It was rather an impulsive statement, sat on golden sands at the tail end of last summer: “I’m going to swim in the sea every month of the year”. My wife and I had just had an impromptu swim from beautiful Studland beach, in Dorset. Caroline was immediately game too for what seemed like a faintly ridiculous dare. To many hardened, open water swimmers, this year-round challenge won’t sound arduous in the least. But though we loved being in the sea, we had only swum during the ‘conventional’ months – June to September – at our local beaches. And we intended on completing the challenge without wetsuits.
We live in mid-Dorset, within half an hour of many truly stunning swim locations. With so many tempting and iconic swim spots, why, we mused, had it taken us this long to hit on the idea of swimming year-round?
We told friends of our challenge for the coming year – to a mostly favourable reaction. Some even wanted to join us, so later that evening A.R.S.E. was born: the Adult Recreational Swimming Ensemble. You see, it’s all about the fun of it – we’re not overly athletic or competitive types out to smash PBs or swim the Channel, but we aim to enjoy our local waters with kindred spirits, having a laugh along the way.
All this was five months ago and our challenge is still going strong. Our first dip in February was an amazing afternoon. With friends and children in tow, we set off from the ghost village of Tyneham hidden in the folds of the Purbecks to walk the mile to Worbarrow Bay. Public access to this beach is limited to weekends and August since it is MoD land, ever since 1943 when the War Office requisitioned the area for firing training. It was meant to be a temporary loan, but Tyneham residents were never allowed to return and now the village cottages and Post Office and school lie in semi-ruin, albeit with quirky charm.
The bay is perfect for swimming – its wide curve is bookended by the hunk of rock that is Worbarrow Tout, which provides a natural nook and generally means calm waters.
This cold, grey February day showed signs of relenting, and sunshine teased the rippling sea – it was definitely looking inviting. We lit a fire on the pebbles, both for warming post-swim bodies and homemade soup. Friends were left in charge of the fire and children, as well as a timer set for 20 minutes. As socks, gloves and skin swimmers, we know our limits and 20 minutes is about right for us in 8°C water.
There are many things I love about outdoor swimming, especially in winter. I love the tingly, prickly feeling on my skin after the initial shock has worn off – and also the euphoria after. I love that disconcerting feeling, of reminding yourself that it’s not August – but that, actually, it doesn’t matter, because it’s so pleasurable just swimming. I love seeing the coastline from a different perspective. Yes, it would be a similar view from a boat, but swimming offers a connectedness to the surroundings – you feel part of it, enveloped in water, senses heightened.
And what a view there is here, formed up to 145 million years ago. Layers of limestone, sandstones and chalk bear testimony to the Cretaceous period and later when the African and European plates collided to form the folded strata of the headland. Swimming, our eyes follow the coast round to the chalk cove of Arish Mell and further to Mupe Rocks. It’s stunning. We agree these are places we will swim to and explore when the water warms later in the year.
On with our challenge which, as you have probably gathered, is proving to be entirely enjoyable and not a bit unrealistic. Our immediate coastline offers such wonderful opportunities for swimming and adventure, this year-long endeavour may just have morphed into a lifetime passion.
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