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.



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.




Red Lake is far Away

It is 3 miles as near, or far, as makes no difference from the car parking place at Lud Gate to Red Lake.  Not so far until you factor in the three hillsides to climb and the rough nature of the ground underfoot.  There was a time I could run it non-stop, not any more.  I shall instead use ‘stopping to take a photo’ as a feeble excuse for ‘I’m going to die’.

The open moor is only just waking up to spring.  A few bluebells are showing in the hedges at Lud Gate whereas in the woods near home they form a blue carpet and have done so for a week or more.  Down at Holne Bridge the first hawthorn (may) flower was out two weeks ago but as I pass the last hawthorn on the edge of the open moor it is only showing its first green leaf tips.  The grass underfoot has gone past brown and dessicated and is now bleached and crumbling and the ground is parched and dry, well dry in a Dartmoor sense, in other words I have not yet gone knee deep in peaty mud in the first 100m of open moorland.

Along the way I make a little diversion to the top of Puper’s Hill to take in the view, then down to Huntingdon Warren where the daffodils are still in bloom and up to the Mound of Sinners, on to Broad Falls and thence Red Lake.

It was going so well, but there is no approach to Red Lake from this side that does not involve a long diversion or wet feet.  I have wet feet.  So close.  I have also stumbled upon the dead sheep which had alerted me to its presence 100 yards away.

The lake is a disused china clay pit which by all accounts never made any money.  I am not surprised.  The cost of the tramway alone, which snakes down the moor 6 miles to Harford nearly on the level and then steeply down to Ivybridge must have been exorbitant.  However, what I imagine most people don’t see is the line of the porcelain pipe down which the china clay slurry was sent.  It is clear to see in some places such as where it crosses a small tin streaming works on an aqueduct but for most of the rest of the way it is simply marked by a run of standing stones.  It too must have cost a fortune.

It is widely held that the lake is contaminated with arsenic which was extensively mined in Devon and Cornwall during the early part of the 20th century.   The water however is alive with fish and tadpoles and they live and drink it all day long and it doesn’t seem be doing them much harm, but it is probably as well not to drink the water.  That probably equally goes for any river downstream of a town where the pollution from vehicle exhausts lies in the gutters until being swept into the river by rain. Right about now after weeks with no rain that will make the lower stretches of the River Dart fairly nasty when the rain finally comes.

The water is chilly but not cold.  I enter form the west side under the bank which cuts out the chill breeze, but here the bottom is marshy rather than sandy and bubbles of gas burst foetidly as I wade in.  It is about 400m around the edge if you swim close in to the shore, but today I content myself with heading out into the middle kicking and splashing at the tea stained water, it never really clears, February or July, always dark and peaty.

There is something about the emptiness of this place that would perhaps not be to everyone’s liking.  There is the hurried lap, lap, lap of wavelets driven by the breeze against the stones, the sound carries around the sunken bowl like a faltering heartbeat and the breeze soughs through the grass in a final death rattle.  Floating out here in the middle of this forsaken lake is either like dying or being born, for is it not written “All things come to those who wait.”*

Suddenly the sky is full of swallows, sweeping, ducking and weaving and there is that heartbeat again.

I could head back the way I came or I could follow the tram way to where it is crossed by the Abbot’s Way, then down to the clapper bridge and around the hill and back.  However, from the top of the volcano I have a clear view of Ryder’s Hill a mile and a half away over fairly level moorland and once there I can take the ridge back to Snowdon and skirt Pupers Hill to get back.  It is a long way but it is ‘level’ or at least mostly in my favour.

Downhill it may be but I am very glad to see the car again and I am splattered with mud once again.  There is nothing for it, I will have to stop at Holne Weir on the way home.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


*The Way of Mrs Cosmopilite, 3 Quirm Street ,  Ankh Morpork.