It’s all uphill!

I’m more used to running the lane to Lud Gate and the gate on to the open moor in September than April but out of nowhere there have been a few days of scorching sunshine more common in September than April and there you have the reason.  The lane beneath the leafless trees is a strange experience but the open moorland where the bright yellow furze flowers provide the only colour in a landscape of dull winter grey-green and last year’s scorched dun grass could almost be a foreign land.

Over Puper’s Hill and down to Huntingdon Mine, then over the hill past the Mound of Sinners and down to Broad falls, before the final climb to Red Lake the dried grass crunches underfoot as I run and the leaves clatter together in the slight breeze.  However though the grass may be tinder dry (and there have been some large moorland fires already this spring) the soil is filled to capacity with water.  Everywhere water trickles through the moss and at each footstep it wells up around my feet and sends jets of peaty much up my legs.  The sun is relentless even at after 5 n the afternoon and I am a hot glowing heap when I reach the lake.

The wind laps the black surface of the water and standing in the shallows in little more than knee deep water my feet have vanished into the peat stain.

wild swimming
wild swimming

The water is bitterly chill and for the first couple of swimming strokes I have to bite my lower lip to hold my breath in.  I finally let it go with a loud gasp and swim across the lake puffing and blowing.  I’m not sure it helps but it feels like it should.

In the lee of the high bank there is a discrete corner of mirror calm water and I bob in its glassy smoothness where the undulating waves I send out echo back with a slap from beneath the overhanging reeds and grass on the bank.  Otherwise apart from the sough of wind in grass there is not a sound not even the nearby chirp or distant cry of a bird.  Unusually, back at the Walla Brook clapper bridge, I did see someone walking but they were heading away from my route and I imagine in every likelihood there is no-one for 3 miles (the nearest house) in any direction.

I’m cold and dress quickly.  The heat has gone from the sunshine and the wind has picked up, the sky is no longer uniform blue but is hazed with thin cloud that surely heralds a change in the weather for tomorrow.  Even so I run first to the top of the spoil heap from the clay pit.  The moorland rolls away in every direction and is in essence the same in every direction, whilst the spoil heap sits in a slight depression in the landscape, the horizon climbing in every direction up to the sky.  For a moment as I scan the empty moor I imagine that I am caught in a freeze frame photo where a drop of water has landed in a pool and I’m stood on top  of the upsplash in a spreading saucer of water.  It is too chilly for further musing and I begin the splash and squelch back the way I came.

It takes me about 45 to 50 minutes to reach Red Lake yet only 35 to get back to the car and I arrive neither out of breath nor more than slightly warm in sharp contrast to the outward run.

I must do it again soon, when the lake has warmed a little maybe, but I know that it will most likely that won’t be until September again.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Swim Bingo

With the Polar Bear Challenge laid to bed it’s on to something new.

Swim Bingo has only two things in common with the PBC: a 200m minimum distance and swimming, obviously.

There are 35 challenges which spread over 7 months is a challenge a week give or take so I have put a line through the rules that you can claim no more than “2 challenges per swim and no more than 5 per day” and modified that to only claim 1 challenge per swim.  This is not a race.

It cannot be a race anyway as one set of challenges is a swim per month and October is not going to move about the calendar any time soon.  And as with the PBC there is nothing to say you have to claim a challenge simply because you did it.  For the PBC it was 2 swims per month and I probably did 15 each month that qualified, but I claimed on swims that were specially notable or enjoyable.

With that in mind I made up my own bingo card and after considerable juggling came up with an arrangement that places one more tricky challenge into each line and column.  That should serve to draw the process out, but also forces some forward planning.  No doubt the planning will be different for other people but what I will have to keep an eye on is the night swim (because I can’t be bothered with swimming when you can’t see anything) and the lido swim (because the nearest is in Plymouth: Tinside Lido).  There are ‘jokers’ to cover those but that seems to be a little bit of a cop out.  It’s supposed to be a challenge, if you can’t do the challenge, don’t legitimize cheating.

