Sunday, 30 December 2012

Mercurial moon

picture by Jackie Wills
The moon is so fickle.  Every month I attempt a moonlit swim; I rarely achieve it.  Last night we had yet another go.  Jackie, Allan, Yaara and I met at Anstey's Cove, in Torquay; on the way over, Yaara and I had watched the moon rise over Newton Abbot - it was huge and orangey and low in the sky. As we approached Torquay though, it started to pour with rain.  Down at the cove the moon was obscured by a huge cloud, though it did come out for about four seconds, raising our hopes momentarily.  We decided to try our luck at Meadfoot, as it was too dark to get down to the sea at Anstey's safely.  At Meadfoot the moon remained stubbornly stuck behind a cloud; the sea was lively, with big waves crashing onto the prom.  We ran in, and bobbed in the obscure grey light.  After swimming around, vainly hoping for the moon to appear, we came out.  Just as we were finishing changing it emerged majestically above the clouds, casting a silvery beam  on the sea.     

Sneaking in a swim

In this 'inbetweeny' time twixt Christmas and New Year it is good to get out and walk (and swim of course).  I try and engineer things so everyone is happy - and I get a swim in at the same time. Today we walked through the Valley of the Rocks between Watcombe and Maidencombe in Torquay.  The path plunges up and down through jungle-like woods, where ivy hangs everywhere and primitive ferms abound.  You squelch through brick red mud before arriving at the pretty beach at Maidencombe.  It was all very damp; I got changed beneath the cafe, getting muddy feet as I did so, and and headed down into the grey sea, which tasted exeptionally salty. I stuck my head in and swam towards the horizon, where two red cargo ships sat immobile.  Gannets, with their beautiful black wing tips, soared overhead. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Santa swimming

We were meeting for a reprise of our Christmas swim last year.  The venue was the same - Burgh Island - and we were hoping to swim round.  But as soon as we drove over the brow of the hill and saw the water, I knew it was not to be.  Great herds of white horses were galloping over a huge brown sea; it just didn't look safe.   Dodging the showers, we assembled in our Santa garb and strode out over the empty sands to the surf, where we jumped and frolicked in the massive rollers.  We then headed off to the Mermaid Pool, hidden around the side of the island, for some calmer swimming and diving.  Thanks to all the wonderful Devon wild swimmers who brought good cheer as well as numerous mince pies, cakes and mulled cider.  Merrie Swimming!!!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Bag lady swimming

A new winter trend is emerging...and with it a new sartorial movement I am calling 'bag lady swimming'.  The trend is for early morning Sunday dips in the Dart...and we are discovering that the most efficient way to do this is to set off from home in cossie, dressing gown and wellies, preferably accessorised with mismatching gloves and hats. (the only problem with this if course is if one is being collected and has to stand out in this garb in the road).  However, practically speaking, this really works.  You get to the river, strip off, and are in.  On getting out, it's a quick rubdown, sling on the dressing gown and away you go.  The look here is modelled by Rachel and Yaara.  Note the final touch - a carrier bag - it adds that certain 'je ne sais quoi'.

Beautiful Beesands

We gathered for a birthday bob at Beesands, where the shingle and the sea stretch for miles. As we entered the water the beach dropped away under us and we were cast into vastness. The sea is so clear here, and the sound of the pebbles relentlessly churning back and forth underneath is quite mesmerising. It was fiendishly fresh but so invigorating too. Afterwards we sat in the Britannia cafe and ate crab soup, looking out on the congers drying to be bait for the pots.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Coldstream girls

Toasting in my bed on Sunday morning, I wasn't that enthusiastic about the idea of a dip in the freezing cold Dart. Temperatures have bombed in the last few days. But when we arrived at Spitchwick I immediately felt excited; the ground was frosted and white, and the delicate branches of the trees pointed nakedly into the sky. Our attire ranged from nothing at all (Judy - what a woman) through cossie/glove combos (Anna, Yaara and Rachel) to full wetsuit, boots, and gloves topped with Russian fur hat (me). The hat, while incredibly warm, is very big and came over my eyes, somewhat cramping my style and prompting comparisons with those soldiers who stand outside Buckingham Palace. The air temperature was 0.6, while the water was 3.2; where would you rather be?

Monday, 26 November 2012

The calm after the storm

Devon has been soaked by an almighty deluge which has lasted pretty much the whole of the last week. Rivers have burst their banks, homes have been flooded, trees have come down, and the trains have stopped running.   It's been a pretty scary time.  Today the rain finally stopped.  We decided to swim at Anstey's Cove, always a gorgeous oasis of calm, sheltered as it is by the limestone cliff of Walls' Hill.  As we walked down we could see that far out at sea the water was brown, presumably from the run-off from the Jurassic Coast.  But in the cove the water was its usual lovely green, though not as clear as usual.  As we swam back to shore, we admired the pink pebbles, which looked like shiny humbugs as they were continually washed by the incoming tide. 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Swimming at Starehole

There are some awfully funny place names in Devon, and Starehole Bay - or Starhole as it's sometimes known - is one of them. Maybe because when you first clap eyes on it you stop and stare. It is stunning, with a wonderfully dramatic approach: you walk along the western side of the Salcombe estuary, around some rocky turrets - Sharp Tor - at which point you get your first glimpse of the beach. Today the setting sun cast a massive spotlight down on the water which made it all the more enticing. Once in the sea we swam along the shore, marvelling at the rocks towering precipitously above us. As we looked up we saw distinct bands of colour, starting with the petrol blue sea at the bottom, then the hard grey of the rocks, the mustard yellow lichen above it, and then the green grass of the cliffs. The water was clear and delicious.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Women at Mansands

As we walked to Mansands we wondered about the name.  Maybe something to do with the very muscular, virtually vertical hills which lead down to the shore, or perhaps the man-sized pebbles which clutter the beach.  Whatever, it was just us women swimming (with an all-male onshore support team).  It felt like a remote part of Scotland, especially with the croft-like cottage overlooking the beach. The sea was flat apart from surprisingly gentle rollers breaking; they looked much fiercer than they actually were.  We swam over to the Southern side of the beach where we found  caves, before swimming around the headland, through a rather choppy gully, where we got an enticing glimpse of the next deserted beach.  

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

By the light of the silvery moon

I am still on a high this morning after one of the most perfect, otherworldly, awe-inspiring swims ever.  Anna and I swam in the sea at Oddicombe with the full moon glowing like a huge pearl overhead.  It cast an oval of white light on the sea's horizon, and sparkled a rippling pathway of diamonds from the shore. We walked in through a gentle roll of water, warm hats on our heads, and then swam straight towards the moon.  We wondered if the white oval would ever be reachable, or whether it was like a mirage. The water felt and looked like silk, saturated by the gentle moonlight, and as we swam we realised we could see our limbs glowing clearly in the water. We felt part of a tremendous, endless vastness.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The witches of Spitchwick

As copper, red and gold leaves fell down around us like tired butterflies we walked through the woods to our meeting place, a clearing by the Dart.  We'd been convened by the Sorceress-in-Chief, the lovely Pauline, to celebrate the start of winter, with the clocks going back this weekend.  The red, yellow and orange of the swimmers' hats lent a suitably Halloweenish feel and the coven assembled in the water, shrieking amid temperatures of around 6.6 degrees.  Not so much hubble bubble as shiver tremble. As I swam, I had the strange and oddly enjoyable feeling of my skin burning in the intense cold.  The river always casts its spell.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Dark islands

I love Meadfoot Beach in Torquay because of  all the islands.  Everywhere you look there are lumps of rock sticking out from the sea.  The biggest is Shag Rock, then there is West Shag, and despite the names the islands are mostly populated by cormorants.  We swam at the Eastern end of the beach, in the shadow of Kilmorie Flats, a 1960s monstronsity that looms out of the woods.  The sea was a dark, slaty green - though it looks grey in the pictures -  with a gently rocking swell.  We swam along towards Thatcher Rock, admiring the evergreen oaks clinging to the cliff faces above us, before turning back and swimming to a small pair of chunky islets, guarded by cormorants.

