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.


A self defeating exercise.

Outdoor swimming has grown in popularity over the last 10 years and this outwardly appears to be a good thing, but I increasingly feel it is a self defeating exercise.  This suspicion has been amplified by recent events at Spitchwick Common on Dartmoor.

In the blue corner, all those who might not otherwise have seen a jellyfish or a kingfisher.

In the red corner, those who arrive with their instant bar-b-cue, cans, bottles and disposable lifestyle and think the beautiful place they just visited will be enhanced if they smash glass into the water, cut branches off the trees, burn the grass and undergrowth and leave their litter when they go home.

Thoughtless people insensitive to the environment and the wildlife and people they share it with are nothing new, indeed ‘smash, grab and trash’ seems to be an appropriate motto for the human race.  What the finish line of this race will look like remains to be seen, but I have an insight.

Yesterday I clambered down the river bank on the way to my swim, picked up the box neatly packed with the plastic and cardboard remains of someone’s day out and lifted it back tot he roadside from where I collected it on my return.  How is it, I constantly wonder, that people take all the packets to the picnic, eat and drink the contents and then find themselves without the strength to carry the empties back to the car?  Or worse still, do carry it back to the car but simply then leave it in a bush or behind a rock in the car park.

I read recently that the scientific name Homo stupidus was once seriously proposed for Neanderthal people.  I think I have identified a far more deserving people for the name.

Countless people have enjoyed a day out at Spitchwick, the main draw being that it is a great place to swim in the river, and yes there has always been some litter and a few fires, but the land is privately owned.  The litter and vandalism of the environment has however become unsustainable.  Car parks have been closed to choke the flow of visitors.  Double yellow lines have been painted on the roads for miles in every direction and a ruthless ticketing policy enforced.  And now the last car park has been closed, the next nearest shrunk in size and CCTV installed.  It no longer looks like a national park but more like a high street.

It seems unlikely to be effective.

I have heard it said that people park on the yellow lines and agree in advance to share the parking fine.  The litter won’t stop but now the roads are impassable too.

I have in the past contacted the park authority and asked why they do not empty the bins at the nearby New Bridge car park which spill over in a stinking mound all through the summer.  They assure me that the cost is too much for them to provide bins and that not providing bins makes people take their rubbish home again.  Looking at the abundant and highly visual evidence to the contrary I have to disagree.  The bins may not be theirs but they don’t know who they do belong to, they tell me.  But they are turning your car park into a rubbish tip, why not phone the contractors number on the side of the bin and ask who does pay the rental and cost of eventual emptying?  They don’t know why they don’t do this.

Ultimately the land owner may resort to a big fence, it is his land, he should not have to be constantly clearing the area and there is no more an open invitation to go and swim there than there is to all and sundry if you put a paddling pool in your back garden.

A fence in turn will simply displace the hordes to the next place and so on and so on.

As with the situation at Stonehenge I can see a time in the not too distant future when the closest you will be able to get to the river over there behind the barbed wire and attack dogs will be to have an interactive virtual wild swim where at the end someone tips a bucket of water over you which contains some crisp packets, a plastic bottle, soggy cardboard, a knotted dog poo bag and if you are going for the deluxe experience some broken glass and one of those razor sharp grilles from a disposable bar-b-cue.

Rather than being a part of and contributing further to this self defeating moment.  I cannot pick up any more litter than I already do so maybe it is time to hand back my goggles and swimwear and throw in the towel.


The Morning Menagerie

The warm weather continues.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

A single day when the temperature gets into the upper 20s Celsius here is notable but we have now had 5 or 6 on the trot and today is set to best those again.  More remarkable is the lack of a breeze.  Geographically speaking the North Atlantic is just over there and then it’s 3000 miles of open water such that weather and wind is the normal order of the day.  But again, the day has dawned breathless.

Walking down the track through the redwoods I startle a squirrel which makes off with that zig-zagging tail flicking run they do to confuse predators and then claws a tattoo staccato on soft  bark and is gone aloft.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The river level is dropping day-by-day, so there is not even the usual chatter of the water to carry through the trees and stepping carefully down the tree roots to the bank the water is even more mirror like than yesterday.  Clearer too, that and I am 15 minutes earlier today so I am catching the sunshine that has not yet swung away from the rope swing, but shafts down into the deepest part of the river, picking out the scoops of golden sand between the dark rocks.  The smooth water slides up my leg as though I am pushing my foot through some sort of membrane.  Lazy concentric circles spread until the reflections begin to bounce back from the bank, colliding and jumbling the surface.

Birds flit and dart, a wagtail skitters down to the stones I have just vacated and jitters nervously almost as if it doesn’t actually want its feet in contact with the ground.  High above a seagull heads up river with a squawk, whilst a pigeon zooms fat breasted over my head away downstream.  The shallows by the rapids are filled with flitting fish.

The gaggle of ducks upstream by the shallows corrals and keeps a distance from my slow progress against the current.  Finally they divide, the 2 males are not in the least bit concerned and seem almost to be asleep just gliding away from me at the last moment.  Meanwhile the mother duck shepherds her flock of 4 well grown young to the far bank beneath an overhanging branch, she stands erect in the water keeping both eyes on me whilst the young are penned, but are otherwise nonchalant.   Close by a dipper stands perfectly still on a stone in the shallows of the splashing river.

