Quick Dips

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Like many wild swimmers, I keep a journal.

A log of all my swims.

Sometimes I write an ocean of words – sometimes barely a trickle.

And like fruit preserved in the abundance of summer, these accounts continue to bring sustenance during the lean winter months. For they are a source of recollection and a source of reflection.

And they are also the source from which this blog flows.

Browsing through my 2014 compilation of 60 open water swims, I have found a number of entries that capture a moment, a mood, a musing.

So I shall share some of these as short posts under a new category – quick dips 

 

 

Quick Dip #1: The Denham Mafia

When C. F. Alexander first penned the children’s hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ I am convinced she was not thinking about pond skaters…

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For they are neither wise, nor wonderful.

In fact, they’re a pretty mean bunch.

Granted, thanks to a myriad microscopic air-trapping hairs on their legs they can walk on water, which is a cool trick. And they’re pretty nifty too; achieving speeds of 100 body lengths per second – for me that would equate to over 400 miles per hour!

But there the admiration ends.

For the Gerridae family have a dark side, worthy of any Cosa Nostra clan.

All are carnivores and worse; they are cannibals too. Yes, they eat each other and worse still – I am convinced they would like to eat me!

Like surly teenagers, lounging with menace outside a convenience store, pond skaters always gather in places I need to go.

Let me explain…

At Denham Beach, on the far side of the river, the water runs deep and dark as the rocks that rise above it. Here, a leafy green hazel veil hangs low over the Tavy, and it is to this seclusion I retreat when walkers approach. With only eyes and nose above the surface, I float unheard and unseen.

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But never alone.

For I am surrounded by an army of pond skaters who watch my every move. Completely encircled in a sinister standoff.

If I take a few strokes then suddenly spin around, their silent encroachment is instantly halted. I can almost imagine them casually glancing away as I turn, all whistling innocence.

But they are still watching, sizing me up, slowly advancing. Like Gulliver in Lilliput; I await the charge, the pounce, the enslavement. In the same way they detect the hapless insects that drop into the river, pond skaters sense my every movement through their front legs. The legs that also bear claws, like mantids, to puncture their prey before sucking its life dry.

So I am always glad to move from shade to safety and to leave these fearsome warriors in my wake.

Whenever I reach the shore after a wild swim, I always give thanks for my communion with Creation; for everything that I have seen, heard and felt.

But the Gerridae never feature on my thanksgiving list.

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Which is a little ironic for, among their many names: water striders, skimmers, scooters, skippers, skaters and skeeters, one title ascends above all others…

The Jesus Bug.

The Awakening

Lansallos

October 28th 2014

‘Don’t wait any longer. Dive into the ocean. And let the sea be you.’ – Rumi

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0650 and I was awake, bemoaning the fact that my brain had forgotten this was a holiday. Rolling over, I squeezed my eyelids tight against the morning – but it was a futile effort.

For a seed had been sown. An idea.

A thought of a swim. A dawn dip.

And it would not go away. Like an infant that, once birthed, will not be set down. Mewling and insistent.

So within five minutes I was up and online: Tides favourable. Weather fair. Banana peeled and mug of strong tea brewing.

Another half hour and I was five miles from my family, pacing downhill, past slumbering cottages in the still blue October dawn.

Lansallos, the Llan or hamlet of St Salwys, lay silent as the Celtic hermitage from which its name is derived. The 14th Century church stood stark against the skyline as I descended onto the woodland path that sucks one towards the sea.

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For it is a force that cannot be resisted; a primordial attraction. Reverse evolution. A draw back into the ocean.

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And never was that pull more keenly felt than on this morning.

Like an eloping lover descending on knotted sheets, anticipating a covert embrace; an illicit thrill filled me as I kicked virgin leaves and followed the song of the sea.

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A siren song that called and coaxed through shaded wood and dew-drizzled meadow.

Until there she was. Opening before me. Lazily stretching beneath a duvet of low cloud. Wanton. Waiting. A soft mist sealed our tryst as I sank into the sand.

How far this shore felt from my visit only a week before. Then the sun shone and a small throng milled along the tideline.

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There a New Age woman had come to me trailing twin daughters whose dresses flowed like the tide. Each child held a lead and each lead harnessed a rabbit. Bunnies on the beach. We had talked about swimming and how October was the ideal month for a dip. There was a spontaneity and freedom in this woman – a kindred spirit.

And was that spirit high above me, in the circling of the gulls, as I peeled off my clothes and walked brazenly into the water? Into the delicious enveloping that is sea and solitude. Seduced by the surf; a consumation in the currents that pulled me deeper into the heart of the bay. A gathering in. A coming home.