Splendid Cellars

When my spirits are flagging Cellars Beach at the mouth of the Yealm estuary always lifts my mood.  It has a calm, almost Mediterranean beauty; the water is always crystal clear, and is an amazing range of colours from deep green to turquoise, depending on where you are along the estuary. The walk through the woods, with glimpses of limpid river through the trees, is delicious.  The sun shone today and as I swam in the fresh, beautiful water, watching little fishes scatter over the shingle, my heart lifted.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Wild in Torbay

We've had extremely low tides for the last couple of days, and two swims have revealed Torquay's hidden marine wildlife in all its naked, sometimes grotesque beauty. The names say it all: elephant hide sponge, dead men's fingers, to name just a couple; but most exciting of all, I have finally seen a Devonshire Cup Coral.  Our first swim was at London Bridge, a natural arch.  It was a glorious day with bright sun and flat, turquoise sea.  Underneath the arch we saw starfish, dead men's fingers and various sponges; we swam into a double cave at the side of the Bridge and were overwhelmed by the sheer power of the light suffusing the water.   The following day we swam at Oddicombe, a mile or two up the coast, and again, because of the low tide, saw masses of corals and anemones nestling in the rock faces.  It was here I saw the Devonshire Cup Coral - almost exactly in the middle of this picture - it's such a romantic name, I have always dreamt about seeing one. Shame that, close up, it actually looks like a cat's bottom.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Lumpy bumpy

It was supposed to be an exploratory meander around the reefs and stacks between Thurlestone and Hope Cove, but murky seas and swell put a stop to that. Far from 'swimming and staring' it was more of a head-down swim.  The idea was to go through the 'eye of the needle' at Thurlestone Rock, and along the coastline to Hope; it was quite rough around the arch though, and so we (reluctantly) did the sensible thing and went round the outside.  It was hard going at first, with a current against us, and it took me a while to settle down; there's always a bit of nervousness when it's a route you haven't done before.  It got easier though and we enjoyed looking at the stick people on the cliffs above us as we swam.  It was the first time I've worn a wetsuit for several months, and it felt like the start of Autumn. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Sunset decadence

Picture the scene....a feisty frolic in extremely bouncy blue surf, followed by a sybaritic soak in a wood-fired hot tub on the beach. What a way to spend a Saturday evening.  A couple of enterprising brothers had decided they were going to put a hot tub on the beach at Slapton Sands and so we went along to try it out.  It was a beautifully bright autumn afternoon, and we made long shadows as we crunched down the shingle. Getting into the sea was not a dignified experience. As we approached, the rollers tried to crash us over and pull us under.  We bobbed around for a while, looking up at black-backed gulls wheeling around the sky like bits of ash off a bonfire. Then it was tub time. It was pure pleasure to sit in the deliciously warm water; like being in a big cup of tea. We felt like princesses - and a prince - as we sat there, the wood smoke tickling our nostrils, sipping champagne, nibbling on cake, and gazing out to sea. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

There's always Hope at Hope

It had been long planned - a birthday celebration swim and beach bbq. Unfortunately the day coincided with the worst weather for at least a month - heavy rain and gales.  I felt a bit depressed at the thought of my beach party being a washout, but we went anyway. However, on arrival at Hope Cove, the sea was clear, flat and lovely.  We swam over the reef, striking with its white striations, towards Thurlestone.  It is a wonderful meander amongst outlandishly shaped rocks, with seaweed swaying and fish darting beneath. We approached a large stack, which Rachel said looked like Roy Orbison in profile, and found an entrancing lagoon.  We swam back and ate bbq'd sausages followed by birthday cake and Champagne. At which point the heavens opened and we repaired to the pub where we spent a cosy hour drinking more bubbly.  Things always seem to turn out happily at Hope Cove. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The beast of Bugle Hole

 I was fixated on having a sunset  swim, and was determined to do so at Bugle Hole. The weather earlier had been glorious, but when Rachel and I set off it was dreary and drizzling. On arrival at Mothecombe it was still resolutely grey, but we trudged on. It's a Janus of of a swimming spot, with different faces at high and low tide. A keyhole shape, at high it is a perfect pool, and at low, a rocky void. We got into the calm water, a lovely contrast to the choppy sea outside. As we swam, something wonderful started to happen. The skies began to brighten around us, and then turned blotchy blue and pink; there was a golden glow on the rocky islands out at sea.  We whooped with delight as we finally got our sunset. The spell was then rudely broken when we  decided to investigate a corner of the pool where, at low tide, there's a cave. We leapt out of our skins when, all of a sudden,  a rude spray of water, accompanied by a terrifying  rumble, spurted out of a hole in the rocks. The Beast of Bugle Hole was obviously telling us to clear off. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Dying days of the Dart