Two weeks down and this is my progress.

wild swimming
wild swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Swimsecure Dry Bag Tow Float

I have never been entirely convinced about the need for any sort of swimming tow float.  In part that was because I was apprehensive about having something towing along between my legs and partly because I could not imagine what I would so desperately need to take along when swimming.  Other people talk about phones, water bottles or car keys.  Then again my approach to the security of personal possessions is haphazard.  I either spread my stuff out and leave it on the presumption that someone might pick up a bag but they are unlikely to pack it first and will assume there are no valuables or I tuck my car keys into a nook in a wall, behind a bush or even just under a stone.  It is a game of chance however the places I swim are not high crime.

The other aspect of a tow float is of course simply to be seen and that for me is something of a double edged sword.  Again whilst the places I often swim are more ‘obscure’ and therefore exempt from the jet skies and pleasure boats that have become a plague in recent years, that obscurity does mean that any boat that may pass by is unlikely to be keeping a lookout for a swimmer.  However there have been several near misses with jet skis for other swimmers even on ‘swimming’ beaches this year.  Furthermore, as more swimmers use brightly visible floats, those without have become almost invisible.

swim secure dry bag tow float
swim secure dry bag tow float

Enter on the scene the Swimsecure combined dry bag and tow float.  Taking it from the package I had to reach for sunglasses, the pink colour is beyond bright, it is stellar.  No-one could possibly miss it, and the pink colour distinguishes it clearly from the many lobster pot floats, it’s a clear statement ‘Swimmer Over Here!’.    My first impression is also that the material is very high quality and this has been made to do its job in all the conditions a person could reasonably swim in.  In addition the inner can readily be washed clean.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The capacity is 18 litres though that probably reduces to about half with the neck rolled down.  Even so there is room enough for a towel, car keys, phone, a pair of shoes, sunglasses and paperback, should you find you need all these.

Having put items into the bag and rolled and fastened the neck the bag is inflated by blowing into the non-return valves for the independent front and back compartments.  The float is then attached through either carry handle to a short leash and looped onto the waist strap.  A set of D rings fitted beside the clip where the bag top rolls down could also be used to attach the leash using the karabiner provided.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I have now had an opportunity to use the float in calm and rough conditions, still air and strong winds, swimming crawl and breast stroke.  Under all these conditions the float has been all but unnoticeable whilst swimming without catching on arms or legs and offering no drag.  The float rides high in the water and the contents have remained bone dry.

After use to remove the contents and pack away simply remove the non-return valves.

Whilst I cannot promise to use it for every swim the advantages are obvious and having had a couple of boat near misses myself not to use it would be foolish.  However where I am really looking forward to using it will be the ability to jog to a spot swim across a bay and then jog back with dry shoes, I have plans already so roll on summer.

All I can really say in conclusion is ‘why did I not get one sooner?’.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

What Risk?

There is risk associated with any activity and most individuals, whether they realise it or not, judge risk based on their experience.  However bystanders are often quick to adversely judge those involved in activity often negatively on the basis of what they have been told, or more precisely, what they think they have been told.

Objectively the risk of an activity is fixed and would traditionally be assessed by means of a matrix that sets ‘likelihood’ against ‘severity’.  A personal perception of risk and how much risk you deem acceptable given the possible impact on your life in general are somewhat different things.

For example, irrespective of how experienced you are you could still slip on a rock whilst walking and break a leg. The likelihood is nevertheless ‘very low’ (it happens but rarely), the severity though if you were alone could be high as the outcome could possibly death (blood loss, shock, cold, darkness, can’t be found, landing in water). Any instance where severity is potentially death (or life altering outcomes) needs ‘mitigation’.

In this case likelihood may further diminish because from experience you recognise that wet rocks covered in moss are inherently slippery, but that is personal and to properly assess risk you need to assume no prior experience. The severity will diminish if you have means to send for help be that a mobile or someone else, but those are ‘mitigating actions’ and other mitigating factors may be applied. Generally then walking alone on, for example, Dartmoor with adequate mitigating measures lowers to risk to ‘acceptable’.

