“The moment of crisis had come, and I must face it. My old fears … must be conquered now and thrust aside. If I failed now I should fail forever.” (Daphne du Maurier, 1938)
Way back in February 2020, in what now feels like a lifetime ago, when most of us were blissfully unaware of what a coronavirus was – or would become – I wrote (in Somewhere Over The Rainbow) that my goal for 2020 was to ‘return to Cornwall’ and to try to complete some of my South Coast swimming journey there. I explained how I had not returned there since my daughter Wendy’s inquest in 2016 because, for me, it had remained associated with despair, sadness, helplessness and death. I had decided that 2020, the year in which Wendy would have been 40 years old, was the right time to go back and face it – and to try to create some newer, happier memories and associations.
After I wrote that blog post everything was turned upside down. All the swimming events that I had entered were cancelled or postponed; we were locked down, unlocked and locked down again; and I found myself swimming alone in a paddling pool in my garden (see I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want). In the past 18 months, I have discovered that, for me, the geographical ‘journey’ of swimming was less important than the companionships, connections and community that outdoor swimming provides. I missed meeting up with other swimmers and having those gentle, serendipitous, short conversations that you can have while sitting next to someone, after a swim, gazing at the horizon. And I missed being with my family and with my friends. I found that I wasn’t in a hurry to resume my ‘South Coast Swimming Journey’ (see It Started There). What I really wanted to do was to swim – and chat – with friends, aquaintances and family.
And so, mostly, that is what I have been doing for the past year. And it has been wonderful. And, every day, I count myself so lucky that I live close to the beach at Clevedon and for the warm and friendly swimming community who also swim there (see Go With The Flow).
Social Capital (Putnam, 2001) can be loosely described as the ‘various connections that an individual might have that provide them with some kind of resource’ (Robson, 2020). The beneficial aspects of ‘Social Capital’ have been brought into sharper focus over the past couple of years. A lot of the recent research on well-being and loneliness tends to support the claim that individuals with richer social worlds may have better mental well-being and lower stress. One of the impacts of repeated and prolonged ‘lockdowns’, it has been suggested (Jones et al 2021), has been the impact on our health caused by missing out on our interactions with friends, colleagues and even shopkeepers.
Robson (2020) emphasises the importance of one aspect of Social Capital theory: that of the opportunity to have “weak ties” and fleeting interactions with ‘vague acquaintances’. These types of interaction, he argues, were damaged by repeated lockdowns and he argues that we should attempt to ‘make the most of the chance encounters we do have’ and try to strike up a conversation with someone we might see regularly – on a walk or on the beach – as research suggests (Sandstrom, 2014) that you will feel much better afterwards.
Open water swimming, I have found, provides a wonderful opportunity to be able to do that. You might turn up at any beach where swimmers meet to swim and instantly have a ‘connection’. The act of a “shared experience”, of doing the same thing at the same time appears to create a social bond that can be independent of any words spoken (Robson, 2020). And I have found that community swimming ‘events’ create opportunities to experience this social network connection on an even greater scale. Hundreds of swimmers, many of whom have never met before – and may never meet again – coming together to embark on a shared experience, laughing together, sharing anxieties together, celebrating together. And discovering together (and separately) a community network that may have a lasting impact on them.
The Polkerris Swim Festival
We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land
The Severn is no stay (from ‘Trelawney’ – the unofficial ‘national anthem’ of Cornwall)
This summer, most of our postponed swimming events began to be confirmed as ‘going ahead’ and one of these, The Polkerris Swim Festival, was the one that would take me back to Cornwall.
Polkerris Beach is situated in St Austell Bay, in what is known as Daphne du Maurier country. du Maurier made this corner of Cornwall her home and wrote about the area countless times. Above Polkerris, is the village of Menabilly, where du Maurier rented the house that was the inspiration for Manderley in her famous novel, Rebecca.
The Polkerris Swim Festival is an annual mass-participation open water sea swimming event organised by Mad Hatter Sports Events, who are based on the neighbouring beach of Charlestown. They have created a wonderful, strong and welcoming swimming community through their weekly social swims at locations around Cornwall and the events that they put on feel like one big local community day out.
And so, the event at Polkerris Beach proved to be the ideal setting for my ‘return to Cornwall’. I found that being with other people, having fun, and focusing on the swimming helped me to overcome both the anxiety I had about revisiting difficult memories and even- surprisingly – my anxiety about swimming with all the Compass jelly Fish!
I will concede, that this first foray back into Cornwall, was ‘only just’ in Cornwall – a ‘dipping a toe in the water’ sort of trip – but for me it has marked a ‘start’, a step in the right direction and I now feel able to ‘just get on with it’, travel further and to re-visit and swim at more of the beautiful beaches around the Cornish Coast.
Tell everybody I’m on my way
New friends and new places to see,
With blue skies ahead, yes, I’m on my way
And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be (Phil Collins, 2003)
Photo Credits: Beth Oliver
Sea temperature : 16 degrees Celsius
I swam 3000 metres
I was in the water for 1 hour & 23 minutes
We ate at The Rashleigh Inn, Polkerris
Collins, P. (2003) I’m On My Way, from Brother Bear Soundtrack, Universal Music
Hawker, R. (1824) The Song Of The Western Men , traditional
Jones, D., Joplin, K., and Kharicha, K. (2021) Loneliness Beyond Covid-19: Learning the lessons of the pandemic for a less lonely future, Campaign to End Loneliness
Du Maurier, D. (1938) Rebecca, Victor Gollancz Ltd
Oliver, B. (2017) It Started There, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com
Oliver, B. (2020) Somewhere Over The Rainbow, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com
Oliver, B. (2020) I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com
Oliver, B. (2021) Go With The Flow, justkeepswimmingbillie.wordpress.com
Putnam, R. (2001) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster
Robson, D (2020) The Surprising Ways Little Social Interactions Affect Your Health, New Scientist, 12th August 2020
Sandstrom, G. & Dunn, E. (2014) Social Interactions and Well Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Sage Journals, April 2014.