Swimming in the Forest

The drowned prehistoric forest off the west coast of Wales at Borth is possibly the best known example of its kind in the UK.  There are other examples dating back to two glacial periods 11 000 to 14 000 years ago when sea levels were lower with the water locked into massive ice sheets.  One such is in Torbay, though I have never seen it.

It takes a ‘just so’ combination of very low spring tides and a scouring current to remove the sand for the tree stumps to be exposed.  The tide today is not low enough but the sand at Broadsands is piled high against the sea wall especially at the left hand end of the beach such that the usual pebble bank and jumbled rocks are sunk in the sand.  However as I walk down the beach and wade out into the shallow water picking my way over the unseen pebbles none of this has yet occurred to me.

I step onto what I at first assume is a weed covered rock, then there are more.  Slowly it dawns on me that these are very soft rocks even were they covered in weed and more to the point the shapes are twisted and not rounded.  I step up onto another soft twisted mass and then down onto sand.  I am clambering over the roots and stumps of the fossil trees.  It is only a shame that though the water is only knee deep, thigh deep, knee deep, bum deep, it is so churned up that nothing is visible.

Then I am off and swimming for the point with my back to the beach.  As I turn across the bay I can see two figures by my bag doing the ‘swimsuit dance of modesty’ and I figure I have company after all.  As they begin to walk down the beach I begin to swim in, meeting them where the water is neck deep.  We bob steady out into deeper water talking about weather, Portuguese man of’ War, the last time we swam together which must be 3 years and swimming in foreign lands where the water was a sight warmer than it is here today.

We swim on taking a zig-zag course that eventually leads back to the beach where I swim on rather than wade through the shallows until I finally run aground in not quite knee deep water.

Unfortunately now that looks like the end of the road for at least a few days.  More heavy rain is forecast and the river this morning looked unswimable.  With the  heavy rain comes also a weekend of gale force winds so any attempt at a long sea swim is also doomed.  I guess autumn has finally caught up.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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“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

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.

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.

The Carnival is in Town

Tonight it is Teignmouth’s turn to play host to the annual carnival procession.  Some towns I don’t enjoy, but others I positively look forward too.  This is not in Teignmouth’s case because it has anything at all to offer as a town, but simply because the marshal point for the procession start is along the top of the sea wall.  It takes no time at all to set the float up and then there is that glorious (in Teignmouth’s case) hour and a half of waiting for judging and prize giving and the sea is right there.

It is however all a little grey this evening: grey town, clouds and sea.  And a little breezy and bumpy.  Simple observations, not complaints.

The hubbub of the competing sound systems and disco lighting recedes the further out I go.  I have my eye on the yellow swimming zone buoy, which though it is not exactly a long way out, is by virtue of the fact that I am the only one in the water quite far enough.

For a brief moment the clouds break and sunshine streams through, but it is only a teaser and the light flashes over me, out past the buoy and on and on out to sea lighting for an instant the yacht on the horizon, but by then I have been plunged back into gloom again.

Swimming in the carnival noise increases and drowns out the sound of surf on the  beach until I am right in under the sea wall getting changed when the sound of the waves at my feet is all that can be heard as the carnival noise carries away over my head on the breeze.  And that’s it for another year.

 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

A 6th Sense.

Either there are more seals or they are less shy than they once were.  Even back 10 years ago I considered it quite a moment to see a dark head silhouetted against the blue water, though usually only at a distance.

I have had some exciting close encounters too, both good and bad.

There was the time a drifted down the tide near Bell Rock and got within yards of what looked like a pup just shedding is baby fur where he was basking on a rock.  Another time I found a lobster pot buoy wedged high and dry on some rocks and having untangled it and the length of rope I towed it back to the beach with an inquisitive seal getting steadily closer and closer.  Then there is always the seal at Churston Cove who thinks it is fun to swim up and bump your feet, then surface a few feet away watching and waiting and as soon as you swim off again she bumps again.  The first couple of times it made me jump, now it is part and parcel and I know the feel of seal to be soft and yielding and a bit like wet chamois leather.

That has been good to know because there have been other times when something has bumped me and I am now able to tell; it’s soft and a bit slippery, it’s a seal.

Some of those encounters have however not gone so well.  In murky water a seal finds out what you are: food, something to be avoided, something to be chased away or something to get, ahem, more friendly with, by biting.  A seal’s head is actually not dissimilar to a dog’s only 4 times the size and several investigative bites have left me with nicks in my wetsuit or dribbling blood.  Some people get a bit worked up by that: seal’s bites are infectious, go and get antibiotics.  For me or the seal?  I have been around long enough, much of the time up to my elbows in it that any seal foolish to bite me probably will need antibiotics, but if it thinks I limping to the vet to help it out it can damn well think again.

All in all though I have been bitten frequently enough to have developed a 6th sense.  I had a feeling there would be one at St Mary’s Bay the other day and there it was, an inquisitive young one who got within 10 feet of where I was wading in the shallows, but I was going no further and sure enough a little further out an altogether larger, darker, more menacing profile rose and submerged.  A second young one bobbed up too.

Seals at Churson, Elberry, St Mary’s and even Newfoundland Cove are almost a case of more often than not.  Mansands, rarely, Long Sands once, Scabbacombe once or twice.

Today it’s a little after low tide, the sand has been stripped from the foreshore leaving the water full of sand and silt and I just know that somewhere out there today, waiting …. I can feel it, just like you know, though it may only have happened a few times in your life, you know when you wake up that there has been snow overnight.  It is as if you can hear that anechoic silence.  Somewhere out there in that flat calm sea, I can feel it.

I wade out scanning the water. Nothing. I swim out to clearer water.  The gulls are nesting on the cliff and start yammering away at me.  One of them swoops down harrying me, skimming the water just a few feet away then rising up at the end of the pass, making a loop and then back it comes.  This is a regular springtime game here and will be kept up until I turn away from the cliff.  Another gull passes higher overhead and tries a more direct approach pattern bombing the water to my right, its aim is rubbish, fortunately.

I have crossed the bay and swum back to the beach and reached the shallows where I can stand.  Scanning along the surf line and I see there, not 20m away, is a dark head.  It ducks down looking guilty and resurfaces, the water can be no more than waist deep.  We stare at each other and again the seal ducks down only to be forced back up immediately by the next wave.  Then with a casual turn that says ‘I was leaving anyway’ it slides under the water again and vanishes.

And this is how things should be, he keeps his distance over there and I’m not bleeding.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall