Wild (Terms and Conditions May Apply).

I have jogged down the coast path to the edge of the sea where the path turns inland again.  However though it is all but grown over there is a side path to the edge of the foreshore which then turns into a narrow sandy ledge above a steep drop that doubles as a path down to the patch of green lawn that nestles on top of rocks below.  There are now several ways down to the sea, but my favourite is a traverse down a thin lip that takes a 45degree angle down a slab of smooth, nearly vertical rock to a level space at the high tide mark.  From here there is a finger of deep water that leads to the open sea, but which is sheltered from nearly all directions except on the biggest tides and in the roughest weather.

The trend for prefixing the term ‘wild’ to an activity as in ‘wild swimming’, ‘wild camping’ etc. grates my nerves.  I blame Richard Mabey.  The latest is apparently ‘wild running’.  ‘Wild’ has now been so overused as to have become almost meaningless.  Which of course it isn’t, it does have its place; though I do wonder if I have been fished in.

To my mind if you are interested in ‘wild’ swimming as distinct from outdoor swimming then with that comes a different set of objectives:

Do swim alone,
Do swim with the minimum clutter,
Enjoy,
Be responsible for yourself,
Leave the environment a better place than when you arrived,
Don’t die.

This of course flies in the face of most advice given when someone asks what they need to go wild swimming.  Except the don’t die bit, I think we can all agree that is reasonable advice no matter what.  However, I fail to see how swimming in a big group and taking so much stuff with you that you need a wheelbarrow to move it all about can possibly be considered ‘wild’ (or any safer, but that’s for another day).

You don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth, ‘wild’ is a moving target.  Where I was swimming (by myself) this morning, the river was flat calm and all I could hear was birds (and far away someone yelling after their dog which had probably gone after the squirrel I saw earlier).  I had a gentle encounter with a selection of ducks and ducklings, a dipper and 2 kingfishers.  However, if I go back after work the place will be awash with people swimming, jumping from the rocks, on the rope swing, there will certainly be dogs chasing about, the river will be churned up and somehow I think the wildness will have gone.  And so to will the ducks, dipper and kingfishers.

Wild is I accept a subjective term in relation to each person’s comfort zone.  I am quite happy to wander through a field amongst a herd of cows whereas the London Underground nowadays gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.

The swimming wilderness is however fast disappearing and the amount of ‘wild’ has more than halved in 5 years.  Places I used to go fairly sure there would be no-one else about are now almost invariably ‘taken’ when I arrive.  Over the course of maybe 5 years and 50 swims at Abbot’s Mede I have met just 4 other people: 3 fishing, 1 walking.  Last week there were 2 other swimmers.

The inevitable upshot is an impulse to go further.  It can bring benefits, but it can also mean being at places where even a minor incident would soon turn major.  Maybe then the only worthwhile safety advice is ‘have fun and don’t die’.

 

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.

 

 

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

À bout de souffle

It is just about 7am as I take the bridge over the River Dart at Staverton.  The low sun casts long shadows, but even so it is apparent that the river level is still high after recent rain as the shoal of pebbles is fully covered by water.  As I walk down though the trees the sound of the river seems more urgent that usual and it cannot be the sound is carried by the breeze as there is none of that.

It is rare that there is not some breeze, today is that rare moment.  The water is unruffled except where the flow that is indeed at least a hand’s span up on summer ‘normal’ surges over rocks that have been unseasonably submerged.  Not a single leaf twitches, the rope swing hangs motionless and even the sunlight reflected from the water fails to dapple the undersides of the leaves.  Totally still and almost totally silent.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Diving from the rock there is very little light in the water under the tall oak tree but out in the middle of the river there is a sudden change from shade to sunlight which reveals the sand and pebbles out of reach of my fully extended toes.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The river bed has been changing in recent years.  There used to be a beach and the sand used to slope gently out into mid-stream except when it collected a coat of sunken leaves which bubbled when disturbed.  But the floods of 4 years ago and since have set in train a reconfiguring of the profile.  Some of the bigger logs were dislodged which exposed the longer buried more rotten wood and that has put up no resistance to the river.  Now the beach is barely 1/2 the width it was and beneath the water the edge is a vertical drop off into water deeper than I am tall.  What’s more the exposed face beneath the water is just more compacted twigs, branches and sand, so I expect the erosion to continue.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The water is chilly despite the sun and each time I breathe out I leave a thin, white cloud hanging above the water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Climbing up the bank and looking back the river has been reset to ‘still’ and there is as yet no hint of a breeze so that all there is to tell I have been there are a few splattered watery footprints.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Between Cold Water, Algae and the Jellyfish

Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water.  So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.

The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year.  The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.

There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year.  They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.

The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m.  They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’.  Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.

One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water.  On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000.  I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.

The other is the algae.  That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date.  Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea.  Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall