wildwomanswimming

One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the tag “cold water swimming”

East Okement and Taw

Sophie swims the gully, E Okement

Sophie swims the gully, E Okement

Sophie’s walk on a gorgeous but cold day, taking in a few hot swimming spots. We start in the East Okement, being wholly unable to resist the top waterfalls. Clear water with a turquoise tint, and sun-spots the colour of barley sugar. The water’s very, very cold. The dogs are ecstatic, bounding between river and rock and leaf mould, panting, steaming and snuffling.

E Okement Falls

E Okement Falls

Someone finds an eviscerated Tawny Owl, which Rachel slings in a bin liner for later examination. It swings sadly in its makeshift body bag beneath her rucksack as she walks up the cleave towards Nine Maidens. There we play around with some gorse stump foraged by Kari and which resembles labia, rather appropriately for the stone circle that is most probably a paean to a moon goddess, perhaps Artemis or Hecate.

There’s a rather surreal twenty-first century army ambush occurring in the middle of the track where we’re heading, so we’re asked, very politely, to wander elsewhere. As we cross below Belstone Ridge all hell breaks loose, except there’s more smoke from Alex’s e-cigarette than from the grenade below.

Cassiterite

Cassiterite

Taw Marsh is stunning in the spring sunshine, weeds wafting green beneath the surface. We’re all thinking of the pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, and Kari decides to recreate Millais’ version with Linda and some bracken. Linda lies supine in the water playing dead, which at that temperature is no mean feat. As Rachel pushes her off and leaps out of the way for the picture, Lily and Fudge photo bomb before the hair floats downstream. Less Lizzie Siddall than Dartmoor Moses.

As we leave, we realise we’ve left Philippa, Linda’s ancient historian friend, behind… We call her with whistles and she returns, thrilled at the discovery of some black and glittery rock that she’s sure is a type of tin ore called cassiterite. This reminds me, as Anna has just pointed out, why it’s fun to walk and swim with such variegated people who together form a human encyclopaedia.

Dartmoor Ophelia with Dogs

Dartmoor Ophelia with Dogs

Double Dart Double Dip

Helen Leaps

Helen Leaps

Sharrah today is middling in flow, fairly nippy and somewhat Harry Potter; as the clouds clear it’s bright and sunny, but still rain falls as if from space. Our new swimmer Lorna, friend of a friend, shows us all up by diving straight in off the pointy rock wearing only a swimsuit, gloves and boots. It takes me a good two minutes to get above the waist.

Lorna Dives In

Lorna Dives In

Waiting for Paddlers

Waiting for Paddlers

We stop at elephant rock for the kayakers to descend, a great view from close up, and chat to the two alongside while we wait. Then it’s a quick swoosh down the cascade, ice-cream neck, and out. Ten minutes is plenty as this is only my second skins swim of the year.

As ever, Honey manages to crash bodily into both Jackie’s and Helen’s biscuits, scoffing several with the speed and lack of finesse of an American eating competition winner.

On the walk back we divert to Black Rock where Lorna, Allan and Helen leap into bubbles and play around again. Allan strips half way and does a skinny circuit of the falls, bottom glowing like the moon through white foam, before slinking out.

Allan Walks on Water

Allan Walks on Water

Mothecombe

Dahab Ninja Wipeout

Egyptian Ninja Wipeout

Trying to avoid getting wet...

Trying to avoid getting wet…

A last-minute call to dip at Mothecombe, and boy is it worth the trip. It’s mid-flood and surfy, the spectacular estuarine break is at its peak, and a strong, chilly wind cuts through our prematurely spring-like clothing. Rachel, Linda, Honey and I make our way to the shelter of the disused tidal pool. Honey thunders off after a tall dark and handsome flat coat retriever while the three of us change.

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Failing to stay dry…

The rip drags at our legs as we teeter in, shivering, so we cross closer to the surfers and into the teeth of the wind. The water is muted turquoise and cold, but made icy by the wind chill. We contort into dance shapes to stay dry as we wade deeper; wild swimming oxymoronic behaviour if ever I saw it. Linda is resplendent in her Dahab souk hooded neoprene singlet, while Rachel is wearing a mini ra ra skirt and a purple flowered hat. As I float between Egyptian Ninja and Devon Cream Tea Lady a large wave breaks over my head, dousing the Dali dreamscape.

Devon Cream Tea Lady

Devon Cream Tea Lady

On Skinny Dipping (OSS Version)

IMGP5036 I’d already written this piece on Skinny Dipping when artist and OSS member Natasha Brooks posted her film Blue Hue on the OSS Facebook page. In the film Natasha swims and floats naked in a wintery Llyn in Snowdonia while discussing her love of swimming wild, free from boundaries between her body and the environment. Natasha’s film is undoubtedly Art, a canon in which nudity is acceptable. But everyday nudity does not always receive the same welcome.

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’. An interesting comment on the schism between those who strip, leap in and enjoy the feeling of cool water on their bodies, and those who misread their purpose.

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 (The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 14).

Meanwhile a couple were arrested for skinny dipping, in East Lothian. Nudists can be prosecuted under the Public Order Act for ‘outraging public decency’, although rules vary by country in the UK, and in England skinny dipping is specifically excluded from this offence. Clearly there’s little room for objectivity here.

In Scandinavia, there is a space in society for non-sexualised nudity; there naked adults routinely share saunas with naked children. Perhaps swimmers are in a position to create a similar space in our confused country, where pop culture reveals an overtly sexualised aesthetic made officially decent by the addition of a bikini or some hot pants.

Once you’ve plunged yourself into a moorland brook on a stormy day and sensed that surging energy through your wetsuit, you develop a desire to feel it more directly. It’s a matter of time before even a swimsuit dulls the senses and skinny dipping becomes inevitable. What does this represent but the exposure of one’s body and soul to nature, a baptism, a metaphorical sloughing of the skin? It’s this that Natasha’s film (and the numerous positive reactions to it) shows so beautifully.  Yet it goes still deeper.

Skinny dipping is often seen as cheeky and rebellious in that peculiarly British saucy seaside-postcard way. But it’s also seditious in that you can’t sell kit to people who aren’t wearing anything, and we live in such a commercialised environment that a product-free activity becomes subversive in itself. Meanwhile, the routine media shaming of imperfect celebrity bodies regulates our behaviour and our views of what’s shocking (cellulite!)

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 men and women I’m with are too busy enjoying themselves to judge my physique. The experience can be bracing, exciting, sometimes painfully cold, and sensual in the literal meaning of that word, where each nerve ending responds and the movements of our bodies echo the paths of the currents.

Perhaps the careless exposure of un-photoshopped flesh and unstyled wet hair conspire to engender horror both at the thought of one’s own mortality and at the lack of concomitant marketing opportunities. While confusion reigns over nudity, what our culture finds truly shocking is the display of bodies in all their diversity, freed from the triumvirate of religion, advertising and the gym. The beauty in skinny dipping comes from how it makes us feel, whether we’re young or old, fat or thin, or anything in between. We plunge together into waves and lakes and waterfalls and gorge on life and cake while our minds float away. That’s liberation.

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

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Tara Adds Magic

 

Bonfire

Bonfire

 

Wading

Wading

Quick Whirl Across the Corryvreckan

Misty Isles

Misty Isles…en route to the Corryvreckan with the rib following.

Sandy's Chart

Sandy’s Chart

The third largest whirlpool in the world sounds like a perfect, if rather sporting place for a wild swim. It’s been done before, of course; first off by George Orwell’s one-legged brother-in-law in the 1950s, while Orwell himself came a cropper in the Corryvreckan with his boat, but survived. There are now fairly regular organised trips, but those tend not to be my thing. And so it was that I picked up three “guerrilla swimmers” from Lincolnshire on the Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook page, who were looking for people to share a boat and do the swim in an “organised but not organised” fashion.

The gang, note Stef's expression (2nd left at the back)

The gang: Stef on L behind, WWS and Queenie

Stef and Queenie volunteered to join me, and so, in mid-August after a whole day of travelling, we found ourselves sitting outside a cafe by a lock on the Crinan Canal with the rather glamorous North Norfolk Crawlers, who were wearing matching kit and false eyelashes (Queenie: “Can you tell we’re from Devon?”). The guerrilla swimmers rocked up next, and then a lone wolf from New Zealand via London. We joked around a bit, then made our way to the boat. “Look what you’ve got me into, Roper!” Grumbled Stef, not for the first time. “It’ll be fine, we’ve got 40 minutes!” I replied, breezily, while my innards trembled. Sandy (helped by his young assistant) from Venture West was our fabulously knowledgeable and skilled guide. As we approached the boat, a passing, tall and long-bearded man expressed some concern about us doing the swim, but we assured him we’d be fine. It was blustery, but there was sun, and some puffy clouds. Borderline conditions for the swim said Sandy. Our boat was rather flash; orange and blue and adventurous-looking with a thrusting prow, Victorian explorer meets Star Wars. We set off at speed, accompanied by a rib crewed by two fit young men, who were there to whip swimmers from the jaws of death if necessary. By the time we’d neared Jura, which had materialised darkly from a misty blue form in the distance, we were all best friends. Stef continued to mutter about what we’d got her into, while the guerrillas plotted a two way swim. I stressed slightly about my shoulder and lack of fitness, and wondered whether I should have brought my wetsuit. The female Crawlers said the sea had been face-freezing on the previous day, so we were expecting anything from 10-14 degrees. The feeling of speeding over water, the smell of the sea and and a brisk salty wind in your face soon puts paid to any real terror, though and I began to feel trepidatiously excited.