The problem with a swimming incident is that the progress from incident to outcome is likely to be minutes and mitigation is therefore difficult. Take as a related example the kayak incident on the Dart recently. Many people kayak the Dart, fatal incidents do occur (2 in 5 years for sure), but should an incident occur often the time to death is so short that even in a group the chance that someone will be able to stop and come to aid or do anything in a river in spate is negligible. This has also been my experience of swimming deaths, in that the only 3 that I have a personal connection with have all been people who were swimming with others, but before anyone noticed it was too late

I am however constantly surprised that people who go swimming do such a poor job of risk management. Will the tide be in or out, will it be sunshine or rain seems to be about the limit in most cases. But with all the resources available on-line it is no problem to apply even a little common sense to work out that after 2 days of rain it may be sunny now but the river is still probably ‘high’ or that with the wind blowing from that direction one side of the headland will be sheltered the other may have a big surf.

Personally I think about the risk every time I go swimming and I may consider the weather forecast (including wind direction), tide times and heights and flow direction and current strength, web cams (lots of those), the environment agency river levels page, etc, and I think about how I feel, good for a long swim or short? And even on arrival I have been known to go ‘you know what? Not today’ and go home again. And then there is the question of being visible in the water. Because essentially alone or with others once you are in the water there is potential for a fatal outcome.

Once you are in the water therefore risk and outcome become pretty meaningless. Mitigating the risk BEFORE you get in the water is therefore the thing in my opinion.

There is a further consideration and that is well-being. I will die eventually, that is a given. If I go swimming I keep myself fit which contributes to my well-being and ability to do other things and the alternative might be ‘couch potato’ which is possibly going to move me along to being dead sooner than the chance from a swimming related incident. And along the way I have seen some wonderful things and met lovely people. When you die the sum of your life is still zero (you cannot take anything with you) no matter how you lived it, but in the meantime?

The whole notion of ‘herd mentality’ is one that I have had many arguments over. The problem is that one person determines the risk for themselves at a specific time and in light of their ability and often in hindsight thinking more about the experience they had than how it might have gone differently. And their risk assessment may be rubbish anyway.  Nevertheless they broadcast that swimming at such and such a spot is ‘lovely and completely safe’.  The next person coming along goes ‘well it was OK for them it will be OK for me’.

Outdoor swimmers often counter negative comments with the ‘you are more likely to die whilst driving to work’ argument, but it is patently not a fair comparison. Looked at simply, how many people die in vehicle accidents per year and what is the cumulative time spent by the whole population in vehicles. Compare that to number of swimming fatalities and the cumulative time swimming. Swimming fatalities per hour of activity time I would guess far exceed vehicle deaths.

Do not therefore be put off by the comments of the uninformed or horror stories that may have no truth in them, nor become blasé to the risks.  Instead make a judgement each time you swim and if you have to walk away, then walk away.  After all whilst you want to live life you do only get one go at it and you are along time dead.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Cold Water Swimming

A good Article on Hypothermia appeared in my reading list recently.  The single most important point in this article is that hypothermia takes time a message I have been pushing for years.  However, time and again alarmist and misleading information is put about by reputable organizations up to and including the RNLI that suggests hypothermia can set in or kill you in just a few minutes.

As the article explains there is a gasp reflex (cold shock reflex) from sudden immersion in cold water (walk into a cold shower if you want to try this) and clearly if your face is underwater that can be almost instantly fatal.

Hypothermia takes time, though the exact time will vary with water temperature, alcohol consumption, natural body insulation, and simply how warm you are to start with.  Nevertheless as the article points out, long before full hypothermia sets in ability becomes impaired so that you may well be unable to make even a short swim back to safety.

Perhaps the most relevant part for cold water swimmers concerns the description of the ‘recovery’ stage.  It is all very well to say “wrap up, do not move, get warm”, but that is a luxury swimmers do not have.  Arriving back on river bank or beach the imperative is to get warm as quickly as possible because the immediate problem is ‘afterdrop’.

