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


The Towel Two Step

Scabbacombe is unofficially a naturist beach, though what The National Trust who own it might think about that I’m not sure.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now, if you want to go and take your clothes off and lie in the sun then fair enough Scabbacombe is quite discrete as beaches go.

The key word in that sentence is ‘discrete’.

This is a public beach, people take the kids there and whilst nudity is the natural state there is a subtle difference between ‘lie in the sun’ and ‘sprawl in the sun’.  And, discrete to display to flaunt to flashing is a continuum that means different things to different people under different circumstances.

I am however aware that I am to some degree in residence in a glass house here.  I cannot be doing with the towel two step let alone dry robes, adopting instead the ‘get changed, do it swiftly and discretely and don’t look at the person standing next to you’ method.

Now, if I stood and stared at one of the naturists I am fairly sure I’d get a slap.  Why then should one of them feel it appropriate to stare at me (wearing my swimming leggings, a sure indicator that I’m not one of the flashing community) and then come up to me to discuss the merits of waterproof cameras whilst hanging in the breeze?

By all means do your own thing, but please do it over there.

I have nothing against naturists.

And I would like to keep it that way.

But all that said, it is only for a few weeks in the year; September to May I have the place to myself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Intergalactic Towel Day

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy has much to say on the subject of towels.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

Clearly anyone who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where their towel is, is clearly a person to be reckoned with.

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.

Towel Day
Intergalactic Towel Day

My towel was given to me when the galaxy was still young, small furry animals from Alpha Centuri were real small furry animals from Alpha Centuri and the Hitch-Hikers trilogy was as yet a radio show in two series.  It did not however come from the Salisbury branch of Marks and Spencer.


Shifting Seasons

The equinox and solstice are of course astronomical events that whilst marking a very precise moment in the orbit of the Earth about the Sun (Eppur si muove as they say) are somewhat variable in their timing in relation to an Earth bound calendar.  This year the vernal equinox was yesterday at 10:29 in the morning local time.

Nevertheless on that Earth bound calendar the equinoxes and solstices are used as the marker for winter into spring, or spring into summer etc., as was the case yesterday, but it’s completely arbitrary and has little to do with boots on the ground.  If it were otherwise and marked a genuine environmental change then I feel confident that my boots on the ground would not have met frost this morning.  I am looking for something more.

Yesterday could not have been the beginning of spring.  If spring = sunshine then driving cold rain from a leaden sky does not a spring make.  Today though there is sunshine and bright white fluffy clouds against a blue sky and if I hunker down behind the rocks where there is shelter from the scything wind that carries more than just the memory of the frost this morning, then this could just about be the beginning of spring.  Close enough at any rate.  Why exactly I feel the need to mark these totally arbitrary days with a swim is beyond me.  It’s not like there won’t be more swimming.

The sea is calm under the low cliff out of the breeze, but further out cat’s paws turn the sea into a scratching post and further out again white horses rear against the horizon.  The water is crystal clear by local standards and from my vantage point I’m looking down on a fronds of seaweed waving about a submerged rock that I know to be 6 or 7 feet down and beyond that the seabed glows white, with each pebble clearly seen.

Three, two, one ….

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

There are a number of schools of thought about the best way to get into cold water, many centred on what cold water shock can do to you.  Which is make you drown in case you were wondering.  Most advocate the ‘gently ease your way in’ approach, possibly by splashing your face with the water which apparently helps.  My approach remains, just bloody jump in and remember not to breathe when my head is deep under water no matter what my reflexes may be telling me.

Woo hoo! My yelp echoes back from the encircling rocks.  It would be a shame not to go again. And again.  And 4th time for luck?

The rocks here, though probably not unique, are unusual; dissolved or gouged away by current or marine creatures I don’t know, but they have become pocked and fluted into a many faceted landscape.  Though an absolute sod to walk on they appear distorted in the shimmering sunlight as if in a hall of mirrors.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Fifty meters across the water though there is a small sea arch. It dries out at low tide but today it is just and just submerged.  Diving down under it my head is put in an ice-cream head vice until I emerge puffing and blowing into a lagoon of still water, where the sea bed is all bright white pebbles.

Two walkers are looking down on me.

‘Isn’t it a bit cold?’

‘It’s not warm’ is the best reply I can offer.

Actually now they’ve mentioned it, I am starting to feel it and I have the swim back yet.  Predictably I am distracted by the opportunity to swim through another sunlit channel in the rocks and dive down to the shimmering seabed again before I have to face walking over the barnacle encrusted knives to my towel.

I shiver my way back to the car and my teeth chatter on a mug of tea back in the office.

Nevertheless I have captured a moment of spring, propitiated to the spirits of sunshine and evoked the glamour of summer.  Not bad for an hour’s work.

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

As Rare as an Honest Politician

Sunshine that is.

Well that’s not quite true, there has been sunshine.  There has also been a lot of rain and almost constant howling gales and, hand on heart, every time I have stepped outside things have been perfect right up to the moment I’ve got to the beach.