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Laying back and looking up into the crack of lemon light that spilled out through a sullen sky, I soared on seabird wings and recalled how a passage in the film Jonathan Livingstone Seagull had, long ago, been my raft on darker seas. ‘Dear Father, we dream…’

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Beyond the breakers, I floated in a sinusoidal swell. A rhythmic rising and falling. Submitting to the uncertainty of the sea. Wonderfully vulnerable. A rolling arousal and a tender intimacy. The spectrum of sensation so well known to those who choose to swim naturally – as creation intended.

To the west, the high spring tide lashed lazily against storm-weary rocks, casually tossing fronds of weed into the spume that tripped across the shallows and onto the sand.

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Always mindful of my position, I registered that I too was being drawn towards this spat in a relentless steady drift. So I dived into the stout heart of the next wave and was somersaulted onto the shore where I lay amid the salt and shells, listening to the clash and rasp of surf on sand. Where the ocean clawed back her waters, like a jilted lover saving face.

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The onshore breeze was warm and comforting as I stood facing seaward, slowly drying. There was no need for a towel. No-one was coming. No-one would come.

The black silhouette of a cormorant perched before me – wings outstretched – motionless as the moment we were sharing.

Winding back up through West Coombe, I exchanged the confusion of the sea for the steady chatter of a brook, like an excited friend recounting her adventures in Cornish meadows. Tall hedges brimmed with berries as I shuffled through a carpet of sycamore, inhaling its musty glory.

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Bleating sheep and lowing cattle heralded a gradual awakening all around.

Delicate birdsong drifting from the highest boughs was punctuated by the raucous cry of a rook. The rough essence of Cornwall.

Like a shard of ore coursing through her rock.

Like the spirit coursing through her people.

The Magpie and the Hidden Gem

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August 2nd 2014

 

Dartmoor is littered with honeypots.

Places people go on hot Sunday afternoons to escape the pressure cooker of the city.

In my mind’s eye, honeypots drip the 1950s – all braces and rolled up trousers, white ankles paddling whilst a kettle whistles on the primus. Lazy deckchair days behind the Daily Mirror.

A packet of Woodbines.

Which is why I tend to avoid them – particularly those close at hand.

One such honeypot is but a short stroll from my cottage, through woods that are steeped with the scent of bluebells in May, when the forest floor is painted in the same colours as the sky.

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And that honeypot is known locally as ‘Magpie’ …

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Named after the inn that once gave riverside rest to travellers on the turnpike linking the channel coast with prosperous Tavistock; Magpie has been a popular bathing place for generations.

For here flows the Walkham, the only river to run its entire course on Dartmoor. This main tributary of the Tavy arises high on the northern moor; draining from sodden peat into a bleak and featureless landscape at Walkham Head. It then gathers pace and pours through heathland, then pasture, before reaching Magpie. Here it begins cutting a winding path through tree-lined gorges en route to its union with the Tavy at Double Waters.

The Walkham Valley is peppered with isolated mine workings, their remnants choked by roots and crowned with moss like some forgotten  jungle temple.

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The grassy hummocks of Magpie itself conceal the corpse of Wheal Franco, a copper mine which produced 10,000 tons of valuable ore between 1826 and 1862.

Here the river is spanned by Bedford Bridge, built in 1822 and carrying the road between Yelverton and Tavistock.

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The water is deep enough to swim beneath its arch, but to be honest, this place had never really appealed. Somehow the thought of swimming so close to the modern world always left me colder than the river in February.

But a good friend had recounted happy family memories of this place, so I had filed it away as a ‘possible’ – but no more than that…

Which is why I was a little surprised to find myself heading for Magpie one sultry, sticky evening in high summer.

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I followed the disused railway through the woods, along a track that now bears daytrippers on bicycles rather than in carriages, then headed down beneath the viaduct, past yarrow and wild thyme. Moments later I was walking out onto the heavily grazed and much trampled grassland that abuts the Walkham. Here chamomile may still be found. Once commonplace, but now exotic in Britain, its aroma has long scented herbal infusions and the finest lawns.

It was getting late and a rising wisp of blue smoke between distant trees was the only sign that I was not entirely alone.

Sliding into the cool water, I was surprised that it was deeper than it looked – for refraction had overcome reason and I had long forgotten my first year physics.

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The vista before me was also far from expected. The slate and granite arch of the bridge framed a perfect picture – a study in emerald. Beneath my feet, long fronds of weed streamed across the sandy river bed; green fingers pointing me downstream.

Ignoring their direction, I headed up and under the masonry, where stalactites dripped from the overhang. Here the heat of the day, efficiently absorbed by the black tar above, emanated back from the stones in a hazy shimmer.

Swimming on and into the shallows where acrobat shadows danced across the water, I lay on my back and floated beneath boughs of willow, oak and hazel. Past alder, the only British deciduous tree to bear cones, and by banks of wild chervil whose frothy white flowers deserve the title Queen Anne’s Lace more than their more common name – Cow Parsley. To me these are the quintessential hallmark of summer – luxuriant, abundant but short-lived.