The current sweeps me back to the pool where a solitary duckling, younger then the others I have just seen and still with ragged downy feathers, peeps forlornly.  One duckling on its own with no mother is not a good sign but she seems able enough and forages amongst the riverside plants.

Swimming back up to the top of the pool the male ducks still don’t care and mum and ducklings are happy to watch me sweep down in the current once more, this time floating on my back in the dappled sunlight.  Of which there is a lot less now.  Half an hour and the pool is now half in shade and the water is now dark and mysterious.

I have just picked up my towel when there is a splash by the bank nearby and a kingfisher flits onto a tree branch, adjusts its breakfast in its beak and then whirls across the water and into a tree on the far bank.  I continue to drip and watch.  The bird flits down to a log resting in shallow water and then begins an aerial ‘battle’ with a second, each darting from its perch to displace the other only in turn to be displaced.  They go round and round for a few moments and then shoot away downstream.

And so the day begins, heralded in by the 8 o’clock clanging of the church bell as I walk back to the car.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


From Dawn ’til Dusk

So no vampires then.

It’s 4:30 in the morning, it has been light for half an hour but under the trees shadows still lurk on the edge of vision.  And again there is not a hint of breeze.  We join the group who bivvied on the beach as the horizon assumes a hazy orange glow.  The waves are sweeping softly over the high tide line belying the deeper swell that makes the 5 Knot buoy bob and nod further out.  We ride the swell as the sun clears the horizon filling each face with summer warmth and promise.

We swim back in as the sun rises higher making noticeable progress minute by minute, there is a lot of sky to cover today.  Climbing back up the hill the shadows have fled away from beneath the tress, it is just 6 o’clock.

The first day of summer is a scorcher as the camper van creeps up the motorway then onto major roads and minor roads through the Brecon Beacons, across the heart of Wales.  The route picks up the River Wye and follows it back up into the hills until crossing over at Eisteddfa Gurig from where I can almost see the sea.  It is an extraordinary twist of geological fate that send the river instead half the length of Wales east to the Severn 100 miles back the way I just came.

It is much later in the day when I pull the camper onto the roadside at Borth.

The heat is already draining from the day as a slight breeze stutters over the pebbles and sand.  The sun is now creeping down to the horizon off this seeming endless stretch of beach as I throw off my t-shirt onto my towel and wade out through the surf almost reaching the sunset before there is sufficient water in which to swim.

The sun creeps lower, casting golden tints across the water, its progress seems far slower than its earlier ascent, reluctant perhaps to give way to a brief darkness, a darkness that is now on the ascendant from here to December when there might again be vampires, but for now there is only the summer.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

A Susurration of Swimmers

It has been a sweltering day and I am very much looking forward to a swim.

I have also been asking around but no-one locally has any knowledge about swimming the Tamar at Gunnislake Bridge and yet it appears as though there is nearly a mile of water held back by the weir.

It is time then to go and take a look.

The first mistake was to park at the Gunnislake end of the bridge and then walk down the riverside path.  it is a pleasant walk, cool under the trees without a hint of breeze.  The water smells of river and drifts by so slowly, limpid in the heat, dull, olive green.  There is however only one place to reach the water where the bank has been worn down, but it is thick oozing mud and there is nowhere to hide my bag out of sight.  I have spent 20 minutes on this so far and the opposite bank looks even less accessible.  Hmmm.

I remembered however that there is a track on the Tavistock side that follows the bank upstream.  Dodging the cars to cross the bridge it turns out that there is plenty of parking space this side and the track is level and wide ending at a large parking place, with, a set of concrete steps and a hand rail down to the water.

Two people paddleboarding are stopped at the foot of the steps.  I had seen them earlier coming upriver so we talk about paddleboards and what the river is like down below the bridge as it is so late now that will be as far as I get.  The water is surprisingly warm, warmer than the sea or the Dart and despite the colour the water is clearer than it looked.

The real surprise is that the water is very shallow.  I’d swum half way to the bridge and softly nudged two obstructions when I decided to let my feet trail, which in turn resulted in me stood only bum deep right out in the middle.  Several more ‘touchdowns’ proved this was the case all the way to the bridge.

It is on the return swim, pushing gently into the current, the sound of cars on the bridge fading to nothing as the bridge is obscured by the slight bend that I am struck by the notion of a susurration of swimmers.  It is a word favoured by Terry Pratchett in the later Discworld novels, the sound of gently breeze through stems of grass or in this cases the swirl of water around me.  Even when I take a pause there is still a faint sound from the water, which seems to be barely moving, yet is sliding amongst the reed stems and twigs trailing from branches that obscure the bank.  Or maybe it is the sound of the water flowing amongst the stones on the river bed.  It may be out of sight but surely it must make some sound after all it does where it runs through stones in a rapids.

The girl is sitdown paddleboarding now, spinning around on the water waiting for her partner to give a hand up the steps with her board.  In the lowering, late evening sunshine it paints an idyllic picture and there is the soft susurration of water beneath her board.

There is time to dwell on such inconsequentia when susurrating in the river.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Rose Geranium Oil

Following on from my post about Ticks (the crawly kind):

Since spraying with eucalyptus and citronella mix I have had only 3 hitch-hikers and they have not dug in but have all looked a bit dazed.

I now have rose geranium oil and does it ever stink, I’m quite dazed.

I have this plan to go and stand in some long grass, collect a few ticks then waft some of this at them and see what happens.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall