One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the tag “Bantham”

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







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

Christmas Eve Bubbles at Burgh


SurfWe return to Burgh for a Christmas Eve swim in the hope of getting round the island this time. The swell is less, but it’s much windier than forecast. I feel dull and spaced out having had just three hour’s sleep after a run of night shifts. We boing in through the surf, and are whipped and bashed and smashed in the face by spray. My spirits lift with the swell and I realise that my teeth are chilled because I’m smiling under the water.Post-Storm

Bouncing Some MoreBouncing along we chat and laugh. The sea’s slightly mucky from the recent deluges, but is altogether friendlier than last week with far less weight behind it. We round the side, and are walloped by waves refracting from the reef and the island.

We decide against going round so play for a while then swim and body surf back in. I wallow in the natural bubble bath where opposing surf collides over the sand neck, then trot up to the car park where Teri hands me a glass of mulled cider and Honey picks up a handsome black labrador and runs off to play ball with him and his family. Bubbly sea, wild weather, fabulous wild friends and a warming drink. A perfect afternoon.Bubbly

Beached Honey

A Cautionary Tale: Peaks and Troughs off Burgh

The Splash is Hugo

Getting RoughThere’s a point at which wild swimming becomes dangerous, and as a swimmer who loves the exhilaration and challenge of wild water it’s vital to understand where that point is. Our risk-averse culture is anathema to me, and I can’t think of anything worse than a life half-lived through fear and avoidance of perceived dangers especially when statistically the most risky think that most of us do is to travel by car.

The swell today is forecast to be between eight and fourteen feet, and despite this a small gang of us want to swim round Burgh Island while the others dip or explore the Mermaid Pool. Although the circumnavigation looks doable from the shore, you can never sense the scale of the sea till you’re out in it.

There’s a squall as we change and charcoal slashes of rain belt from bruised clouds. JJ and Ninja have swum early and we’re looking out for them but there’s no sign. Then they materialise and tell us they turned back because they were wiped out and rolled head over heels by a pair of massive opposing waves, well away from any breaks.  JJ, always on the crazy side of sensible, says it would be ‘reckless’ to try the swim which makes all but Hugo and me decide against it.

Swimming out to have a look won’t be a problem – after all we’ve done this in far stronger winds and big seas before – so Hugo and I head out anticlockwise on the low spring tide. We know that the swell is from the south-west, and if we get that far we can use that energy on the home strait. This is the kind of adventure I love, the abrasive cold of the sea, the smell of stormy water with the whip of the wind on my skin, and the feeling of being on the edge of control. We’re bounced and buffeted and dropped from the backs of the waves. Stopping to chat, we’re feeling good so decide to swim on for a few more minutes before reassessing. I film my swim for a minute, and decide definitely not to go all the way round. Hugo’s way ahead of me though, so I carry on hoping to catch him up. I’m still pretty comfortable.In the Swell

There’s an instant where it changes. I’m teetering fifteen feet up, and the roller-coaster thrill of the descent is punched from me by a side-on psycho wave. I’m lifted again at once and I peer over towards where I last saw Hugo; on the pinnacle of the next swell there’s a brief flash of his blue hat circled by a halo of spray and he’s vanished into the Himalayan sea. My shouts are whipped away and buried beneath the avalanche roar of water meeting rocks and the distant shore. Now I’m lost, afraid and unsure, but know I should stay with Hugo. I swim towards him for a few strokes but my breathing rhythm has gone and with it my stroke. I feel close to hyperventilating and know with utter certainty I have to turn back now.

A wave sweeps me up from behind and begins to break while a flood of adrenaline washes through my body. I force myself to breathe steadily and stare at the back of the wave racing away, glinting steel and with spray flying from the top. The friendly green-blue light has been sucked from the wavelets, and I’m struggling in a sinister, pewter darkness. Sandwiched between opaque sea and heavy slate sky, in my head I’m sinking. My legs are jelly fish as I try to swim breast stroke, but I’m wearing my wetsuit for the first time since August and am unused to the buoyancy which pushes my head under while my legs fly up behind. The reef is almost within reach to my right; I could get over there but that thought shatters with the slow-motion crash of sea into rock. Struggling away from land my fear tries to propel me back; I stop, bob for a bit and turn onto my back while I grapple with my breathing and pull myself together. I know I won’t sink, but my left brain is saying otherwise. I float and think.

It’s a waste of time doing breast stroke, I’m only trying because I want to see what’s coming at me but that’s making me turn my head and stiffen up. I need to swim in front crawl towards the shore and trust myself. An apparition of Kari the mermaid muse tells me I don’t need to look at the sea, I need to feel it so I hold my glide, blowing a steady stream of bubbles underwater and waiting for gaps in the waves to inhale. I feel weightless and unmoving in the current as the water from the shore breakers sucks back out, as though in a disturbing dream where you want to wake but can’t. There’s a gap between the surf dashing towards the beach and the maelstrom around the island reefs. I head for it.

Suddenly it’s over; the sea is smaller and lighter, and I can see the warm, golden sand of the neck. I keep going till I feel my hands brush the bottom, then stand and wade backwards while spent breakers tug at my legs. After a couple of worrying minutes I spot Hugo ploughing towards me. As we trot across the beach he tells me about a mountaineer scaling Annapurna who dropped his gloves and had to watch them slide away, resulting in the loss of his fingers; Hugo says he too has had an ‘Annapurna moment’ today. We should have stayed with the others of course.  But there’s a danger in a close escape beyond that of not making it back alive, and ten minutes later I’m too high still to drink mulled cider or even to eat cake.

Video of the bit before the big scare here:

Wading In

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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