After the exertion of swimming for a few moments all seems well, but removed from the water the response of the body is to once more circulate blood from the core back to the extremities that have been experiencing reduced blood flow in order to retain heat in the core.  Now of course cold blood is circulating back into the core and the shivering and discomfort of afterdrop sets in.  There is perhaps barely time from exiting the water until shivering becomes so severe that it becomes a challenge to tie shoe laces.

This is the point at which following the advice in the article one would sit still, drink warm tea and wait the shivers out.  Some people do indeed go in for wrapping up in a swimming robe and/or hugging a hot water bottle or get in their car with the heater going.  My problem with the latter is that all the layers just put on are as effective at keeping warmth out as warmth in.  Besides recovering from the shivers can take an hour and who has that long to sit and warm up?  Whilst driving with the shivers would I imagine be as dangerous as driving whilst drunk.

Therefore there is little choice left in the matter; if sitting still is not an option then getting moving is not a choice it is the only option.  It is my preferred option.  I am not suggesting attempting a half marathon, not wearing all those clothes anyway, but a good stomp certainly gets the warming up process started.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

For local swimmers here in Devon this is a timely discussion.  The temperature of the river water is down almost 5°C on just two weeks ago; 8.5°C yesterday afternoon in the sunshine but only 7.5°C this morning after the frost.  The sea temperature has also started to drop, though it has stayed unseasonably ‘warm’ through October it is now sliding down past 15°C and will probably reach 5-6°C by mid-February.  Meanwhile the river can get to minus figures.  People will keep on swimming though so it is important to separate fact from fiction and focus on the real dangers and not hypothermia which is simply a word most people recognize but few seem to understand.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Loughareema, The Vanishing Lake.

This lake is straddled by the A2 road viaduct, though there was no obvious way by which the 2 sides were connected under the road when I swam, with a small space to park at the east end of the viaduct.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The lake is included in the Geologist Association’s top 100 UK sites because it fills (in as little as a day) and empties rapidly (within a few days) leaving just a deep muddy hole.  Check this link to the Geology Survey Northern Ireland video on YouTube , or this one on the Geology Society web site, or search on-line where you will find pictures showing it empty and quite deep!

In many nearby locations it is apparent that there is a thick chalk bed over-layered with basalt and at the lake itself an additional layer of peat. Whilst the basalt itself is quite waterproof and made more so by the peat it seems the bottom of the lake has hole in it through which the water drains down into the porous chalk.

The road was not always raised on a viaduct and could be flooded for weeks on end. On one occasion in 1898 when it was flooded Colonel John Magee McNeille ordered his coachman to drive through the lake on the line of the road but the coach got off the road and the horses and occupants were lost and now their ghosts apparently haunt the lake.

None of this: ghosts or the chance the water would suddenly vanish, nor the incessant rain, was of course going to put me off swimming the entire circumference of the lake.

The water is dark with peat, very dark, like cola, but not as cold as maybe it might have been given the general lack of sunshine and incessant rain of the past week; necessary factors of course for there to even be a lake.  I set off beneath the island of cairns, each one tipped with a white glint of chalk only reinforcing the impression of dragons teeth.

Cars slow on the road, maybe to look at the lake, maybe to look at the swimmer as somehow I don’t think this sort of thing happens very frequently.  I pretend I am not in a goldfish bowl, but I am in a goldfish bowl there’s no escaping the fact.

There’s a patch of blue sky overhead and the scene brightens for a short while but the sunshine only sweeps the far hillside coming nowhere close and then the gloom lowers again.

Reeds brush my legs.  At this point I have no idea about the geology and history of the lake, maybe just as well, and I have no idea about how much vanishing goes on though the very top flowers of a foxglove just poking through the surface give me some sense of how flooded the lake must be.  The sheep look on disdainfully as I reach ‘the far side’ where one of the streams that feeds water runs in chattering noisily amongst mossy stones.  Extraordinarily I have already been swimming 20 minutes, it is further around than it looks (I find out later that it is over 1/2 a mile).