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Back under the bridge, face down and floating to where Marley Bone was patiently waiting, I smiled as I thought of the traffic passing overhead and the shock that my cheeky grin would give to anyone who happened to glance down from the Number 83 bus!

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Beyond lay an artificial pool, created by damming the course of the river – a temporary arrangement of rocks that would never survive the first surge of Autumn. I drifted softly up to the barricade with eyes barely proud of the mirrored surface.

Here a dipper perched, attending to its evening ablutions in the sinking light. This is very much a local bird, characterised by it’s shocking white breast, low flight and bobbing tail. But it is not this twitch of feathers that gives the dipper its name – rather it is the unusual habit of walking into and under the water in search of insect larvae.

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Above – and also hunting insects – a bat looped in dizzying dives around my dripping head as I clambered out of the river and into the still warm night air.

Retracing the path home, I passed a young couple with a six-pack of lager and a disposable barbecue.

The night-shift had arrived….

A Mermaid’s Curse

Doom Bar, Cornwall

September 7th 2014

More than sixty winters have flowed in and ebbed out of Padstow since my father launched his teaching career in this once tough coastal town. Nestling at the mouth of the Camel estuary, and hardened by the relentless howl of Atlantic gales, this was then a close-knit fishing community.

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And these were lean times for my parents. But throughout the dark months of December and January, frequent parcels of food and bundles of driftwood for the fire were quietly left on the doorstep of the new teacher and his young pregnant wife.

For the motto of the Cornish people is Onen hag Oll – One and All.

This was a time long before the arrival of designer beachwear and chic restaurants, when cottages crawling up the hillside housed local families and the fish on the harbourside was iced, not battered.

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In those distant days, the booming sound of a maroon ricocheting down the narrow alleyways heralded the launch of Padstow’s lifeboats. Then the village would fall silent in anxious expectation.

At the school, children would become unsettled – so unteachable that classes were dismissed. For everyone was related to someone on the lifeboats, or had a loved one who harvested the sea, and all knew only too well the dangers of her restless tides.

 

O’ d’you hear the seas complainin’ and complainin’ whilst it’s raining?

Did you hear it mourn in the dimorts, when the surf woke up and sighed?

The choughs screamed on the sand,

And the foam flew over land,

And the seas rolled dark on the Doom Bar at the rising of the tide. 

[Alice Gillington 1863-1934]

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More often than not launches were for vessels foundering on this Doom Bar – the very name piercing cold through the hearts of the mariners who plied the waters of An Mor Keltek – the Celtic Sea. Many captains would prefer to face the fury of a north-westerly gale out in the ocean rather than attempt to navigate the treacherous and narrow passage that led to the calmer waters of the Camel.

This sprawling sandbar was likely formed during the reign of Henry VIII; folklore has it that the sands were spread at the behest of a dying mermaid. Murdered by a Padstow man, her curse sought to seal and stifle this tiny port.

And to a large extent she succeeded. It is estimated that over 600 vessels were lost here over the last two hundred years alone, particularly when squalls – known locally as ‘flaws’ – sprung up over Stepper Point and mercilessly drove vessels onto the waiting sands.

It is said that the mermaid’s wailing cry may still be heard, moaning with the wind, whenever lives are lost on the Doom Bar.

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But the only cry to be heard on my first visit were the lazy calls of an occasional gull, drifting in widening circles, riding the balmy thermals of an early September evening.

Having taken the narrow headland road north from the town, I left the car in a field at Lellizzick and trekked down through an almost Mediterranean landscape towards the beach at Tregryllas.

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Within a handful of minutes I was emerging through woodland and out onto a blanched carpet of fine white sand, wholly deserted aside from a brace of abandoned lobster pots.

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The softness of the sand made walking difficult and it held onto the heat of the day like an oven. Along the high tide line, a community of sandhoppers was emerging from its hidden slumber to feed on organic debris cast aside by the tide. Keen to avoid an irritating bite, I quickly skipped through their territory to where the sands were smooth, dark and still damp from the receding sea.

Jettisoning my clothes, I waded in and was instantly struck by the uncommon warmth of the water; shallow and sun-drenched throughout the afternoon, the estuary had become a vast solar panel.

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I had to wade quite some distance before the crystal waters afforded sufficient draught in which to swim, but soon I was heading across the Doom Bar and out towards Daymer Bay and the village of Trebetherick on the opposite shore of the estuary.

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Here lies the grave of Sir John Betjeman, a former poet laureate, buried in the tiny churchyard of St Enodoc. This ancient church – known locally as ‘Sinking Neddy’ – was itself once entombed beneath shifting sands. Every year, priest and parishoners were lowered in through a hole in the roof. By holding this annual service, they ensured that St Enodoc remained a place of worship.

