Stalker

I have not swum from Petit Tor Beach for probably 18 months.  Whilst it is a lovely little beach of white limestone pebbles it is quite a way to walk and something of an effort down the very slippery path.  The additional appeal for me it that it collects driftwood.  I have stowed my bow saw and I am not disappointed by the 10m long branchless, slender tree trunk that has been wedged between the rocks at the high water mark.

The major downside to the beach is that it attracts naturists and as I step out on the beach there is a man in the altogether having a swim.  That in itself is not a problem and in itself the fact that he then stands there full frontal watching me for the entire time it takes me to get changed and then pick my way down over the stones and get out past the breaking waves is also not a problem.  So long as he keeps his distance.  It is only as I turn and look back from the water that I realize I have another watcher.

In the usual way I have dumped my bag, towel, boots and clothes on the beach.  I work on the principal that if people can see the contents of your bag they are unlikely to walk off with it on the off chance.  Where I have gone wrong today is that my car key is not hidden away under a rock or behind a clump of grass but is still in my bag.  If the bag goes then I have a problem.  It is too late now.  Psychologically though I have the feeling that if two people see a bag that clearly belongs to a 3rd person then either would have to be pretty bold to simply walk over, pick it up and walk off with it.  Whereas in a crowd no-one knows whose is what and that security blanket is ripped away.  In this case there is no safety in numbers.  Ah well, worse things happen at sea.  But I am at sea!

The sun is shining strongly and it is a very warm autumn day, but then the high headland cuts out the sunshine as I swim around to the Gentlemen’s Bathing Place and by the time I clear the headland a band of thin cloud is beginning to pass hazily in front of the sun.  I swim out further but the cloud is creeping forward faster and I am not going to regain the sunshine and now it is becoming chilly.  From way out here though I can see that ‘Watcher No2’ is now leaving the beach and he walks straight by my bag.  Disconcertingly that leaves ‘Watcher No1’ who is also dressing but slowly and is also clearly watching me.  He walks slowly across the beach stopping every ten paces or so to watch me.  I am getting a bit pissed off actually.  Do I swim in and tell him to ‘go away’ or do I string it out and hope he just goes away?

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

He is not going but stands and watches me swim in and pick my way over the pebbles back to my towel.  Eventually, and I do mean eventually, he turns his back and walks off.  I do appreciate I bring this sort of thing on myself, long hair, women’s swimsuit, people make assumptions and people do take a second glance, but this is so far beyond that.  In addition today after the insanity that was last night’s Vegas evening, where in one sketch I was a bride and in the next Lola the showgirl from the song Copacabana, I have bright red painted fingernails and toenails.  Not that those should be visible from a distance.  Why at no point did it occur to me that if I was buying nail polish then remover would be a good idea as maybe there would be none in the house?  Sometimes the hamster falls asleep on the wheel.

It is true though that you can feel when you are being watched and if it is a sixth sense then mine is well tuned.  I turn my head on the pretext of drying my hair and he is still there.  He’s not easy to spot, but there he is just at the point where the footpath starts under the trees, slightly obscured by bushes, but still there and still staring at me.  Has he really not figured yet that he is not going to get a flash of breasts, or is he looking out for something different?  Does he not get that if I were a woman I would certainly never go to this beach by myself right from the get go?  This is creepy and it has spoilt my afternoon.  I turn and stare back and like someone with a guilty conscience he immediately turns and leaves.

Am I still feeling paranoid?  Yes I am.  However, making any sort of sudden approach across these stones is not going to happen and it would take me only a second to grab the saw from my bag and having accidentally nicked myself with it any number of times I suspect it would appear an effective deterrent.

In the meantime I shall cut a length off the tree trunk and give my stalker plenty of time to be somewhere else.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Sidmouth

The carnival float has been derailed, almost literally.  We were ¾ of the way to Sidmouth to hitch it up for the carnival parade when we got a call to tell us the tow hitch was bent and beyond use.  Gathered around the wounded float we all agreed rather glumly that we were going nowhere, but that as we were there we may as well sit in and watch the parade for a change as obviously if you are in it you see only the back and of the float in front.

