Autumn · bereavement · Blue therapy · cold water · English Channel Swim · grief · Jellyfish · Mallorca · mental health · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · swimming · well being

34: I Won’t Back Down

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I’ll stand my ground, Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground, And I won’t back down
 (Tom Petty, 1989)

My final open water swimming event of the year, this season, was at the end of September, in Wimbleball Lake, Exmoor. It was a stormy, wet, windy, cold and grey day as the remains of a tropical storm passed across the UK, dropping a month’s worth of rain in two days (Smart, 2019). Many other events, that same weekend, were cancelled because of the weather – and I found myself, the day before, secretly hoping that ours would be cancelled too! But all credit to the organisers, who decided to go ahead, despite the conditions, enabling the 450 swimmers to successfully complete their swim and to emerge from the water “positive and elated” (Smart, 2019) – me included!

I have noticed that, every year, around this time my mood and my motivation take a bit of a tumble; I feel tired and I struggle to find much to be joyful about. I find myself not looking forward to the prospect of a swim in the cooling water. There are a range of reasons for this, I believe: the end of September brings, for me, some emotional anniversaries that coincide with the change in the season. This autumn we have not been lucky with the weather. It has mostly been wet and windy and it seemed to happen suddenly and before I was emotionally ‘ready’ for it. The days seem to have got suddenly shorter, darker and colder and I succumbed, inevitably, to the first of the winter viruses, which I have found hard to shift. I know that the water is only going to get colder and I have started to experience the anxiety about getting into the water that I wrote about in my blog Sing, Sing A Song.

Friends and family say to me: “well don’t go if you don’t want to”; “Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it”. But the fact is, that once I am in the water, swimming, I do enjoy it. And I always emerge “positive and elated”, and more particularly, proud of myself that I did it. That I didn’t give in.

We will not be defeated

I know I am not alone in this, as all the outdoor swimming discussion groups on social media are currently full of swimmers chatting about the sudden drop in the temperature of the water and the need for the addition of extra post-swim layers of clothing together with tips on acclimatisation and the emergence of supportive groups and challenges to encourage us to swim through the winter together. This is because we believe 

cold water endurance swimmer, Sally Goble (2019) wrote recently: “Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard”. She admits that, sometimes swimming in cold water at this time of year “is blooming hard” and sometimes she chooses to swim – not because of the endorphins and natural high – but because “I will not be defeated”.

I know what she means! I feel the same! It would be easy to give in, to feel sad, to feel lonely, to feel tired, to stay under the duvet – but I won’t. I have realised that it is important to me that I don’t give in, or give up. I need to just keep swimming.

And so, like many others around the country, I have entered the winter Polar Bear Swimming Challenge this year. The Challenge is to complete a set number of swims and distances outdoors in the sea, river or lake (in the UK) from 1 November to 31 March.  I have entered the ‘Gold’ category, which is to swim 250 metres twice a month AND to complete a total of at least 5000 metres total distance during the challenge period. The Polar Bear challenge is run under the clothing rules of the International Ice Swimming Association which means we can only wear one standard swimsuit, one standard silicone swim hat and standard swimming goggles.

As the water temperature (and the air temperature) continue to drop, and as November rapidly approaches,  I have begun to feel a bit nervous about this commitment – but (at this moment in time at least) I am determined that I will not back down! I will not be defeated!

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Easier Said Than Done

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)

As if the thought of swimming through winter is not hard enough, it feels even more challenging following a recent ‘restorative break’ swimming in the, still warm, Mediterranean Sea and the, still warm, air and blue skies of Mallorca. I know that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to do this and – on just about all counts – it was a positive, enjoyable, relaxing, healing and interesting trip.

However! I have found that it is not just the thought of getting into cold water that makes me anxious. I now, also, have a new anxiety – about swimming with jellyfish!

I last experienced swimming with jellyfish in Australia and I wrote about this in my blog Down Under. While that was a terrifying, jellyfish soup sort of experience, I can honestly say that the sting from a Barrel Fish Jellyfish is not painful – no more so that a mild nettle sting. Since then, I have occasionally spotted one or two little ‘Moon Jellyfish‘ and  ‘Fried Egg Jellyfish‘ while swimming off some parts of the coast in Mallorca, but they always managed to stay out of my way – and I have never been stung while swimming there – until last week when I was stung by the pink jellyfish known as Pelagia noctiluca.

This is a fairly small jellyfish but (unusual among jellyfish) both its tentacles and  bell are covered in stinging cells. The sting (as I can attest) is very painful and the swelling can (and did) continue for a considerable time after the encounter. A week later I still have a scar!

There has been a reported increase in sightings of jellyfish around the coast of Mallorca this year – and around UK waters for that matter. The general consensus seems to be that it is due to global warming boosting the water temperatures by a couple of degrees, together with the presence of increased pollution-derived nutrients and reduced cool freshwater entering from rivers. However, overfishing of tuna fish and the reduction of the number of marine turtles – which eat the jellyfish – has also been blamed.

Apparently, Jellyfish have been living in the sea for millions of years. They are invertebrates and are not very good swimmers – usually just drifting around on the sea currents. They (usually) float, suspended in the water at a depth of about five metres where the light is brightest and the food abundant. They are actually quite beautiful to watch (from a distance) and the lack of a brain means that if a jellyfish stings you it really can’t help it.

But I did get stung! And it was quite a shock how painful it was. However, I was determined not to allow them to defeat me and I made myself get back into the water the next day – and every day – and I continued to enjoy some lovely swimming locations.  However, I found that  it is very difficult to relax and to settle into a swim once you have been stung! Whereas previously, when I saw jellyfish, I would swim away from or around them, I am now constantly looking around, and if any jellyfish are present I would shorten and curtail my swim.

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It is sometimes harder said than done, to keep going, to overcome your fears – but I know that I would feel worse, would feel disappointed with myself if I hadn’t got back into the water and kept swimming.

I Will Survive

I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive (Gloria Gaynor, 1978)

On 17th September, Sarah Thomas inspired us all by becoming the first person to swim across the English Channel four times non-stop – that is, from England to France and back – twice!  The swim was due to be about 80 miles but because of strong tides she ended up swimming closer to 130 miles. It took her just over 54 hours.

This tremendous feat of mental and physical endurance is almost incomprehensible by any standard. And yet, Sarah Thomas did it just one year after she had completed treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer. She claims that planning for, training for and completing this swim kept her going during her treatment and recovery and gave her something other than her cancer to focus her mind and her determination on.

Among the many mental and physical challenges that she faced during her swim she was also stung by a jellyfish – in the face!. And she did not stop. She didn’t give up. She kept going. And s

I promise that I will try to hold on to that inspiring thought when I stand by the water’s edge contemplating my swims this winter! I will keep swimming. I will not be defeated!

Photo Credit:  Howaboutdave Photography. 

References

Brontë, C. (1847) Jane Eyre, Smith, Elder & Co.

Essex, The, (1963)  Easier Said Than Done , Roulette.

Gaynor, G. (1978) I Will Survive, from the album Love Tracks,  Polydor Records

Goble, S. (2019) Let’s not kid ourselves: sometimes it’s hard, from Postcards From The Pool, Medium.com

Perraudin, F. & Ingle, S. (2019) Cancer Survivor is First Person to Swim the Channel Four Times Non-Stopin The Guardian, 17th September 2019

Petty, T. (1989) I Won’t Back Down, from the album Full Moon Fever, MCA Records

Smart, M. (2019) Hundreds beat the weather to take on Exmoor Open Water Swim, in North Devon Gazette, October 3rd 2019

Local Details

My jellyfish encounter happened at Cala Llamp on the South West Coast of Mallorca.

Sea temperature : 23 degrees celsius

Air temperature: 24 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 750 metres

Swim Time:  22 minutes

Post Script: In case it ever happens to you, you might like to know that the best way to treat a jellyfish sting is to soak it in sea water – and never with fresh or bottled water which will aggravate the stinging cells. Just soak it and do not rub or scratch the stung area. There is, apparently, no scientific evidence that urine disables the stingers. There is some disagreement about whether vinegar is helpful (just in case you happen to carry vinegar with you when you to the beach)!

