Sunday, 12 December 2010

Around the rocks

My mission to find new beaches on my home turf continues. Today I tramped around near Noss Mayo. Warren Beach snuggles below the cliff path and the grand driveway which Lord Revelstoke built in the 1880s for his carriage rides along the coast. It's just below Warren Cottage, a fairytale house which he built as his lunching spot. It's a steep climb down to the beach and greenfinches serenaded us as we arrived. There are lots of dramatic rocks and networks of channels, all filled with gloriously clear water.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Through the keyhole

It was a return visit to Bugle Hole which I am convinced must have been the haunt of smugglers years ago. There are even little ancient steps carved into the rocks down to the cove. The cave is a secret passage, easy to miss even if you're standing right by it. We clambered and then swam our way through it to the sea on the other side, marvelling at the pinks, purples and greens of the rock around us. It was a Narnia-like experience, passing through not a wardrobe but a cave, into another world, the water beyond.

Monday, 22 November 2010

In the black

At last I've discovered a use for that Buckfast Tonic Wine that sits at the back of the cupboard (I get given a bottle every time my priest comes to visit). It's ideal for lacing your coffee, the perfect reviving tipple after an illicit moonlit swim. Well, it was supposed to be an illicit moonlit swim, and it was certainly illicit thought it wasn't moonlit as the moon was refusing to play ball and we ended up swimming in the pitch black. We met in our secret rendez vous - a car park in the middle of Dartmoor -clutching our torches and ready to trog off over the moor to plunge into our swimming spot. As we were all clad in our black wetsuits there were several comedy moments as we kept bumping into each other, but when we eventually got into the water it was magical and we clicked into another world altogether. Countless shades of monotone, gently lapping water, a grey smudgy sky, the black silhouettes of trees around us, and an all-enveloping sense of being part of the great silky black mass of water.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Uncharted territory

Had a wonderful, solitary time today discovering a new (to me) beach, and swimming in the murk and rain. As I walked down the coastpath I couldn't even see the sea, there was so much mist. It was a bit of a nature ramble too: I saw a woolly bear, a vole running along the rocks just below the shore, and inky black cormorants. I felt I couldn't do the beach justice with my camera, so made a short video instead....

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Autumnal ocean

I love swimming in the sea at this time of year because it's still really quite warm...even though it may look cold and grey. Today I went in at Maidencombe, after building up quite a sweat on the coast path towards Shaldon; the walk is a big dipper of constant up and downs, following the green valleys between the crumbling red cliffs. The swim at the end of the walk was a salty, zingy tonic .

Friday, 29 October 2010

An imPRESSive day

Take an orchard, a group of friends, a tractor and a press, and you're overflowing with apple juice in no time. It's a relaxed way to be with people, because if you don't feel like chatting there's no shame in excusing yourself and going to find a job to do . And vice versa.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Falling leaves

Autumn is paradoxical. Although it is rather melancholy, with everything dying, at the same time many fruits and delicious things are being produced. As we walked along an old pipeline in woods above the Dart, there were frequent popping and clicking noises as acorns dropped off the oaks above our heads and bounced onto the granite. The sun came out and shone through the crinkled trees and leaves. I found some wood blewit mushrooms; they really are the most lurid lilac colour.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Bugle Hole

I am never happier than when exploring new territory, preferably by swimming or paddling around channels, caves and rocks. Some time ago my friend Amanda had told me about a pink cave she'd found at Bugle Hole, near Mothecombe. So off we set, on a whitely sunny day, to try and find it. We located Bugle Hole, a rocky inlet, along with a cave. We didn't think it was the 'right' cave, because she'd described how you could swim through it. But we weren't looking properly, because the cave only revealed its true extent once we'd waded right in, and found it snaking back on itself, through to the other side. We went through and then swam among a little archipelago of shark-fin-like islands. When drying ourselves off in the sun afterwards there was a final bonus: lots of cowrie shells.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Get off my rock

The sea at Castle Cove in Dartmouth, at the mouth of the estuary, was like a boiling cauldron so we decided to find somewhere calmer to swim, and went to Warfleet Creek. This is a charming cove which leads into the estuary; the water is normally the most beautiful slatey green but today it was a thick brown. Undeterred, we set off and had a glorious time bobbing around as we headed towards the main body of the river. Then, to my left, I saw a rock which I thought would be fun to climb out onto, and maybe have a jump off. (Later I looked it up on the map; I think it's called Halftide Rock). Anyway, I was just standing up on it, and rather enjoying myself, when a man came out of a little pink house, virtually on the water, and told me the rock was his 'garden' and I should get off it. Naturally, being a polite and courteous swimmer, I did....but I did wonder how anyone can 'own' a rock in the estuary which gets covered up by the tide for quite a lot of the time...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Fungi phantasmagoria

The sheer outlandishness of the fairytale fungi world was in huge evidence today. Everywhere we walked in the woods by the Dart, we saw them, in huge variety and numbers. There was everything from the white hevellas - shown here to the right - like a small troop of magicians lurking in the undergrowth - to the hideous tongue-like beefsteak fungus which horrified my children. We even saw what we believe was a Devil's Bolete - or could it be Boletus Calopus? (shown below) Could someone please advise?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Around the island (again)

It's becoming a bit of a birthday tradition (mine) to have a beach party and swim around Burgh Island. For the last few years we've had much better weather in September than August, and today was no exception. The conditions were absolutely perfect. Flat calm sea, bright sunshine and the occasional scudding cloud. We had three 'Burgh Virgins' in the group; they were all so chuffed to make it round. We swam at the bottom of the tide, and it was a really low one. So much so that the channel at the back of the island - normally a dramatic watery passageway - had just a dribble at the bottom. We saw armies of cormorants lined up at the back of the island, and, in total contrast, charming little rock pipits which hopped around the rocks right close to us.

Happy hedgehogs

The hedgehog (mushrooms) have arrived! They are always slightly later than the others, but we found our first proper crop today. They are such lovely mushrooms - rarely have maggots, very meaty, and seem to withstand all weathers, appearing pristine whenever you find them.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

We did it!

Well after about six months of planning, hopes, dreams, frustrations, and shredded nerves, the big day finally came. The inaugural Agatha Christie Swim took place in Paignton, between the pretty beaches of Goodrington and Broadsands. 250 hardy souls swam what seemed like quite a bit more than a mile. The bravest - including the Mayor, Nick Bye - pictured here - did it without wetsuits. Respect. The event wasn't without its hiccups - especially in the water, I seemed to swallow half of Tor Bay - but hey, if we can raise thousands of pounds for the BBC Radio Devon Air Ambulance Appeal, it will have been worth doing.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Stripping and dipping

As my friend Anna and I were getting changed by the river bank, ready to try out a new pool we'd spotted from the road, we saw a couple coming down the bank on the other side. They settled down opposite us; he was armed with a large camera. We thought nothing of it, got in the water and started to swim. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, there was a flash of flesh (well, bottom to be precise) and I noticed the woman seemed to have taken some of her clothes off; when I looked again they were all off and a nude photoshoot was in progress. As you can imagine we were terribly British and kept on swimming around as though it was the most normal thing in the world. It was rather lovely actually - all very artistic among the moss and ferns. Wild swimming has never been so exciting.

Mushroom bonanza

The mushrooms have gone mad. They are sprouting everywhere. On our walk today we found masses of goodies including chanterelles, hedgehogs, millers, ceps and wood blewitts. Of course lots of goodies also means lots of baddies: there were scores of panther caps - v poisonous. We also spotted two death caps, which as the name suggests are, ahem, deadly. To quote the great John Wright, author of the River Cottage Mushroom book (the only field guide which makes me laugh out loud), "A single specimen is quite enough to despatch you into the next world".

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Down the Dart

I was quite anxious about this swim. Four miles down the Dart from Totnes to Stoke Gabriel is a long way. However we were swimming at the top of the tide, going with the flow, and the whole thing was simply glorious. The Dart estuary is magnificent. It flows majestically towards the sea, past marshes, reed beds and green rolling hills. As we neared Stoke Gabriel the river started to metamorphose; the water became more salty, the banks became more rocky and strands of kelp started to brush our faces. Around 30 of us did the swim, which was organised by the lovely Olivia. Thanks Olivia! We ended up at the ideally placed River Shack where we tucked into scrumptious bacon butties and other goodies.

