Which Way You Goin’ Billy? Can I go too? (Poppy Family, 1969)
I seem to have gained something of a reputation among the group I swim with at Clevedon for being unable to swim in a straight line! Since Christmas I have been wearing a GPS (Global Positioning System) watch when I swim and occasionally I have shared, with others, the ‘maps’ of where I have swum. The results are often rather amusing and make it appear that I swim in somewhat unconventional routes! Where, in my mind, I have been swimming towards a fixed marker (a buoy or the pier) the GPS that tracks me suggests I have, instead, been taking an artistic tour and creating unusual geometric shapes along the way.
Global Positioning System (GPS) is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from the constellation of 24 satellites and their ground stations, located around the globe. The tracking stations help track the signals from the GPS satellites. GPS works by providing information on exact location using the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). It can also track the movement of a vehicle or person. The system was initially designed for use by the U. S. military, but today, there are also many world-wide civilian users such as drivers and athletes. As Patrick Bertagna (2010) explains, the satellites use microwave signals that are transmitted to our GPS devices to provide information on location, speed, time and direction. This all feels a little bit ‘Orwellian’ for someone from my generation but the wearing of some sort of tracker to monitor ones cycling, running and swimming performance is becoming increasingly popular.
My original intention in wearing a GPS watch, was simply to find out how far I had swum in open water. In the swimming pool it is easy to calculate how far you have swum, but in open water – especially at new locations – less so. I still do find this useful but I am now, also, enjoying the post-swim discovery of finding out what innovative patterns I have made along the way. The wonder of an open water swim is that no two swims are ever the same.
It was through sharing some of my unconventional route patterns with other swimmers that I was introduced to the work of the artist Lizzie Philps. She began, in 2016, to create what she has called, coastal embroidery, using a GPS device to track her movements along the shore. To Philps, the to and fro of the GPS signal to the satellite while walking along the landscape, echos the movement of an embroidery needle and she began to ‘embroider’ (on foot) in ‘picture postcard places‘, suggesting, in the patterns she created, new meanings in her relationship with the location.
In 2017, she invited others to join her project and to enjoy the ‘conviviality of embroidery’. Eventually, she hopes, they will create together a “multiplicity of 21st century embroideries, legacies to pass down like the domestically-produced examples from the past”.
When I came across Lizzie’s work, I was inspired to try to create some coastal embroideries during my swims. However, I soon found that the ‘best’ I could manage (in terms of embroidery stitches) was something like a running stitch – and then only if I swam along the coast line.
As Agatha Christie (1941) has said: “There is no such thing as a really calm sea. Always, always there is motion”. When swimming in open water, with no ‘fixed markers’ – together with the action of the sea’s tides and swells – any purposeful intention I might have had to ‘stitch’ a recognisable pattern or shape, was taken out of my control. I discovered that the sea wants to create her own shapes and patterns – just as it does when it washes over the shore.
I also recognised that I prefer it that way.
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long, (Leonard Cohen, 1984)
I have written previously (see N’er Cast A Clout Til May Is Out) about how swimming in the sea surrounds me with a feeling of peace and calm and how both my brain and my body are able to relax and focus only on the ‘here and now’. In the arms of the sea you don’t have to be ‘in control’ – in fact I find it impossible to be thinking or planning anything when I am swimming in the sea. I discovered that trying to create ’embroidery’ – and feeling disappointed with the end result – took away the pleasure of swimming, for me and I now prefer to surrender myself to the shapes and patterns that the sea wants to paint with me.
“May sea mother find us
Wherever the wind’s a-blowing” (McGarrigle & McGarrigle, 1990).
Instead of trying to stitch my way along the shore, the shapes and patterns I now leave upon the seascape are created through, what I think of as, my ‘dance’ with the sea. I don’t need to think about it while I’m swimming – but it is fun to discover, when I get home, what sorts of shapes we have created together.