 

 

Charmouth · Clevedon · cold water · Dorset · English Channel Swim · Jane Austen · Jurassic Coast · Lyme Regis · mental health · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · sea swimming · Social prescribing · swimming

33: Sink Or Swim

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Sink or swim, hold your breath and just dive right in.
I’ll be there; I’ll be there with you till the end. (Lewis Watson, 2014)

 

I have been watching a Channel 4 TV programme called Sink Or Swim in which 11 people, who previously could not swim or who were afraid of the water, are being trained and coached, over a period of 3 months, to prepare them to swim the English Channel in aid of the charity Stand Up To Cancer. Some of these are ‘celebrities’ I have heard of, most are not, but, regardless of who they are, I am finding their ‘journey’ inspiring and I respect and admire them all as they are being ‘pushed to their limits’ and ‘transformed into strong open water swimmers’.

In addition, for me, the programme is highlighting how empowering, addictive and achievable swimming in cold open water can be.

I have been reading back over some of my earliest blog posts (see Stormy Waters) and reminding myself how terrifying and difficult I found swimming in the sea when I started – and I considered myself to be a competent swimmer. Looking back I know that I have made considerable progress as an open water swimmer – but I would still balk at the prospect of swimming the Channel! So, whether or not they make it, I am very impressed that they are even considering attempting it. Whatever the final outcome, they can all proudly claim that they are now open water swimmers.

Look How Far We’ve Come

I can barely swim, And the current’s coming in, And the current’s coming in again (Imagine Dragons, 2011)

I am equally, if not more, impressed and inspired by the progress of some of the people I know who swim at Clevedon. In the 2 years since I have been ‘an open water swimmer’ I have met, swum with and followed the progress of quite a number of swimmers who have made the transformation from non-swimmer (or unconfident dipper) to competent  and enthusiastic open water endurance swimmer.

I find it quite amazing that someone who previously could only swim a gentle heads-up breast-stroke can now (within a year of starting swimming) swim 10k front crawl. Equally inspiring, many of these ‘novice’ swimmers have also swum considerable distances through the winter in ‘skins’. I sometimes feel that my own achievements are rather tame by comparison!

These achievements are not only a fantastic example of determination but also testament to the fantastic swimming coaching that is available to anyone who wants to become a swimmer and/or open water swimmer. According to the Channel 4 TV programme one in five British adults are unable to swim and one in three children leave school without being able to swim. The series aims to challenge the stigma of being a non-swimmer as it follows the progress of these ‘celebrities’ and to demonstrate that, with the appropriate support and coaching, anyone can (and everyone should) learn to swim. So, if you haven’t already – just start swimming!

Sea Bathing

Another TV programme that I have been enjoying recently is a Sanditon an ITV television drama series based on an unfinished manuscript by Jane Austen (at the time of her death in 1817, Austen had completed 24,000 words of the novel). The drama is set in a fictional  seaside town, called Sanditon, and much of the story promotes the growing popularity and perceived health benefits of eighteenth century ‘sea bathing’.

Sea-bathing was being prescribed by doctors as early as 1750, and things really took off when George III chose to recuperate in Weymouth in 1789. In the later part of his life, George III had a recurrent, and eventually permanent, mental illness. Although it has since been suggested that he had the blood disease porphyria, the cause of his illness remains unknown. His physicians extolled the virtues of sea water to aid his recovery and recuperation from these episodes and thus, this treatment was given the Royal stamp of approval.

Jane Austen was an enthusiastic fan of ‘sea bathing’ (janeausten.co.uk) and her family enjoyed many sea-side holidays.  Her unfinished novel, Sanditon, is set in a fictional seaside resort town of the same name, where a new seaside community is being developed to attract visitors for the therapeutic or curative benefits of sea-air and sea-bathing. In Sanditon, Mr Parker asserted that:

” No person could be really well … or in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year … sea air was healing, softening, relaxing, fortifying and bracing” (Austen, 1817)

Rather than being about swimming, however, sea-bathing was seen as more of an extension of the indoor spa bathing that was so popular in Regency England. It was the immersion in cold water and exposure to ‘bracing’ sea air that was considered to be therapeutic. Interestingly, in the light of recent research on the benefits of cold water swimming (see my blog The Happy Club), doctors at the time often prescribed for their patients immersion in the coldest water available and Jane Austen’s family sea-side visits generally took place in the winter – between September and February.

“A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.” (Mrs. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, Austen, 1812)

As well as enjoying all the references to the benefits of ‘sea-bathing’ – to individuals and to the new community of Sanditon – I am also avidly watching the TV Drama because it was filmed locally! Many of the ‘sea bathing’ scenes were filmed at Clevedon – on the beach and in our Marine Lake and some of our local swimmers went into the water as ‘extras’.

And so, as much as for anything else, I am watching the series for ‘spot the location’ and ‘spot the swimmer’ purposes!

Lyme Regis

John Fowles wrote in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), that “A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better”. And so, this month my swimming journey took me to Lyme Regis in Dorset where Jane Austen was also a frequent visitor and where she wrote her famous novel Persuasion (1817). Persuasion was published posthumously and is said to be the most autobiographical of all her novels.

In Persuasion, Austen describes “the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the Walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company” and in September of 1804 she wrote a letter to her sister in which she describes sea-bathing at Lyme Regis as “so delightful” that she “stayed in rather too long” and wore herself out so much that she would avoid bathing on the following day (consideringausten.wordpress.com).

 

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Lyme Regis is an ancient town that is featured in the Domesday Book. It has a beautiful bay and breathtaking views and its historic Cobb and harbour are iconic features. Lyme Regis is part of the famous Jurassic Coast (see An Indian Summer) and in 2008 a 400 metres section of land slipped onto the beach between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, described at the time as the “worst landslip in 100 years”and necessitated diverting the Coast Path inland. So perhaps it is now more straightforward to swim across the bay from Lyme Regis to Charmouth than to walk.

The Lyme-Splash Challenge

This month I did just that by taking part in the Lyme-Splash Challenge! Now in its 4th year, the Lyme Splash is a 3.2km charity sea swim between Lyme Regis and Charmouth and the proceeds of the swim are split evenly between charities, which this year were BSharp Youth Music Project and Plastic Free Lyme Regis.

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It was a lovely, community event, very well organised with a beautifully scenic course across Lyme Bay. Places are limited to 200 swimmers and the start was staggered into 7 waves of approximately 25 swimmers, so that there was no frenetic mass start – which was very welcome to me. Although there were swimmers ‘in it to win it’, the fiercely competitive feeling that you get at some events was modified by the staggered start and by the ‘winning’ categories. There was a prize for the fastest swimmer, but there were also prizes for the slowest swimmer (or the ‘longest in the water’ category!), for the youngest swimmer and for the oldest swimmer (not me on this occasion). There is even an official song – the Lyme Splash Song.

We were blessed with perfect weather and calm sea conditions and it was a truly enjoyable swim in clean, clear (and still warm at 17 celsius) turquoise water.

“The scenes in neighbouring Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country … these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.” (Jane Austen, 1812)

The weekend before the Lyme Splash I also swam at Eype Beach, just a bit further round the coast from Charmouth. Less well known than some of the other beaches along this stretch of coast  it sits beneath the towering peak of Golden Cap and offers breath taking views of Lyme Bay. According to the ‘Visit Dorset‘ website “Making your way to this secluded spot  gives you a slice of Dorset life from years gone by. Winding your way to the coast through narrow country lanes you pass quintessential country cottages aplenty”!

And its true! It’s beautiful here! (see Dorset Life) And it always makes me want to Just Keep Swimming. So come on in, the water’s lovely. Don’t sink. Just swim!

The water sustains me without even trying
The water can’t drown me, I’m done
With my dying (Flynn and Marling, 2010)

Photo Credits:  Beth Oliver, Jon Kent

Local Details

The Lyme Splash was organised by Lyme-Splash.com 

Sea temperature : 17 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 3.2 kilometres

Swim Time:  58.06 minutes

Afterwards: There are many lovely places to eat in Lyme Regis but we took a picnic lunch and ate it on Monmouth Beach

 

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References

Austen, J. (1812) Pride and Prejudice, T. Egerton

Austen, J. (1817) Persuasion,  (1817) John Murray

Austen, J. (1817) Sanditon (unfinished)

Considering Austen

janeausten.co.uk

Dr. Crane of Weymouth (1795) Cursory Observations on Sea Bathing  printed for the author, and sold at Delamotte’s Library

Flynn, J. & Marling, L. (2010) The Water, from the album Been Listening , Transgressive Records

Fowles, J. (1969) The French Lieutenant’s Woman Little Brown and Co.

Imagine Dragons (2011) Look How Far We’ve Come, from the album It’s Time,  Studio Recording

Watson, L. (2014) Sink Or Swim from the album The Morning, Rhino Entertainment

 

 

bereavement · Blue therapy · Brighton · Clevedon · grief · mental health · mental health, community, · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · Social prescribing · swimming · well being

32: Keep Moving Forward

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“Here we are, it’s a brand new day, Four years ago the skies were a darker grey, So, keep moving forward, don’t turn around” (Stevie Wonder, 2012)

Unbelievably, it is now 4 years since that traumatic life event that contributed to my finding a solace and a purpose in open water sea swimming (see It Started There). At that time I felt as though swimming in the sea was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I determined to just keep going and to just keep swimming and it gave me a purpose, something to focus on: a future.

“Just Keep Swimming” is Dory’s motto in Finding Dory (immortalised by Ellen DeGeneres). The little fish may not always know where she is or what she is doing there, but she can always keep moving forward. And that is what I have been doing as I have worked through these days, months – and now years – since Wendy died. And this summer I have been reflecting on the progress I have made – how far I have travelled and how much I have gained.

It seems incredible to me now that I have only been swimming, regularly, in the sea for just over two years. It also feels incredible that it was only just over one year ago – at the end of May 2018 – that I swam, for the first time, around the end of the historic 150 year old Clevedon Pier. I completed that swim, with a supportive group of  Clevedon swimmers, on a day when I had been feeling a bit down and I wrote in my diary:

“In the evening I went to a ’round the pier’ swim. It was a beautiful evening. It was a really lovely swim – easier than I had thought, although the ‘pull’ of the tide was pretty strong at some points. There was a large group of us and the mood was fantastic. A relaxing, chatty swim and afterwards sitting on the beach watching the sun set. It was just what I needed”.

Since then I have swum round the end of the Clevedon Pier many times, usually with others, but also, on several occasions on my own. What once felt like a fearsome and daunting adventure, now doesn’t  – and I have even, this year, accompanied other swimmers swimming it for their ‘first time’.

#sharetheswimlove 

In my previous blog (Little Island) I referred to the New Economics Foundation (NEF, 2008) ‘Five Ways To Wellbeing’ guidelines. In that blog I focussed on Keep Learning but I also noted how outdoor swimming has enabled me to meet all five ‘ways’, and especially  Connect with others and Be active.

One of the lovely things about about open water sea swimming is that there is a nationwide ‘community’ of swimmers who are only too willing to help, advise, support, congratulate  and accompany you as you try new locations and challenges. I would never have attempted any of my ‘firsts’ on my own and I am grateful to all the swimmers who have generously introduced and accompanied me on them.  I now often find myself ‘paying forward’ by introducing and accompanying other new or inexperienced swimmers into the sea and supporting the Outdoor Swimming Society campaign to #sharetheswimlove. Incidentally, this also meets the 5th of the Five Ways To Wellbeing which is to be generous. In my experience open water sea swimmers are all incredibly generous.

Connect With Others

The best advice, when swimming somewhere new, is to swim with others who are familiar with the local conditions. I had the opportunity to do this recently and to swim round another pier – Brighton Pier – in a community event, with a small group (only 97 on the day) of both experienced and inexperienced sea swimmers.

Brighton is a famous town and is visited by hundreds of tourists every year. It has many literary associations having featured in books by, for example Graham Greene, Henry James and Jane Austen. It has been featured in over 40 films, including the classic 1947 film Brighton Rock.

An iconic part of the scenery of Brighton, Brighton Palace Pier, was first opened in May 1899. Once opened, the pier proved to be an immediate success with people flocking to see and be seen. Since 1984 it has been free to enter the pier allowing visitors to enjoy the walk, the sea air and the view for free. However, once on the pier there are plenty of fairground rides and all sorts of traditional sea-side stalls to spend your money on!

Brighton Swimming Club

However, the beach beside Brighton Palace Pier is also famous for being the home of the Brighton Swimming Club – the oldest swimming club in Britain. Members of the swimming club have been swimming here in the sea every day of the year since its formation in 1860. Their aim is to promote the health benefits to be derived from sea swimming and to encourage others to learn to swim.

The fascinating history of the swimming club can be viewed at the free Brighton Fishing Museum on the seafront and there are courses available for those who would like to learn how to swim in the sea rather than a swimming pool.

“Across the wooden boards and then far out to sea” (Razorlight), 2018)

Brighton Pier

Having now swum round the end of Clevedon Pier many times, I had been relatively relaxed about the prospect of swimming round Brighton Pier. Although, at 600 metres, Brighton Pier is twice the length of Clevedon Pier, I was used to swimming the 1.5km swim distance and didn’t consider it would be too challenging. We have been having a few weeks of warm weather and I knew the sea wouldn’t be cold.

However, I started to get a bit anxious when, a week before the event, a fellow swimmer on Clevedon Beach made a comment about that being ‘quite a long way out to sea’. At Clevedon the sea is so murky and silty that you can’t even see your own hands or feet let alone the bottom of the sea, so you never really get a sensation of being in deep water. I suddenly became ‘spooked’ that, at the end of Brighton Pier, I would be able to see the bottom and realise how far out to sea I was.

We both stare at the waves, neither of us saying what needs to be said. The  wind and the sea spray just a little too fierce for a stroll along the pebbles. The tide is coming in. The water swirls at the supporting pillars of the pier. (Critchley, 2017)

To make it worse, the day before the event, a storm moved in across the South East of England and, only one day after the highest ever temperatures were recorded across Britain, the wind at Brighton started whipping the sea into huge breakers. The day of the swim dawned with a 10 degree drop in the temperature and heavy rain!

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And I will see you at the end of the pier” (The Distractions, 2017)

As it turns out I needn’t have worried. By the time we started the swim the rain had eased to a light drizzle and the on-shore breeze was ‘gentle’. The beach beside Brighton Pier consists of a steeply sloping shingle bank so that at high tide, the sea can be deep just a couple of metres off-shore. While, for inexperienced swimmers and young children this can be dangerous, it made getting in – on the east side of the pier – and starting swimming much easier. Getting out – on the west side of the pier – was more of a challenge due to the steepness of the shingle beach and the run-back of the tide, but by then I had completed the swim.

 

And as for the deep water? Well, all I can say is that, on that day, the sea at Brighton was not as clear as I thought it would be – and anyway, I was too busy ‘sighting’ and trying to ensure that I didn’t stray too far off course as I rounded the pier to give much thought to looking down!

Clevedon Long Swim

One week after completing the Brighton Pier Swim I took part in another enjoyable community swim – the historic Clevedon Long Swim. The Clevedon Long Swim is an annual tradition dating back to 1928. It is, like the Brighton Pier Swim, a small, community focussed event, held to encourage more people to try sea swimming and to raise funds to help maintain the Clevedon Marine Lake.

