North Cornwall boasts some of the most spectacular cliffs and beaches in the world, which makes for some delightful swimming. Here are three swims to try, based on a recent trip to the area.
Port Isaac to Port Gaverne (and back)
For this swim we joined up with Tom and Jo from Sea Swim Cornwall (http://seaswimcornwall.co.uk/). The two organise guided swims and swimming holidays around Cornwall and are both experienced coaches and open water swimmers. The swim starts from the harbour of the picturesque fishing village of Port Isaac. The beach can be quite busy here and jumping from the harbour wall is popular. However, always check the depth of the water before you leap as the tidal range is several metres.
In the harbour the water is calm but be aware that it is used by fishing boats so stay alert and consider using a tow float. Once you swim out through the opening in the harbour walls you can immediately feel the power of the sea and a swell that’s travelled thousands of miles across the Atlantic. Turn right and follow the line of lobster pot marker buoys towards Port Gaverne.
To your right, the cliffs rise vertically out of the ocean. Waves smash relentlessly into the rocks. It’s best to stay a good 20 to 30 metres away to avoid being pummelled. On your left, it’s just the ocean.
It’s only about a kilometre between the two ports but you should make sure you’re comfortable swimming in the ocean for several times that distance before undertaking this swim as there is nowhere to land and get out of the water between them. Having said that, we rounded the headland and Port Gaverne came into view quicker than expected. You could end the swim here and walk back along the stunning cliff path if you like.
Instead, we crossed the bay and swam through a short and narrow channel between the mainland and a rocky outcrop. This is something you should only do in relatively calm conditions as you get sloshed between the two rock faces by the swell. Also, it gets suddenly dark when you pass into the shade. From here we swung left around the outside of the island and then headed back to Port Isaac. This was perhaps the trickiest part of the swim as we were some way from the shore at this point and blinded by the setting sun.
The swim has a pleasant finish as you return to the sheltered and slightly warmer water of the harbour from where you can stumble across the beach to the bar and a refreshing drink.
This is a swim I’d only recommend doing with experienced swimmers.
The Strangles Beach (near Crackington Haven)
Strangles has long been one of my favourite beaches in Cornwall, although not generally for swimming. Located beneath Cornwall’s highest cliffs, it’s only accessible by sea or a 45-minute walk down a zig-zag path. The walk, and the views it offers as you descend, are enough to make the trip worthwhile.
The beach (or beaches, as there is a second beach behind a rocky outcrop) are nearly always deserted. Even on a hot August bank holiday you might find only a handful of other people. At low tide there’s a good strip of sand, but this is covered when the tide is in.
As with many beaches on this Cornish coast it is exposed to rollers coming in off the Atlantic and often has a reasonable surf. The currents can also be strong and it is not lifeguarded. Usually, therefore, I limit swimming to body surfing in a small area close to shore that I know to be relatively free of under-water rocks.
This year however we were treated to a rare calm day. The water, which is usually murky with sand churned up by the surf, was clear to several metres and the currents were benign. This meant we could swim for several hundred metres parallel to the beach and safely explore the rocky outcrops from the water. Along the way we swam across several shoals of tiny, shimmering fish, and also a fair few compass jellyfish. Luckily these were easily avoided.
At the far (north) end of the beach is a spectacular rock arch and, if you’re lucky (as we were) you may see a seal.
Bring a picnic as it’s a long, strenuous climb back up the cliff to the road.
Bude Sea Pool
One of the most enjoyable things about the sea in North Cornwall is that it often has some of the best waves in the country. But while swimming or playing in the waves can be fun, it’s also exhausting. Bude Sea Pool offers the opportunity to swim in the same water, still enjoy the wide sandy beaches and rugged cliff views yet avoid the constant battering of the surf.
If you want to swim laps, it’s best to come early. It’s much easier to park for one thing but come 10 o’clock, at least in the summer, and the pool starts filling up with people on inflatables.
The pool is usually topped up twice daily from the incoming tide, although at neap tides the water doesn’t quite reach high enough. At high tides, and in the right conditions, breakers crash in over the pool wall and can refill it from empty in a matter of minutes. If this is happening you will have to wait before swimming.
It costs around £30,000 per year to maintain the 88m long pool and a few years ago it was threatened with closure. Happily, a local action group, Friends of Bude Sea Pool were able to save it and it is now enjoyed by an estimated 60,000 people per year. There is no charge to swim, but donations are welcome!
Find out more: http://www.budeseapool.org/