Leaving the rest of the team to buy their supper from a place that may eventually give them all a further lasting memory of the evening I headed down to the seafront.

It was well past sunset and the low clouds were ushering in an early dusk.  The sea was bumpy but not all that much so and the street lights glanced off the waves crests before they burst foaming on the steeply banked pebbles.  Finding a little spot out of the breeze I changed quickly and picked my way carefully over the uneven pebbles as the waves tried to push me off my feet.  The beach shelves steeply however and in a few steps I am off and swimming.  Swimming in a very loose sense of the word, bouncing up and down in the swell is more the thing.

Darkness is however setting in quite noticeably with the lights along the seafront shining out ever more brightly which in turn only enhances the dark shadows on the beach.  I was unsure when the new swimming bag arrived that the bright colours were such a good idea, however, after only a few minutes when it is time to head back in the bag positively glows like a beacon on the otherwise featureless beach, it looks like it was a smart move now.

Dried and dressed in double quick time I climb back up the steps where I am met by a woman who has been watching.

“Does it take long to get acclimatized?” she asks.

“Well, I swim all year so it just happens.” I tell her.  Anyway, what does she mean ‘acclimatized’?  It is 18C in there, the thing I most have to worry about is getting too warm.  Maybe that’s what she meant.  No, I don’t think so either.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Seven Ps

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It seems that every day it gets a little tougher to keep on swimming in the river.  The sunrises last week were phenomenal and both yesterday and today I am sure they would have equally spectacular if the fierce red-orange glow stream in my windows at 7am was anything to go by.  However, every day the thermometer nudges down and whilst I would like to think I can acclimatize I know I cannot; I have never been a cold weather person.  It drifted from 11.8C to 11.5C over just 48 hours and at that rate it would have slipped past 11C this morning.  Shivering fit to bust makes me feel distinctly queasy.  Consequently both yesterday and today I have taken to the sea.

Whilst not only being (relatively) warmer at about 16C and therefore quite tolerable, the sea also offers up the possibility of longer swims without the up-and-back offered by a 250m long pool in the river.  On the flip side there are currents, tides and the wind direction to consider as well as the relative risk of being far from the shore and any sort of help.  Proper Pre-Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, or the 7 Ps, is therefore a key watch phrase.

Yesterday I took myself down to Mansands where the currents in the bay are minimal at any state of the tide which is one hazard crossed from the list.  The wind was light and northerly so the sea is sheltered under the high cliffs, item two crossed off.  Being far from the shore I will just have to deal with, though actually the shallow dish of the bay means that from point to point it may be 1/2 a mile but from swim to shore is never more than 0.2 miles.  Aside from the pure drudgery of the seemingly unending swim back along the rocky coast it was a care free 1.3 miles.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

St Mary’s Bay is not the same.  For starters the currents are downright perverse and twist and turn around the bay changing from left to right and back again within a few hundred metres.  The swim from beach to Durl Head offers no escape to the shore which is vertical cliffs in most places rising straight from the water.  Then at the mid point of the crossing from headland to headland you are as much as 0.4 miles from shore.  This is an altogether more challenging experience.

I am standing thigh deep in the water just off the beach.  The sea is relatively calm but I know that at low tide the current will generally run north to south.  If I swim out to Durl Head then I will be head on into it, but if I swim across from Sharkham Point in the open water there will be a lot more of it.  The fly in the ointment is the breeze.  It is light but contrary to the forecast it is south-easterly and not northerly.  Had it been northerly I would have both wind and current at my back for the crossing to Sharkham Point.  As it is I will have both wind and the fetch on the waves in my face if I swim south or the current in my face if I swim north.  I am more wary of the current.

