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.

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.

 

 

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

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