It’s 7am and the first spots of rain dabbed me as I set off running along the seawall. Out of nowhere came the wind as I climbed the steps at the far end, buffeting me sideways, rattling through the grasses and snaking the fallen leaves along the road and into the gutters. The trees above roared as if echoing the breaking waves on the rocks below. The grey road became darker with patches of wet flowing together from the open road, a tide inexorably rising into the sheltered dry ground.
Along the footpath the exposed stones polished by the passage of countless feet became slick and the wet leaves slid beneath my feet. Then emerging onto Long Meadow I am slapped in the face by rain driven in cascades that assault me left, right and most of all centre.
Back at the sea front and it is almost impossible to run, the wind has whipped up the already choppy sea and now sends it in veils of spray that climb the sea wall and burst into clouds of mist across the road.
The slipway is a frenzy of waves and no place to go for a swim. Beneath the beach huts along the promenade the sea is calmer but nevertheless it jumps in peaks and troughs. Slipping below the surface all sound is cut away and lying on the submerged beach sand and looking up the surface has a shattered windscreen crazed glass look in shades of grey and silver to which I am slowly rising. After 20 minutes of bobbing and diving the steps call me back and a timely wave boosts me out of the chop and up out of the reach of the surge.
If the forecast is right the sun should shine through later and maybe I’ll come and play again.
It’s just getting around to 6:30am and you might expect the beach to be deserted, and except for a chap fishing it is. The cliffs behind however are lined with people with cameras poised. And I am not exaggerating when I say lined, a dozen or more. And I’m about to get in the way of their photos. Maybe they want some scale. Besides you can get a photo of the empty sea any morning, I’m doing them a service as it takes a special sort of idiot to go swimming this early even if it’s 10 degrees warmer in the sea than on the beach.
There’s quite a swell and the fine shingle on the deceptively steep shore slips and slides so that entering the sea involves a great deal of arm waving for balance followed by a splash as the inevitable happens. The shingle quickly levels off and 10 feet from the beach it gives way to sand in about a 10 foot depth of water.
The swell carries me through the arch and I toy briefly with the idea of swimming around to the shelter of Man o’ War Cove and then walking back over the low divide but I do want to see the sun on the arch so instead I swim in a zig-zag to the rock called The Bull which is already sunlit.
But it simply is not going to happen. The sun rises but simultaneously creeps southward and by a trick of alignment the rock remains in shade. The photographers on the cliff drift away but from water level it is a stunning sight so I swim through it one more time before stumbling and falling back up the shingle. No-one said swimming had to be elegant.
The view of Meadfoot Beach on my Google Earth looks as though a crazed spider has been let loose with a marker pen. This may submit to a rational if not necessarily worthwhile explanation which is that I have been triangulating the 5knot buoys and I think I have them fairly well pinpointed. I am now fairly confident that my swim route is just a little under 1 mile.
On the other hand the Galley Sandwich Bar buoy which does not look so far away until of course you try to swim out to it, is much further than I had imagined.
I decided not to swim out that far this morning but just to tackle the 5knot buoys, as once out of the meagre shelter of Triangle Rock the sea was fairly bouncy and the current running fairly fast. Besides there was then an enormous roaring coming up behind me and one of the local fishing boats went tearing past heading that way. It is at times like that when having a bright tow float is very reassuring.
The chequered pattern of days replays over with the mornings still and grey over the leaden flat sea contrasting sharply with the chop and change of brighter breezy evenings.
The water streams with lines of bootlace weed twisting into braids of deadmen’s rope or lying in mats on the surface that tangle around hands or feet, or slide with mucosal slickness about neck and shoulders.
Sinking down where kelp fronds wave over clear sandy spaces and the light rides the spectrum into shades of blue whilst the waves flicker the light in lightening bolt zig-zags. But the sun is falling fast behind the darkly silhouetted pines and the shade in an instant blots the sea and it’s game over for another day.
It has been announced: summer has officially ended and this is the hole where it is draining out.
The camper vans that nightly populated the sea front 2 weeks ago by the dozen or more have been whittled down to just 3 and the parking place that would be jammed with cars is once more deserted. There are no joggers and whilst the sea may be flat calm and there is only a whisper of breeze there’s not a paddleboard in sight and the surface is unruffled by swimmers. After the daily jostle of recent weeks once more it is just me and the languid sea.
The rain I drove through has not reached here yet but the horizon all around is misted, it is coming, and beyond Thatcher Rock golden showers hang in folded sheets against the sunlight.
Drizzle sweeps over me at the 2nd 5knot buoy giving the sea ahead of me a silvery patina, whilst over my shoulder Shag Rock is dabbed with a light that sucks away the colour before returning the drab carcass back to the sea.
Upon my return the beachfront is still all but deserted save for a red shirted runner with blond hair flicking and but for my own footprints the sand is pristine; no one has troubled the sea. Summer called early this year.
Some moments can never be recaptured and such was the cloud blotted sunrise that followed me on my swim out round Thatcher Rock this morning. Had it been a clear sky then it would have undoubtedly been warmer, but the light warmed the sky and laid quicksilver magic on the sea.
An hour of pushing into the current was a good workout but the novelty had worn off long before the distance was swum.
A useful definition of ‘wild swimming’ might be that there should be no-one on hand to sell you an ice cream.
I saw someone asking this morning if they could join in the ‘wild’ swimming group that meets at the local seafront most mornings. There are steps, handrails, you have to pay to park on the road nearby and there is a cafe that will sell you an ice cream. Does that sound wild to you? Me neither.
There are of course exceptions.
The 3 swans paddling in the shallow clear water where the incoming tide slowly floods the beach of rust red sand raise their heads in turn but are otherwise unconcerned by my early morning intrusion. I swim away from the beach under the gaze of half a dozen early breakfast diners stood on the terrace of the hotel. It’s true that there’s no-one trying to sell me ice cream, but it is 7am. This seems to be an exception to the wild swimming definition which is only reinforced by the 2 way stream of cars and buses on the road along the sea wall.
20 minutes later though and I am way out beyond the 5knot buoy pushing through a greasy sea towards the harbour wall. It’s 3/4 of a mile each way and I’m sure a few people would find that quite wild.
The tide has risen and covered the lowest 2 steps back at the beach, the swans remain unconcerned and the sum is just pushing through the clouds. But still no sign of ice cream. It’s more of a guideline than a rule.