Honey and I are in North Devon today on a work-related visit, and take the opportunity to return to one of our favourite beaches. Welcome Mouth is a part of that wonderful area of cliff on the North Devon/Cornwall borders where the earth’s crust has been pushed and snapped into points that rise up to 400 feet above the Atlantic. In dramatic terms, Welcombe plays Emmerdale to Hartland’s Wolf Hall. Here, there’s simply a fifty-to-one hundred foot cliff and a miniature waterfall whose spread and style hints at its ambition to be Speake’s Mill. The Atlantic breakers have crashed into these cliffs over millennia to erode fingers of rock that cleave the sand at 45 degrees and claw out to sea.
Drifts of pebbles form waves around the cliffs; smooth gulls’ eggs ringed with quartz, in a soft grey that must be made by Farrow and Ball.
It’s almost low tide, and there’s a fair swell and a drizzle that might be spray from the waves crashing along the reefs. The sea is opaque and tinted rich-tea-biscuit. We trot up the narrow sandy tongue to be splatted almost at once by excitable foaming water, marbled, crashing and sucking. It’s not too cold. I’m tempted to head beyond the break, but the backwash is hideously strong and I’m afraid that Honey, who’s nearby, will get caught and pulled into the break zone. Crazy diagonal waves jaywalk back out, so I don’t spend long with my feet off the ground.
A dog walker tells me she swims from May to October, and that the sand is only recently returning after the huge storms of 14 months ago, grouting the gaps between reef fingers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands by Andrew Fusek Peters
This 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.
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
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.
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.
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.