I have always enjoyed the works of Betjeman, particularly his writings about the county he loved. His view of this area was lighter and less troubled than Gillington’s. I particularly admire the passage within ‘Summoned by Bells’ – his epic early autobiography in blank verse – in which he recounts an excited schoolboy journey on the train from Waterloo to a holiday on these shores.

 

 ‘On Wadebridge Station what a breath of sea

Scented the Camel valley! Cornish air,

Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam’

 

It barely seems thirty years ago that I stood looking at the flowers heaped on Betjeman’s newly-dug grave…

But this was a happier evening. A time to play with the setting sun. To paint patterns with the bright palette of colours squeezed out across the water: aureolin, raw sienna, ochre. A loose wash, liberally spattered with the pigments and hues of a western sky.

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The salt and slight swell carried me back to the carefree days of my own childhood, spent around the beaches and bays of Cornwall. As if a sensory trigger had been pulled deep in my subconscious, I recoiled to some distant, undefined moment. Back to a time of sun oil and sinking sandcastles. To the taste of Kelly’s ice-cream and the feel of a proper wooden surfboard. To sea urchins and empty shrimping nets that caught nothing but my hopes.

The memory was but a transient sensation, so gossamer thin and fragile that it almost dissolves in the telling.

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As the tide swept on and out of the estuary, like children flooding from the school gate, I turned and struck back towards the beach until the water was barely ankle deep and I was forced to walk the final hundred metres across the sands. I made a mental note to be more aware of this risk when swimming in the buff!

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But thankfully the beach was still empty, and soon I was settling down to a snack of sushi and the only appropriate ale for the occasion.

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Behind me lay Hawkers Cove, barely more than a silhouette now. Here, stood a row of former coastguard cottages where the actor Edward Woodward lived out his latter years.

And nearby, the long-abandoned lifeboat station stood sentinel over the bay, its slipway rusted to the colour of the setting sun.

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Sitting among the dunes until the last dregs of day had faded like midnight embers, I watched the waxing moon, almost grown to her full glory.

An opal in the clear dusk sky.

Heading back through dying light, towards an inn and supper of fresh local mackerel with warm bread, I fancied I could hear the boy Betjeman; newly arrived and alive with anticipation…

 

‘The carriage lamps lit up the pennywort

And fennel in the hedges of the lane….

… As out of Derry’s stable came the brake

To drag us up those long, familiar hills,

Past haunted woods, and oil-lit farms and on

To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea.

Oh what a host of questions in me rose:

Were spring tides here or neap? And who was down?

Had Mr Rosevear built himself a house?

Was there another wreck upon Doom Bar?

The Dart Triple Decker

River Dart near Holne

September 6th 2014

Dartmoor gives birth to her river in quiet solitude, labouring amid the peat, granite and heather of the high tors. Twin daughters, later to conjoin, her waters babble and stutter before finding their feet and learning to run. A careless childhoood is spent skipping down gulleys and dancing through vistas of coarse grassland, close-cropped by generations of grazing animals. By the time she reaches the village of Holne, the Dart is a fast and flashy teenager, twisting and turning, jiving through dense woodland.

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Here, her mood can change on a whim; one moment bubbling and effervescent, the next, deep and dark and difficult to predict. Emerging from the torments of adolescence at Ashburton, her adult years are lived serenely, gliding through the buccolic beauty of the South Hams before reaching her dotage at Dartmouth. Here the ocean steals her soul and she is borne up into the heavens where her samsaric cycle begins anew.

Life, death and rebirth.

This journey has been repeated many times in the 700 years since the ancient yew in the churchyard at Holne first saw the light of a Devon sky. Villagers have come and villagers have gone.

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Onesuch was Charles Kingsley, born into this tiny community in 1819. Kingsley was priest, professor, poet and a friend of Charles Darwin, but he is best known as author of ‘The Water Babies.’

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This moral fable, once a must on every child’s bookshelf, tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep who tumbles into a river, drowns and is reborn as a water baby, in which form he embarks on a succession of adventures.

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And there are certainly adventures to be had in rivers…

For some time I had been looking forward to swimming at three sites along this stretch of the Dart. All are well known among the wild swimming community and have recently gained a wider audience through written guides and web sites. So, seeking solace, I waited for a weekday after the schoolchildren had returned to their lessons before trekking up through ancient oak woodland towards the first of my triple decker destinations – Sharrah Pool.

For almost two miles I kicked and shuffled through a leafy carpet, where ripening hawthorn berries hung thick and blackberries dripped the goodness of a long summer. Streams busied past in heady dives down the valley sides, reaching for the river far below.