Friday, 27 August 2010

The pools of the past

Haytor Quarry is pretty close to home, yet I've never swum in the pools there. Although it was a dull day, the Moor was colourful, with great splodges of yellow and purple. The quarry is a little sheltered world, a poignant reminder of times past when granite from here was used in such illustrious buildings as the British Museum and London Bridge. There are three pools, attractively accessorised with lily pads and rushes.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

And the band played on

It was like the final scenes on the Titanic. As the annual Burgh Island Race wound up, the heavens opened and there was a monstrous deluge of epic proportions. The band was playing; they were there to perform the first ever "Symphony on Burgh". They kept on throughout the storm; it was all so terribly British. Despite the grey skies and rain, the sea was actually quite calm, and the swim was an otherwordly experience. As I swam around the back of the island, through rocky channels surrounded by foaming spray, I felt totally alive. We'd been warned that 'Sammy the Seal' was in evidence, but there was no sign of him.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Magical mystery tour

You feel very honoured when a friend lets you in on a secret. Today we were taken to a special place that my friend had come across by chance. We shall call it the Black Lagoon....and say only that it is somewhere in the darkest South Hams. It was somewhat eerie and seemingly bottomless, or, 'as deep as a cathedral' according to someone who lives nearby. As we swam we occasionally saw columns of bubbles, like silver coins floating up from the deep.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A strange swim

Today I wanted to find somewhere I'd never swum before, so pored over the map looking for patches of blue. I settled on the River Swincombe, in the centre of the Moor, where I saw something on the map called "Swincombe Intake Works". It was a bleak yomp under overcast skies and spots of rain to find the place, which turned out to be a forlorn-looking man-made dam of what is quite a small stream. Swimming in it I felt like the last surviving person in the whole world. On the way home I stopped off in the woods and found some chanterelles; dare we hope it might be a good year for the 'shrooms?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Underwater sightings

Maidencombe is a charming small cove north of Torquay, with red sand and cliffs. We went expecting a day of sandcastles, gentle swims and ice creams but it turned out much more exciting than that. There are lots of weird and wonderful rock formations on both sides of the beach, with lots of channels, overhangs and sheltering places for marine life. We saw a starfish, wrasse, prawns and a huge spider crab which glowed day-glo orange among the thick brown kelp. There are also lots of wonderful ledges, perfect for jumping and diving.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Swimming in the wake of the Queen of Crime

Had a laugh mucking around in silly swimming hats today, to do publicity shots for a charity swim I'm helping to organise. The Agatha Christie Swim, in aid of the Devon Air Ambulance, will take place on September 19th. It follows a gorgeous one mile course between the pretty beaches of Goodrington and Broadsands in Paignton. You swim past intricate little inlets with lovely names - Shell Cove and Crystal Cove to name but two - as well as fascinating geological features including 400 million year old coral fossils. Do please come and join us and support a worthy cause - the Air Ambulance is a vital rescue service which gets no government funding. You can enter here. Photo copyright Neil Devons, Proteus Media

Thursday, 22 July 2010


During a lunchbreak swim at Hollicombe, my feathered companions included ducks as well as cormorants and gulls. Afterwards they had a little siesta on the beach. Shame I couldn't do the same.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Delicious Dart

I'd forgotten how amazing the Dart is....I've been swimming in lots of other places lately and just hadn't been there for a while. Well today I went back to one of my old 'faves' and fell in love all over again. This particular place has two small waterfalls, like natural jacuzzis. I spent lots of time just watching the myriad golden bubbles that foam constantly at the bottom of the cascade. Then I just stuck my face in and shut my eyes; it was like being given a million soft kisses.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Medieval mayhem

It's that time of year when Ashburton 'goes medieval'. The Ancient Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing ceremony goes back hundreds of years - and this year is the 750th anniversary. It is the solemn duty of the dignitaries of the town to visit all the pubs and check the quality of the beer. A special anniversary message of congratulation from the Queen was read out, before general merry making in the streets, including the sinister Grimspound Morris Men.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Carnival commotion

I know it's carnival time in Ashburton when my sleep is disturbed by groups of drunks stopping to chat on the bridge outside our house as they stumble their way home. I love it though. The lights, the glitter, the topical references and the man-made fibres. It's a wonderful home-made spectacle.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Bizarre Bazaar

