It was not the blue sky sunrise of yesterday, but instead bright shafts speared the clouds that beaded the horizon and the grey sea came alive with shimmering yellows and oranges.
I hooked my bag on the railings and trailed the thermometer over the edge of the steps watching it nudge up and stick at 17°C. Not at all bad for mid-September.
I’d done my run so this was just a chill down.
Heading out to the pot buoy I collected a plastic wrapper floating in a tangle of bootlace weed, but something else was amiss. I have developed a 6th sense and was scanning the surface forward and back. And there it was, not a touch, nor a bump exactly, but a press of water against my feet. I am sharing my swim with a seal, I have been here before, it usually ends with me bitten and bleeding. I circled slowly back to the beach scanning the surface, but nothing.
I was towelling off watching the single swimmer when he gave a sudden yelp and a dark head rose to the surface not 10 feet from him, ducking and submerging but not leaving as the chap splashed back into waist deep water. But even as he stood in the shallows the seal was in no hurry to move on.
Yes seals bite, but usually only if the water is murky and they cannot see clearly what you are. My best advice is do not invade their space if they are there first. If one turns up when you are swimming it is probably curious but harmless. If it gets antsy then slapping the water and raising a splash is a ‘go away’ signal, but then swim away breast stroke as they seem to get that message whereas swimming crawl is a great way to get bitten.
As I drove through the lanes in the pre-dawn the car headlights swept the fallen leaves where only recently when I rounded the corner I’d be blinded by the sun peeking over the hedge. At the seafront the sky was a fiery mix of orange and yellow on the midnight blue backdrop, whilst across the bay, free from the shadow of the headland, the windows of houses flared like fireflies one after another as the sunlight crept down to the shore.
Walking along the sand to reach the risen sun the slight surf surged warmly over my feet in sharp contrast to the bitter chill air.
Close to the beach the sea undulated with a smooth swell but as I turned the first 5 knot buoy the wind and tide chopped the surface in my wake and by a strange turn of perspective I closed on Thatcher Rock at just the right speed and angle to keep the sun perched on it for about 10 minutes, unwavering but brightening to blinding incandescence. Turning about the buoy, the sun at my back, I was now racing back to the beach to beat the sunlight creeping down the hillside. The breeze throws water into my face but with each stroke I am closer in to the calm in the lee of the seawall.
Now the strip of sand I imprinted earlier is covered by a foot of clear water, it is a spring tide after all, and with luck there will be another full cycle before the sea chills.
The surface of the sea at Meadfoot rolls with oily slickness in places though is otherwise fashioned into countless dimples where the slight breeze toys with it. There is however a hidden swell that lashes spray at the railings atop the sea wall or surges with knee bending force on the weed slickened and aptly named slipway. As I take to the water there is the familiar pattern of small waves heading in to the beach being thrown back as an apparently larger swell that runs 100m out into the open water.
The current is running full bore in the final hour before high tide and my approach to the first of the 5 knot buoys becomes ever more banana shaped until I manage to just scrape outside it. Now running with the tide my approach to Shag Rock appears uncontrollable and in the final moment before scraping onto the barnacles the current instead whips me around the outer limit of the rock, sending me as straight as an arrow across the bay on the line of the buoys.
Clouds bank along the horizon while blue rents appear in the clouds above but the sunshine cannot find a way and instead the gloom lifts and settles with the passing waves.
Now the current thrusts me past the furthest yellow buoy. I have only a split second to pat it before my feet skid metaphorically in the water reversing my direction of travel again onto an increasing banana curved trajectory to the slipway.
The swim is a mile exactly and in the 1/2 hour of my absence the tide has reached its high and submerged the lowest railings. My return to terra firma is then a matter of catching an incoming wave, grabbing the railings without being splattered on them and getting my feet down solidly on the slick weed before a rebounding surge throws me back into the sea. A miss on the railings will see me face planting the sea wall. Textbook!
The slight breeze that rattled the windchimes in the pre-dawn darkness of my garden has faded away after sunrise leaving the air completely still. Along the river bank streamers of mist trail across the meadows. They melt away as I pass and close in once more behind me.