I am half way from beach to Durl Head when the current kicks in.  I am keeping a relatively straight course heading for the nick where the rock is separated by a few metres of water from the land, but it is quite clear that I am swimming in a crabwise fashion with my feet pushed to my right.  Of course I could be imagining it except that every now and then a little piece of flotsam crosses my path from left to right at a disturbing pace. That would be disconcerting but for the fact that this is not my first time swimming this course and I am expecting it to be a bit strange.  It is 900m (a little over 1/2 a mile) from beach to rock and it is only in the last 100m that the current is shifted by the rock.  However, now as I turn south I have both current and wind in my face.

It is 300m from the rock to the 5 Knot buoy and this is the challenging bit with the constant slap-slap of wavelets into my face.  My goggles are tucked in my swimwear and I am seriously considering putting them on as I pass the yellow buoy except that ahead of me I can see calmer water.  Nevertheless it is another 200m until there is a marked change in the sea and in the distance of 50m the sea flattens even though it is a further 500m to the headland.  Just off the headland things are very different and I can see a sharp dark line across the water, glittering above and flecked with white where the full current runs headlong into the fetch of the waves and the water tumbles over and over, I am well out of that.

The final 200m in the lee of the headland and the water surface is like glass. Only now with the surface so even can I look down and appreciate how clear the sea is.  Below me are brown kelp covered rocks separated by clear patches of sand and the water has a truly aquamarine tint to it.  Along the shore then across the bay again just seaward of Mussel Rock where two ill placed lobster pots have been left high and dry by the tide.  In the dead calm water I am able to really put some effort into my stroke, reaching out with long firm pulls of my arms I am fairly hurtling past the rock.

Now however I must keep a course parallel to the beach as there are lots of submerged, barnacle covered, skin lacerating rocks just beneath the surface.  I keep on until I am once again directly off shore of my bag and towel before turning in as I know there is a sand filled channel right in to the beach here.  The water is no longer clear but full of sand but the temperature jumps noticeably and then I am touching the bottom in little more than knee deep water.  In all that was 1.4 miles or 2.3km in a fraction under 50 minutes, which I think was pretty fair going.

Tomorrow the wind changes to southerly and I am already planning to swim at Elberry Cove which will have about the only shelter.  The river will have to wait.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

“Why? It’s September!”

The prospect did not to be honest look too great as we pulled up in the lee of the sea wall at Seaton.  Beyond the wall the pebbles were raised in two steep waves down to grey choppy sea.  50m out to sea a yellow buoy bobbed and tossed whilst away to the left another with a flag atop lurched and waved against the fading sky.  The wind blew smartly south-westerly up the beach.

After the carnival float was set up and as much time as could be spent had been on looking at the other floats of which there were disappointingly few there was the inevitable lull.

The pebbles scrunched as I walked to the sea.  The waves ran at a slight oblique angle right to left sweeping along the beach creating a slight but irrelevant current to one side.  I weighed my towel down on top my bag with a large stone, which I regard as a universal sign ‘this bag has not been forgotten, someone is out there swimming however unlikely that seems’, and waded into the clear grey-green water.

Compared to the 13.1C temperature of the river at 8 this morning this was almost tropical.  15C is a tipping point in my life both for running and swimming, below that it is cool, above and I begin to overheat, especially when running.  There does not seem to be much chance of overheating this evening but it is still luxuriously warm.

25m off the beach I swim against the chop parallel to the seafront to the row of beach huts.  The floats along the sea wall light the scene and create a cacophony of conflicting musics each calling ‘pick me, pick me’ to the judges.

It was always my intention to swim out to the sea tossed buoy but from here I can swim parallel to the chop of the waves rather than face on into them.  Mad, but not stupid.  The buoy is quickly reached and out here the current is stronger.  I don’t want to get too close as there is always a danger of trailing debris caught around the chain and having to be rescued might provide entertainment for those on shore but let’s not shall we.  The current however is pushing me onto it so I swim wide out and around.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now I have the waves trailing me, lifting me up and pushing me in to the beach and I am fairly rocketing along whilst wondering how deep it is.  I am soon close back in to the beach, under 10m out.  Pulling my goggles down I upend into the silence of the water.  For a moment the waves pull at my ankles but then all is still.

