The Brown River

Glendun is a valley cut deep into the hills by the small river that flows out to sea at Cushendun.  Even the last couple of days with the seemingly endless rain and with the river in flood it is hardly a torrent so it seems incredible that it has carved this valley through hundreds of meters thickness of durable basalt.

I spotted the little meadow with the series of cascades two days ago.  There is a bit of grass beside the road that has been pressed flat by someone stopping in a car and a tiny stile across the fence.  A small temporary path has been pressed in the long grass.  It leads down to the water and along the marshy bank to a piece of the bank that has been levelled with a pavement of stones under a twisted alder tree.  It is the perfect changing place right beside the largest pool.

Even with the extra flow of rain water the pool is however little more than waist deep and the stones on the river bed are treacherous with a thin layer of slime.

The next pool down is beneath a cascade where the water drops 3 or 4 feet in several flumes and curtains with water that is the colour of molasses.  Right beneath the falls the water spins and churns in a fizz of bubbles and it is about neck deep with limited scope for a swim so I kick about under Gerald’s watchful eyes.  Drifting downstream and I run aground on a fallen branch so it is back out on the bank and down to the next pool.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The pool has an impressive weir at the top which creates and almost unbroken natural curtain of water but again the cut away at the foot of the cascade is disappointingly shallow and small.  There is one final pool with a small step of inflowing water but it is barely knee deep, though I lie in it briefly anyway for the satisfaction of having done it.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I walk out from under the trees heading back upstream the sun finds a gap in the clouds and there is nothing for it but to slip back into the deepest pool to see the water dark brown and backlit in all its glory and looking ever more like syrup.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It was the following day when I swam again at Cushendun that I discovered the river had turned all the sea water in the bay dark orange too.


Cushendun, the first taste of Ireland.

There is blue sky overhead smeared with a few streaks of wispy cloud and a slight breeze stirs the trees.  Across the road from the car park is a low wall with a gateway, a path across a narrow swathe of rough grass and a ramped access to a beach of fine, white, glittering sand, backed by buried railway sleepers contorted by waves and wind blown sand separating the beach from some small fragile dunes.  I have the beach to myself, almost.  Far to my left a solitary figure is stood beside a fishing rod lying in its rest.

However, as I change and then wade into the short surf of the clearest water I can recall swimming in for a very long while a breeze tugs at my hair and sopping wet clouds roll up over the pine trees.  Oh well I will be getting wet anyway and my towel and clothes are rolled into a plastic bag, it’ll be fine.

It must be close to high tide and for 10m out from the surf the seabed is a mix of sand and pebbles and then the limit of the effects of the summer waves is reached and quite literally like a line drawn in the sand the sea bed becomes a simple field of ribbed sand.  It stretches out ahead, left and right, out of sight and here that is a lot of sight.


The sky becomes greyer as I swim along the beach about 50m out in about 6 to 7m depth of crystal clear water looking down at the endless seabed.  A fine mist of drizzle begins to fill the air and the village fades a little.  The boom of thunder rolls around the bay and glancing at the beach I can see the sky inland is now dark and a little ominous.

The man on the beach is hurriedly collecting his gear together and sets off up the beach at a trot as the first juicy drops of rain pit the surface of the sea with small saucers of ripples.  The breeze across the surface of the sea is barely perceptible and yet the clouds are advancing swiftly and bring with them heavier rain and another growl of thunder though there is no flash of lightning.   The chance of being injured by a lightning strike is vanishingly small though I can understand why the fisherman with his 12 foot high carbon fibre lightning conductor may a run for his car, but you know what, I think I’ll take my chances.

The rain is quickly over and another dull boom of thunder almost out of earshot rolls in over the sea but the clouds it seems are here to stay.

At the far end of the beach from the town the sea bed becomes dotted with isolated rocks each home to a thatch of kelp fronds.  Then there are more rocks, but here the water suddenly becomes warmer and also brown like weak tea where a small stream disgorges its load of peat saturated water collected down off the moorland.  I am used to the River Dart being peaty in colour but this is properly dark brown so I swim back into the clear water which feels sharply cooler now.

Back at my towel the scene is still dull like early evening and the damp sand no longer glitters.  Far away on the slipway at the town someone is walking a dog, but otherwise I am just a solitary figure in the middle of almost 1/2 a mile of perfect beach.


Two days later and I am back at the beach only this time I swim end to end and back and the sea across the whole bay is peat stained to such a degree that the seabed is only dimly visible.  And not only is the water coming down the main river the colour of molasses but it is also bitingly chill, which is all rather disappointing.

