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.