On the beach beneath the high cliffs the air is almost completely still and when the sun breaks fitfully through the clouds the temperature rockets and then crashes as the cloud sweeps in again. The headland shelters the beach, but out there where the rocks poke through the surface an occasional white topping of foam gives a hint that elsewhere there is a bit of a swell.
I find Long Sands a fascinating beach, always changing. Today it lives up to its name a full sweep of sand except at the far end when the surface is a jumble of flat rock slabs. But at other times the sand can vanish completely exposing the smoothed bed rock or the beach can become an endless field of hard pebbles. And the beach level rises and falls. There is a little crevice in the rock where I have sometimes tucked driftwood or finds when I’ve had too much to carry. Sometimes it is above head height, other times at knee height.
I wade into the still, clear water over sand that feels spongy beneath my feet and set off towards the rocks at the end of the headland. As I approach I begin to sense the rise and fall of the swell and I can see into Scabbacombe Beach and the other way up the coast the headland that shelters Mansands. I head that way and then back in. It has been little more than a 10 minute dip but sometimes that’s enough and now I can sit in the sunshine and brush the sand from between my toes in complete isolation.
In summer when the temperature all around is higher I don’t mind setting off to swim at sunrise, but in winter when it’s 6°C in the water and there’s frost on the beach I am less keen. And this has been a very drawn out winter. But the clocks changed last night to summer time moving the hour on by one and with sunrise effectively jumping forward too I’m down at the beach just a little after sunrise. Sadly however the clouds have formed a grey and even blanket overhead.
I swim out in the flat calm water as the clouds brighten little by little. This is a dramatic coast of cherry red cliffs, caves and clear green-blue water when the sun shines but right now it is as limpid as damp newspaper. I’m far enough out that I can see into the next bay, drifting that way towards the headland on the off chance that there may be something that needs to be salvaged but the beach is a clean sweep of dove grey pebbles and on that note I head back in, now forcing my way against the current until I’m in the lee of the other headland.
My feet have barely touched the beach when sunlight breaks across the beach as the sun lifts above the distant receding clouds. It would have been nice if it had happen 20 minutes ago but now is just perfect, I’m cold and it is amazing how much warmth there is in this early spring, early morning sun, I’m happy with that.
Summer is coming, but to be honest though it is the equinox and first day of spring in these parts tomorrow you could be forgiven for thinking this is still mid-winter. We don’t get much snow in South-West England, well not in recent years anyway and it is possibly as much as 40 years since there has been snow on this scale locally. Then twice in 2 weeks, but I am not complaining.
I have long harboured a whimsical notion of swimming at Sharrah Pool on the moorland section of the River Dart when there is snow on the ground. The problem has been not only a lack of snow but, as 3 years ago when there has been snow, by the time my pathetic car will tackle the roads the warmth in the river has seen off the snow in the valley. These conditions are however perfect for whilst there is 12 inches of snow in a “deep and crisp and even” layer across my garden it didn’t properly settled on the roads and I get to the New Bridge car park without difficulty. Nevertheless as I rush along the riverside track as fast as possible given the abundant photo opportunities and following a solitary set of footprints all around there is a steady drip, drip of thawing winter.
Turning from the track onto the side path I have that joy of making the first footsteps in virgin snow and I know I’m grinning like an idiot and I’m photographing every twist and turn of a path that I have taken 100s of times in the past as if it was my very first outing.
Yes! The footprints I rejoined on the track have got to Sharrah but then for some inexplicable (but much appreciated) reason gone off through the trees. The river bank is pristine. And the day is improving second by second as the holes in the clouds over head coalesce into gaps, into rents and then it is blue sky all the way, just dotted with the fluffiest white clouds. I’m photographing everything with 2 cameras just in case.
Careful not to make tracks I dunk the thermometer into the river as I get changed. It nudges up from an air temperature of -1.7°C to 3.7°C in the water, this is going to be a full on polar bear swim. A few selfies on the big diving rock whilst trying not to slip off, which would hurt a lot, and then I wade into the water. There is clearly something very wrong with anyone who wades into water this cold and thinks ‘oh, that’s not so bad’.