The Carnival is in Town

Tonight it is Teignmouth’s turn to play host to the annual carnival procession.  Some towns I don’t enjoy, but others I positively look forward too.  This is not in Teignmouth’s case because it has anything at all to offer as a town, but simply because the marshal point for the procession start is along the top of the sea wall.  It takes no time at all to set the float up and then there is that glorious (in Teignmouth’s case) hour and a half of waiting for judging and prize giving and the sea is right there.

It is however all a little grey this evening: grey town, clouds and sea.  And a little breezy and bumpy.  Simple observations, not complaints.

The hubbub of the competing sound systems and disco lighting recedes the further out I go.  I have my eye on the yellow swimming zone buoy, which though it is not exactly a long way out, is by virtue of the fact that I am the only one in the water quite far enough.

For a brief moment the clouds break and sunshine streams through, but it is only a teaser and the light flashes over me, out past the buoy and on and on out to sea lighting for an instant the yacht on the horizon, but by then I have been plunged back into gloom again.

Swimming in the carnival noise increases and drowns out the sound of surf on the  beach until I am right in under the sea wall getting changed when the sound of the waves at my feet is all that can be heard as the carnival noise carries away over my head on the breeze.  And that’s it for another year.



Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Flash Flood

There was tragic news earlier in the week about 9 people killed by a flash flood in Arizona.  They were enjoying a sunny day at a popular swimming hole unaware of the torrential downpour miles upstream.  Apparently the first anyone knew of the changing conditions was a rumble like thunder and then a wall of water came down the river and was on them in seconds.  As is clear from the video in the above link it is not only the water but the debris in the water that causes such tragedies.

People say the River Dart is a ‘flashy’ river though it is not immediately obvious how that can be.  Yes there are relatively big flood waters but normally from looking at data on the Environment Agency River Level Monitoring Site it looks like the levels rise and fall relatively slowly.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Flash floods do happen here: Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952, Boscastle 2004, Coverack last week, but are thankfully uncommon.

As far as the Dart goes yesterday brought what was a borderline flash flood as recorded on the above Env. Agency website.

Wild Swimming Still Pool
Wild Swimming Still Pool

On Thursday evening I swam my usual twice up and down the 300m pool near Dartington.  The river chattered over the stones and was still perhaps an inch or so higher than the typical summer low after Tuesday’s showers and just touched the last of the steps near the swing which hangs 6 feet clear of the placid, clear water of the main pool.  I swam with a girl who had stopped off on her run, 2 boys were messing about with snorkels in the shallows by the sandy beach and the 2 girls were taking turns on the swing.

The forecast was for rain.

When it came it was torrential hammering deafeningly on the tin roof at work.  I had to go and take a look at the river.

Beneath the bridge the shallows and banks of pebbles where the heron had been stalking yesterday had vanished.  However, the water might be just an inch deep, a covering and with no marker there was no knowing.

At the pool though it is obvious the level is up about 4 feet if not more.  Tree branches drag the surface and the steps have gone along with the little step from which I dive and the concrete ledge is being washed over.

Stepping into the water at the edge of the beach it is waist deep where yesterday there were dry stones and I wade out to the trees where dark brown water slooshes around the willows.  The water here is however barely flowing, dammed into a little pool by trees and bank.  Walking back along the bank it is clear that in just a few minutes the level has risen to fill the hollow under the leaning tree trunk and back at the steps the ledge has gone.

The water in the enclosed corner stirs gently, there is less flow than in the mainstream on a normal day and I bob easily in the surprisingly warm water keeping place with just gentle flicks of my hands and feet but with nowhere to go there is no point in staying in longer than to take a few pictures and watch the world quite literally pass by.

Hauling myself out using the small tree it is clear the water is rising fast.  It has now breeched the last of the rock and the oak tree roots are awash leaving just a few inches of the tallest rock poking above the surface and even that get swamped once in a while.  As I dry off I see a tennis ball whisk by and several plastic bottles and a surprising amount of potential firewood.  A long heavy length hitches on some trailing tree branches hauling them down until the log is released and the branches spring back with a crash.  The log broadsides the next branches and sticks creating a dam and a noisy gurgle of water.

The last of the rock is finally covered and at the same moment the water catches the tail of rope at the swing and sets it dodging and rocking, the water pulls one end in, flips it up and the other end is dragged in.  That is a rise of 18 inches in 30 minutes.

What looks like a honeydew melon in terms of colour and size spins past.

I’d like to stay and watch (as it turns out the level will not peak for another hour and the monitoring station upstream shows another 10 inch rise yet to come) but instead I’ll come back in a day or too and look for the tide line of debris on the all but submerged fence beyond the vanished beach on the far bank.

