Monday, 10 September 2018

Euphoria at Burgh Island

Setting off 
I haven't managed to swim around Burgh Island for a couple of years. I usually swim around it in September as a birthday celebration, but last year we were defeated by a large swell.  This year's attempt was successful - if somewhat terrifying (but in a good way).  We set off on a beautiful afternoon at about 5:30, the sun blinding us as we headed to the west of the island.  It was high water, so we waded across before starting to swim.  Massive waves slapped our faces while lifting us up and chucking us down, and foaming endlessly around the rocks.  We felt we  weren't getting anywhere.  Ordinarily we would probably have given up at this point but we had our trusty kayakers Lucian and Rob with us so we pushed on and eventually got to the back of the island where suddenly it was easier.  We were still going up and down like yoyos, but the wind was behind us and suddenly we were funnelling through the gulley at the back (universally known as Death Valley),
Around the back
Approaching Death Valley
and into a whirlpool on the other side, watched by a chorus line of cormorants silhouetted against the setting sun.  We made quite good progress around and past the Mermaid's Pool and then it was a final slog across the causeway.  We staggered out (me and Catherine were last) to whoops and cheers from everyone, all on a complete high at completing the swim round the island. We just couldn't stop grinning, and I felt such love for this group who I've been swimming with for around a decade now.  I was also thinking a lot about my son Felix who died last year, who had been present so often at this September tradition over the years.   Of course his absence is an enormous gap, but at the same time these traditions are important for continuity and in a way help me to remember him through the pain of him not being there.
Felix and Lucian on the sea tractor in 2012 
On a high

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Darty Dozen

I am still on a high after last weekend, in which we ran the inaugural "Darty Dozen" - 12 wild swims across Dartmoor over 2 days, and camped at Huccaby Farm.  The event was all about remembering Felix, and raising money for SUDEP Action, but in the end it was about so much more.  It was about love and support and camaraderie and laughs and excitement and adventure, and sheer human solidarity in the face of tragedy.  It was a stunning weekend in every way.  The weather was glorious.  We walked and swam in the most beautiful spots, from the High Moor to the Dart gorge, covering 15 miles in total.  At the end of it we were totally exhausted but happy.   As I drove home, the car stuffed with camping detritus, I shed tears, both happy and sad because ultimately of course, if Felix hadn't died the weekend would never have happened.  If you would like to donate, the link is here.

Crazywell Pool
Black Tor Falls


Broada Stones

Near Princetown

Venford Falls

The Dart Gorge 

Buddy's Pool on the West Dart 

Near Princetown
.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The solidarity of swimmers

Rosie- doing the selfie - with Paul, me
and Jackie behind  
On Sunday we had a get together of swimming friends at beautiful Meadfoot in Torquay.  Helen, Rosie and Paul came up from Plymouth, and it was the first time I'd seen them since Felix died last year.  Jackie's dear husband Gordon died recently, and there was a sense we just wanted to be together. We've known each other for several years; we met through swimming and have had many and varied adventures both on the coast and on Dartmoor.  We've shared great joy and terrible loss.  We've had  magical, memorable times together in the water, but also had to deal with the deaths of our dear friends Jonathan and Lynne, and of Felix.  These experiences have created a strong bond.  As we walked, laughing, into the sea I felt a sense of security and continuity with friends who are part of a sort of watery communion.

With Helen on the slipway. Thanks to Jackie for the pic

My tribute to Lynne Roper

My dear friend Lynne Roper died in 2016.  I wrote a piece about her for H2Open Magazine but have just discovered you have to pay to read it online.  So here it is for free:


Lynne Roper, wild swimming blogger and inspirational advocate for outdoor swimming, has died at the young age of 55.   Her friend and fellow Devon swimmer Sophie Pierce pays tribute.

How to sum up Lynne?  When I first met her I was fascinated by her apparent contradictions.   A former RAF servicewoman and Margaret Thatcher supporter, she was now a raving leftie (and she’d be very proud to be described as such).   She’d gone to art school, but was now a paramedic.  She had a particular interest in and love of witches; a witch dolly always hung from the rear view mirror in her beloved camper van. 
I met her of course, through swimming.  She’d turned to the water to help her recover from breast cancer, and a double mastectomy.   A few years ago, when the outdoor swimming network was in its infancy, I met her through Facebook.  We met with a few others in a windy car park in Torquay one December day, and set off to swim through a natural arch called London Bridge.   Around the back of the arch we discovered a cave and swam in, where we got bounced up and down by the swell, narrowly avoiding banging our heads.  We laughed hysterically and there was an immediate bond. 