I am now using camera number 3, taking advantage of the wide angle perspective and I tread water repeatedly as I swim up the pool to the swoosh. The river is moderately high and the swoosh is swooshier than usual. I feel for the rock I know is there under the churning bubbles, pause, click, click, click, and then I launch myself into the flow.
It is a well known fact that people have just about neutral buoyancy in fresh water, but when a substantial part of the water has been replaced by bubbles that no longer applies. I vanish under the ‘surface’ (it’s hard to be exactly sure where the water filled with bubbles becomes air filled with splashed water) and of course lifting my arm holding the camera up high to get a record of this madness only serves to lower me further under the water. With my free arm I push myself around the corner, not wanting to get caught beneath the overhang, and then I am shot down the pool and back to where I started, not so much swimming as ‘floating with style’. I ‘float’ on down to the shallows, click, click, click and then swim back to the diving rock (not today). I dash through the snow, switch cameras and I’m back in the water to do the whole thing over again.
Now I stumble from the water. The chill has caught up with me but only in my left hand which is as painful as a very painful thing indeed. I’m grinding my teeth as I strip and dry (ankle deep in the snow) and then begin to fight my way damply into layers of clothes. My left hand is as good as useless, why did I wear a shirt with buttons? The hell with the buttons! Layers, put on more layers: fleece, scarf and hat. Well that’s the top end covered up and I’m sure anyone watching would find that very amusing.
Finally, but my hands are refusing to cooperate and tying the laces of my boots takes 3 attempts for each foot, which is frustrating when I know what I need to be doing is getting going and warming up. But even when I’m finally ready to go I can’t help myself and progress is again punctuated: click, click, click.
I don’t actually notice when the shivering stops but I am exactly half way back to the car when all of a sudden my hands warm up, a moment that is almost but not quite the best part of the whole outing. And tomorrow it’s spring. Hmm, we shall see.
Two organized mass beach cleans and no doubt countless 2 minute beach cleans have almost cleared Elberry Beach of the wreckage from the destroyed kiosk at Shoalstone Pool and the devastated conservatory of the Breakwater Bistro. And now the large piles of bin bags and general waste are being hauled away bit by bit, day by day. That leaves just a remodeled beach, several piles of scrap wood and a couple of tree trunks, and I have intentions towards some of that, which is in part why I am back.
Today the beach is also sheltered form the wicked chill breeze, well mostly, it is in the far corner where I am getting changed anyway and I’m in the sunshine too. I swam here yesterday and the sea was quite calm but there was nowhere out of the breeze and no sunshine either. No surprise then that I am here to take full advantage of the change of fortunes.
In the way that it happens my eyes begin to tune in to the glass fragments amongst the pebbles as I am changing and the broken bucket I picked up starts to fill: clink, clink, clink. The more you look the more you see in green, brown and ‘clear’, some frosted, some fresh faced with sharp edges. I have picked up sea glass here before but this is madness and I begin to wonder what storm process brought so much to the surface of the beach. I also wonder how soon it will be before I tread on a sharp bit.
I am glad then to be buoyed up by the aquamarine water, but it feels considerably colder than yesterday despite the sunshine or maybe that’s it, the contrast with the warm beach simply makes the water feel colder. I have gone no more than ½ way along the beach than the first walker stops to stare.
I zig-zag back and forth along the beach twice, it takes a little over 20 minutes to cover about 700m with progress slowed by the photo opportunities offered by such a perfect setting. Yesterday I swam further out and did 500m but at a substantially faster rate. Today though I now have 2 fan clubs, one gathered on and around the bench on the headland, the other sat on the pebbles.
I stagger back up the beach with the small rounded stones digging painfully into my numbed feet. I’m also cold and strip off disregarding the fan club. I’m the same pink shade as a boiled lobster and shivering like a leaf, it’s not a pretty sight but both times I shoot a glance at my fan club the woman is watching me right back. God knows why, it cannot be a pretty sight as I fight my damp clammy skin into clingy clothes. But then I’m done.
I hoist a length of wood onto one shoulder and grab the bucket with it’s collection of glass and general litter in the other and stamp my warming way back to the car.
