One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the tag “nature”

Shilley Willy

Flying Entry

Flying Entry

Honey and I accompany Matt and Aaron on an exploratory trip to Shilley Pool. We wade and scramble pool-wards over sodden ground dotted with clitter and clumps of rusted bracken. Matt drops knee deep into a bog.  Blackaton Brook is a tiny tributary of the upper Teign and looks like nothing with the colours of the open moorland  leeched by mizzle and the rumbling water secreted beneath dark undergrowth.

Suddenly all is revealed; a series of smooth rocks curve gently down into the near-circular pool which is dammed by boulders at the lower end. It starts to rain heavily as we arrive, and we slide in from the top to slow boiling water. It’s like swimming in a mixture of Guinness, Jail Ale and ice in a pub drip tray at the end of a busy night. The infinity pool effect looking downstream is gorgeous. We reckon the river temperature to be around 6-7ºc, chillier still than the Teign where we swam earlier. It’s strange how your brain interprets this level of cold: the burn of my body could be from heat, while my hands feel painfully freezing.

Infinity Drip Tray

Infinity Drip Tray



Bigbury Blethering

Honey Surfs

Honey Surfs

Bigbury on Sea, Bank Holiday Monday; blue skies and wisps of cirrus, a bank of fog over the horizon, and the usual cheeky gale. It’s low tide and light glints from the sand beneath the shallows and illuminates the sea so that it glows turquoise.  We set up on the sand and chat while a few of our friends swim round Burgh Island, some for the first time. I’m hugely envious, but unable to join in owing to my shoulder injury.

Light Splinters

Light Splinters

Blowing Bubbles

Blowing Bubbles

We go to meet the first swimmers, but they take off up the stream towards the Lifeguard hut like Triathletes. Then we discover the gang think they might have lost one of our newbies – but the Lifeguards know exactly where he is, and sure enough he appears in the distance having become over-excited and taken the long route round the easterly reef.

Finally it feels warm enough for a bob – although I’m acclimatised, being unable to swim properly means the cold grips fast. We run in and there is no pain at all for the first time in ages. The actual water temperature is around 10-11ºc, practically boiling point by recent standards. I mess around and play with Honey. Tiny waves break and splinter the light around us. It’s like being on a cloud.

Afterwards we continue to blether, wrapped in the smoke from barbecues and washed by the hubbub of people at play. IMGP4687

WWS's Bare Naked Foot Returns

WWS’s Bare Naked Foot Returns

Salter’s Spirits

The air’s not that cold, but the water nips then burns like horseflies. It’s dead calm, and autumn colours mist the trees. Lazy bright leaves wend downstream in the copper-black water. As I swim my breath condenses and creeps along the surface like a spectral breeze. I float across the current and my body swirls around and down towards the distant cascade; its music surges like rainfall as I pass. Honey fossicks under the bank. Her cream fur silhouettes hanging tree roots like giant ribs so that she appears to have been swallowed by a fossilised whale.

Mystical Meldon Pond

Meldon Dam is spectacular with Royal Wedding-scale bridal veils of overflow. We cross the clam over the dark and flooded West Okment and squelch through the woods. Suddenly, through autumn trees illuminated by bright sun, a delicious, turquoise pool materialises. It’s as though a chunk of sea has dropped from the sky to stun us in this world of amber waters and green turf.

The leaves are starting to turn, and their greens and golds are mirrored around the edges of the pool, refracting their tints through the water so that the ocean colours turn with them and become indescribably autumnal. The sky is a bright, cool blue and fish-boned with diaphanous clouds. I feel the nip of autumn in the air and the burn of clear, cold water on my skin.

A wall of rock like a fairy-tale castle teeters over us as we swim. The luminous grey is smooth and streaked with limestone trails that are almost indistinguishable from the ripples reflected off the surface of the pool. Ivy trails down. Our two new wild swimmers are enchanted, and so are we.

Meldon Pond is a flooded limestone quarry which is around one hundred and thirty feet deep. The links  below are transcripts of some oral history of this magical place.





Bouncing in Bugle Hole

We’re not sure exactly where this natural tidal pool is, but as we descend the cliff path Bugle Hole reveals itself below us. We scramble down and change on rocks like fossilised Cadbury’s Flakes. I squat on the edge of the pool and the sea surges up to meet me so that I’m simply incorporated from damp autumnal air into water.

The sea beyond us is churning and spraying in the gale, but we’re mostly protected by a rock wall that resembles the top of a portcullis. From time to time a big wave foams through a gap like saliva from the mouth of a crocodile contemplating a juicy swimmer. I float over to explore the top of a narrow cave which is also a blow hole in the right conditions, and am sucked backwards into the entrance, before being spat back out.

On the other side is a narrow gully connected to the sea, through which the swell is forced. It’s a topsy-turvy world where the landscape is hidden and revealed randomly, and where from bouncing in deep water you suddenly find yourself stranded atop a rock with the water surface three feet below. Honey is bemused.

I swim from the shelter of the Hole as the sun breaks through and emerge into a glittering, tottering sea.

YouTube video here (apologies for the dodgy quality in the middle, I was shooting into the sun)


Horndon Clam

We all spent the day on tenterhooks while Queenie and JJ slogged through their epic Channel swim. They left Dover just after 2am, but following seasickness and extreme cold they were forced to stop around thirteen hours later, just three miles from their goal. Queenie and JJ, all your swimming friends are in awe of your courage, stamina and strength.

I feel devastated for my friends, so Honey and I set off to Horndon Clam on the river Tavy, near where we live. We clamber down the track and take the tiny path upstream from the Clam through the woods. We pass twisty oaks, luscious bracken and orchids. The fields on the far side are edged with Dartmoor bunting of barbed wire hung with sheeps’ wool flags.

It’s still baking hot and I feel sweat prickling my skin and every so often there’s a sharp itch where a cleg fly bites. Honey and I dip by the little falls and are cleansed by sparkling bubbles which seem to release stress as they burst. They’re silver at the surface where the sun catches them, fading to pale amber in deeper water.

We walk back and slide into the deep pool. It’s black and still, soaked with reflected colour. I float downstream so as not to disturb the calm, then swim back up. The current’s almost invisible here until I swim against it and the water pushes over my face and shoulders. A pair of wrens watch from low down in a tree, and fly off trilling as Honey shakes the water from her coat.

Double Dip

Such a glorious day, so I decided to follow a topical theme and go for a double dip. This morning I dropped Honey off with her Gran and swam around a mile along Plymouth Hoe. The city’s finest were out in force, and I changed near a gang of blokes swigging White Lightning from three-litre bottles, smoking, swearing at each other, and commenting on passing women’s breasts. Luckily, I don’t have any of those…

I swam out past the Lido, and was overtaken by a pilot-boat and then a frigate making a huge racket and presumably on her way back from a detachment. My next encounter was with the ‘One Hour Plymouth Tour’ boat dropping off one lot of passengers and reloading another. I waited for them to pass, and felt rather like an exotic fish in the Aquarium as people pointed at me and exclaimed, I hope because I was wearing my new loud swimsuit – a rather spectacular Uglies.

As I swam back across the buoy-marked swimming area (limit 4kts) the mates of the drunk blokes swept in at full-speed in two boats with in-boards, shaking their tails, enveloping me with a smog of exhaust fumes and almost drowning me in their wake. I was slightly annoyed. A boy belonging to the gang threw stones at a little girl in the shallows, calling her no end of names, while the adults chugged more cider and shouted at each other. The overall impression today was of the kind of uncivilised wildness I’d rather avoid.

