Thursday 21 January 2021

The Green Hill

The Green Hill is my name for the place where my son Felix is buried. It is a field above the Dart estuary, called Sharpham Meadow. Since he died in 2017 it has become a place of great importance for me, not just because it is where he rests, but because of its connection to the other places of significance in my life: the sea, Dartmoor, and the river itself. These places are all bound up with my sense of home and family and shared experiences that have formed me over the last twenty years. I'm writing about this in a memoir called The Green Hill: Letters to a son that has been taken up by the crowdfunding publisher Unbound. The book is, of course, about grief, but it is also about how you can experience joy even when in the depths of sadness. The publication of the book will depend on people pledging in advance; you can find out more HERE.


Monday 7 December 2020

Pointy daggers

So far the autumn has been warm and wet but suddenly the temperatures have plummeted. There was thick, swirly frost on the car when I set off for our Sunday morning rendez vous at Spitchwick, and when we got there there was ice in the car park.  Such a refreshing change. We walked along by the river, admiring the frost-rimmed oak leaves underfoot. We arrived at Deeper Marsh and found it covered in grey frost and there was much speculation about what temperature the water might be. In we got, and there were cries of  OOOH!!!!!  POINTY DAGGERS!!!!! This is when the water pricks your skin like a thousand little needles. Vapour was rising from the water and I think I managed to stay in for 2 minutes max. The question is, why? It seems such a mad thing to do, and yet it makes me feel so good, I have embraced the river, life itself. Everything is better after being in the water. And there is the camaraderie too. I have been swimming here every Sunday morning with the same group of dear people for, well, it must be around a decade now. We see each other and the place in all seasons and moods and in times good and bad. 

Monday 20 April 2020

Swimming through lockdown

Lockdown coincided with the start of miraculous spring weather. Getting outside has never been more important, and yet this joyous (and often noisy) sprouting of new life that I experience daily is a jarring contrast to the feeling of fear in a suddenly altered human world.   The birds are singing more loudly than I've ever heard them, the flowers in the hedgerows are so bright and fresh, and yet a virus is on the rampage, killing people daily. As usual, I find solace in the water. Instead of driving, I am walking to my special places on the River Dart, uncomfortably realising what a lazy and polluting thing I am in normal times - driving to places that only actually take 40 minutes to walk to.   I went to visit Felix and found the daffodils on his grave had flowered, along with snakes head fritillaries and cowslips. 

Monday 20 May 2019

The water, my companion

It's such an age since I've updated this blog. Felix's death has been so utterly life-shattering that writing about swimming just doesn't seem that important any more.  But actually I think it is important to say that it is a tremendous solace and has helped keep me going in the two years since he died. Whether it's in river, lake, or sea, taking the plunge soothes my mind, distracts me and, quite simply, makes me feel better.

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  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.  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.