I completed this swim for the first  time two years ago (see Another Year Over And What Have You Done?) and, at that point, I had only recently progressed from swimming in the marine lake to swimming in the sea. That was the first time that I had attempted the iconic 1 mile swim from Ladye Bay to Clevedon Pier. As I was looking back, recently, and reflecting on the progress I have made in those two years, I was amused to note that, on that first occasion, I emerged proudly from the water wearing not only a full wetsuit – but also neoprene gloves – IN JULY!

Keep Moving Forward

Since that day in July 2017 I have progressed to not only swimming the one way from Ladye Bay to the Pier on many occasions – for fun – but also over the past year to swimming ‘the 2-way’ (there and back). And this year I have been doing it ‘in skins’ (no wetsuit).

“and you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind” (Elvis Presley 1972)

The painful truth is that there is no going back and when tragic things happen in your life you have to find a way to keep moving forward – to keep living. Martin Luther King (1967) apparently said “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

I agree, but I would add that, for me, keeping moving forward means  Just Keep Swimming! 

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Photo Credits:  Toby Jason, Gary Clark, Iain BourneBeth Oliver, Backwell Camera Club

Local Details

The Brighton Pier Swim was organised by the Brighton Sports Companyand for every entry a donation to the Friends of West Hove Infants School PTA was made.

Sea temperature : 20 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 1,599 metres

Swim Time:  26 minutes

Afterwards: We enjoyed lunch with friends at Lucky Beach Cafe

 

 

The Clevedon Long Swim was organised by Clevedon Marine Lake in aid of MARLENS 

Sea temperature : 21 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 1,473 metres

Swim Time: 22 minutes

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References

Critchley, E. (2017)Ann Quin, and a sense of place in literature , emilycritchley.com

Distractions, The (2017) The End Of The Pier from the album Kindly Leave The Stage, Digital Album

King. M.L. (1967) Speech at Glenville High School, CLEVELAND, Ohio,  April 26, 1967.

New Economics Foundation (NEF) (2008)  ‘Five Ways To Wellbeing

NHS, (2018) 5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing

Presley, E. (1972) Always On My Mind, RCA Records

Razorlight, (2018) Brighton Pier from the album Olympus Sleeping, Atlantic Culture Records

Wonder, S. (2012) Keep Moving Foward Digital Recording

 

 

 

 

 

ageing · Blue therapy · community · Devon · mental health · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · Plymouth Hoe · swimming · well being

31: Little Island

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” Be content with small places, the local, the short story, rather than the saga” (McCall-Smith, 2006:342)

A recent study by the University of Exeter found that people who live near to the sea report better health and well-being than those who live further away from the sea. They also found that those who regularly visit ‘blue spaces’ report a lower risk of depression. The research authors claim that their findings form part of a ‘growing body of evidence worldwide’ that suggests contact with ‘blue spaces‘ benefits the health and well-being of people of all ages (Allini, 2018).

I have always enjoyed being near the sea. However, it wasn’t until I started my open water sea swimming journey (It Started There) that I found the motivation and purpose to go and visit, enjoy and explore the many lovely towns, villages, bays and coves that our coast has to offer. Indeed, I have lived close to Clevedon for many years without (until recently) visiting it more than once or twice a year – and then usually for a ‘blow the cobwebs away’ walk. Since discovering that I can swim there – in the sea – I now go there several times a week.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust, 1923)

The Hoe

It has been a not dissimilar story with other places along our coast. I had visited the city of Plymouth many times, as part of my work, but until this month I had never before undertaken the short walk from the city centre to the waterfront of Plymouth Hoe. And I had never before swum there. I am sure that, if I had done so, I would, in all likelihood, have felt a lot less tired and stressed than I did.

The lovely green, parkland waterfront overlooking the stretch of harbour waters of Plymouth Sound is called Plymouth Hoe. The name ‘Hoe’ derives from Old English meaning ‘high ground’ and in Tudor times a fortress was built there to defend the coastline from attack.  Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse, originally built out on the Eddystone reef in 1759 was re-positioned on Plymouth Hoe in the 1880s. Smeaton’s Tower stands 72 feet high and from the top you can enjoy fantastic views across Plymouth Sound – and look down on the famous – and beautiful – Art Deco, salt water Tinside Lido.

Firestone Bay

Even if I had previously ventured down to ‘The Hoe’, I am certain that I would never have discovered the lovely little Firestone Bay – and even if I had done, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to swim there alone, given the tidal currents and the fact that the Brittany Ferry (amongst other shipping) regularly passes through there.

Fortunately for me, my quest to find swimming events that enable me to discover our South Coast (see This Summer I Went Swimming), revealed this little gem to me this month. Exactly one week after my triumphant swim in Swanage Bay (see This summer I went swimming) I was back in the water swimming from Firestone Bay to Drake’s Island (and back) as part of the annual Chestnut Appeal’s Drake’s Island Swim.

Firestone Bay, I found, is not dissimilar to the more familiar (to me) Clevedon Beach. It is a small pebble beach, reached by a set of stone steps,  with a slipway into the sea and where it is best to swim at high tide. Close to Devils Point, the currents here can, apparently, be both ‘spectacular and dangerous’.

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Keep Learning

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” (attributed to St. Augustine.

In addition to discovering places to swim, my swimming journey has also aroused in me an enthusiasm for learning about the local places I visit: about the local history, the communities, the environment and the lives of people who have (and do) live there.  My horizons have been broadened and I find that there is so much to learn about ‘local’ places. I am loving, not just the swimming, but the exploration, the research and the learning. 

In 2008, The New Economics Foundation (NEF) produced the ‘Five Ways To Wellbeing’ guidelines, that have been adopted and promoted by the UK Government and by the NHS – and one of these is ‘keep learning’. Recent research has shown (Narushima, 2018) that  continuous participation in non-formal lifelong learning can help to sustain psychological wellbeing as we grow older.

Lifelong learning is about keeping the mind, body, and spirit stimulated, challenged, and fully engaged. Research has shown that a stimulated mind promotes a healthy brain and helps maintain mental alertness and that even an ageing brain, can grow new connections and pathways when challenged and stimulated.

Vitally important to enhanced quality of life, (lifelong learning) helps develop natural abilities, …  stimulates natural curiosity about the world, increases wisdom, … and helps ensure a rich and fulfilling third age  (Narushima, 2018)

As it happens, I also find that my interest and participation in open water swimming  provides opportunities to meet all five of the Five Ways to Well Being, which are connect with others, be active, take notice, keep learning, be kind and generous (NHS, 2018). There is so much more to be gained from swimming – and from swimming in the sea – than ‘kicking your feet and moving your arms around’ (McGarrigle, 1976)

Drake’s Island

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Little Island, Little Island, 
Glory lost in the mists of time (Elton John, 1995)

Drake’s Island is named after Sir Francis Drake, who sailed from there in 1577 and returned in 1580 having captained the first ship (The Golden Hind) to circumnavigate the world. In 1583 Drake was made governor of the island. Since 1995, it has been in private ownership – and is currently for sale (Morris, 2018) – however, the island has a long and proud history, playing an important strategic and naval role in the defence of Plymouth (see a link to a video about the history of the island below).

The Drake’s Island Swim is a lovely, local, community event – advertised as “a great swim for anyone new to an organised Open Water Swim”. It was not a ‘race’ – we were not given timing chips and there were no records of who came first and no prizes or trophies awarded. Of course, some swimmers did ‘race’ and I am sure that several were using it as  training for more competitive events. For most, though, it was about having the safe opportunity to swim to Drake’s Island, to take part and to gain the personal satisfaction of completing the distance.

 “And when at last, the battle’s won we asked for no reward ”  (Elton John, 1995)

However, we were all rewarded – post swim – with a delicious array of home-made cakes courtesy of the local tennis club!

Photo Credits:  Beth Oliver

Local Details

The Drake’s Island Swim is organised by the Chestnut Appeal, a men’s cancer charity.