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The path was peppered with black beetles, stranded on their backs in an urgency of flailing legs and failing strength. The day was hot and having checked my position on the OS map, I was glad to emerge from the trees to be welcomed by a long, tranquil expanse of still water.

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Sharrah was all I had hoped for – beautiful, cool, deserted. Within seconds I was stripped and heading upstream to falls where I jumped in and was spat out by the force of the current. A wet n’ wild fairground ride – helter skelter  – around the rocks and back into 100 metres of limpid loveliness, rich with reflections.

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This was a playful pool, filled with the thrill of being spilled and spewed, nudged and nuzzled. And then caught – as if in the net of a trapeze – to be cradled and carried to safety.

 

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A picnic lunch was followed by a second, unscheduled swim – too delicious a dessert to forego. Dipping and diving, bathing and basking, I was oblivious to the presence of a passing hiker, but I was immersed in a personal world, where the only thing that mattered was the wonder of the water.

Wellsfoot Island is particularly acclaimed as a skinny dipper’s delight and so dressed, but still dripping, I retraced the winding path down through the woods towards this second tier of my triple decker.

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This heavily wooded island, encircled by a divide in the Dart, is best approached from the far bank, where a precarious bridge spans the water.

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But for me, the approach was through the water, as I slipped and slid across smooth algae-laden boulders, until the river was deep enough to swim. I came ashore on a sandy beach, abundant with flowers. A place so perfect that I half expected to discover the footsteps of Man Friday; this was an island paradise and I was a happy castaway.

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Soft sands nestled into a clearing where ebony embers lay scattered in testament to a midnight swim. Tracks led away from the beach, fingering through verdant vegetation and topped by a tall canopy of trees. This really was a special place, a place to sit with friends, into the dusk and beyond. A place to be warm beside a sparking fire, to talk, to laugh and to swim  – to commune and connect.

But on this sultry afternoon, it was simply a place to just be. To float in the warmth of the September sun and, after a few lazy strokes, to drift into the deeper waters where the Dart has relentlessly chiseled her mark into the the cliffs that tower above an elbow in the river.

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Here all was stillness; a haven, where the waters pause before tripping and tumbling off downstream, hustling and hurrying through a succession of rocky rapids and peaceful pools.

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And soon I was following on, stumbling over the roots that straddled the narrow woodland path and pausing only to enjoy the company of fellow evening travellers through Cleave Wood.

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Then onwards to the final tier of the Dart Triple Decker – crafted like a horse shoe – a natural jacuzzi. Deep and delicious, I had spied this place on a previous visit and was determined to sample the spa treatment it promised.

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Here I hoped to savour the ultimate watery massage, amid the foam and first-fallen leaves of Autumn.

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But it was not easy to gain entry into this private pool – the force of the current repelled every attempt to swim up and into the narrow channel that funnels into the fall itself.

The only faesible approach was to drop in from above. Nine hours of Devon sunshine had warmed the smooth rock from which this plunge pool was hewn, its comfortable heat giving little clue as to the cold shock that awaited me as I slid over the edge and into the maelstrom.

But wow! What a feeling. It was impossible not to whoop and shout in exhilaration as my shoulders were pummelled and pressed by the crystal waters. An umbrella of spray rose above me, splashing down to wash away the view and flood into my eyes, nose and mouth. And how sweet that water tasted.

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A couple were swimming a little way upstream, so in deference I had donned my swimmers. But Mother Dart, she had other ideas and soon I felt the strength of her flow tugging and pulling and, in an instant, the shorts were around my thighs, knees and then gone.

It was as if she were saying there is only one pure and beautiful way to enjoy my gift to you – like a baby, naked, drenched and vulnerable within the slate of my womb …

‘In fact, the fairies had turned him into a water baby. A water baby? You never heard of a water baby? Perhaps not. That is the very reason why this story was written.”  (Charles Kingsley)

 

Ghosts and Granite

Foggintor, Dartmoor

September 26th 2014

To call this place Foggintor is a misnomer.

For there is no longer a tor here, just an empty excavated hollow. A husk of a hill.

On the western slopes of Dartmoor, where the horizon expands to embrace sea, rolling pastures and the distant hills of Cornwall lies a quarry. A silent place now. Where the only sound is the soft, rhythmic grazing of sheep, or the occasional wistful moan of the breeze through long-derelict cottages.

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Cottages built from the granite that was quarried here in the days when this lonely place was a bustling business, a thriving and self-sufficient community where men worked and lived, loved and left.

Cottages that lined up in a row against the casual whim of the elements. Where productive gardens and the family pig sheltered in the lee of dry-stone walls.

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In its heyday, in the middle of the 19th Century, hundreds of men worked the quarry and from its grey faces were hewn Nelson’s column, Dartmoor Prison and the Plymouth Breakwater.

