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Diary of a wandering swimmer – imported sand, piscinas naturales and a pool to myself

Kate Gillwood 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 on holiday and far from my usual swimming haunts, so guessing today’s swim location may be a little harder than usual. It’s holidays like this that remind me of where my love for the water came from. I forget about my wetsuit, which events to do and how bloody foggy my goggles keep getting. I just let go and regress to the purity of ‘it’. They say that your childhood years shape you. One of my most special memories is of hot summer days spent in our local outdoor pool (I didn’t know then they were called lidos). I can still smell it and feel the water on my body as I moved through it. Swimming fills me with such a feeling of freedom, strength and most of all calmness – and those feelings are unique to water. Swimming is just my best thing ever. Coincidentally (or maybe not) one of my most fulfilling dreams, and one of only three I remember with any sunlight in them, was of swimming underwater in a huge, deep, open air pool (with the aid of my gills, of course). The sunshine was piercing through the aqua (which is the best colour range ever invented). Now, on holiday, I’ve got an outdoor pool, like the one from my dream, for a week. Heaven.

1A The Pool

Like a dream, but real

My other most treasured childhood memory is of swimming in the cool Atlantic seas off the West coast of Scotland at beaches like Achmelvich Bay (don’t go there, please don’t, it’s already on a danger list, so to speak). It was in the 70s and I was so lucky only having to share it with my big sister and she was never one for the water. Today, the beach where I’m swimming on my holiday is a little odd. Clearly, given the geology of the island I was visiting, the golden sand has been imported to create that aqua sea effect we have in abundance in the UK. But it was odd for another reason. The sand was golden, the water was inviting but barely anyone else was swimming although there were plenty of people surfing the sun beds! We arrived, picked a free spot (as in not electing for my best fan to pay for a sun bed), I got in and off I went. I got some quizzical looks, which again was strange. It didn’t feel very ‘wild’. It felt too cleansed for that. Despite the ‘sanitisation’ of the beach, the water was a real pleasure. I enjoyed that sense of not having to share, which I always find surprising. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to, but I’ve said that before.

2 The Cove

Golden sand, clearly imported.

The island I’m visiting is also known for its piscinas naturales, although I fail to see how this concrete walled pool I’m in now allows it to qualify as natural in almost any way, but that’s just me. I was underwhelmed. It was sold to us in the reviews as a hidden gem, a secret beach that only a few souls knew about. I really didn’t swim here for long at all, the water was way too warm and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the wee fish trapped in there, waiting for the next tide so they could escape. No not for me. I contemplated climbing over to the rocks on the other side and even had my sand shoes on ready to go but the waves were just too powerful, crashing onto the rocks, which I thought was a shame but we need to use our common sense and stay safe sometimes. However it was good to see some nice big crabs scuttling around on the rocks.

There are other sea pools on the island but quite a bit further from us and given I got a cold in the middle of my holiday I only had energy to stay local, so I don’t know if the others were more enticing.

3A The Sea Pool


One thing I discovered, through reading about where to swim before I came to this island, was that many visitors are fearful of swimming in the ocean here. I find it interesting. Fear. How we get it and how it grows, and how we feed it like a live culture. Fear is mine, I own it and I feel it quite a lot. There I’ve said it. Sometimes it’s worse than others but after losing someone to the ocean the fear is always there. It makes me cautious. In any new place I visit, I scout my untested swimming spot. I gauge the movement of the tide, the waves, the beach. I watch how vessels move on it, check the tide times, check my apps for currents, watch other swimmers (who seemingly have no fear at all) and generally waste good swimming time geeing myself up to dive in. This time, I took a few days to get in and I even enlisted the company of another swimmer to join me. Not exactly the intrepid wandering swimmer I make myself out to be after all then, maybe. However, eventually, I found the courage to swim from the beach with the dark native sand to the one with golden imported sand. The pull over the rocks was a surprise and took more effort than I anticipated, but I did it and felt I’d achieved something when I climbed out to some questioning looks. I admit, I loved the idea of people on the beach not knowing where I had come from as I walked out of the water but in reality it probably didn’t take too much for them to figure it out. After all, it was only about 300 metres. I had to laugh at myself for that. But I overcame my fear that day. I often wonder how it might feel to stand on a beach and to strike out towards some unseen destination for a swim that you know will take hours. It gives me huge respect for those who conquer swims like that… but I did my 300 metres. A great way to finish off a holiday.

4 The Challenge

My holiday swim challenge – from one bay to the next

I want to swim there too

It is of course the island of Gran Canaria. There are many regular flights from the UK including direct flights from Edinburgh which only take around four hours, which in the winter months makes it a popular destination for an escape to a much needed vitamin D top up. I wouldn’t suggest you travel here for a culinary experience although there are some nice little towns and you can of course get really good fresh fish and sea food, although not cheap (a possible effect of the politically impacted currency conversion rate). With respect to the Canarians, who are really friendly, I would say it’s not a particularly beautiful island (although a drive to the lovely little market villages in the mountains is worth it) but being able to swim in warmer waters for a change was nice without having to think about needing gloves and boots. Always check tides, currents and local knowledge about the sea. It is the Atlantic. Also don’t forget that you are much nearer to the equator so protect yourself from the sun.

All images thanks to and (c) Caroline Gillwood

Read about Kate's other swims

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