Don’t stop me now (‘Cause I’m having a good time)
Don’t stop me now (Yes I’m havin’ a good time)
I don’t want to stop at all (Mercury, 1978)
If you have been reading this blog over the past 12 months (yes! I’ve been writing it for a year now!) you will recall that in It Started There I described my ambition to ‘swim the South Coast of Britain – by the time I am 70’ – not in a systematic way, but in an ‘as and when an opportunity arises’ sort of way. Although in May this year (see Ne’r Cast a Clout Til May Be Out) I expressed my concerns that I wasn’t making much progress with this goal, I have, as it turns out, been able to make full use of our wonderful summer and have now completed several fantastic swims along the East Devon and Dorset coast.
I will continue 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. However, in the meantime I have become fascinated, this summer, watching the progress of Lewis Pugh who is currently aiming to become the first person to swim the length of the South Coast in one go!
Since 1875, some 1,800 people have swum across the English Channel from Dover to Calais – but no one, until this summer – has ever swum its entire length. Lewis Pugh is attempting to do just that – to swim from Land’s End to Dover – in just his cap, goggles and swimming trunks. The 560 km distance is equivalent to 16 English Channel crossings, and Pugh has estimated this will take him around 50 days, depending on tides and weather. The swim will be verified by the Channel Swimming Association and you can follow his progress on his blog.
He aims to swim for about 5 hours every day and to cover between 10 and 20 kilometres a day. At night they will anchor and sleep on the boat, then he will start again the next day. Pugh started his swim, in Cornwall, on July 12th and, as I write, has achieved about two-thirds of his target distance.
Pugh is undertaking this endurance swim to help publicise the need to ‘save our seas’ and the start of a worldwide campaign, calling on all the governments of the world, to strengthen our ocean protection and ensure that 30% of our oceans are fully protected by 2030. In addition, he is highlighting the need to change the tide on plastic pollution.
According to Pugh (lewispugh.com) the United Kingdom is ‘doing quite well in theory’ and is working towards meeting its commitment to protect 10% of its waters by 2020. But, he claims, ‘when you unpack the numbers, they tell a very different story. Not only are most of those protected areas in overseas territories rather than home waters, but the kind of protection they offer is sometimes worse than none’. The ‘sad truth’ according to Pugh is that ‘of the 750,000 square kilometres of seas around the UK, only 7 square kilometres are fully protected’.
Pugh is encouraging community involvement in his swim and so, at various points along the way, he has been joined – and encouraged – by local open water swimming groups, while local community action groups have been using the opportunity to encourage people to get involved in beach clean-ups that co-incide with when his swim reaches their local beach. Please support him if he passes your way. Just keep swimming Lewis
The Long Swim
Pugh is calling his endurance swim ‘The Long Swim’ and by co-incidence, my own open water swimming journey began to take flight after I had completed the ‘Clevedon Long Swim’ in July 2017 (see Another Year Over and What Have You Done?). This iconic one mile swim has been a local tradition in Clevedon since 1928 and when I took part – only one year ago – this was the furthest distance I had ever completed in the sea.
I was reflecting on this recently, as now, only one year later, I find that I think nothing of swimming at least this distance at each of the new locations that I have visited, and, in fact I often do much more than this. And while I haven’t exactly covered the sort of distance Lewis Pugh has completed – I have, over the past couple of months managed to cover – a mile at a time – a fair bit of the coast between Teignmouth and Seaton, in East Devon.
East Devon’s Jurassic Coast
According to a report in The Guardian (Sansom, 2015) Devon is the best county to live in the UK. With about 2,600 square miles, Devon provides endless varieties of beauty and it boasts two handsome and separate coastlines with pretty seaside towns and villages, ports and Combes.
This stretch of the coastline, where I have been concentrating my swims, is part of the 96-mile long Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site, more commonly known as the Jurassic Coast. From here it is possible to visit rock strata dating from three geological periods in a 185 million-year ‘geological walk through time’. It has a variety of beaches, coves and bays to choose from and to swim between and its waters are crystal clear and clean.
It also has many vibrant and enthusiastic open water swimming communities each loyal and happy to share their own ‘bit’ of the coast with me. Social media traditionally gets a bit of a bad press (justifiably so in some cases) but it has provided me with access to a wealth of advice and support that would have been very difficult to track down through other means. I am very grateful to be part of all these online communities as I have plotted my way along the coastline. And everywhere I have visited I have found a community of swimmers who are willing to advise on where and when to swim, tidal considerations and invitations to swim with them – and I have been made to feel very welcome. I have previously written (probably many times) about how friendly, welcoming, supportive and non-competitive I have found the open water swimming community to be – but I will say it again. What lovely people open water swimmers are!
Where is everyone?
It only goes to show, That what you never miss, you never know
But where are you? (Stevens, 1967)
In addition to the generosity of spirit I have found amongst those who swim here, I have also been bowled over by the beauty, accessibility and sense of peace and calm – and wonderful swims – that I have found this summer on my visits to East Devon. However, I have also been amazed (and secretly rather pleased) by how quiet the beaches have been throughout this ‘record breaking’ ‘heatwave’ of a summer we have been experiencing. “Where”, I have been asking myself, “is everyone?”