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.
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.
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.
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?’.
It’s hard enough to get to that most people simply do not bother, even in summer with 2 huge holiday camps within a 20 minute walk people simply do not bother. On the other hand it’s not that hard to get to and I can be here in about 15 minutes from work. Park at the top and run down the steps, though as they are nearly vertical that is probably enough to put a lot of people off.
The beach changes. Sometimes it is a wide sweep of sand, though there are always more pebbles at the Brixham end. The pebbles come in pure frosted white quartz, or patterned with green or red. Others are grey-green and often show fossils. Some are rust red with iron minerals and others are dove grey and can be whole fossil corals. On some tides though the sand vanishes leaving sweeping fluted bedrock or jumbled rocks with hidden treasure if you know where to look; one lunchtime I picked up about 40 coins from old pennies through sixpences, a thrupence and on to recent decimal coins.
One of the principal qualities are the high cliffs that box it in on three sides so that on most days when the sea elsewhere may be getting kicked into a fierce chop by the wind, one end or other of St Mary’s will be nearly calm.
Today is a day of sand which moulds softly to the print of my feet and is slightly warm in the late winter sunshine. There is only a slight breeze at beach level and the water is flat calm.
I wade out until the water is to the top of my thighs and then launch into the blue sea. Cold water acclimatization I believe is 50% mental preparation and I tell myself the sea is not cold. It is a blatant lie.
I swim lazily out to Mussel Rock and swing around the seaward side giving it a wide berth as I know there are some sharply barnacled rocks in places and the water is not clear enough to see them clearly. This is only a quick dip though and I swim back in until I am amongst the wavelets and my feet brush the sand with each kick.
A quick dash up the beach, dress and rinse the sand from my toes in the little stream and I can be back at work before anyone notices I’ve been out for lunch.
The easterly breezes have persisted and strengthened and any thoughts of getting to the sea for a swim are no more than flights of fancy. Bob, bounce or even frolic maybe, but swim, not a chance. Frustratingly then the skies are clear and blue and the sunshine pleasantly warm.
The westerly facing coasts should however be relatively sheltered and as I have not done much to expand my Wild Swimming Devon & Cornwall map of late so I’m on a road trip to Bude.
It must be 25 years at least since I was last in Bude but little has changed more than superficially. The tree at the bottom of the high street is taller and the ‘tat’ in the shops is ‘tattier’. But it’s true.
It’s about high tide at the pool and waves periodically wash over the wall with an occasional larger one flinging over a fountain of spray. And the changing place on the edge of the pool is almost entirely sheltered from the wind, whilst being in full sunshine. My plan has clearly paid off.
I slip and slide down the concrete slope until I reach knee depth water and feel sand and pebbles under my toes. The thermometer said 7°C, well in the sunshine and in the shallows maybe but it is colder than that and chatting with Lizzie one of the local swimmers afterwards she says 5°. I’m going with 5 as I set off energetically towards the far end of the pool and by the time I reach the end I have hardened to it.
Six lengths and about 500m however are quite enough and I nip out to grab the camera as the waves have got much bigger. A couple slosh curtains of water into the pool from off the flat top of the wall and then the one I’m waiting for bursts over the wall in a wave of white foam which sizzles across the pool and swamps me. Bobbing about in the water not swimming has got me chilled. I get dressed but then continue to faff about taking photos until my hands shake uncontrollably and my fingertips are numb.
It is only a 15 minute drive to Widemouth Bay. Here the waves are crashing on the beach in long lines of surf with their crests thrown back in streaming veils by the offshore breeze. There is no shelter here so I change in the van, throw my hoodie over the top and walk barefoot to the tideline. There are a few surfers but I am the only swimmer. However, there is no real chance of swimming each wave knocks me off my feet and all I can manage is a half dozen strokes between each wave. Even ducking under the breaking waves does not move me forward and chilled once more after 15 minutes I retire to the comfort of a fresh dry towel and the relative warmth of the van.
I’ll have to take a look at the map back home and pick out some more north coast swim spots as that has been far too uch fun not to do it again soon.