Sea temperature : 16 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 1,755 metres

Swim Time:  38 minutes

Afterwards: We climbed to the top of Smeaton’s Tower and then enjoyed an al fresco lunch at the Liner Lookout Cafe

 

A History of Drakes Island – short video

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References

Allini, E. (2018) Being near a body of water makes us calmer and healthier, Global News, July 2018

Elton John (1995) Little Island, from the album Randy Newman’s Faust,  Warner Brothers

McCall-Smith, A. (2006) Espresso Tales, Abacus

McGarrigle, K. & McGarrigle, A. (1976) The Swimming Song, from the album Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Warner Records.

Morris, S. (2018) Plymouth’s historic Drake’s Island fortress on sale for £6mThe Guardian, October 2018

Narushima, Liu & Diestelkamp, (2018)  Lifelong learning in active ageing discourse: its conserving effect on wellbeing, health and vulnerability Ageing & Society  38(4): 651–675.

New Economics Foundation (NEF) (2008)  ‘Five Ways To Wellbeing
Proust, M. (1923) The Prisoner, Penguin

(attributed to) St Augustine in Fielding, T. (1824) “Select Proverbs of All NationsWade

Wheeler, W., White, M., Stahl-Timmins, W., & Depledge, M. (2012) Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing?, Health & Place, Volume 18, Issue 5, September 2012, Pages 1198-1201

Blue therapy · Dorset · Enid Blyton · grief · Happiness · Jurassic Coast · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · summer · Swanage · swimming · well being · wetsuit

30: This Summer I Went Swimming

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This summer I went swimming
… I held my breath and I kicked my feet
And I moved my arms around (Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 1976)

And so! Here we are at the start of July! Already we have passed that mid-year point. In the Northern Hemisphere, where I live, the longest day has been and gone and the earth has already started its tilt away from the Sun.

Since my daughter Wendy died, four years ago, June has always been a rather difficult and emotional month for me. That is one of the reasons why there has been a bit of ‘a gap’ between my last blog post and this one. Thoughts and memories and emotions swirl around in me while I am trying to get on with the business of day to day living and with focusing on those around me. I find it very hard to express any of this struggle – verbally or in writing. And so it mostly remains private. And I just keep swimming.

As I have said before, swimming in the sea seems to help me cope. Even now, when the sea is no longer so cold as to take your breath away and to ‘shock’ you into a different mind-set, there is something about it that helps to ‘cleanse’ the mind and heal the soul. The sea carries you, bounces you, splashes you and rolls you and ensures that, despite yourself, you are, mostly, able to leave your worries, your thoughts and your sadness on the beach with your clothes.

Recently I have also re-discovered the cathartic release that I used to experience when I first started swimming in the sea. This summer I have entered a number of (for me) quite challenging swimming events and in attempting to prepare for them I have recently started ‘pushing myself’ and doing much longer swims on a daily basis.  The sea hasn’t always been gentle with me on these swims, and when I have felt myself struggling is when I have again experienced that cathartic release of tears – and it is also when I feel Wendy closest to me – and I find the strength to keep going.

I’ll wipe away those bitter tears, I’ll chase away those restless fears, And turn your blue skies into grey. There should be laughter after pain, There should be sunshine after rain   (Dire Straits, 1985)

Five Go Off In A Caravan

Although my journey of swimming the South Coast has got off to a disappointingly slow start this summer –  hampered in no small part by the volatility and unpredictability of our ‘English Summer’ weather – the events I booked onto this year were deliberately chosen for their locations – to assist me in ‘ticking off’ some beaches. My first event of this season was the Swanage Long Swim on 30th June.

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The events that we enter are something that we do as a family. We started in 2015 when we entered our first team triathlon (see It Started There) soon after Wendy had died, and we all pay tribute to her as our inspiration for our subsequent achievements. For me, events are not about the competition – hardly surprising really, as I’m usually somewhere near the back! For me, the events are more about spending the day or weekend with my family, having fun, supporting each other congratulating each other and celebrating each other.

Our family team for the Swanage Long Swim was enriched by the addition of one of my brothers and his wife who have recently discovered the joys of sea swimming; and by the family of another of my brothers (who lives close to Swanage) enhancing our on shore support crew.

To the delight of my (support crew) grand-children, for whom the excitement about where we will spend the night and what we will have for breakfast, far outweighs the pleasure of cheering us across the finishing line, we rented a (admittedly rather posh) caravan as overnight accommodation – which felt rather appropriate for a trip to Swanage.

Swanage is famously associated with the British children’s author Enid Blyton who was a keen open water swimmer and who used to regularly swim around the Victorian Swanage Pier that extends into the southern end of Swanage Bay. Blyton first visited Swanage in 1931 and used Dorset as the inspiration for her Famous Five adventures.

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The Famous Five adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy have become something of a legend and were fondly satirised in 1980s by The Comic Strip who made 3 Five Go Mad in Dorset tv programmes. Enid Blyton’s stories paint a picture of an idyllic land where the characters “watch waves break into spray over rocks”, “lie on heathery beds listening to sounds of the night” and “smell the drifting scent of honeysuckle”. The villages are all hundreds of years old with smugglers’ tunnels in the houses, and the countryside is a perfectly safe place for unaccompanied minors to roam (in spite of all the kidnappers on the loose), always with picnics of ham rolls, hard-boiled eggs and bottles of ginger beer!

“It was such a lovely day too, and the sky and sea were so blue. They sat eating and drinking, gazing out to sea, watching the waves break into spray over the rocks” (Blyton, 1944)

The Swanage Long Swim

Somehow, back in the confident glow of February, knowing that I was close to completing my first winter of swimming without a wetsuit, I must have glossed over the description of the Swanage Long Swim as being “perfect for those swimmers looking for that challenge”. As May became June and the storms kept on rolling in, that reality began to hit home and I realised that a 2.5 km swim round Swanage Bay was not, after all, going to be the sightseeing ‘day out’ I had fondly imagined. I began to have serious ‘whatever was I thinking?’ moments. 

Back in February this year, I thought that I would never be wearing a wetsuit again. However, most large organised events require – or strongly advise – participants to wear them for health and safety and insurance reasons. The Swanage Long Swim was a ‘wetsuit compulsory’ event and so I had to get used to swimming in one again. I did a couple of long distance ‘practice’ swims in my wetsuit at Clevedon and experienced all the ‘I can’t breathe’ and additional buoyancy panic that I had felt the first time I wore one (It Started There).

 “One minute into the swim and I couldn’t breathe! I didn’t seem to be able to move my arms and legs! I didn’t seem to be moving forward! I seemed to have lost the ability to swim”. 

It seemed to me that it was more difficult swimming in a wetsuit, and it felt as though it was making me slower. This worried me because there was a time cut-off in this event and I was afraid I would suffer the indignity of being asked to ‘leave the water’ if I didn’t complete it within the allotted 1 hour and 15 minutes. I knew I could swim the distance in that time in a pool and in the marine lake. However, as readers of this blog will recall, I am not known for my ability to swim in a straight line in the sea (see Which Way You Goin’ Billie?) and there is always the chance that I will add an additional 500 metres to any planned route – especially in unfamiliar waters!

It’s all right now!

There she stood … Smiling from her head to her feet. (Free, 1970)

As it turns out all my fears were (mostly) unfounded. After a week of strong wind and very bumpy seas, when Sunday dawned, the sun shone, the wind dropped, the sea was calm, my wetsuit didn’t bother me (much), I didn’t encounter any jellyfish, and the support kayaks ensured that I (more or less) stuck to the planned course!

And guess what? I got a trophy! Amazingly, I was apparently the 3rd woman! And my daughter, Jayne, also got a trophy for being 2nd woman! Now that is what I call a real family event. Yay for us!

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You can follow all our family events and achievements (not just swimming) on our facebook page Shout Out For Wendy

Local Details

The Swanage Long Swim is part of the Swanage Triathlon Festival – now in its 33rd year!