It is 4 or maybe 5 metres deep and I have dived on the divide between beach and seabed.  To my right the pebbles tumble down steeply in a landslide of flints.  The biggest form a barrier between pebbles and sand, a sharp divide.  To my left the pale sand undulates in shallow ripples out of sight into the green sea.  Here and there odd stones lie on the sand and I suspect these have been thrown from the shore as otherwise the sand is uniformly clear.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Jumping back over the sea wall that seems to have filled the lull in the proceedings perfectly and provided a talking point for the landlubbers.

“Why were you swimming?  It’s September!”

There is little to offer besides “Because”.

But as Hig Hurtenflurst would have it, “Hey, that’s neat”.

 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Forty Foot Pool

There are a number of locations that appear repeatedly in lists of ‘Best Open Water Swims’ and the Forty Foot Pool at Sandycove just south of Dublin is one of them.

Our visit was timed perfectly on a holiday Monday to coincide with a hugely popular 10km running event and we were detoured around in circles before we finally found a small side road and a place to park.  It was the perfect morning for the run, bright, some sunshine, some wispy and some more substantial clouds with a light breeze.  Perfect for swimming too.

I had a preconceived idea that the pool was somehow more enclosed and more isolated however it nestles in a shallow cove below the James Joyce Tower and is overlooked by houses.  The pale yellow granite has been smoothed and rounded by the sea and built upon to create a sheltered avenue to the sea with a high wall southwards and double sided, canopied changing spaces opposite.  At the water’s edge several sets of steps have been made, also much worn by the sea, with handrails that are also showing the effect of time and tides.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Being a public holiday and with the sun out it was busy whilst not actually at capacity, people coming and going, many taking just a 5 minute plunge, others clearly intent on a longer swim, but the number of people probably held consistently at about 50.

The water was clear as we have come to expect over the last week with sufficiently good visibility that the rocks beneath the water can be clearly seen, those close to the surface scoured clean whilst those that are deeper are wreathed in kelp.  It is perhaps no surprise then that beneath notices saying it is dangerous to dive in swimmers of various ages are doing just that.  The clear water certainly invites it and though it has a slightly chill bite the sunshine more than compensates.

Heading to the left I can see back into the bay and here the water has a quite a swell sloshing up over the rocks then surging back and creating clouds of bubbles whilst the kelp fronds flap only lazily safe in the depths.  Then, circling wide I head into the stiller water and around the towering isolated rock though here the water is shallow and I keep bumping into submerged rocks so I suspect at low tide this is all part of the beach.  The sea bed is however cut by several deeper gashes each walled with kelp and a shoal of sands eels scatters for cover as I get too close.

Afterwards we sit in a sunny spot sheltered from the wicked chill breeze that has got up and eat chocolate brownies as if there was any way the swim could otherwise be improved upon.

Murlough Bay

The single track road clings precipitously to the steep incline of the stacked cliffs.  Below the sea is azure blue whilst waves break in white spray on the black stones delineating the margin between land and sea.  Over it all lush green trees stand sentinel under the black cliffs.  As if the picture postcard view were not complete a single storey whitewashed fisherman’s cottage nestles on a level platform cut into the hillside just above the high tide line.  A path twists between huge blocks of tumbled stone from the cottage to the beach.

The beach is of fine, white sand and sheltered from the onshore breeze so that here the waves wash idly over the gently shelving sand causing the loose fronds of kelp in the shallows to flap and wave.

Close in to the beach the water sparkles with fine sand grains but out beyond the waves the water is crystal clear revealing the ripples in the sand on the sea bed 10m down.  A few people are paddling in the shallows but I am alone as I head off exploring amongst the rocks out to the island.