The waters of Devon ran through Lynne’s blood. She grew up swimming in both the Atlantic off the North coast and English Channel off the South, and she was passionate about Dartmoor and the rivers Tavy and Dart in particular.  She lived in a former miner’s cottage on the Moor, which she decorated in her flamboyant style in her favourite colours of pink and blue, with a huge mermaid mosaic she’d made herself in the bathroom.  (On her Air BnB listing she proudly said: “I don’t do grey or beige”).
After her double mastectomy, Lynne found that swimming in the rivers of Dartmoor and the seas of Devon gave her both physical and mental therapy – as I think it does for the vast majority of us. What was so special about her was her ability to translate that feeling into words and to communicate the joy, humour, frequent silliness, camaraderie and all-round life-enhancing qualities of swimming outdoors.   She wrote a blog, Wild Woman Swimming https://wildwomanswimming.wordpress.com/  which detailed her many adventures sometimes hilariously, sometimes angrily, always thoughtfully and always articulately.  She wrote beautifully, and with originality.  I remember one write-up after a particularly exciting low tide swim, when we’d seen a range of marine wildlife including Devonshire cup corals, breadcrumb sponge, and a very rare variety of soft coral called dead men’s fingers  which Lynne described as “the same shade of pink as Katie Price’s jodhpurs’.  It was a spot-on description too – they were indeed a lurid shocking pink.
When she became ill with a brain tumour earlier this year, she turned to writing about both her personal situation and the wider context of the NHS, of which she was a passionate supporter.  https://outofmybrains.org/  She christened her tumour Hunt after the Health Secretary, and was furious about what she saw as the ongoing cutbacks and the privatisation of the NHS by the back door.   She also wrote movingly about facing her own death.  Her blog is now being used to teach medical students.
Lynne’s death has shocked our swimming community both here in Devon and wider afield.  Locally we have lost a wonderful, witty friend, who made us laugh, led us on many adventures and was always keen to share her wonderful places.  Lynne also touched people who never even met her, through her writing and blogging, and through several films and documentaries about wild swimming in which she appeared.  One of the most moving tributes has been from a blogger in America who’s never even met her, but felt he knew her.
I have so many wonderful memories of swimming with Lynne.  Sitting in a hot tub at Slapton Sands, after getting battered by huge rollers crashing onto the shingle shore.   Several  New Year’s dips followed by raucous warm-ups in the pub.  Hikes over Dartmoor followed by plunges in cool rivers and playing in waterfalls.  And one incredible dawn swim where we watched the sky gradually turn pink and then slipped into the shining sea.     


Sunday, 18 March 2018

Mad march

It's the 18th of March and it's snowing.  Our second whiteout in a couple of weeks.  Crazy weather and this month has generally felt a bit crazy.  It was the first anniversary of Felix's death on the 8th/9th, and I was transported back to that horrendous week when I discovered he had died.  I had gone to see him in a show in Leicester where he was at university, and he never showed up at our meeting place.  I raised the alarm, and went to his halls where I arrived to find an ambulance outside.   He was dead in his room.. A year has passed and in many ways I am still in shock and there are many days when I still cannot comprehend it, I still not quite believe this has happened. 

When I swim - and this is particularly true of swimming in the sea - I feel closer to him.   In the water my body is weightless and I feel detached from the world, like a spirit, an essence, which I suppose is what he is now. I need that feeling of separation, of absence from my new life without him, and to return to a kind of state where I am with him.

This week I have slept very badly and felt a particular urge to swim.  Ju and I went down to Hopes Nose. It was low tide and we swam off a little beach packed with grey pebbles streaked with pink and white quartz   The water clasped us in its coldness and I shut my eyes and felt the water, and felt my son.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Getting through Christmas

It's the end of Boxing Day and we did it.  We made it through Christmas without Felix.  I think I got through because a sort of numbness and disbelief set in again, like when he first died.  I had a sense of disconnection from the whole thing.  Perhaps it's because Christmas is all about age-old rituals and these rituals are strong and definite and bring into relief whatever is happening at the time. Here we were again doing things we always do at this time of year, getting a tree, going to Mass, eating turkey, singing carols, it just didn't seem possible that Felix  wasn't there.  Christmas highlighted and accentuated his absence, and I went into numb mode again. 
On Christmas Day we went to see him at his burial place which my brother James calls 'the green hill far away'.  Alex, Lucian and I stood there in the roaring gale and opened our present to him, and left him some mince pies under his tree.  Earlier I had had a morning dip with Yaara at Ladies' Pool, which was pointy-daggers cold, our limbs pricked by the icy water.  Today I swam in the West Dart, in a swollen, fast moving pool.  As my body entered the water I felt myself shrinking back to a sort of visceral essence of being, rewinding back to Felix when he was part of my body, part of me, grown from me. Momentarily I felt connected back to him, then there was nothing.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Puppies and swimsuits