Matthew Engel (2015) has described the scene, on a visit to East Devon, as ‘Turneresque … with pines to the east and sheer cliffs to the west. A lone fisherman was the only other figure on the shingle”.
“I would like some reassurance” he wrote, “that heaven looks much like Devon … but I believe heaven also likes to guard its secrets”
I know what he means! And I’m almost afraid to tell you about these beaches in case everyone starts flocking there!
The English Channel
Inland, within a hollow vale, I stood; And saw, while sea was calm and air was clear, The coast of France – the coast of France how near (Wordsworth, 1802)
While I have been gently swimming my way along the Jurassic Coast, others, like Lewis Pugh have been setting and achieving their own goals and many have been attempting and succeeding in swimming across the English Channel. As I wrote earlier, since 1875, some 1,800 people have swum across the English Channel from Dover to Calais – and I am honoured and inspired to know and to swim with some of them.
This is a notorious stretch of water. The sea is no more than 16 degrees celsius even in August – the best month for Channel swimming. The wind is chilly, jellyfish are common and the Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Another major detail is the tidal clock. If a swimmer isn’t in the right place when the tide changes, she can be swept down shore adding several hours to her swim.
The first woman to swim the English Channel was Gertrude Ederle, who on August 6th 1926 not only became the first woman to complete the swim but she also set a new record time – that was not bettered for another 24 years. She began in Cape Gris-Nez and arrived on the shore at Kingsdown, Kent 14 hours and 39 minutes later. Due to the roughness of the sea and the tide, she swam 35 miles rather than the 21 miles straight across – yet still managed to set a new world record. She was 20 years old, wore aviator goggles, and swam front crawl at a time when everyone else was swimming breaststroke.
Another woman record holder also achieved her swim despite the tide turning against her. In 2010, Jackie Cobell, aged 56, ended up swimming 65 miles (rather than 21 miles) after she was pushed off-course by the tides. It took her 28 hours and 44 minutes to complete the swim – and she became the the new record holder for the slowest Channel swim. I believe many swimmers (well me anyway) would have given up and Jackie Cobell deserves a medal for her determination and perseverance.
Among all the other amazing Channel Swims that I have been following and supporting this year is that by Vicki Gilbert. In 2016, Vicki completed the Aspire Channel Swim challenge (to swim 22 miles over 12 weeks in your own time in a swimming pool). She is now preparing to swim the real English Channel as part of a 6 person relay team this August. What makes Vicki’s challenge stand out is that not only does she swim with an above the knee amputation, but in 2017 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and has had to undergo three surgeries, five months of gruelling chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy treatment.
Vicki has described how she has used preparing for the swim to help her physical and emotional recovery. Once again we come across a swimmer endorsing the power of open water swimming to aid their recovery and give them back a sense of their identity:
“I needed a challenge to get back on track and I felt it would help me psychologically as well as physically – as the swimming would not only help me regain my fitness but some of my ‘lost’ identity too. And then there’s always that well-known ‘feel good’ factor after exercising.”
“Once I get in the water, the freedom is fantastic”
On top of this Vicki has highlighted the sense of connection to the natural world that comes hand in hand with outdoor swimming: “you are swimming in places that not many others do which is truly freeing and you are immersed in the outdoors; you feel much closer to nature.”
In case you were wondering after all this talk of Channel swimming – I am not planning on swimming across the English Channel! I am still enjoying my current challenge too much: – of swimming – a mile at a time – the length of the South Coast – by the time I am 70. I am not really attracted by the idea of endurance swimming (and you know how I feel about jelly fish)! I prefer to take the time to look around and to enjoy my surroundings.
However, you never know! Just look at the progress – and distances – I have achieved in just one year! Who knows what will be in my sights in 5 years time!
Just Keep Swimming Billie.
Where I swam
PLUS 11 miles at Clevedon between July 10th and August 13th 2018
PS. The oldest woman, to date, to swim the English Channel is Pat Gallant-Charette, who, aged 66 years completed the crossing in 17 hours 55 minutes on 17 June 2017.
Bassey, S. (1973) Never, never, never, from the album Never, never, never, United Artists.
Engel, M. (2015) Engel’s England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man, Profile Books
Mercury, F. (1978) Don’t Stop Me Now, from the album Jazz, EMI
Rice, D. (2014) Long Long Wayfrom the album My Favourite Faded Fantasy, Atlantic Records
Sansom, I. (2015) Devon Sent: Why writers can’t resist the county, in The Guardian
Stevens, C. (1967) Where Are You from the album New Masters, Dream Records.
Wordsworth, W. (1802) Inland, within a hollow Vale , from Poems, Volume II (1815) Davison.
Photo of Gertrude Ederle courtesy of amightygirl.com