Waterlog 3: Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula, South Wales

WaterlogRecently, I’ve been reading Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, a potent and poetic defence of our right to swim anywhere we please – in ponds, in rivers, in the sea – anywhere that looks cool and inviting, and several that look downright perishing! I now know to ignore the omnipresent threatening signs warning of the risk of Leptospirosis (chances of actually catching it – 1 in 33,000) and take my dip anywhere I please. In fairness, I ignored them anyway – but it’s nice to have some expert backing.

In that vein, I thought I’d write up some of my favourite bathing places throughout the British Isles.

Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula 

English: Worm's Head, Gower. Taken by me flyin...

The Gower peninsula is an extraordinary place. A big comma on the South Wales coastline between Swansea bay and Cardigan bay, it offers largely untouched countryside, one of the many candidates for the grave of King Arthur and the best surfing beaches in Wales. The favourite place both for swimming and surfing is Rhossili beach, at the far end of the peninsula, a long straight stretch of sand facing out directly to the west, flanked at either end by two small islands with tidal causeways: Burry Holms to the north, and Worm’s Head to the south.

One of my great regrets about leaving Cardiff was that I never, in three years, managed to get to the end of Worm’s Head, a long, snaky ribbon of bright green grass extending out into sea. Once I got as far as the inner head, a ludicrously steep dinosaur spine of a hill that confronts you as you cross the causeway. Then, however, the tide came back in, and we had to rush back across before we were cut off. The far end of the peninsula remains a mystery to me, fitfully illuminated by long hours gazing at Ordnance Survey maps, or re-reading Dylan Thomas’s classic short story ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’.

I’ve swum twice off Rhossili beach. The first time was on May 3rd, 2010 – I remember this particularly because it was 200 years since Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, the tumultuous Turkish strait dividing Europe from Asia. He was in good, romantic company – the legendary lover Leander is supposed to have swum across each night to visit his lover Hero, swimming back the next morning, until his amorous career was cut short by a tragic, but entirely predictable, death by drowning. Byron survived the feat, which he immortalised in a witty minor gem of a poem. I was not out to do anything so staggering, but a commemorative swim seemed in order, and the weather was most propitious. It was a warm day, and lunching on Rhossili Down I saw my first swallow of the summer. By the time we reached the beach, I was very keen for a swim – and it just so happened that the tide had come in far enough to cut Burry Holms off from the mainland. I swam out through the cool salt water in a Byronic breaststroke, and managed to land on the island without losing any skin to the rocks, which is always the trickiest part. I wandered up and down, waving at my friends back on the mainland, trying to avoid stepping on stinging nettles and wondering how it would feel to have swum the 3 mile distance from Europe to Asia, and swum back again, enjoying the small act of homage to my favourite poet.

Eighteen months later, in November of 2011, I wasn’t expecting to go swimming at all. I had no towel, no swimming trunks, nothing. It was too cold, I told myself, and I was a solemn third year undergraduate now. I was leading walks, armed with map and compass, instead of faithfully following on behind. A little Byronic posing on exposed pinnacles was all I could expect. But fate brought me two people equally as crazy as I was, keen to make the most of the fading Autumn warmth. With Rob I shared a tendency to sandpaper stubbliness, and a love of intrepid, broad-brimmed hats. On the way up, I nicknamed him Ragdoll for his habit of flopping forward bonelessly whenever I applied the brakes. Then there was Lauren, who had proposed the swim at lunch, as if sea-bathing in November was the most natural thing in the world. Before her slow, mischievous smile all the practical difficulties seemed as nothing. As we plunged together into the icy November sea, jumping and splashing and spluttering, I bethought myself of the words of J.K. Rowling:

There are some things you can’t share without liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

This, I decided, was another.

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Waterlog 2 – Caerfanell, Brecon Beacons

WaterlogSouth Wales is sadly underserved in Roger Deakin’s classic wild swimming manifesto, Waterlog. The west of England is covered pretty thoroughly, and the Rhinog Mountains in North Wales get a chapter to themselves, but the sole mention South Wales has in the whole work is a brief aside where Deakin contemplates jumping into the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal near Talybont-on-Usk, and decides against it. Knowing as I do how close he was to the Talybont reservoir, a three kilometer long pool surrounded by farmland, forest, and the high peaks of the Brecons, or to the spectacular, boulder-strewn course of the river Usk, his timidity seems all the more unusual. A little further exploration, and he might have found one of my favourite swimming holes.

Caerfanell, Brecon Beacons

A favourite walk with the Cardiff University Hiking and Rambling society was to drive up into the Brecons, climb the recklessly steep Craig y Fan Ddu, and circle the ridgeline, taking in the wreckage of a World War II Wellington bomber and the memorial to its Canadian flight crew, before descending into the valley beside the course of the river Caerfanell. So popular was it that I walked it three times in three years, and went swimming every time.

slidingThe first time I took a dip in Caerfanell was in October, in the second wettest day I’ve ever been out in the Brecons. As we came along the ridge, all the dozens of little streamlets were being blown back upon themselves in arcs of spray. Not having any waterproof trousers with me, I was absolutely soaked by the time we got down to the bathing pool – a deep cauldron of a place beside the road, with a tree stretched out over it from whence the brave can take daredevil leaps into the deep water. I figured going swimming in this weather was daredevil enough. It had been advertised as a swimming walk, but it seemed that only I’d been foolish enough to bring a towel and swimming costume, and since I’d already lugged them over hill and dale – well, why not?