Sea temperature : 16 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 2.5 kilometres

Swim Time:  60 minutes

We stayed at: Rockley Park

Afterwards: We enjoyed a delicious lunch courtesy of Button2Button Dorset Catering

 

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Photo Credits:   Gal Almoznino,  Jayne Almoznino & Pete Gillespie

References

Blyton, E. (1944) Five Run Away Together, Hodder & Stoughton

Blyton, E. (1946) Five Go Off In A Caravan, Hodder & Stoughton

Comic Strip, The (1982) Five Go Mad In Dorset, Channel 4

Dire Straits (1985) Why Worry, from the album Brothers In Arms, AIR Studios

Free (1970) It’s All Right Now from the album Fire and Water, Island Records

McGarrigle, K. & McGarrigle, A. (1976) The Swimming Song, from the album Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Warner Records.

Blue therapy · Dorset · Jurassic Coast · National Trust · open water swimming · outdoor swimming · Outdoors · Ringstead Bay · Spring · swimming · Walking · Waterlog · well being

29: On The Road Again

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Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again (Willie Nelson, 1998)

Since I wrote my my last blog post (To Everything There Is A Season) the weather has been playing the Hokey-Cokey with us. Over Easter we basked in sunshine and temperatures that were ‘warmer than Spain’ (Partridge, 2019)  but by the first week of May we had been thrown back into ‘below average’ (Perrone, 2019) temperatures with early morning frosts and strong cold winds.

These ‘ups and downs’, however, have not been reflected in the sea temperature – as some people, tempted into the water by the sunshine, have discovered! The sea temperature around the South of England, at the moment, is hovering close to 13 degrees celsius and can still present a hazard to swimmers who are not acclimatised. It is always easy to spot a sea swimmer on the beach at this time of year as they will be wrapped up in several layers of insulated jackets and woolly hats, while the rest of the population are sunbathing in shorts and t-shirts!

This past week the sun (and the warmth) made a welcome return, and, now that the water temperature is no longer ‘biting’ my finger-tips, I have been gradually increasing the distance I have been swimming and the length of time I have been staying in the water. The sunshine has also motivated me to ‘get on the road again’ and to continue my swimming exploration of the South Coast.

She was a Day Tripper (The Beatles, 1965) 

In the past 2 years, since I started this journey (see An Indian Summer) I have, more or less, completed the stretch of East Devon coast that links with Dorset to form the Jurassic Coast. This summer, my aim is to complete the Dorset part of this coastline.

 

 

 

The 95 miles of the Jurassic Coast is a site of outstanding international importance for Earth Science and  was designated as England’s first natural World Heritage Site in 2001. The layers of sedimentary rock along the Jurassic Coast reveal the history of the Earth across 185 million years and form a near complete record of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The beaches along this stretch of coast are popular with fossil collectors, who can often be found rummaging in the rubble at the base of the cliffs for crushed ammonites and other fossils.

It is also a stretch of coastline with some spectacular places to swim. The different rocks along the Jurassic Coast have been carved by the sea into bays, beaches, cliffs, stacks, arches and landslides. This variety in the landscape helps create the natural beauty of the area and makes for a wealth of places to explore. The Jurassic Coast is also on the South West Coast Path and much of it is owned – and protected – by the National Trust, so not only are there beautiful places to swim, it also offers spectacular views and coastal walks.

It was while swimming along this stretch of coastline that the idea of ‘swimming round Britain’ came to Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog.

“Some of the best sea-bathing in the whole of England is to be had in Dorset”, he wrote. “It was in Dorset that I had first tried out my ideas of an amphibious ramble, when I had swum consecutively, the previous year, off Studland Bay, Dancing Ledge, Kimmeridge Bay, Lulworth Cove, Stair Hole, Durdle Door, Ringstead Bay and Chesil Beach in the space of a few days” (Deakin, 1999:170)

As I wrote in my previous blog, this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of the publication of Deakin’s Waterlog and so, as the weather and the water started to warm up, it felt like the ideal time for me to go and begin to swim at all of those locations.

Better still, it’s all within ‘day tripper’ distance of where I live!

Ringstead Bay

Ringstead Bay, five miles east of Weymouth, is a shingle beach that stretches for nearly half a mile and is overlooked by unspoilt farmland and cliffs. Its relative inaccessibility protects it from the worst of the summer crowds, but when I visited in mid May it was empty, save for one or two dog walkers (and one naturist!).

The bay has an interesting geology, from the famous coral beds at one end to the white chalk cliffs of White Nothe at the other and from the cliff top car park there are spectacular views across the bay to the Isle of Portland.

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In addition to its jurassic heritage, this part of the English coast is famous for its associations with smuggling, with literature and with art.

The coast line here, between Ringstead Bay and Osmingtom Mills was a popular site for smugglers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was viewed as the ideal landing spot for smuggled goods. Thomas Hardy, the Victorian poet and novelist, made use of this history in his short story The Distracted Preacher (1888) in which ‘the enchanting widow and confirmed smuggler’ Lizzy Newberry, lead the newly arrived Minister, Mister Stockdale, astray. In the story Lizzie is overheard planning to land a consignment of contraband at Ringstead Bay.

This area was also a favourite haunt of the famous landscape painter John Constable who, in October 1816, spent his honeymoon at Osmington. His painting, of Weymouth Bay, that hangs in The National Gallery probably dates from this period and a larger version of it, called Osmington Shore was exhibited by him at the British Institution in 1819.

Lively Up Yourself (Bob Marley, 1974)

In addition to being Mental Health Awareness Month, May is also National Walking Month and so, to complement my swimming, I have also been enjoying the Spring sunshine while exploring many new footpath walks.  I, therefore, chose to walk down the steep, but very scenic, 2 kilometre footpath to the beach from the National Trust car park at the top of the cliff, but if you are not keen on the walk you can park closer to the West end of the bay where there is paid parking and a little cafe.

If you like walking, this beach in on the South West Coast Path and it is also possible, if you are feeling energetic, to walk to the top of the White Nothe cliffs from the car park and on from there to Lulworth Cove via Durdle Door.

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I chose to swim at the Easterly end of the bay underneath the white chalk cliffs of White Nothe, as it looked more sheltered at that end. There was a brisk easterly wind the day I visited that made it difficult to feel the warmth of the sun and I hoped that the cliffs might offer a little shelter.

I discovered, after I had swum, that this end of the beach is the ‘designated naturist area’ of the beach but having been in the water for 26 minutes I needed all my available layers on in order to keep the shivering ‘after-drop’ at bay. After huddling for an hour behind a rock to eat my packed lunch and finish my book, I was glad of the steep climb back up the footpath to help me warm up!

 

 

The water, which was 12.5 degrees, was aquamarine and startlingly clear. There was no one else in the water and I enjoyed a refreshingly enlivening swim across the bay. It always feels such a privilege to have the sea to yourself like that and it reminded me of Roger Deakin’s description of ‘endolphins’ and the ‘heady rush’ you get when swimming outdoors at this time of year.

“Then came the heady rush of the endorphins or ‘endolphins’ as a friend once called them, the natural opiates with which the body anaesthetises itself. … For swimmers, my friend’s inspired malapropism goes straight to the point: you come up feeling like a dolphin (Deakin 1999: 211)

And I did!

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Local Details

Sea temperature : 12.5 degrees celsius

Distance swum: 850 metres

Swim Time:  25 minutes

Afterwards: I drove (passed the White Horse carved into the hillside) from Ringstead to the seaside town of Weymouth (5 miles) and enjoyed traditional fish & chips and a cup of tea while sitting in the sun on the Esplanade

 

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References

Ringstead Bay The Beach Guide 

Beatles, The (1965) Day Tripper, Parlophone Records

Deakin, R. (1999) WaterlogChatto & Windus

Hardy, T. (1888 ) The Distracted Preacher, in Wessex Tales, MacMillan & Co.

Marley, B. and The Fabulous Wailers (1974) Lively Up Yourself from the album Natty Dread, Universal Island Records 

Nelson, W. (1998) On The Road Again from the album VH1 Storytellers,  American Recordings

Partridge, S. (2019) Easter weather: parts of UK to be hotter than Corfu and Mallorca,in The Guardian, 15th April 2019

Perrone, A. (2019) May bank holiday weather forecast: Temperatures to drop as low as -2C as frosts and wintry showers predicted in The Independent,  3rd May 2019

 

bereavement · Blue therapy · Clevedon · cold water · community · English Channel Swim · Happiness · Mallorca · mental health · open water swimming · Outdoors · retirement · Social prescribing · Spring · swimming · Waterlog · well being

28: To Everything There is a Season: Turn, Turn, Turn

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“When you enter the water, something, like a metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” (Roger Deakin, 1999)

The last day of March marked the end of the winter swimming season and in typical British fashion, just as we turned our clocks to British Summer Time, the weather decided to remind us that winter had not finished with us yet. After a week of promising warm Spring sunshine, the 31st March was cold and misty with a brisk easterly wind, an air temperature of 8 degrees celsius and a water temperature of 9 degrees.

Nevertheless, I, and lots of other swimmers, congregated at Clevedon Marine Lake to complete our final Polar Bear Challenge swim – and to collect our badges! And I celebrated the occasion with an 800 metre swim.

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I now have a certificate recording my total of 34.1 kilometres clocked up since October, in water temperatures ranging from 0.5 degrees to 9 degrees celsius and I feel very proud to have completed my first winter in ‘skins’ (no wetsuit, no gloves or neoprene socks). As I said in my previous blog – next year, I will be aiming to achieve ‘Gold’ Polar Bear status!

Feeling proud. Yay me! Bring on summer!

The weather has been just as fickle for the first half of April, enticing us with spells of promising warm sunshine for a few days and then throwing us back into ‘unseasonably low’ temperatures with biting winds. Nevertheless, I am determined to believe in and to embrace Spring and I have gradually been increasing the distance of my swims and staying in the water for longer – in both the sea and the lake (both of which, I have to say are taking an age to warm up!). I have enjoyed the freedom of ‘skins’ swimming and the feeling of the water on my skin so much, that I have decided I will only be reverting to wearing a wetsuit again for any events I have entered where such attire is compulsory – (of which, I will write more, though out the summer).

The Coast (Paul Simon, 1990)

It is at this time of year, while looking forward to longer swims, that I have not only been booking myself on to a variety of open water swimming events, but I have also begun planning the continuation of my ‘south coast swim journey’. You may recall, that in my first blog post It Started There I committed myself to ‘swimming the South Coast of Britain – by the time I am 70′ and that, in October, in An Indian Summer I recorded my progress, so far, along the Jurassic Coast. I wrote in that first blog that I was not in a particular rush to complete this challenge and, at that time, it felt reasonably achievable. However, as the seasons have sped by, I am beginning to realise that I need to get a move on if I am, indeed, to complete it by 2023 (my 70th birthday).

It was never my intention to swim the length of the English Channel in the way that Lewis Pugh did (see Don’t Stop Me Now). In 2018, Lewis Pugh became the first person to ever swim the 560 km length of the Channel (from Lands End to Dover) in one go. My plan, in contrast,  has always been to complete this swim in, more of what I call, a Roger Deakin way!  – not in a systematic way from West to East, but in an ‘as and when an opportunity arises’ sort of way – my aim being to make my slow and ‘bit-by-bit’ journey as I visit and discover the wonderful coast line and seaside towns and villages that England has to offer – just as Roger Deakin did in his swim through Britain.

It was gaspingly, shockingly, ridiculously cold. This was water straight from the mountain that sends your blood surging and crams every capillary with a belt of adrenalin, despatching endorphins to seep into the seats of pleasure in body and brain, so that your soul goes soaring, and never quite settles all day. (Deakin, 1999)

It is twenty years, this year, since the first publication of Roger Deakin’s inspiring and beautifully written book and it opens with Roger’s first swim on April 23rd. This therefore, feels an appropriate time to reflect once again on the impact his book had on me – and on others. In Waterlog, Deakin charts his progress as he ‘swam through Britain’ exploring, not only wild swimming locations but also discussing cultural history, literature, geography and natural history. When I first read it, two years ago, it opened my eyes to the opportunities writing about a swimming journey could offer – and I am not alone in this.

Emily Hogan (2018) also claims Waterlog to be her inspiration to taking up cold water swimming and believes that it was because of Deakin and his descriptions of wild swimming that interest in the activity has become so popular.

“Waterlog’s compulsive journey did for wild-water swimming what Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” did for football … in the practitioner, it evoked a sense of being understood; in the outsider, fascination” (Hogan, 2018)

In 2010, Alice Roberts, made a delightful film for BBC 4 in which she also sought to ‘follow in the wake of Waterlog’, to try to discover what lies behind the passion for wild swimming ‘that is sweeping Britain’ – and in so doing, she also became hooked herself.

In 2017, Joe Minihane published his book Floating: A Return to Waterlog in which he attempts to retrace the swims of Roger Deakin and to explore his own personal journey through wild swimming. Minihane has also made a short documentary which summarises some of the main themes in his book.

Where, Deakin’s book is noted for it’s beautifully observant passages that evoke in the reader a love of the countryside and our natural surroundings – as well as a love of swimming, Minihane’s book is much more focussed on his personal journey as he seeks to come to terms with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy in relation to his career and his personal life and a sense that he has ‘lost his way’. In quite a lot of the book I got the sense that he didn’t really enjoy the swims as much as the journey:

“I had no protection for my hands and feet, which whitened into numbness the minute I worked my way down the steep bank into the river”. (p.42)

“I took two steps in and leapt back out in agony, the cold screaming up my legs and into my lower back. There was simply no way I could get in and enjoy the water.”  (p.128)

However, he does complete his journey – and his goal – and by the end of the book, it seemed to me me, that three themes had emerged that also held resonance for me.

Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac, 1977)

“I felt confused. Roger had depicted this place as a swimming idyll, which it no longer was and may never have been” (p.184)

One of the recurring themes in Minihane’s book is his disappointment that, when he finds Deakin’s swimming locations, many of them have changed or are not as Deakin had described them.

“.. it would be fair to say that over two years of trailing Roger had left me sometimes cynical and frustrated” (p.248)

Some of this can be explained by the passage of time: landscape changes, footpaths and other access points closed, buildings remodelled. But I have also, often been struck by how no two people experience a place or a time in the same way – and, furthermore, our own experience can be wholly different if we try to return to somewhere where we have had an especially good experience or memory.

The way in which each of us experiences places or events will depend on a range of circumstances such as who we are with, how we are feeling that day, the weather and so on. Trying to re-visit, or re-experience, the past can lead to disappointment. We need to keep moving forward, to ‘go with the flow’ and not try to ‘fight the tide’ of time.

I found his watering holes … offered wholly different experiences to those he had encountered. No water was ever the same in any one place; everywhere was being renewed and reborn all the time” (Minihane, 2017:261)

It is also important – especially in cold water swimming – to know your own limits and not to be bothered about trying to copy, compare or compete with what someone else can achieve. As the air temperature warms up it is tempting to stay in a bit longer and to swim a bit further – and this is often how people get into difficulties. ‘Know Your Limits’ is one of the key tips from the Outdoor Swimming Society and we all need to remember it. Despite the warmer air temperatures, the sea is still relatively cold.

Friendship (Ethel Merman, 1954)

Another theme to emerge from Minihane’s journey is his discovery of the added joy that company of friends and family brought to his travels and to his experience of swimming. On learning of his quest to follow Roger Deakin there was no shortage of friends, some of whom he had lost regular contact with, eagerly volunteering to accompany him. These friends feature as a joyful and energetic support group and their adventures often have a Famous Five feel about them

“After a lunch of cheese and onion pasties and overpriced lemonade on the harbour wall” (p.211)

The friends become a regular, supportive group around Minihane, enthusiastically embracing his new found enchantment with wild swimming. He finds that, through going swimming with friends and family,  he is able to begin to be open and honest about his mental health and to feel supported by them.

