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.

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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.

The Brown River

Glendun is a valley cut deep into the hills by the small river that flows out to sea at Cushendun.  Even the last couple of days with the seemingly endless rain and with the river in flood it is hardly a torrent so it seems incredible that it has carved this valley through hundreds of meters thickness of durable basalt.

I spotted the little meadow with the series of cascades two days ago.  There is a bit of grass beside the road that has been pressed flat by someone stopping in a car and a tiny stile across the fence.  A small temporary path has been pressed in the long grass.  It leads down to the water and along the marshy bank to a piece of the bank that has been levelled with a pavement of stones under a twisted alder tree.  It is the perfect changing place right beside the largest pool.

Even with the extra flow of rain water the pool is however little more than waist deep and the stones on the river bed are treacherous with a thin layer of slime.

The next pool down is beneath a cascade where the water drops 3 or 4 feet in several flumes and curtains with water that is the colour of molasses.  Right beneath the falls the water spins and churns in a fizz of bubbles and it is about neck deep with limited scope for a swim so I kick about under Gerald’s watchful eyes.  Drifting downstream and I run aground on a fallen branch so it is back out on the bank and down to the next pool.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The pool has an impressive weir at the top which creates and almost unbroken natural curtain of water but again the cut away at the foot of the cascade is disappointingly shallow and small.  There is one final pool with a small step of inflowing water but it is barely knee deep, though I lie in it briefly anyway for the satisfaction of having done it.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I walk out from under the trees heading back upstream the sun finds a gap in the clouds and there is nothing for it but to slip back into the deepest pool to see the water dark brown and backlit in all its glory and looking ever more like syrup.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It was the following day when I swam again at Cushendun that I discovered the river had turned all the sea water in the bay dark orange too.

Cushendun, the first taste of Ireland.

There is blue sky overhead smeared with a few streaks of wispy cloud and a slight breeze stirs the trees.  Across the road from the car park is a low wall with a gateway, a path across a narrow swathe of rough grass and a ramped access to a beach of fine, white, glittering sand, backed by buried railway sleepers contorted by waves and wind blown sand separating the beach from some small fragile dunes.  I have the beach to myself, almost.  Far to my left a solitary figure is stood beside a fishing rod lying in its rest.

However, as I change and then wade into the short surf of the clearest water I can recall swimming in for a very long while a breeze tugs at my hair and sopping wet clouds roll up over the pine trees.  Oh well I will be getting wet anyway and my towel and clothes are rolled into a plastic bag, it’ll be fine.

It must be close to high tide and for 10m out from the surf the seabed is a mix of sand and pebbles and then the limit of the effects of the summer waves is reached and quite literally like a line drawn in the sand the sea bed becomes a simple field of ribbed sand.  It stretches out ahead, left and right, out of sight and here that is a lot of sight.

DCIM169GOPRO
DCIM169GOPRO

The sky becomes greyer as I swim along the beach about 50m out in about 6 to 7m depth of crystal clear water looking down at the endless seabed.  A fine mist of drizzle begins to fill the air and the village fades a little.  The boom of thunder rolls around the bay and glancing at the beach I can see the sky inland is now dark and a little ominous.

The man on the beach is hurriedly collecting his gear together and sets off up the beach at a trot as the first juicy drops of rain pit the surface of the sea with small saucers of ripples.  The breeze across the surface of the sea is barely perceptible and yet the clouds are advancing swiftly and bring with them heavier rain and another growl of thunder though there is no flash of lightning.   The chance of being injured by a lightning strike is vanishingly small though I can understand why the fisherman with his 12 foot high carbon fibre lightning conductor may a run for his car, but you know what, I think I’ll take my chances.

The rain is quickly over and another dull boom of thunder almost out of earshot rolls in over the sea but the clouds it seems are here to stay.

At the far end of the beach from the town the sea bed becomes dotted with isolated rocks each home to a thatch of kelp fronds.  Then there are more rocks, but here the water suddenly becomes warmer and also brown like weak tea where a small stream disgorges its load of peat saturated water collected down off the moorland.  I am used to the River Dart being peaty in colour but this is properly dark brown so I swim back into the clear water which feels sharply cooler now.

Back at my towel the scene is still dull like early evening and the damp sand no longer glitters.  Far away on the slipway at the town someone is walking a dog, but otherwise I am just a solitary figure in the middle of almost 1/2 a mile of perfect beach.

 

Two days later and I am back at the beach only this time I swim end to end and back and the sea across the whole bay is peat stained to such a degree that the seabed is only dimly visible.  And not only is the water coming down the main river the colour of molasses but it is also bitingly chill, which is all rather disappointing.