More heavy rain is however forecast.



Wild (Terms and Conditions May Apply).

I have jogged down the coast path to the edge of the sea where the path turns inland again.  However though it is all but grown over there is a side path to the edge of the foreshore which then turns into a narrow sandy ledge above a steep drop that doubles as a path down to the patch of green lawn that nestles on top of rocks below.  There are now several ways down to the sea, but my favourite is a traverse down a thin lip that takes a 45degree angle down a slab of smooth, nearly vertical rock to a level space at the high tide mark.  From here there is a finger of deep water that leads to the open sea, but which is sheltered from nearly all directions except on the biggest tides and in the roughest weather.

The trend for prefixing the term ‘wild’ to an activity as in ‘wild swimming’, ‘wild camping’ etc. grates my nerves.  I blame Richard Mabey.  The latest is apparently ‘wild running’.  ‘Wild’ has now been so overused as to have become almost meaningless.  Which of course it isn’t, it does have its place; though I do wonder if I have been fished in.

To my mind if you are interested in ‘wild’ swimming as distinct from outdoor swimming then with that comes a different set of objectives:

Do swim alone,
Do swim with the minimum clutter,
Be responsible for yourself,
Leave the environment a better place than when you arrived,
Don’t die.

This of course flies in the face of most advice given when someone asks what they need to go wild swimming.  Except the don’t die bit, I think we can all agree that is reasonable advice no matter what.  However, I fail to see how swimming in a big group and taking so much stuff with you that you need a wheelbarrow to move it all about can possibly be considered ‘wild’ (or any safer, but that’s for another day).

You don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth, ‘wild’ is a moving target.  Where I was swimming (by myself) this morning, the river was flat calm and all I could hear was birds (and far away someone yelling after their dog which had probably gone after the squirrel I saw earlier).  I had a gentle encounter with a selection of ducks and ducklings, a dipper and 2 kingfishers.  However, if I go back after work the place will be awash with people swimming, jumping from the rocks, on the rope swing, there will certainly be dogs chasing about, the river will be churned up and somehow I think the wildness will have gone.  And so to will the ducks, dipper and kingfishers.

Wild is I accept a subjective term in relation to each person’s comfort zone.  I am quite happy to wander through a field amongst a herd of cows whereas the London Underground nowadays gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.

The swimming wilderness is however fast disappearing and the amount of ‘wild’ has more than halved in 5 years.  Places I used to go fairly sure there would be no-one else about are now almost invariably ‘taken’ when I arrive.  Over the course of maybe 5 years and 50 swims at Abbot’s Mede I have met just 4 other people: 3 fishing, 1 walking.  Last week there were 2 other swimmers.

The inevitable upshot is an impulse to go further.  It can bring benefits, but it can also mean being at places where even a minor incident would soon turn major.  Maybe then the only worthwhile safety advice is ‘have fun and don’t die’.


After Autumn Comes Summer

The walk through the redwoods is like a walk into autumn this morning.  The air is unseasonably cool, the breeze carries moisture and the promise of rain, not the heavy warm rain of summer but that bone chilling, all pervading mizzle of early October.

The river level has dropped a little overnight and the water has cleared a little too, but in the cloud filtered grey light of early morning the scene looks drear and unappealing.  There is no enjoyment in swimming to the shallows and back.  The only sense of achievement comes from the fact that after crashing into one of either of the two sunken rocks every swim for the last 4 weeks I have finally triangulated them and pass by without adding to the scrapes on my knees, but once around is enough.

Chilled and inadequately dressed I stomp back to the car for warmth.

The forecast for a continuous dull day is losing credibility by lunchtime, by when there is more blue sky than cloud and though the breeze has freshened the day has markedly warmed.  Secure then in the knowledge that this unexpected turn of events will ensure I have Scabbacombe Beach to myself I head off.

Others it seems had a different and more prescient forecast.  Nudists sizzle on the beach like sausages on a barbie and I can’t help but notice out of the corner of my eye that their interest has been piqued by the arrival of Gerald.  ‘Take no notice Gerald, they’re overcooked and won’t taste good’.  Gerald meanwhile has yacht envy.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The breeze has blown the sea flat calm and I head way out down the headland almost to the far point (there’s a big cave out there I have not visited in a while).  The sea is also clearer than expected and I take every opportunity to duck dive down amongst the layered kelp fronds. Meanwhile angry birds circle overhead trying to chase me from the vicinity of their nests, whilst an oyster catcher scolds me from the rocks.