But that all changed in 1906 when the quarry fell silent and the bleak beauty of the moorland crept back.

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And gradually the quarry filled with water; the crisp clear water that abounds around here from overloaded clouds and a myriad hurrying springs.

 

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I had heard that this was a good place to swim; not deep nor wide nor long, but private and peaceful, protected on all sides from sight and season.

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So on a languid, lazy and overcast September evening I stood on one of the few patches of coarse grass that abut the lake and escaped the hot grip of my clothes. Sliding into the shallows, I took care to avoid the razor sharpness of the discarded blocks strewn around the quarry bottom – a barely submerged obstacle course through which I twisted and wove.

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The water was quite warm (14 degrees) as I swam into the deeper section, towards a brace of tiny islands, improbably adorned with an exuberance of leaves, like the head-dress of some Polynesian princess.

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Taking a deep breath, I dived down through roots to where sunken grasses grew on the silty bed, amidst shards of granite and sunlight.

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Surfacing to float on my back, my gaze drifted up past the yellow brightness of gorse flowers, their heavy coconut scent suffusing the evening air.  Ferns clung to sheer sides of rock, using an occasional crevice to claw and claim a foothold and up beyond these opened a clearing sky, alive with the swooping dance of swallows.

A burst of saffron heralded the slow steady decline of the sun, sinking deep beyond the silhouettes of Caradon and Bodmin moor to the west.

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Jail Ale and the best steak and stilton pie that money can buy were calling from the ‘Plume of Feathers’ at nearby Princetown.

I stood for a while to dry in the warm breeze, as the last bees of the evening bumbled past and away and were gone, leaving only that wonderful, almost oppressive, silence of absolute solitude…

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February 4th 2015

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It is only four months since I swam with the setting sun at Foggintor, but a few days ago I returned – slipping and sliding along the old horse drawn tramway by which the granite blocks were hauled to the sea for shipping.

Feeling the crisp crunch of freshly fallen snow underfoot, I gazed in awe at the wholly frozen expanse of ice that was so recently the quarry pool.

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With wind chill, the temperature was minus five and, as echoes bounced and called between the rock faces, I imagined I could hear the shuffle of iced feet.

The clatter of a cough.

The cry of a chisel.

New Year Spray

Lansallos

January 1 2015

 

The garish midnight fireworks had long-since faded into the grey of the morning sky, heavy and overhung as the previous evening’s revellers.

An urgent clatter of windchimes at the bedroom window heralded an unpromising day for a dip, not least because a swell had been gathering in the Channel for some time. Checking-in with the Met Office revealed a steady force 6 gusting to gale 8 with a band of rain due later, so I knew that the sea at Lansallos would be more than a little lively.

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Nevertheless, I had been looking forward to renewing my friendship with this very special ‘auld acquaintance’ and the call of the cove was irresistible, whatever the weather.

The tide was set to be favourable during the late afternoon and the horizon was brightening, yellow as saffron, by the time we emerged from the gloom and mud of the woodland path and out onto the narrow promontory that overlooks Lantivet Bay. Narrow, precarious and windswept, with sheer and significant drops to either side, this did not feel like a clever place to be as I bowed and braced into the wind.

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But it was simply too beautiful. Majestic, charged waves were clattering against the rocks, unleashing explosions of sound and sending cutting sprays of saltwater across the grey sand and shingle of the beach.

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I was surprised by the number of spectators huddled below – about fifteen souls – wrapped in scarves and mufflers against the onshore gusts, but clearly eager to blow away cobwebs and all memories of the night before. Descending through the narrow passageway, reputedly hewn through the slate cliff by free-traders (smugglers) and out onto the sand, I headed away from the crowd and towards the isolation of the eastern side, where I know the rocks have been softened and shaped into fine seats by centuries of swirling tides.

With an urgency, nurtured by two month’s abstention, my shoes and socks were shed and I was wading into the water; at 12 degrees as warm as the air and far more inviting than any hot bath. I’m not sure why I bothered to roll up my trousers, for soon I was overwhelmed and overcome by the relentless surge of the sea – soaked and satisfied, drunk on ozone and thrilling to the sensation of foam on my face and sand streaming in rivulets, out and through my toes as they clutched deep into the shifting sediment.

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I observed the currents, watchful for rips, but in truth the sea was a cauldron of wave and counterwave, chop and cut. There was no calm water, no sandy trails to warn of danger. The whole bay was agitated, restless, like an orchestra excited into a conductor-less frenzy, a wild cacophony of sound, worthy of  Schoenberg or Stravinsky.

