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Diary of a wandering swimmer: last swim with a friend

Kate Greenwood was born in Galashiels, Scotland, raised from three years old in Yorkshire, found herself in London for 30 years and eventually escaped back to Scotland. She was raised to swim in rivers (the Wharfe at Appletreewick, for example), open air pools (Otley) and the sea, so open water swimming is not new. She started taking part in organised events about 10 years ago, putting on a wetsuit for the first time for the Great Scottish Swim in 2011. Now living just 10 minutes from Portobello Beach, one of her favourite things is to start the day with a sneaky swim in her local waters. She also likes to explore new swimming spots and share what she finds. So, where did Kate swim today?

Where did Kate swim today?

“I’m the short one with short dark hair, wearing a bright blue puffer jacket.”

That was back in September 2015, and these were my first spoken words to the woman who would turn out to be my special swimming friend for three years. After joining a swimming group online, we arranged to meet in the Lake District to take part in the Chillswim Length of Coniston Swim, all 5.25-miles of it, together, and we’ve had lots of swimming adventures since then. So, Penny Watson, here’s to you.

Fast forward three years as today we shared our last swim together. Penny is leaving for warmer waters and will apparently and unashamedly be taking up skins swimming! Not sure I approve but people do change. It’s almost November in Scotland, so I was of course head to ankle in neoprene (but notice I didn’t say toe! Go me!).

It shouldn’t be hard to guess where we swam today. You have been here with me before. It’s my nearest swimming spot and has a choice of pool or sea, and both Penny and I prefer the sea. Today the beach was strewn with razor clams. It never ceases to amaze me how our beach favours one thing at a time. A while back it was starfish, but today it was razor clams. We even had a few days of timber earlier on this year which felt very Lillian Beckwith and really made me laugh to watch people, with their children in tow, piling up said timber and hoisting it off to unknown projects. For any authorities, particularly the Receiver of Wreck for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, who are reading this, I don’t know who they were or where they took it.

Anyway, back to the swimming. It was one of those “come you can do it but my bloody feet really hurt for at least 10 minutes” kind of swims. Penny strode in all brave like. Given the swimming prowess of my lovely friend, I am usually trailing in her wake and today was no exception. As I pretty much did head-up breaststroke with only the occasional foray into crawl, coming up every few strokes to gasp at the pain in my head, she burst ahead. I always find it inspiring to watch such confident, strong swimmers. It was nevertheless fun in the waves that gave us the opportunity to body surf and jump around like kids, squealing when a big one hit us. It was a special swim, in a special place, and it will never be the same without Penny. Thank you for sharing this with me for the last few years. I will always remember our swims fondly.

I want to swim there too

We were, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, at my local favourite, Portobello Beach, Edinburgh. You can find suggestions on how to get there on portobellobeach.com/how-to-get-here/. The site also includes tide times. Other bus routes are the 124, x24, 21, 42 and 49. From Portobello Town Hall it’s about a five-minute walk down Bath Street to the beach. It is all free parking on streets adjacent to the beach but it gets busy at peak times.

Be aware that Portobello does not have lifeguards. The beach is wide and flat, which means you can have a bit of a longer walk when the tide is out but it is really quite safe. You can go in anywhere but often swimmers go in by the Portobello Swim Centre. Other users of the water include SUPs, kayaks, skiffs and the very occasional jet ski. The latter do have to be watched as they have not always appeared to take care. However, a lot of people swim here and I’m not aware of any accidents. Sometimes the tide can feel stronger when swimming up the beach towards Seafield so weaker swimmers should be aware. I’ve never seen anything like a rip.

I think it’s a safe place for new open water swimmers to try the sea out. The only real issue is the water temperature. It’s quite often less than 10 degrees and usually at the most 16, so you do need to acclimatise.

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