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is however a swim of 2 very unequal halves and the second half takes less than 15 minutes.  Finally I bump the stones back where I started to find Gerald keeping watch over my towel and the sheep at bay.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It has been a rather wonderful moment that I cannot imagine I will be repeating.

 

Quarries

Quarry swimming possibly sparks more debate in the outdoor swimming community than any other topic apart from wetsuits (wear one, don’t wear one, wear one sometimes but not others, who cares?  Quite a lot of people actually, well they have opinions but whether they care or not is a slightly different thing.)

On the one extreme is the school of thought that says if you swim in a quarry you will surely die.  On the other hand there are those who think that a land (water) owner who puts up a fence and signs to keep you off their property and out of potential harm is infringing their freedom.  Swim and be damned may as well be the second groups motto.

Quarries can be hazardous, who knows what has been dumped in there from wrecked cars to toxic chemicals.  There is a quarry in Derbyshire called the Blue Lagoon which looks lovely but the water has dissolved caustic soda from the land around and it will blister and burn skin.

Quarry water can also be cold.  This may not be so much of a problem for those who swim through winter but it can be unexpected.  The top 18 inches of Left Lake a few days ago was quite pleasant, maybe 15C, but reach down to arms length and there was a sudden temperature thermocline to sub 10C.

Perhaps then the advice should be ‘approach with extra caution’.

I had my eye set on the small granite quarry on Caradon Hill and after a couple of hours walking around the mines in the blazing sun I was set for it.  Then the sound of a swing shovel working drifted down to me and as I crested the rise I could see the sun glinting off the arm.  Approach with double extra caution.  The machine is working down the slope and I can slip through the rocks to the flooded bit without being seen and remain unseen so long as I change amongst the jumble of rocks.  Guerilla swimming.

The water is very clear with a deep blue tint, there does not appear to be much rubbish and there are familiar plants in the shallows.  The quarry is small, barely 20m square but the sides drop away steeply into the blue, it is evidently very deep, I will stay at the surface.  The breeze is caught by the bowl of the rocks and scurries this way and that whipping up ripples that run after the wind, colliding and splashing.  The breeze drops and instantly the surface is like glass.  Then the breeze and ripple return again.

I circle the pool twice in each direction.  Reaching down with my toes there does not seem to be a sharp temperature change which possibly means the water is flowing and is possibly the source of the stream that feeds the mine reservoir further down the hill.

I am drying and having a staring contest with a sheep and completely fail to notice the sound of machinery has changed.  The bulk of the bright yellow dumper rises into view 20m away and I hope that the man driving it is watching where he is going and not looking at what is probably for him the overly familiar scenery.  Against the sun reflecting from the pale rock I am probably quite effective hidden in plain sight.  He drives on, I get dressed , now if anyone comes I can always just claim I was paddling my feet, so long as they don’t notice my dripping wet hair.

Ten minutes later back at the car and I am roasted again.  Three hours later after prowling the airless burning desert of dumped spoil at Phoenix United mine I am melting.  Fortunately Golddiggings Quarry is only 15 minutes walk across the open moor where there is at least a breeze.  The quarry is busy with a bit of a party, several people are jumping from the highest point whilst two others are circling the water in blow up boats.

The water is less clear than at Caradon but still pleasantly warm though the breeze whips up the water in places.  I make a couple of circuits but my days of mad jumps are far behind me now, so it is time to head for home.

Driving along with the windows down my hair is very nearly dry by the time I reach Callington.  On a whim instead of turning for Saltash I head off towards Gunnislake and Kit Hill. There is time for another quarry whilst the sun is shining.

About the same size as Golddiggings, Kit Hill Quarry is however more enclosed and now late in the day about 1/2 is in shade.  This is a popular dog walking place and I can’t help but feel that may have something to do with the grey-greenness of the water.  It is however warmer than either of the others and I do a slow circuit in the dwindling sunshine.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It has been a day of contrast and in 3 weeks I’ll be back this way once again.