I have also discovered that I enjoy open water swimming more if there is somewhere or something to swim to. I don’t mind swimming along the shore line if I am with a group of other people, but when I am on my own I find it unsettling. I find myself worrying that I have ‘gone too far’ and that I won’t make it back to where I started. This often means that I do a shorter swim than I would have liked to. It is much more satisfying to have a pier, a rocky outcrop or an island to swim to.
Rise up, and do begin the day’s adorning; (Hilaire Belloc, 1896)
This June we have been enjoying some wonderful summer weather and I have been swimming in the sea or in the marine lake almost every day. In addition to many fantastic swims at Clevedon I decided – in keeping with my last blog Ne’r Cast a Clout Til May Be Out – to be a bit more adventurous, explore further afield each week and discover some more ‘hidden gems’ along our beautiful, unspoilt English coastline.
Branscombe beach and village are owned by the National Trust. The long, shingle beach is part of what is called ‘the Jurassic Coast’ – so called because of the layers of sedimentary rock that reveal the history of the Earth across 185 million years and form a near complete record of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The Jurassic Coast was designated as England’s first natural World Heritage Site in 2001.
Getting to Branscombe is via a scenic drive through steep and picturesque valleys that feel a long way from the hurly burly of modern living. The beach stretches for over a mile and the water is very clear. At either end of the beach, the coast rises steeply to cliffs, which are a popular point for starting walks on the South West Coast Path and also provide a ‘start and finish’ point for a pleasant swim.
Amazingly, considering that there is both a car park and a tea room (The Sea Shanty Beach Cafe) right next to the beach, there were very few other people there when we visited in early June – and no one else was in the sea.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, Branscombe was a source of hand-made lace and Branscombe Point is a style that is still practised by lacemakers worldwide. Typical of Branscombe lace are the edging of buttonholed scallops, bars decorated with nibs (tiny buttonholed rings), and woven spider wheels. I didn’t know about this until after I had swum there, otherwise I might have tried out some GPS lace-making – but as it happens I didn’t take my watch with me that day!
Just around the cliffs at the eastward end of the beach is Beer. This is a ‘working beach’ where you can buy the freshly caught fish of day. The picturesque paraphernalia of the fishing industry with its brightly coloured wooden boats, nets, winches and neon-coloured floats add to the charm of the beach, but for me, don’t make for an especially enjoyable swimming location.
Beer is also famous for its hand-made lace making and achieved world fame when they were commissioned to make the lace trim for Queen Victoria’s wedding dress in 1839. From that time onwards lace has been made in the village for the Royal Family and fortnightly classes to teach lace making skills are still held in the Congregational Hall.
A week later, I visited Ansteys Cove,. This is a lovely little peaceful, shingle cove located on the coast path between Torquay and Babbacombe. The water at the cove has contributed to it achieving the “Quality Coast Award” every year since 2009. There is a car park at the top of the cliff and access to the cove is a walk down a relatively steep – but with beautiful views – path. At the bottom of the path is Anstey’s Cove Cafe where, as well as buying delicious snacks you can hire sunbeds and kayaks. The staff who run the cafe were very helpful and knowledgeable about the cove and about swimming safely there.
As with many parts of the Torquay area, Ansteys Cove has associations with Agatha Christie, who was born and spent much of her life in the area. It is said (Hawthorne, 2009) that Christie used to enjoy moonlight picnics with her friends at Anstey’s Cove and that she once had a ‘romantic liaison’ with a gentleman called Amyas Boston there! He went on to become the inspiration for the name of a character in her novel Five Little Pigs.
I loved Anstey’s Cove. It was so quiet and peaceful and calming with clear blue water and rock caves to explore at low tide. The size of the cove make it ideal for a 1.5 kilometre swim with the option of exploring even further round the cliffs if feeling adventurous.