Thin sunlight plays on the still river which unwaveringly mirrors the overhanging trees and high thin clouds. As I step into the water the tree branches wave up at me.
Once up and back is all I have left myself time for. As I swim into the current the ripples ahead of me fall over each other in a tumble of bubbles, but as I turn downstream each now runs away from me across the surface of the water, carried on by the placid flow.
At the apple tree I step out on the bank. The sand squidges under my feet as I pick 2 bright apples from the bent grass and back in the river I swim to my towel an apple bunched in each fist as I have no swimwear to tuck them into. The first I will call breakfast and the second is lunch.
I don’t know when swim-runs became a thing. I only got to know them as a thing with a name when the weather warmed at the start of this summer and people started posting them on Instagram. However, I have long preferred runs that had a water feature, even if only a small pool in a stream, but obviously a full on swim is preferable.
There are 2 Dartmoor swims that I rate above all others because they are swims not paddles and as like as not there will be no-one else about. That doesn’t however seem to be the case with Left Lake today and by the time I get there I think I have passed more people than all the other times combined. But then again it is a stunning day.
The wind is quite brisk but with the sunshine the temperature is still in the 20s and sunk down into the moor the lake is barely ruffled by the breeze. The water is pleasantly warm and with the rich dark peat stain I gain some sense of what it would be like to swim in a cup of black coffee. I have been lucky with the timing because as I slip my shoes on afterwards the clouds swamp the sky from horizon to horizon.
I run on up the track, turn down the hill to the lonely trees where I know that even in winter there are dry stones making steps across the river and then up to The Dancers. This is without doubt my favourite stone circle on the moor but it seems remote and lost today, awash with high grass under a dull sky.
As I turn back down the valley though the clouds are breaking and I get a quick splash at the weir and 30 minutes later as I climb the slope up from Piles Copse the sky is once more largely untroubled by clouds and it has got a touch warm again.
There is a soft tone to the evening as the sun slides down a scale of blues from true sky blue into a blue velvet tree capped horizon across the hilltop. As the trees along the river bank turn to dusk only the warmth of the day remains.
The water is clear and still and through the faint orange stain of distant moorland peat I can see leaves and twigs in the shallows and then the gold of deeper sand. Meanwhile the surface is much as yesterday evening a mess of leaves, twigs, pink balsam flowers, motes of dust and a few downy feathers that I wave aside with each sweep of my arms.
A link the horizon and a bend in the river let the sunlight flood the water for 100m lighting up the pebble river bed. For the most part though the shade is wrapping up the day and beneath the bushes on the bank ducks stand one footed with heads drawn in to sleep.
It’s a little short of 1/2 a mile upstream to my get out point and ignoring the obvious but very soft and muddy exit I swim on and tuck in behind the downed willow, this is not my first time. I know that here the river bed is pebbles right to the bank and yes there’s still a nice fallen tree trunk that lets me step up onto the lush green grass.
All I’ve brought with me in my dry bag is a pair of knickers, sarong and small bar towel, I’ll be walking barefoot back to the car in the dimpsey shade beneath the trees.
The sun burst over the headland and Thatcher Rock as I was pulling on my (only 3 months old but now split and I will be contacting the seller) running shoes. The bay glowed with fiery light and the sea coloured with burnished bronze. My run was however a little foreshortened as I wanted to be back asap.
The sea is still insanely warm compared to the dip I took in the overcast river yesterday evening though even that remains crazy warm. Swimming straight out from the slipway the water was clear and smoothly polished until ruffled by a slight breeze out towards the 5knot buoy darkly silhouetted against the sunlight.
Turning around the buoy and Shag Rock loomed closer with every sweep of my arms until I was at its foot swimming under the barnacled overhang.
I imagine most of the local swimmers have at some stage been unable to resist the compulsion to climb to the top. The bay was deserted. To one side the sun drew a line of dazzle across the water which shimmered off the wavelets. To the other side the light painted rich colours on the doors of the beach huts and the high cliff. Getting out of the water onto the barnacles requires care, fortunately getting back into the water requires only a well executed dive.
The swim back to the beach is a mix of keen strokes broken up by duck dives through the clear green water amongst kelp fronds and trailing bootlace weed back to the steps and a breathtakingly cold shower.