Ashburton 'went funky' on Saturday, with a market called the Bizarre Bazaar. Jazz/soul floozy Mama Tokus sang outside, trailing her 'Big Bustle' (a cunningly hidden speaker), revving up the atmosphere and pulling in the punters. The town hall, where the market was held, was 'Christo'd' with exotic silk drapes. And inside, a host of goodies was on sale, from vintage lingerie, through to home-grown veg, panama hats and 'pre-loved' kitchenalia. The term "Brighton-on-the Moor" has been tentatively coined, but I don't think Ashburton needs to take its cue from anywhere else.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Perfect Penlee

Penlee Point, on the Rame Peninsular in Cornwall, just the other side of Plymouth, is full of history, both natural and man-made. Heading down to the rocky coastline we walked over a camomile lawn, relishing its fragrance, and passed bee orchids, purple vetch, speedwell and foxgloves. At Penlee Point itself we found Queen Adelaide's Grotto, an eighteenth century lookout point, and there are apparently various Victorian and Edwardian defences in the area. As we swam from an idyllic sandy cove round through channels to sheltered rocky pools, we were passed by a procession of naval destroyers and frigates going back and forth from Plymouth Sound. There was masses of marine life to see including anenomes, sea squirts and some amazing seaweed called thongweed which looked just like a mermaid's hair.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Scottish Play

For weeks excitement has been building in Ashburton about a performance of Macbeth featuring local painter and decorater Chris in the title role, and, among others, Charlie the chimney sweep as the porter. The show was put on in the atmospheric St Lawrence Chapel, and directed by former actress Cathryn Harrison, grand-daughter of Rex. It was intriguing to see people you see every day in the street, transformed into Shakespeare's characters on stage, and showing another side to themselves.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Oxbow expedition

As we approached the start of our swim in the Tamar, our excitement grew. First, the magnificent sight of the river itself - the Rhine of Devon. Then, as we got down towards the bank, we had to troop through vast reed beds which towered over us as we walked. It felt like being in the Cambodian jungle. When we finally got into the water, after our very hot trek, it was bliss. We were swimming an Oxbow, which somehow felt like a very special thing to do. There's something about an oxbow: a sort of indulgent meandering off course into a beautiful bulge; its lazily serpentine shape, and a pleasing circularity about the way you end up practically where you started.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Frolicking around the fringes

When we arrived at Bigbury-on-sea it felt like October. The place was shrouded in mist and everything was awash with grey. We continued with our swimming plans, and lo and behold it brightened up and we explored around the edge of the island, meandering through channels and diving through great fronds of kelp. We were approached by the lifeguards in their boat, who wanted to know if we were going to swim around the island. This feat has now become all too 'de rigeur'.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Stating the bleedin' obvious

You can never be too careful, especially by the sea where there are tides to worry about. At Castle Cove in Dartmouth the council isn't taking any chances with people's safety. Despite the danger of the incoming tide I plunged in and had a body-tingling swim - my first in the sea without a wetsuit this year. It was indeed cold but then I realised I was getting used to it, and swam for longer than I expected.

Totnes Groove

Saw a rather groovy band busking while out shopping in Totnes today. They are called "Not Now Bernard". I spent a lot of time dredging the recesses of my brain trying to get the reference. Eventually I remembered the the character Bernard in Four Weddings and A Funeral: a hapless and hopeless but rather charming man. In fact, Aqua Marina (see comments) tells me this is the name of a children's book about a little boy who is ignored by his parents. Thanks Aqua!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Church as home

Huccaby is an idyllic hamlet in the middle of Dartmoor near Dartmeet. It has a tiny, beautiful 19th century chapel dedicated to St Raphael. A group of dedicated fundraisers have recently got together and raised enough money for a woodburning stove to keep worshippers warm. It is a very special place, and the fireplace makes it feel like something more than a church.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Messing about in the river

At Bantham the tide was going out and the river was like a slippery snake, a constant ripple of movement towards the sea. We slid in and were pulled along by the current, enjoying a duck-eye view from the surface, looking out and up at the beach and seascape around. The world whirled by as we travelled along, clasped by the water. When we reached the open sea we got out, walked back to the start and did the whole thing again.