The light was failing as the last onlookers turned their backs on the sea and headed towards home and perhaps the comfortable aroma of a log fire. But the scent of the sea was in my nostrils and I sensed it was now or never. Shedding my clothes, I skipped into the wonderful wildness of the water, diving deep into the heart of each breaking wave. Into the place where sound is muffled and reality suspended. Where fronds of weed dance in a melee of blue, white and turquoise and where each rush of the tide is matched by a rush of elemental joy.

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This was no epic swim – it was too dangerous to venture far from the shore, but it was a carefree playground, a place to be tossed and twirled and, like Marley who was always close at hand, a place to keep coming back for more.

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As the bland palette of shoreline hues faded and merged into grey uniformity, it was time to head for home, so I launched into the base of the biggest breaker I could see and allowed myself to be bundled back onto the beach where a flask of hot chocolate was waiting.

Much later, standing in the shower, the taste of salt again flowed across my face as I savoured its delicious tang and the memory of my New Year’s Day swim.

And I pondered the year ahead, resolving that regardless of whether the way may be calm or turbulent, I will immerse myself in it and love – (or at very least, learn from) – every trough and crest …

 

 

 

In the Wake of Rebecca

Polridmouth, Cornwall

October 31 2014

 

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’

An unmistakable opening line.

Few with a knowledge of twentieth century literature would fail to recognise this as the first sentence penned by Daphne du Maurier in her masterpiece ‘Rebecca’.

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This tale, set on the Cornish coast, is as deep and dark as its oceans, with a narrative crafted around stormy nights and equally tempestuous relationships.

Du Maurier fell in love with Cornwall when her parents bought Ferryside,  a cottage adjacent to the slipway at Boddinick and facing across the estuary to Fowey beyond. Although intended as a holiday home, the young Daphne soon shunned her Hampstead family mansion, preferring to stay by the sea and embark upon a literary career.

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Years later she moved to Menabilly, inspiration for the fictional Manderley, and the starting point for my pilgrimage into the world of du Maurier and Rebecca.

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‘No-one would ever hurt Manderley. It would lie always in it’s hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.’

Parking in a field on the very boundaries of Menabilly and as the autumnal late afternoon sunshine began to falter, I started my 3/4 mile descent towards the bays, passing fields, farms and a quaint call to honesty …

 

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It had been a balmy day; at 18 degrees the warmest Halloween on record, but the wind was freshening and a brackish tang blew in from the sea.

Soon the red and white stripes of the Gribben (or Gribbin) came into view. This commanding tower, 26m high, was erected by Trinity House in 1832 as an aid to navigation. Although never lighted, its bright colours served as a daymark to shipping, identifying Gribben Head – (Cornish: an Gribyn) – the promontory separating St Austell Bay from the Fowey estuary.

In their latter years, Daphne and her soldier husband Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, would stride out to this headland on most days, scaling a steep clifftop path to savour the dizzying vista.

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The bay was a place I knew well through both film and page, but I had never before set foot on its sands. This was a journey I had yearned to make, but still I feared disappointment. Would it be the secluded, almost mystical cove of my mind’s eye or a sewage outlet heaped with rotting kelp? ( I had read that it can be weedy here.)

I need not have fretted, for Polridmouth (Pridmouth to the locals) was as perfect as I had hoped and imagined:

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Ahead spread a wide, horse-shoe bay, bisected by a rocky outcrop and bordered by cliffs twisted into dramatic convulutions. The tide was at half ebb, spume drifted across the sand, shingle and shale of the beach. Wavelets rode across emerging rocks.

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Nestling between woodland and sea, like the wading curlews, lay a lone cottage; inspiration for the fateful fisherman’s hut in Rebecca.

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Donning the red cap I use for identification when swimming alone in the sea, I strode into the waves, through water that still clung to the heat of summer, and struck out across the bay.

Shafts of sunlight sparked across the gathering swell, portends to the force 8 gale that was fast approaching from the west. The Gribben became a distant silhouette as three, four, then six ducks crossed the twilit sky in noisy formation.

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The beach was deserted now, so I hooked my shorts on a fiercely surf-sharpened outcrop and swam further and deeper, my slow and leisurely lull being only briefly interrupted by the shock of weed wrapping around my legs – I have never quite shaken off my childhood fear of jellyfish!

Looking towards the horizon, I floated and rolled, bobbed and was buffeted, drifted and dreamed, like the seals that sometimes claim this beach as a lido. I was swimming where and how du Maurier swam (often twice in a day) and, despite the solitude of the livening sea, I never felt alone.

A yacht slid quietly across the skyline.

And was Rebecca laughing?

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This was a long and luxuriant bathe. I did not want it to end, but the waves were growing higher and the sun was dipping lower, so reluctantly I headed for the sand.

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Tracking back uphill towards Menabilly, I heard the wind gathering behind me and, to use a Cornish expression, it was ‘ragging for rain.’

