Pells Pool writer-in-residence Tanya Shadrick introduces an extract from Watermarks: an anthology of writing by lido lovers and wild swimmers — and the story behind its dedication.
“In memory of a wild woman swimming.” When I put out a call for work by lido lovers and wild swimmers in May last year, I had yet to encounter the extraordinary writer to whom it is dedicated.
My only meeting with Lynne Roper — visionary wild swimmer and former press officer for the OSS — was at her hospice on a grey day in high summer, where she was being treated for the brain tumour which would end her life. She hadn’t time to have her swim writing published and — with her family’s blessing — entrusted that task to me.
Between her recovery from breast cancer in 2010 and her death at 55 in August 2016, Lynne kept a 60,000-word swim diary. Foggintore. Okement. Black Tor. Burgh Island. Like a wild swimmer’s version of the Shipping Forecast, the entries take us to a West Country untamed by tourism: freezing pools in hollowed-out Dartmoor tors, sea caves stuck about with Dead Men’s fingers, rivers in full spate where buoyancy is lost suddenly in froth and bubbles.
A wild water midwife to hundreds of swimmers, Lynne inspired others to ‘read water’ and take educated risks as she did: She wanted her writing published so this work could continue after her death.
Watermarks carries three extracts from her diaries and it is a pleasure to share one of these here:
Thurlestone Rock, icon of the South Devon coast, sits around hundred metres off shore at high tide, sturdy legs astride, and just begs to be swum through. It’s near the end of a reef that runs perpendicular to the shore; the reef is legendary for its beautiful underwater garden of seaweeds and aquatic creatures. I’d not swum here before, and the 40 knot south-easterly whipping up the sea promised to make the swim slightly more sporting than we had expected it to be.
As we walked down the short track to the beach, my swim buddy JJ told us that on arrival he’d been immediately accosted by a local, who had described the perilous state of the sea and informed him that anyone attempting to swim would certainly be drowned and dashed onto the rocks. This was clearly an exaggeration, although we did have a chat before getting in about the best route to take, and decided to stay on the lee of the reef and to swim beyond the rock and around to the far side before deciding on whether to swim through.
The steeply-shelving beach means that the surf rolls almost to the shore before breaking directly downwards with great force. So you have to run in between waves, and hope to be out beyond the breaking zone before one gets you and smashes you onto the shingle like a piece of kelp ripped from a rock. Unfortunately, a couple of our group got caught and found it a bit too heavy to carry on. I timed my entrance for the little gap between the breaking of one wave and the arrival of the next, diving forwards into the approaching breaker so I’d gone through just before it broke.
Once we were heading offshore it became much easier to swim through the rollers. You just go with them, breathe when you can, and try to stay in touch with a couple of other swimmers. As we neared the reef, I noticed that the swell had grown and was big enough to intermittently obscure the Thurlestone from view. I found it much harder to swim smoothly, and was rolled almost onto my back a couple of times. I did the usual water- swallowing, but managed not to inhale any for once. I looked up at the rock, and saw regular swimmer Maretta with her young daughter, who was out on her 1st wild swim and looking as though she was born in the sea, sliding through the swell like a little seal.
The sea was an opaque greeny-blue through my goggles as I swam, and when I stopped and looked at its surface it was the colour of pewter. The sun was low and partially covered by clouds; it emitted a chill light that glinted off the wavelets ahead. I swam out a little way past the rock, which was sideways on to me then, to take some photos. I tried to work out how high it is. It’s probably only 30 feet or so above the sea, but somehow looks much larger. It’s made up of two rock stacks that lean in towards each other and touch around fifteen feet above the sea. There is a fissure running vertically from the point where the leg stacks meet. The rock is dark and jagged with a texture like bark on an ancient oak, and its outline is broken further by the silhouetted sea birds that cling to its summit – cormorants and gulls with beaks pointing skywards.
I swam back to the other swimmers, and looked over towards the hole that was just visible at an angle. The waves, some around six feet high, were smashing into the stack nearest the shore at an angle, splatting spume across the rough surface like whipped egg-whites. The crazy angles of the sea made the arch look quite menacingly mad. Pauline told me they’d decided it was too dangerous to go through, so everyone began to swim off shore-wards down the side of the reef.
I watched the waves for a bit, and looked behind to see how quickly they were coming. Some were smaller than others, and I began to wonder whether I could make it through, and, if not, whether I could push off the far side of the arch with my legs and escape a bashing that way. ‘You’re thinking of going through, aren’t you?’ said JJ. Hmmm, yes.
There was a quick discussion. We reckoned we could make it between waves. We were now pretty close, being pushed by the swell towards the rock. ‘We’re already committed, let’s just body-surf through’ said Pauline, and so we went for it. I swam towards the nearest, offshore stack of the arch, so that if I was washed off course I might hit the gap. A wave came through and I put my head down and swam at out through the hole, shooting out of the other side with a rush of adrenaline to find we’d made it: me, Pauline, JJ and Wee Man Martin, all laughing and shouting with the exhilaration.
I looked back, and realised we were still very close to the rock, and that there was a huge wave approaching. It hit the arch and the small rock next to it, then surged and broke over the top. The water on this side, made more turbulent by its route through the stone, foamed and churned in sympathy with our little gang of excitable swimmers. We bobbed around for a bit, took a couple of quick snaps, and swam bravely away towards the shore, over the reef.
Floating face down, I tried to see the reef garden, but the turbulent water made visibility poor. I glimpsed through the murky, pale turquoise water some pale grey rocks with swirling seaweed rooted firmly to them, but that was it garden-wise. But who could be disappointed after the fun of the swim and the crazy surf through the Thurlestone?
I managed to avoid being dumped by the surf at the shoreline, and ran for it over the shingle of small, smooth quartz pebbles to the beach. We were all high as teenagers at a rave.
‘We’ll have to swim it again to see the garden,’ said Kirsty through a mouthful of mint tea and home-made biscuit. The Thurlestone squatted behind her in the distance, surrounded by silver sea.
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