Instead of turning back and heading directly into the breeze I cut right across the bay almost tot he opposite headland and then circle in to the beach in water that is now glass calm in the shelter of the rocks.  It is only later that I discover the camera has ****ed up again and has written to file only half the photos it says I took.

With that in mind and the forecast set for dull all weekend and anyway I have other commitments I am out the door of the office at 5 and heading back to Scabbacombe.  (I’ll drop back in to work on the way home to pack away the run on the machine as I can either sit and watch it do its thing or trust it.)

The beach is no less gorgeous and the sun drifting towards the hills behind has enriched the colours of the sea and shore.  And this time I am all by myself.  The route taken is exactly the same and the camera behaves (clearly the threat of violence has worked) for which I am grateful as right at the end of the swim I pass by 2 crystal jellyfish (Aequorea sp.)

I like these jellyfish especially as they are so translucent that if you are not careful and they turn against the light they can vanish in front of your eyes.   I’m told they are also bioluminescent so I’ll have to come back another time after dark, though it is already getting on as I half jog and half plod back up the steep hill.

All in all for a day that started out as autumn it has turned out to be a pretty good summer and I have even unintentionally managed to catch the sun a little across my back whilst swimming.



Underwater Cameras

When water gets into your camera it is usually mission critical because though a small amount of damp is probably not fatal as you are probably going to be swimming for a while and not somewhere that you can immediately dry the camera out damp usually moves inexorably to awash.  Game over.

My first camera chosen for use in water was a Canon D10 at the best price I could find of £320.  Two factors were key: a guarantee to be waterproof to 10m and a high impact resistance.  Both claims were put to the test repeatedly over 6 years of use and stood the test of time.  The camera was comfortable to hold, the buttons easy to operate in all conditions and the menus easy to navigate.  The most useful feature I found was a novelty at the time whereby the self timer could be set to as much as a 30 second delay with an option for up to 10 sequential shots.

The only slight drawbacks were a tendency to meter biased to shadows no matter what, a bias towards slow shutter speed and colour distortion on light-dark margins.

In the end though the shutter button became unreliable (after 100 000 shots to be fair) and finally the on/off button, screen and CCD all failed en masse, though not due to water.  The battery however remains sound which for a rechargeable is quite remarkable.  A floating wrist strap was essential though the camera only just had negative buoyancy and without the battery in place, as when washing after salt water, it would float.  An aluminium wrist strap mount was placed at each corner but they rapidly degraded with repeated salt water immersion even though I was utterly diligent about washing in fresh water afterwards.

I got a GoPro Hero3+ silver about 3 years ago, cost in the region of £220.  Waterproof to 40m in the extra case and compact size were major plus points as were the wide angle lens and option for multiple sequential shots.  The wide angle lens is both a blessing and a curse in that it does give a tremendous field of view even though I stick to the medium setting to avoid the excessive fish-eye effect, but a person more than 3m from the camera may as well be on the moon.  Closer than 2m and the lens distorts the subject, further than 3m and they are too small to see almost.  That consideration however goes away underwater where visibility is usually in the 2-3m range and there the continuous shooting mode really comes into its own.

Picture exposure can also be an issue.  When shooting directly into the light the results are excellent with very rich colours.  Shots of subjects where there is a marked light-dark contrast invariably gives over-exposure and washed out colours, though biasing the field of view towards the brightest part usually produces and acceptable image.

A floating handgrip is an essential extra.

I have a suspicion however that recent problems when it would not turn on and would not recognise the micro SD card as being present are the first signs along the road to failure.

The Olympus Tough T4 is a recent buy, £300, but it is now out of production to be replaced by a new model.

Heavier than expected, the wrist strap float from the D10 is not quite enough to keep it afloat in the river but in the sea the buoyancy may be just fractionally better.  It is too much of a risk though as I have often let go the camera whilst underwater knowing it will float back to the surface, but not anymore, it will go to the bottom.

The camera feels good to hold, though having the zoom button as an exposed toggle type rather than a flush button as with the D10 may be asking for trouble.  Furthermore after only a week I have noticed the function selection dial easily gets knocked between settings.  The menu options are extensive and include the option for up to 30 second shutter delay and multiple shots though the 1 second spacing delay seems too long.  There is a time lapse function too.

The screen is large and bright and the shutter response time is far faster than the D10 and I sense it deals better with high contrast lighting even in standard modes though there is a setting to deal with that specifically.  There are also a variety of functions, including for stacking multiple exposures at slightly different focus points to broaden the focus depth.  That has an application for me.

Battery life seems good and the return to action after the sleep function activates is instant.

All in all I am liking the T4 so far, now let’s see how it goes.