Above Butcher's Cove
We've recently got a puppy, who is of course, totes adorbs.   She's a black woolly bundle of joy called Tarka. This week she was allowed to be taken out properly for the first time, so I decided to introduce her to the joys of the Devon coast.   It all fitted in rather well, because the lovely people at UK Swimwear (link here) had asked me to review a swimming costume for them, so it was the perfect chance to get out and head to the sea.  We headed for Mothecombe and followed the coast path west, with Tarka sniffing at pretty much every blade of grass, and also annoying Buddy,  Yaara's endlessly patient black labrador.  We climbed down to Butcher's Cove where we immediately found about 10 Portugese men of war jellyfish stranded on the beach which we we buried because we were worried about the dogs picking them up.   I then got into my costume (link here), which was beautifully made, with fabulous ruching, and lined with lovely soft material. As someone with a full figure, I'm always looking for a costume that both supports and flatters, and this did both.  It was very comfortable to swim in. Yaara also tried it out, and she is at least two sizes smaller than me, but it looked great on her too!  At a touch under £90 it is not cheap, but in my experience, with swimsuits, you get what you pay for, and if you pay more you get better quality, which was the case here.  It felt like a very well made suit.  We swam out towards the mouth of the cove and then back and around the rocks, keeping an eye out for the dreaded PMOWs but there weren't any.  Buddy joined us in the water but Tarka was far too tired and flopped out on the beach in order to regain energy for more pestering of her fellow canine on the return walk.
Trying out the costume 
Setting off 
It looks fab on Yaara too
a gratuitous pic of Tarka 


Thursday, 19 October 2017

Yikes!

Approaching the cove
"Are those what I think they are?"
Rachel and I set off  from Little Dartmouth, following the coast path around towards Sugary Cove.   As we approached the headland we followed a track towards the edge that we hadn't gone down before.   We spotted a path winding down to an intriguing-looking little cove, and could see steps at the bottom. The water below was enticingly blue and we scrambled down the path and made camp on some big rocks.  The cove was perfect  (it is called Western Combe Cove).  About 50 yards offshore was a double island, with a cave in the middle, and to the right and left, whole processions of gullies and shark fin rocks.  I felt really excited about exploring this new territory, and we swam enthusiastically off towards the island.  Suddenly, Rachel stopped in her tracks. "Those aren't Portugese Men of War are they?"  She pointed towards some bubbles on the surface between us and the island.  My immediate reaction was "of course they're not" but on closer inspection, yes, indeed that's what they were.    Reluctantly we got out, and continued on our walk.  The sun came out, and it was very warm, and it felt like summer with the sunshine glinting on the rocks and on our faces. We stopped at a rock platform near Blackstone Point and had another, more successful swim, with the sun low in the sky.  It was only afterwards when we were getting changed that Rachel revealed she'd spotted the most enormous seal approaching me in the water.   When we were both safely on shore it popped up again,  raising its neck high out of the water.   


Remarkably well camouflaged PMOWs -just like bubbles

The only thing we need to worry about now is seals

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Some amazing news

My niece Ruby Pierce, who is 17, has been awarded the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival Creative Writing prize, beating off competition from hundreds of others, most of whom were adults.   She won it for a poem she wrote about remembering Felix.   She came down to Devon for the award ceremony, not knowing if she had won, and we were totally overwhelmed, not just at her brilliant achievement but because something beautiful had come out of his death.   Afterwards we walked along the seashore in the fading light, and remembered him.  Here is the poem.


Being There
(One Summer's Day)

There’s a sudden shift in the air.
The first note prises open a crack in time and all in a moment I’m standing in the heat of one summer’s day.
A searing warmth nearly as deep as the red in my cheeks.

There’s an August feeling.
Stepping onto the balcony, eyes skim and stop on the horizon, sinking slate.
Buddleia, heavy with a scent so sickly sweet the layers of butterflies become tacky like our fingers, doused in a honey glaze.
In the shallows of the sea we dive for oddities uncovered with such an instantaneous glee shown in the arcs of our mouths as we swim back home.
To escape the chill we fumble with the showers until the hot pellets graze in burning streaks.

There’s a sudden shift in the summer.
The boundaries have fallen on the shoreline.
Waist deep we wade, rigid as the sea frigid
But he stops and sits on the sand.
This is how it would normally be but something is different.
We retreat, pack up, drive off, move forwards
But he just sits and looks, then picks up his daily book.

And then I’m back again.
Standing on top of the hill where the wind cuts sharp, like the stark black keys on white
Their contrast a jarring battle waging war with our emotions.
But his brother tames them softly.
He unwrinkles them in a tune so smooth it pierces you in an unwarranted mix of beauty and sadness.

I think about where he is now,
Both below in the earth and skywards above
An encapsulation, safe with the strength of his hug.
I’ve felt this before.
In the cool of the summer night we slipped ourselves into the water.
The world ushered into a drawling darkness, disturbed only by gentle baptism.
Our fingers set the sea alight in tiny fragments like sprightly iron filings.
We carved our way through liquid starlight
a rippling mirror
And as the elements lost all definition the lucidity intensified with a scintillation all around us.
The merging of the sea and sky and he’s with us again,
in the brilliance of one summer’s night.









Monday, 31 July 2017

Finding new territory

Since Felix died I find it helps to find new places to go.  All the old places are full of memories of him, and it's good to visit them, but not all the time.  About two weeks after he died Alex and I went for a walk along the coast path west of Heybrook Bay, a stretch we hadn't walked before, and found a stunning lagoon.  It was the period in between Felix's death and his funeral,  a surreal and unreal time.  The magic of swimming in that lagoon was a moment of sanity in a miasma of madness.  I've had the urge to go back there many times since.