But the taste and feel of salt remained all about me.

I was still far offshore, floating somewhere, deep in the pages of a book…

‘If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.’

‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

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This blog was posted on December 19th 2014.

On this night 33 years ago, the lifeboat Solomon Browne put to sea in 100mph winds and 60 foot waves at Penlee, a little to the west of Polridmouth.

The ocean was so wild that the Coxswain would only allow one crew member from each family to answer this call to mariners in distress.

They never came home.

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Their memory sails on…

The Sound of Silence

Gold Diggings, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.

September 2nd 2014

 

Silence is golden.

Or so the song goes.

Coincidence then that I should unearth this rare and precious commodity on the scrubby moorland  track that leads to Gold Diggings, a long abandoned and flooded granite quarry nestling among the tors of Bodmin Moor.

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It had been some 35 years since I last roamed the bleak beauty of these hills as schoolchild and Scout, but I felt instantly at home, surrounded by early heather, late gorse and the memory of friends.

And for a while, a sacred time, there was nothing else. No sound except the occasional business of bees and a far-off whoop of glee as trekking horses broke into a gallop.

No machines.

No engines, no planes, no motorcycles. No carhorns or chainsaws. No lawns being mowed. No man-made scars on the soundscape.

Nothing….. Just silence…..

I paused to luxuriate in this absolute absence of noise.

The air was clear and dew-dappled webs shimmered with morning sunlight as I looked east, towards the fields, farms, lanes, bike rides and adventures that were my childhood, so distant from the electronic prisons that trap and confine children now.

Close by lay the The Hurlers – (An Hurlysi in the Cornish tongue) – three large circles of standing stones whose origins likely date back to Neolithic or Bronze Age times. Tradition has it that they are the petrified remains of men who were turned to stone as punishment for taking part in a hurling contest on the Sabbath. Dowsers still visit from around the world to tap into the immense energy that is said to emanate from this ancient site.

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Mark the friendly falconer strolled by, fearsome talons clutching the thick leather gauntlet upon his wrist whilst piercing vigilant eyes darted alarmingly towards me.

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We strolled along the remnants of an abandoned railway that once bore locally quarried granite blocks on their journey towards Liskeard and the coast at Looe. Listless cows grazed, the eyes of foals followed us and a dragonfly hurried past.

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Above one distant quarry, sentinel-like, stood the Cheesewring, an improbable granite stack, sculpted by ice, wind and rain over the millenia.

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Heading west for a further twenty minutes brought us to our goal; a second quarry, known as Swit or more commonly, Gold Diggings – long abandoned as unprofitable and now flooded with both water and sunlight.

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Deserted, except for the echoes of our footsteps, this was a place I had hoped to visit for some time – a swimming hole known to generations of moorland folk. The sun was high and the breeze warm, so I had no hesitation in discarding clothes on the grassy bank and plunging into the delicious (15C)  blue water, whose clarity revealed a myriad fish, some quite large and all inquisitive, nudging and probing my feet.

I set off across the mirrored water, secure in the solitude and serene calm of the lake. An effortless swim, a lazy drift and float. Perfection. Paradise.

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The sudden overhead appearance of a trio of smiling faces shattered the idyll and I hurriedly swam back to the shore and the reluctant modesty of my trunks.

But I needn’t have bothered, for as the happy family descended towards the shore I heard their German voices and relaxed, knowing they were likely to hold a much more liberal and enlightened view of natural swimming than that of the painfully prudish Brits!

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For the next 45 minutes I crossed over, cruised around and explored every outcrop and crevice, savouring the occasional brush of warm currents and heading into deeper, darker waters when another family passed by and paused to chat.

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A white stallion appeared on the skyline, haughty with extended neck and stare of disdain. I was instantly reminded of the Rain Horse in Ted Hughes’ haunting short story – another schooldays memory. I recalled the English teacher who brought me this tale and his son, my friend, who once walked these moors and maybe does still – I hope in peace now…

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Three ‘tombstoners’ appeared, donned wetsuits and defied both death and logic by leaping from the sheer cliff sides. At least they had managed to escape from a virtual world and were now experiencing the thrill of reality – of the moment – without care for the past or concern for the future. They were just being.

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Unwrapping a pasty and throwing the crust to an ever-patient Marley Bone, I was perhaps a little envious as I recalled my careless, carefree teens and bit hard into an apple.

A mild wind blew across our faces as we retraced our route back. All was peace again.

Looking west, beyond the sealed quarry tracks, the outstretched fingers of granite waste, skeletal engine houses and undulating fields lay the sea.

And I realised that I was viewing the industrial heritage of my home county in a single, intense vista.

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Sensing decay, a carrion crow circled overhead.

The symbolism was overwhelming…

‘For Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too,

But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?’

(Roger Bryant)