Sound of Jura, and returned only when the rest of us were back at the house, dressed and half way through a giant box of biscuits won by the Polar Bear at the local Co-Op.  Just before…

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Fire and Icy Water

Gloved Moon

Gloved Moon

A full Cold Moon draws us to Bantham, where we meet to swim in the Aune ria. We build a bonfire and use it to light home-made torches. There is an arterial sound and energy here, of lifeblood whooshing upstream on the flood tide. The scents of salt and woodsmoke meld, and we trail flames as we wade in.

Frigid water glows in orange ripples, while above glares a phosphorus moon, escaped from the glove of a passing cloud. Sparks shoot in the steely edge of the sea wind and hair flies like the flame from my torch. Warm thoughts and wind-burned cheeks tussle with chilled bodies. On the far bank, from a glass-walled house, silhouetted figures watch. We form a circle, shadowing the moon who has lured us and the sea to her.

Moonglow, Torchglow

Moonglow, Torchglow

Flaming Water

Flaming Water


Tara Adds Magic







The Anxiety of Dolphins (and the dance of bees)

I don’t know whether I could bear to watch this documentary. Thoughtful and funny blog post from Robin Ince.

Robinince's Blog

One of the more disturbing, intriguing and enlightening concepts I learnt about from BBC4 this year was the idea that dolphins could kill themselves. I nearly typed ‘commit suicide’, but I have learnt from making Radio 4 documentaries that ‘commit suicide’ links the act of taking your life with the crime it once was, so it is now null and void.
I once read that suicide was only made a crime and a sin in the middle ages by a church and government fearing that a workforce, living in such squalor and surrounded by mourning and hopelessness, would all kill themselves for a quick trip to heaven if given the choice.
And so, it was hastily decreed that such a short cut was not possible, and only natural death by plague, pox, or poorly aimed scythe would get you to heaven. Fashion your own noose, and you’ll end up in…

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