The volcanic nature of the scenery is revealed in detail by the island, where the black basalt is vertically jointed in a poor imitation of the nearby Giant’s Causeway.  Just beneath the water’s surface enormous brown digitate fronds of kelp wave, the exposed rocks however are washed bare; black except for small patches of barnacles that cling in the sheltered nooks and above that a crust of vivid yellow lichens.

Diving down beside the wall of kelp the light changes from clearest blue to copper green above a ledge where a field of kelp heads stretches out of sight.  Tucked between the rocks is a finger of sand which cups a lobster pot but it is too deep down to see if there is anything in it.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Back closer to the beach it looks as though the sandy sea bed might be within reach.  However attempting to swim down it the sea bed remains curiously out of reach, I have impaired distance perception in this unfamiliar clear water. The water pressure is pressing against my head and this is certainly the deepest ‘freedive’ I have ever made, but finally I reach with a hand and at a full stretch 2 fingertips dig into the sand flicking up a little puff of shinny grains.  Then I am kicking for the surface which seems as impossibly far away as the sea bed was below.

This coast apparently has some of the best examples of kelp beds in Europe and I can believe it.  The fronds are twice the size and more of anything I see back home even in the most sheltered bays.  Whilst those at home can be quite impressive the visibility does not do them justice but here it is kelp forest almost all the way back to the beach and I hope to see some more before we are done.

 

Ballintoy Harbour

It has been a day of what we have come to regard as weather typical of Northern Ireland, one minute sunshine, the next showers.  The local people are indeed even more pessimistic about the weather than we are back home where living on the edge of Dartmoor everything comes our way often in just a few hours.  However, what we have come to appreciate is the roads, they are well maintained and it is wonderfully easy to get around, take any journey distance in England and halve the time it will take to make in Northern Ireland.

A diversion from our most direct route ‘home’ is not therefore regarded as an issue.  Signposting however is patchy and we fly past the tiny turning and even tinier sign and have to make an about turn in the main street and head back to Ballintoy Harbour.

Picturesque does not cover it.  The harbour nestles under a cliff of white chalk whilst a headland of Giant’s Causeway like basalt points out to sea.  However, the bays either side of the headland are encircled by other islands of basalt creating two almost perfectly sheltered lagoons.  One bay has the quays that make up the harbour the other a sweep of fine white sand.  The whole is finished off with a bright blue sky streaked with trailing clouds through which the sun occasionally peaks to send silver trails glittering over the sea.  It is stunning, no other description will suffice.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The sand gives softly under my feet and there is barely a noticeable divide between sand and water so much so that the ripples I create wading in are bigger then the waves lapping the shore.

The seabed shelves so slightly that I set off swimming in just a few feet of depth of water, but here beyond the action of any waves the sand is whirled into a mosaic landscape of worm casts, fading down into the depths until they are replaced by current rippled sand amongst blocks of rock.  As well as palmate fronds of kelp the rocks have been colonised by dead men’s bootlace seaweed which grows in strands that reach to the surface where they lie together in mandala patterns of intertwined coils and spirals.  It is not easy to swim through as it wraps around arms, neck and legs.

Above the water line the black basalt rocks also twist in fractured coils capped with yellow lichen if they are above the reach of waves.  Beyond the shelter of these encircling rocks is a different sea.  A deep swell rides waves up onto the rocks.  In places the water finds a gap and fountains into the shelter of the lagoon, but elsewhere it slides up the black rock, foaming as it climbs and then cascades back in an avalanche of spray and bubbles.

Returning to the beach I paddle on my back to take in the changing patterns of the setting sun and then, as I am towelling off, the sky lights up with a display of crepuscular rays that lance into the blue sky or sweep like searchlights across the water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Two days later we stop briefly but there is a gale howling in off the sea, the shore is lined with foul smelling tatters of seaweed and a seal bobs in the water.  Given my bite-hate relationship with seals I decide not to swim.