Skidding down a steep slope that left a long trail of mud across my legs and back, I immediately cleaned myself off by jumping in. The water was icy, but after the first half minute of breathless gasping and frenzied doggy-paddle, I found myself rather enjoying it, and even took time to cool my head off beneath the waterfall before climbing out, dressing, and making the welcome escape to the minibus and the warm showers of home.

Blaenyglyn2A year and a half later, I walked the same route with a largely different group of people, on a spectacularly sunny day. Word of my wild swimming propensities had circulated the club by now, so we were on the look out for a swimming hole – but this time everyone in the society seemed keen to join me. It had been a long hot sweltering walk that day, and everyone was keen to wash off the sweat and dust. We found a likely place, a deep, cool, brown pool, much further up the path and hidden from the road. And for the first and only time in my three years with them, everyone in the hiking club joined me. There was a great deal of splashing and teasing and frolicking, and the little pool became so full I clambered out again and began exploring upstream, threading my way barefoot along rapids and waterfalls. I found several pleasant little pools, though none so nice as ours, and succeeded in giving myself a limp for a week by trying to slide down a waterfall. I found to my cost that, limpid and slow as the stream may be, once you’ve built up a bit of momentum the slide is terrifying. “Oh God, I’m going to bang my head and drown!” I remember thinking as I bumped and tumbled over half a dozen small drops before clawing to a panicky halt just before plunging into the final pool. Yet, clambering down, I found myself celebrated for my daring, and would rather like to repeat my slide to this day – with perhaps the small additions of a helmet and a wetsuit.

under waterfallThe third year I did the walk was a slightly melancholy affair, as my time at Cardiff wound to a close, and many of the people I’d been walking with on the last two occasions had already moved on, to employment or unemployment. Now I was leading the walk, introducing the wonders of the Brecons to the freshers, and it was hard to chase my thoughts away from the young, hardy, ridiculously enthusiastic fresher I used to be. Still, there’s nothing like a nice cold dip to chase the blues away, and while the pool I found this time was rather too shallow for the purpose, it had a fantastic waterfall. Sitting underneath it was something like being in a cold shower and a massage chair at once, and tilting my head back, I enjoyed a beautiful and unusual view of a waterfall from the bottom upwards. It was a fine way to wind up three exceptional years, and three exceptional swims in a gorgeous river.

Poetry Reading: A Chilean Pine in Wales

The monkey-puzzle tree tosses its boughs
Like great green fishbones swimming on the wind,
The wind that swept the high Welsh hillside bare
And tumbled every stone from stone to ruin
Where once a farmhouse stood beneath its shade,
Now roofless, roomless, shelterless and lone.
Made fanciful, I wonder at the cat
That stripped the fishflesh from these kippered bones
And who would hang them up and let them grow
So mouldering and green – so dead and full
Of life. This might have been a home of giants;
These branches might have been the skeletons
Of salmon, spawned from him that secret lies
In Llyn Llifon, the Ancient of the World
That once bore Arthur’s knights upon his shoulders.
The family that planted first the seed
Is vanished into history or myth,
Yet still the Chilean pine remains and thrives.
You might have thought it swam its way across
The wide Atlantic on its own, so strong
And agilely the branches tailfins flick
With stroke on stroke upon the fluid air.

From my diary of the time: ‘Sunday [29th May 2012] I dared the rain and high winds & set off to Neath with the ramblers. We had an interesting walk on the Afan forest trail. I enjoyed the windswept ridge, & the ruined farmhouse where we stopped for lunch, with the wildly out of place monkey puzzle tree tossing its branches above us, like great green fishbones trying to swim on the wind. Unfortunately, by the walk’s end my arms were stinging with the cold, & my toes wet in my boots, so it was a relief to reach the minibus & be back to James and Julie’s house for tea and biscuits.’

The first image of the fishbones was with me from the start, but the rest of the poem was slow in coming. The tree was stuck in my imagination. Flourishing and verdant and completely out of place, it seemed to have a mythic power that was completely disproportionate to its origins. It reminded me in some ways of the dragon bones I once saw, which they still keep chained up outside the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. The guidebook said that they were probably bones of a mammoth, or a rhinoceros, or a whale, but it was impossible to believe they were anything other than a dragon. Equally, it was impossible to believe that such a tree had been so prosaically carried across the ocean and planted here, as the noticeboards said, and I began to think of other explanations.

The salmon of Llyn LLifon is one of the most fascinating figures in the surviving Welsh mythology. He first appears in the magnificently bonkers tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, in the Mabinogion, where Kei and Bedwyr (Kay and Bedivere) ride upon his shoulders to the rescue of the imprisoned knight, Mabon son of Modron. I borrowed him from a wonderful early R.S. Thomas poem, ‘The Ancients of the World‘.