Around the cliffs, to the South West, is Meadfoot Beach. Ansteys Cove and Meadfoot Beach are at either end of a coastal protrusion called Hopes Nose, a unique and significant coastal area of Torquay, recognised formally as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI). Hopes Nose is accessible only on foot or via the sea.
Meadfoot is a small, narrow and peaceful beach below spectacular cliffs providing a quieter environment away from the main tourist areas. It has a cafe and a row of attractive, modern beach huts designed by Kaye Elliott and built in 2015 . The beach has the European blue flag award for the quality of its water.
Meadfoot Beach also has associations with Agatha Christie, who was, throughout her life, an enthusiastic swimmer. During the summer months, according to Brett Hawthorne (2009), she would apparently visit this beach nearly every day.
What I liked about swimming at Meadfoot was the plentiful availability of large rocks to swim out to. I chose to swim to and around East Shag Rock – a swim of about 900 metres there and back. There was a colony of Cormorants living there and I would like to have spent more time looking at them – but the tide washed me round it like a rather exhilarating fairground ride.
I was rather pleased, on reading Agatha Christie’s (1977) autobiography, to note that she also enjoyed swimming round East Shag Rock. When she was a young woman, in the early 1900s, mixed bathing here was not permitted and males were not allowed within 50 yards of the ladies bathing machines!! However,
“… (by 1920) mixed bathing was allowed on the more aristocratic Meadfoot Beach. Meadfoot Beach was much more attractive than the Ladies’ Bathing Cove: bigger, wider, with an accessible rock a good way out to which you could swim to if you were a strong swimmer”.
Agatha Christie also gives a lovely account (that reminded me of some of the passages in Jenny Landreth’s book Swell – see The Circle of Life) of trying to swim in the unpractical garments women were required to wear at the time:
“… it was the rule that I should wear stockings when I bathed. I don’t know how French girls kept their stockings on: I was quite unable to do so. Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling off altogether or else wrapped round my ankles like fetters by the time I emerged. I think that the French girls one saw bathing in fashion plates owed their smartness to the fact that they never actually swam, only walked gently into the sea and out again, to parade the beach”.
Meanwhile, I have also dispensed, this month, with my own leg coverings! I am now wearing what is known as a ‘Short Jane’ (as opposed to a Long John I can only assume!) and I am really enjoying the feeling of freedom this affords and the sensation of the water on my arms and legs while also having the benefit of keeping my core warm on longer swims – in water that is still only 14 degrees celsius on the south coast.
I felt I had to end by sharing this beautiful film The Tonic Of The Sea that captures, so accurately, the power of the sea to heal the body and the mind. Katie, in the film, swims off the rocks of Penzance nearly everyday of the year and describes how swimming has helped her to overcome some of the struggles that life has thrown at her. In her own words:
“It made me feel brave again. And it gave me a tiny bit – every morning – of me back”
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Wendy Oliver who died, aged 34, on 22nd June 2015. We miss you every day.
Photo Credit: Beth Oliver
Belloc, H. (1896) month of June, in Verses and Sonnets, Ward and Downey,
Bertagna, P. (2010) How Does a GPS Tracking System Work, EETimes.
Christie, A. (1941) Evil Under The Sun, Collins
Christie, A. (1977) Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, Collins
Cohen, L. (1984) Dance Me To The End Of Love, from the album Various Positions, CBS Records
Donegan, L. (1962) No Hiding Place, from the album Sing Hallelujah … Plus, Castle Communications.
Elliot, K. (2015) Meadfoot Beach Chalets
Hawthorn, B. (2009) Agatha Christie’s Devon, Halsgrove.
Landreth, J. (2017) Swell; A Waterbiography, Bloomsbury.
Poppy Family, The, (1969) Which Way You Going’ Billy?, from the album Which Way You Going’ Billy? Decca.
Philps, L. (2017) GPS Embroidery, lizziephilps.com
Scott, J. (2017) Tonic Of The Sea, Jonathan J Scott Films.