There's a feeling of slight urgency and also poignancy swimming in the Dart at this time of year. You know that in a few weeks' time the water will be teeth-clenchingly cold, and the river will become unfriendly, if not hostile. So I try and snatch as many swims as I can; today we dipped at Black Pool at Hembury, an expansive oval of dark water, before swimming upstream towards the falls above it. The water was clear, the colour of cider. The reflections of the trees in the water were green, intricate and crystal clear, occasionally shuddering as we swam past.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

How the other half lived

I've long been curious about a ruined tidal pool which is part of the Coleton Fishacre estate in South Devon. The estate was home, in the 20s, to the impresario Ruper D'Oyly Carte, he of opera fame; they lived in fine style in their new, art deco house, with their own private beach - Pudcombe Cove - where they built a seawater swimming pool and sunbathing terrace. Now, due to cliff falls, the beach is only accessible from the water. We set off from nearby Kelly's Cove, into gin-clear sea, where we saw lots and lots of fish, and starfish too. It was a swim of about half a mile, through turquoise water, to get to the D'Oyly Cartes' private playground. I'm afraid to report the tidal pool was rather disappointing. Since the path down to the beach has gone it's been left to the elements (even though it's a listed building) - and it no longer holds water at low tide. The sun terrace is now just a pile of rubble. I stood by the pool and imagined myself back into the roaring twenties, lounging in the sun while sipping a cocktail brought down by the butler. Dream on....

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Palmer Dart Number 3

There are organised swims (in increasing numbers), and then there are swims that friends put on for friends. The Palmer Dart is in the latter category, a four mile swim from Totnes to Stoke Gabriel, organised every September by Olivia Palmer and her husband Stuart. This was their third event: it's just for fun, no money is involved, just an awful lot of good will. As everyone set off in what seemed to be colder and murkier water than usual, there were loud cries of CHEAT when they realised I was getting a lift halfway in the lead boat (he he) but it enabled me to get a view of a very cheeky seal who popped up during the swim and came really close to Stuart who was leading the way - so closed it touched him in fact. It kept popping up and definitely seemed interested in what was going on, but it must have got bored because after a while it disappeared. I got in at the Sharpham boathouse, and did the final two miles, where the river turns from being a slow dark serpent to a wider, saltier, faster expanse of water, where boats bob and seagulls dive. As ever, huge thanks to Olivia and Stuart for a very special swim.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Dartmoor at dusk

We decided to head for a, ahem, lake, on the top of Dartmoor to try and catch some evening sun. To our consternation we found a whole load of Dartmoor Rescue Group and police parked nearby, preparing for some sort of emergency exercise. What unfortunate timing, especially as we didn't want to be discovered or indeed rescued. So we drove over to the opposite side of the 'lake' where we found a lovely spot complete with trees to hang our clothes on. We slipped in to the black silky water, which rippled away into the distance. The soft stillness was quite something as the sun dropped away behind us.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A pootletastic time

Anna and I are particularly fond of what we call pootling....drifting around in channels and inlets, faces down, brushing past seaweed, marvelling at the colours, spotting fish and generally getting absorbed in the world beneath the surface. Today we visited Butter Bay, in between Bantham and Thurlestone (a noted naturist haunt). At low tide there is a network of gulleys, chasms and pools; we spent a happy hour swimming around, following sandy corridors with rocky walls, pulling ourselves over purple rocks, and weaving through curtains of glowing red seaweed. It was a marine maze, with many delicious dead ends...the perfect place to get lost.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Swimming girls in lipstick and pearls

It was the day of the 'official' Burgh Island Race, organised by the owners of the art deco hotel. The hotel has a strong tradition of dressing up and formality - guests wear black tie for dinner - so Kari thought we should also make a bit of an effort. So on went the warpaint and the jewels; we were certainly a contrast to the rubber-clad triathletes. It didn't impede Kari's progress though; she came 3rd in the elite section with a speedy time of just 33 minutes. I, on the other hand, took a rather more leisurely 47 minutes. Part of that time was spent in a synchro swimming session just before the end with Matt, Aaron and Sue. We had a secret rehearsal round the back of the island before revealing our Olympic-inspired routine, complete with Mo Farah and Usain Bolt moves, to the waiting crowds as we finished the race. A huge thank you to Deborah and all at the hotel for such a brilliant event, which is done with such style and generosity.