FEATURES,  Features

In a class of their own

The story of Clevedon Lake And Sea Swimmers, the club behind the BBC ident

Clevedon is usually a sleepy little town but recently it’s become a little more famous and busy. On 1 Jan 2017, the first of the new BBC1 idents was unveiled, featuring local open water swimmers. The following weekend crowds flocked to see these strange creatures.

From being mentioned in the Domesday Book to becoming a popular Victorian seaside resort, Clevedon has grown but retained its charm. Nestling within seven hills, comparisons have been made to Rome, but the English weather brings reality in the form of wind and rain. To the year-round swimmers, this is simply character building. It means there is often choppy water to swim in, which is good practice for those planning an endurance event like the Dart 10k or English Channel.

Clevedon is on a stretch of the Severn Estuary designated a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest. It also has one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, leading to the Avonmouth Docks, and has one of the ocean’s biggest tidal ranges, rising to over 15m. Swimming your first equinox tide is a memorable event – daunting yet thrilling as you rush under the Grade1 pier that opened in 1869, careful to avoid clattering into one of the struts and bringing it down a second time!

Local knowledge of the tides is a must. With such a large tidal range, when the tide is out, it’s well and truly out, leaving only ancient rocks, seaweed, and mud, thick and sticky from the tons of silt brought down the Severn. In the past, it also left behind weed and dead creatures, dumping them beneath the cliffs at Salthouse Bay, at the southern end of the seafront facing the pier, to rot and scent the air; locals called the area “Stinking Corner”. To divert this flotsam and jetsam downstream and provide post-war employment for locals, a project to build a wall and create a sea-filled lake, was proposed and completed in 1929. In its heyday, this 250m long by 100m wide marine lake entertained large crowds with standing room only. Many dippers came on Sunday ferries from Wales, visiting local pubs because Wales was “dry” on a Sunday.

Sadly, in the 1980s use of the lake began to wane and so did the will and finances to adequately maintain it and a period of decline began. Some of the facilities were removed and the council put up notices to ‘ban swimming’, though these were ignored by a few hardy outdoor swimmers, breaking the ice with spades in the winter for their daily dip.

After years of neglect, Arthur Knott formed Marlens (Marine Lake Enthusiasts) in 2004 to campaign to restore the lake, plug the leaks and get more people using it. Reward eventually came in 2014 with £800,000 of lottery funding. The restoration was completed in October 2015 and the lake officially re-opened on 8 April 2016.

The project is a resounding success. That summer, the crowds flocked, drawn by the improvements, casual visitors walked or swam, kids fished for crabs, and the local sailing and canoe clubs returned for leisure and training. But by far the biggest group found there were outdoor swimmers ranging from casual dippers to triathletes and English Channel swimmers. Additionally, the project won the South West Civil Engineering Project of the year and Marlens were awarded The Queens Award for Voluntary Service.

Marlens’ new challenge is maintaining the lake and the group is committed to paying the first £3,000 costs in any year while North Somerset District Council should pay any remaining costs but this is at a time of austerity. Returning the lake to its glorious past, when people paid an admission fee, won’t work so a new approach to raising funds is needed: a challenge faced by many community run lidos and lakes. An answer lies in the phenomenal growth and demand for wild or open water swimmer venues and events. So, new for 2017, Marlens are launching the Marlens Open Water Series (MOWS), three aquathlons, a SwimRun and the historic Clevedon Long Swim, started in 1928. The emphasis is on fun and participation, encouraging people to try open water swimming.

While the high tide provides a natural time for swimmers to gather, and prevents us from swimming at other times, the lake is always available. Social media helps people find swim buddies. The Clevedon Lake And Sea Swimmers (CLASS) Facebook group has grown to nearly 1000 members in just over a year, encouraging and bringing together new and old open water swimmers. Monthly full moon swims have proved popular, even in the winter, with swimmers prepared to venture into the dark, churning sea with glow sticks attached to their goggles or bike lights in their tow floats, returning to shiver and change and share cake.

Find out more marlens.org.uk

Image: BBC/Martin Parr/Magnum

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