“Just being around friends … was every bit as good as being in the water itself. They made me feel happy by showing willingness to join me on my escapades” (p.100)

This is a very common theme to emerge from accounts of people who take up open water swimming. Many swimmers attest to having found a new community, a new ‘tribe’, a new group of friends, all of whom share the love of outdoor swimming. Groups of open water swimmers meet, around the country, at regular times to not only swim together but to encourage each other, chat and make social and community connections. This sense of belonging and reduction in social isolation has often been put forward as a factor in the improved well being outcomes that are increasingly attributed to cold water swimming.

In The Happy Club I wrote about research (van Tulleken et al, 2018) that has found “that potential benefits (to mental health) of open water swimming include a sense of achievement and community” in undertaking “an activity … that is stimulating, challenging, possibly outdoor and takes place in a social group”.  And I wrote about how social prescribing is drawing on such findings to try to find a way forward for people who are lonely or isolated and people with mild mental health issues who may be anxious or depressed.

This month I was drawn to a new report (Key, 2019) of recent research investigating the association between the outdoor activity and mental wellbeing in women. This study found that swimmers reported “above average scores for happiness, life satisfaction and how worthwhile they perceived their activities to be”. Their reported anxiety levels were also lower than the average. 

I have found that the ‘social contact’ aspect of open water swimming does not have to mean being part of a ‘tight-knit’, regular group of friends. Knowing that ‘someone else’ will be there, or having informal swim ‘meet up’ times is often enough. Even if we all do different swim distances, it is the turning up and connecting with others, and the chatting about the swim afterwards that so often cheers me up. On some days this feels like a life line.

Don’t Give Up (Willie Nelson & Sinead O’Connor, 1993)

Minihane’s progress with his swimming journey is interrupted by a physical injury, his recurring mental ill health and by pressure of work which all serve to compound his sense of failure. The pressure to complete Deakin’s swims starts to become a burden.

the one thing I had found could help with my anxiety was becoming the cause of it – I had lost sight of the reason for doing it in the first place”. 

Eventually, he stopped “trying to ape Roger” and started to “do things at my own pace and in my own way” (p.160) and enjoyed his trips all the more for it.

In N’er Cast a Clout til May Be Out I also reflected on how I had started to experience my self-imposed goals of swimming the south coast as a bit of a burden. I came to the  conclusion, in that post, that all that really mattered was that I was swimming somewhere that gave me enjoyment and pleasure.

” it doesn’t matter if I don’t achieve a goal I may have set myself last year, last week … yesterday. I would never have discovered so many different beautiful places to swim if I hadn’t started on this Open Water Swimming journey. It has taken me to places I would never have been to – and certainly wouldn’t have swum in”

I have recently needed to remind myself of this and to remind myself that there is so much lovely coastline to explore – in the South and elsewhere!. I really don’t want to go about this ‘swimming the south coast’ mission in a ‘tick-box’/ ‘got to get it finished’ fashion. I want to enjoy the swims and enjoy my surroundings. I still have the goal to swim at as many lovely – and swimmable – bits of the coast as I can and to explore our coastal heritage along the way. But I don’t want it to become a burden or something that makes me feel I ‘need’ to swim in less than inviting environments.

So what if it takes me longer to complete than I had at first envisaged? As I wrote in Forever Young ,  given what we now know to be the health and anti-ageing benefits of swimming, I am anticipating 30 more years of living still ahead of me!

So – for as long as there is still somewhere interesting and beautiful and new to explore – I will just keep swimming!

It’s looking like a beautiful day (Elbow (2008)

And STOP PRESS! As I write, our sea temperature at Clevedon has tipped over into double figures! The water is now 10 degrees celsius! We have a sunny and warm Easter weekend of weather, big Spring Tides, flat calm sea, a full moon and beautiful sunsets! What’s not to love about that?

 

I looked back towards the shore. A crimson mist lay over the sea as a red-hot sun dropped behind the sand dunes… The beach shone in the gathering dusk as the tide fell and the sea grew less perturbed. I turned and swam on into the quiet waves (Deakin, 1999:332) 

The Coast of Mallorca: In early April, most of my swimming was in Mallorca! I had the opportunity to follow a group of family and friends who were cycling round the island and so I tagged along, staying with them at their overnight locations and taking the opportunity to explore the coast during the day, for some breath-taking swims. Doing these swims and exploring this coastline re-inforced the feelings I write about above – there truly are too many beautiful places to discover to worry that they are not ‘part of the plan’.

April 4th at El Rentador de la Señora in the South: Translates as ‘Ladies Bathing Place’. It is said La Señora de Son Veri (a nearby rustic finca) used to bathe here. The surname of Veri is one of the oldest and most historic on the island of Mallorca, appearing since 1230.

April 5th at Caló de sa Barca Trencada in the South East:  This beach is part of the Mondragò National Park – ‘an area of natural beauty and a conservation area’ and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Water temp 14 degrees celsius! Air temp 13 degrees celsius. Distance swum 600 metres. Time in the water 17 minutes

April 6th at Cala Rotja in the East: Close to the Torre de Canyamel a historic 13th century defence tower. The coast here is very mountainous.  There are many caves along the coastline. Water temp 13 degrees celsius! Air temp 14 degrees celsius. Distance swum 700 metres. Time in the water 18 minutes

April 6th at Cala d´es Camps in the North East: Close to the village of Betlem and the 19th century ‘Ermita’. The beach is very quiet and surrounded by mountains. Water temp 14 degrees celsius! Air temp 15 degrees celsius. Distance swum 550 metres. Time in the water 15 minutes

April 7th at Cala Carbó in the North West: A small secluded cove near Cala Sant Vicenç. The landscape is surrounded by high mountains with footpaths that offer spectacular views. This bit of the coast was known for the violent pirate attacks that took place in the 1550s. Water temp 13 degrees celsius! Air temp 14 degrees celsius. Distance swum 700 metres. Time in the water 16 minutes

April 8th at Port D’es Canonge in the West close to Banyalbufar and Esporles: Not easy to get to (down a six kilometre winding mountain road) this beautiful old fishing port is still unspoilt with small fishing huts occupying the rear of the beach. You can also reach this beach on foot via the footpath trail from Banyalbufar. Water temp 14 degrees celsius! Air temp 15 degrees celsius. Distance swum 600 metres. Time in the water 14 minutes

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Longest UK Swim so far this month: April 12th at Clevedon Lake. Water temp 9.5 degrees celsius. Air temp 8 degrees celsius. Distance swum 1,250 metres. Time in the water 24 minutes.

References

 

Blyton, E. (1953) Five Go Down To The Sea,  Hodder & Stoughton

Byrds, The (1965 ) There is a Season: Turn Turn Turn from the album Turn, Turn, Turn, Columbia Records

Cowie, J. (2016) 6 Tips for Cold Water Swimming, Outdoor Swimming Society

Deakin, R. (1999) WaterlogChatto & Windus

Elbow (2008) One Day Like This from the album The Take Off and Landing of Everything, Concord Records

Fleetwood Mac (1977) Go Your Own Way from the album Rumours, Warner Brothers

Hogan, E. (2018) Finding yourself in the rivers, lakes and ponds of England, The Economist, 22nd December 2018

Key, H. (2019) Women In Adventure Mental Wellbeing Survey,  womeninadventure.com

Merman, E. (1954) Friendship written by Cole Porter performed on the 1954 Colgate Comedy Hour live TV broadcast 

Minihane, J. (2018) Floating: A Return To WaterlogDuckworth Overlook

Nelson, W. & O’Connor,S. (1993) Don’t Give Up from the album Across The Borderline, Columbia Nashville

Roberts, A. (2010) Wild Swimming With Alice Roberts,  BBC FOUR

Simon, P. (1990) The Coast from the album The Rhythm of the Saints,  Paul Simon Studio Album

van Tulleken, C., (2018) Can Cold Water Swimming Treat Depression, bbc.co.uk  13th September 2018