Eerily smooth water from tidal roses

Eerily smooth water from tidal roses

Suddenly, in the chop of the grey-blue sea, a glassy-smooth circle of water materialised alongside the boat, widening, reflecting and distorting the sky, like the earth from an approaching space ship. Another appeared just ahead expanding like the ripples from a giant raindrop, then mushrooming up from its centre to a diameter of maybe forty meters. I ducked into the forward area of the boat, to question Sandy. First he showed me the depth on the screen that included charts of the sea bed and the famous basalt pinnacle which is a key part of the topography that causes the pool to whirl. The sea is 190 meters deep on the seaward side of the pinnacle, then rises quickly to where the pinnacle point is 30 meters below the surface. This and the narrow gulf between the islands of Jura and Scarba, and the tidal stream that hits Jura and accelerates along its 20 mile length, causes the kind of force you can’t really imagine, Sandy told me. So our incredible circles of shiny water, and the mushrooms, result from the uprush of water from the deeps. “I’ve heard them called tidal roses doon sooth” said Sandy in a soft, west coast accent that luffed through his ginger seafarer’s beard.

Ready to swim!

Ready to swim!

We were near the end of the ebb tide, and we sat to await the right time to swim. This part is judged by eye and decades of knowledge and experience of these tantrummy waters. As we waited, Sandy pointed out we were doing around 3kts, at rest. The reason he’d refused to take three swimmers in the rib is that this larger, more powerful boat has the ability to outrun the currents. We were all ready to go, then we powered across to Scarba and jumped in from the side on the very end of the ebb. The water was less cold than I’d expected, maybe 13 or 14, enough for a nip but not too bad. We swam to the rocks and touched land, then set off. Almost immediately, another largish boat appeared, driven by Alexei, the man we’d met earlier with the long, pointy beard. We later discovered he’s a local singer, and he’d been so worried about us he phoned Sandy and came out to help.

And we're off! Jumping in to the jaws of the beast...

Jumping in to the jaws of the beast…

We began to swim, and Queenie and I, both non-wetsuited, quickly found ourselves alone. Stef had vanished with the main gang, while some of the crawlers and the guerrillas took off. There was quite a chop and Queenie swam to the seaward side of me. I tried to settle into a rhythm, and gazed through the deep turquoise wondering how far from the bottom we were. Then I saw a large, undulating blob of umber and cream, shadowed with a dark mane of anemone-type tentacles pulsing beneath it. It was bigger than my head. This, of course, was one of the infamous Lion’s Manes jellyfish which often crowd the sea here so that it’s impossible to swim. Then I saw a second one. Both were several meters from me, but I quickly realised I’d been stung on the legs, neck and arm. Beneath the lion’s mane they trail invisible tentacles that can reach tens of feet in length.

Scarba, ready for the off.

Scarba, ready for the off.

We stopped, while Alexei our guardian angel fretted about what we were doing, worried eyes above the Russian fairytale beard. “Just taking some photos” says I, while we had a quick chat then set off again. We stopped once more, then weird things started to happen. I could see the last of the others coming ashore, while the racing eels were already back on the big boat. John the lone wolf was being pulled into the rib. We swam in their direction, but were getting further away. I was buffeted, a feeling not unlike standing on the tube platform while a speeding train passes, but colder. I saw another jelly, right next to me and arched and skulled around it, but this time the current took its tentacles away. Alexei shouted, and I saw Queenie accelerate. He shouted again: “The tide’s runnin’! Swim!” (Bridge to Enterprise, Warp Factor 9!) so I did. Waves picked up and ran diagonally from front right (seaward) to back left, while I felt my body being pushed to the right in what must have been an eddy, since this was the flood hitting us. Buffets walloped by legs and body from underneath; I imagine this is how a worm on top of a washing machine on spin cycle might feel. The rocks, maybe thirty meters away, weren’t getting any closer and I could see and feel kelp. Queenie had turned to landward and was nearing the rocks, so I headed towards her and went flat out (if I giver her any more, Captain, she’ll blow…!) As I grabbed the kelp at the edge, the men in the rib shouted and I turned and forced my way back out towards them.

Queenie mid-swim

Queenie mid-swim

View from the Gulf

View from the Gulf

Then I scrabbled to mount the side of the rib, before something hoiked me over to land with a splat next to Queenie on my back on the fishy-scented bottom, with one leg over the side. “I saw your Mary Jane!” she shouted. “You can’t talk!” said I, watching her flounder, beached and giggling, as the rib took off at speed. We climbed aboard Sandy’s boat, laughed, swapped tall tales, changed and drank bubbly provided by the head guerrilla. One of the Crawlers had lost a nail, and I had some nice jelly stings, but we were otherwise unscathed. We passed a row of seals on a rock, lined up like plump men at a bar. It was only later, as we all met for dinner at the Tayvallich Inn, that the lone wolf told me the swim had been arranged off the back of the springs in order to make it “more challenging”…hence the concern of dear Alexei. So instead of the 40 minutes we’d assumed, we’d actually had a 20-minute window; Queenie and I took rather longer than that. We might not have taken photos had we known…

Vew from the fishy bottom of the rib

Vew from the fishy bottom of the rib

Running away bravely

Running away bravely

Lion's Mane swipe

One of the jelly swipes…

Bel Pool with Panda and Woody

Somewhat Nippy

Somewhat Nippy

We have visitors today; Panda and Woody from Deepest Dorset. It’s a beautiful morning, and we can still smell bluebells although they’re past their best. The Dart is middling-high after the rain, and the colour of a pub ceiling before the smoking ban. As we change at the lower end of Bel Pool a foam berg floats past, revolving gently in the current. It’s fairly easy to swim upstream on the island side, then suddenly I’m whipped by a speeding eddy to the cascade. Floating backwards the cappuccino foam splats spurts and spumes in a crazy dance, sending us over to the rocks. Woody and I both climb up and leap in, it’s invigorating to say the least. The sun hasn’t quite reached the pool, but I feel the warmth as I contemplate the fresh oak leaves overhead. The juddering after drop shows the water is as cold as it felt.

Clambering In

Clambering In

Secret Ten Tors

Honey Swims

Honey – First In as Usual

A lovely day and a little jaunt involving a prolonged route march in order to explore a particular river on the high moor, which must for now remain a secret as it’s going to feature in Sophie and Matt’s latest wild swimming book due out next year.

Lou and Baa in the Falls

Lou and Baa in the Falls

There is no more spectacular place than this. We swim in a long pool up a narrow chasm to a tallish waterfall, and shoot back down overlooked by vertiginous tors. The spectacle overhead almost removes the pain of collisions with one of the invisible rocks lurking near to  the surface. Next we wander downstream to a smaller pool and play in an ornamental waterfall. Monster-leg-hair moss gives hand and foot holds on granite boulders, while slick green algae is like greased lightning on others.  My sore muscles are pummelled into submission. We head back through sucking bog, and an exhausted Honey swims yet another pool to play with a rather handsome collie named Badger. Finally we arrive at the Royal Standard in Mary Tavy for a lovely pint of Dartmoor IPA and rather gorgeous meal some six hours after setting off. Sophie later names the adventure Ten Tors.

Rachel Thinks About Getting In

Rachel Thinks About Getting In

Honey Takes a Break

Honey Has a Cat Nap

 

Bel Pool

Bel Pool

Bel Pool

Luscious green vegetation ruffled by a cheeky breeze that gathers and flings birdsong in snatches. Brimstone butterflies, bluebells about to burst, wood anemones. Golden green light and a warm spring sun. Bel Pool looks still from the lower end, cuddled by trees in new leaf. My bare feet slither on silted rocks in the shallows, and I cling to the debarked fallen tree that’s been there ages. I can’t imagine how it’s survived the huge winter spates. When I swim the water’s far colder than expected; 10 at most. The little rapids at the top rush into sight and hearing together, just where the black, dripping crack in the side of the gorge sneaks into my peripheral vision. Here spring is sucked from the air and I can almost see trolls sidling out. Honey puffs to the island and boings off after a scent. My skin is flushed with cold and burning as I dry off.

Tavy Diplet

Helen Wafts

Helen Wafts

It’s unusual to have guests on my side of the moors; for some weird reason I’m an isolated wild swimmer in wild swimming heaven, but today Helen is visiting from Exeter. We pick our way down from Hill Bridge to one of the closer pools. There’s a precipitous pebble shelf half way up, a microcosm of the beaches at Beesands and Slapton. We stumble over goose-egg stones and drop in to the deep water, tasting the peat and the spring. It’s twelve degrees, and the river has lost her winter turquoise tint. It feels right to float again in bronze. Because of my back injury, I’ve developed an upright doggy-paddle floating walk and can’t get close to the cascade, but Helen swims in and wafts through bubbles. The branches above hang bare above luscious, erupting banks.

Honey Wallows

Honey Wallows

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