Late afternoon: we wander up the East Dart from Grockle Hell, aka Dartmeet, where most people confine themselves to a picnic next to the car. A little way upstream is a lovely dipping pool sheltered by oaks, one of which appears to be executing a theatrical bow; Come in, Come in, he says. This is an altogether nicer experience than this morning’s. The water glistens amber and green and feels like satin. I share the pool with some kids who show me how their swimming shorts blow up underwater, while JJ sits like a Dartmoor Pixie on the rocks having gashed his arm and been banned from the wet. 

And finally, somewhat off-message, I’d like to send the very best of luck to my friends JJ (see photo below – he’s the mop-head who’s not blonde) and Queenie, who will be swimming the English Channel in a two-person relay on Thursday, probably starting at around 4.30am. Their support ship is the Anastasia, which you can follow via this link. Go Twins!    http://www.shipais.com/showship.php?mmsi=235019572

Dipping on the North Teign

We stride over Kes Tor on a blustery day with little bursts of rain and sun and scudding clouds. Honey jumps through a bog and snaps at the cotton tails as they bob back and forth in the gale.  I glimpse the North Teign in the distance, narrow and straight as it crosses the common and hear the tinkle of water through the wind and the squelching of the rain-sodden turf as we tread. My hair slaps across my face and even the hairs on my arms are blowing horizontally.

We cross the tiny clapper bridge and walk through foxgloves, thistles and bracken, every so often stepping across one of the tiny gardens secreted within peat-holes. Walla Brook joins the river as it begins its plummet into Teigncombe Cleave, just above a holey rock that sits above the water like a wild lavatory. (My friend Jackie tells me this is the Whooping Cough Stone, where if you pass a child with Whooping Cough through the hole s/he will be cured). We discover a small horseshoe falls, but the flow is too fast to get near today.

We dip and swim in a lovely pool enveloped by mountain ash, blackthorn and gorse.  A the sun comes out the water glows like a winter fire reflected in burnished copper, adding to the frisson of the chill as I dunk under.  I try to swim, but keep grounding on submerged rock slabs slimy with brown silt. The wind swoops upstream and ruffles the surface which glints like a shoal of fish.

We wend our way back up stream past the pong of a dead sheep, her body dissolved  like the Wicked Witch of the West beneath a splatted fleece and gently curving horns. Upstream from the clapper bridge I float on my back in the shallows, water rushing one way and the wind the other, while rushes and foxgloves bend like animal pelts in the wind. Bruise-grey clouds gather behind.

Luscious Lyd

Dry heat rises in waves from the moorland track. Squadrons of skylarks take off from the gorse, dull brown, and rise slowly before suddenly letting rip, fluttering and singing their hearts out, higher and higher and higher.

It’s a thrill to slip into Witch’s Pool and wallow in amber water, surrounded by the tinkle of the falls and brushed by occasional gusts from a warm breeze. Honey rootles along the edge, apparently walking below the surface where it vanishes into infinity.

We jog down to the little cascade and I float face-down in the sparkling flume. As I roll over a kestrel flies directly overhead on arched wings. Two women seated on the Black Rock bench wave and smile at me while new, beaming-yellow gorse flowers waft their exotic coconut scent.


Sharrah pool in spring, new leaves, green light, layers of vegetation and tiny flowers in moss cosseting cold boulders. Often it feels still when you arrive in the glade; today I feel the surge of energy and spray. The roar of the rapids is like a cloudburst, and the dark depths of the pool churn to the surface. The water’s cold and flecked with foam and tastes wonderful.

We have to swim hard for a bit to get to the cascade, as the usual eddy has been pushed out by the force of the current. I can’t make it to the top and am swept along and spun round in the bubbles which pop in my ears and fizz in my face.  From time to time, I see a swimmer’s head flash past. Allan casually overtakes me in a slow breast stroke, travelling at about twenty knots.

On the way up, I had chatted to a woman and her small daughter who then appear, and decide to strip to their underwear and join us. The little girl shrieks with the cold but eventually gets in with a bit of encouragement, wearing Jane’s neoprene bonnet as extra protection. We lend them towels and share hot Ribena and Jackie’s special cake, spring oaks curving overhead.


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