Take last Tuesday for example.  It was an extremely low spring tide which gave me the opportunity to walk the shoreline from Mansands to Scabbacombe without the scrambling.  The air was still and warm in the sunshine, and in the shelter beneath the high cliffs spring was indeed in the air.  Until that is I reached the tricky headland at the far end of Long Sands.  Now the wind funnelled across Scabbacombe beach, the clouds appeared out of nowhere and spread rapidly out from the cliff top and with them came the rain.  Icy cold rain driving in sheets.  In seconds the dry rocks were transformed into water slides and by the time I reached the relative shelter of the beach and cliffs I was wringing wet.  I could not have got any wetter if I’d walked into the sea, and I would have got a lot colder either.

I squelched up the hill along the footpath that was now a mud filled stream, the wind still whipping me with bucketful after bucketful of rain.

Bad luck you say.  Conspiracy I say because no sooner had I reached the car than the clouds blew away and the sunshine returned.  And that is not the only time this has happened in recent weeks.   Last Friday it was almost a repeat performance at Breakwater Beach.

And damn it, it is going to do the same again, I am jogging back down North Boundary Road to the car to grab my bag to walk down to Fishcombe Cove and the rain is darting at me from the one and only cloud in the sky.  The cloud is following me.  I turn the corner and the cloud turns to follow.  I dither under the tailgate of the car until the cloud losses interest and then nip across the road and duck under the tree cover, if I’m lucky the cloud won’t notice until it’s too late.

Fishcombe Cove across to Churston Cove is bathed in sunshine and is sheltered from both wind and waves.  It’s a little after high tide but it is only a low neap, coming barely half way up the newly rebuilt steps.  The steps got wrecked last autumn and I thought there was little chance they would be repaired as they are out of sight and suffer few users, austerity cut-backs being what they are.  However, both these and the bottom couple of steps on the coast path over at Churston Cove have been restored.  However, standing on the lowest step in the waist deep water which is suffused with green light and quite clear down to the seabed of jumbled stones and wispy seaweed fronds, the chill of the water is a sharp reminder that despite the warm sunshine spring officially is still two weeks away (Monday 20th March, 10:29 local time in the UK).

I push off from the step and I am quickly out of my depth.  Out in the middle of the bay the waves swing up and down with their crests just breaking into myriad glittering jewels.  People are watching from Churston Beach.  I am watching for the seal who can be friendly and also less friendly.

Lying back and kicking up fountains of water I glance over my shoulder and spy the grey blanket of cloud sweeping over Torquay.  It is rising up over the headland and sweeping my way.  That is my signal to leave.

I am towelling furiously as the first raindrops hit.  Forget it, clothes on, now!  A dash of rain hits and instantly the concrete walkway darkens, but I am already hauling my sweatshirt on and begin stuffing my towel into the bag.  I’m done and have just time to wave at the lady now going in for her swim before dashing for the meagre shelter of the trees.

It’s just normal, perfectly healthy paranoia.  Everyone suffers from it.

But that doesn’t mean the clouds are not following me.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Devon and Cornwall?

It is not that I have run out of places to add to my ‘Devon’ Wild Swim Map it is simply that things keep taking me in the direction of Cornwall and there are, as there are in Devon, some stunning swimming spots ‘across the border’.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

When I arrived in Falmouth the previous evening the sea was roaring into the beach and the torrential rain had produced lakes rather than puddles along the seafront road.  However, twelve hours is a long time in swimming and in the pre-dawn light next morning there was only a slight breeze and the sea had become almost millpond calm as the stars faded from the clear sky.  Looking out from Maenporth Beach though it was quite clear that the focus of the brightness was slightly around the headland and I was not going to get a sunrise.  Not from the beach anyway.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The soft sand at the high water mark  gave way to sharp pebbles on the gently sloping beach and even before my feet were in the shallows they were feeling numb.  I had planned for a longer swim and was in my wetsuit but even so the water finding its way inside was like icy needles and even though I know it is true I had to convince myself afresh that once the water on the inside warmed up thighs would be at least acceptable.

As I got closer to the headland the light along the horizon brightened behind the band of cloud throwing up lighthouse beams that swept the sky as the clouds drifted across the distant sky.  Then for just a brief moment the isolated clouds above me turned from leaden grey to burning gold tinged with pink and then pure white and the rising sun swept  light down from above half blinding me with its brilliance.  In all the excitement I had quite failed to notice the water inside the wetsuit was now more temperate and almost but not quite pleasant though my fingers and toes were refusing to cooperate and lacking in any sense of feeling respectively.

Against the bright sky the perching birds looked like teeth along the ridge of nearby rock they were however troubled by my noisy progress as I kicked up gouts of water to be backlit against the sun and en masse took to flight, wheeling my way at first and squawking irritably before making their own solitary paths across the bay.

My splashy progress eventually took me back into the breaking waves where I unexpectedly found I was in no more than a foot of water as I grated ashore on the sand and pebbles.  Only leaving me with a numb foot stumble back up the beach to my towel.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall