I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s always better to pack a wetsuit.
When it comes to family adventures with my eight-year-old daughter, if there is water around she will find it. Fishing her out of a November sea in Bude, and Weymouth harbour in March were enough to teach me that little lesson.
Happily, I’m the same. My obsession with swimming was formed at a young age and now I don’t need much more than a puddle before I’m ready to strip off and dive in.
So we packed the wetsuits and ventured to Dartmouth for a winter weekend with the promise of some swim-exploring. My husband is always bemused by these outings, but he’s good at holding the towels, so we let him come too.
The first day we woke up to pouring rain, and a sea mist that meant it just wouldn’t be safe to swim. We marched to the castle instead, laden with trove from an incongruous French deli.
It was a fun day out but by the next morning we were all desperate for some proper leg stretching and a swim.
Our plan was to follow a route in the new Wild Swimming Walks Devon book*, which I’d bought the week after surviving the Dart 10k but hadn’t yet cracked the spine on.
The three-miler looked reasonable even for little legs, starting at and circling back to the National Trust carpark at Little Dartmouth, via the South West Coast Path and taking in Compass Cove, Blackstone Point and Sugary Cove.
The sun was out and we were ready for an adventure. However, the promise of secret swimming had overpowered my usually reliable memory and in our haste to get outdoors I’d managed to forget my wellies, only remembering after we’d parked up.
Undaunted, we consulted the book’s directions (pretty good) and squelched off, my hipsterish zebra print trainers (practicality points zero) quickly taking on a muddy patina rarely displayed in their native urban habitat.
The lack of useful tread made for slow going along the slippery and sometimes steep route, so it took us longer than expected to arrive at our first port of call, with one spectacular ‘planting’ along the way!
Compass Cove, a couple of miles south of Dartmouth, is reached via sharply winding steps carved out of the cliff face. At one point this turns into a wooden ladder (unfortunately not mentioned in the book) which we had to carry our unimpressed dog down. Not a major problem for us, but worth bearing in mind if you have a Labrador rather than a Boston terrier!
Once safely on the beach it was easy to see why the authors felt it was worth the slightly tricky descent. Due to its steep, scrubby sides the cove is virtually hidden from view and well-sheltered from any significant swell. This makes for an ideal swimming spot, especially for young children with a stronger sense of adventure than technique.
The beach is sandy, with a smattering of shingle and carbuncular rocks delivered by cliff falls, entangled with thickly sliced ribbons of seaweed. Sadly there was a little rubbish washed up too, so bring a bin liner to pare back the dusting of carrier bags if you can.
I’d managed to forget our neoprene gloves so our dip was mostly spent with hands raised aloft. With very little body fat to protect them, and lots of nerve endings, hands are particularly sensitive to cold. Unprotected, mine are prone to going numb immediately before catching fire. At least that’s what it feels like.
With big smiles firmly plastered on our faces, my daughter and I splashed about in the icy sea while my husband kept a watchful eye on the clock. We’re both used to cold water but hypothermia is no joke, so our dip would have to be brief. The weak winter sun rebounded off the water, gaining enough momentum to dazzle us, a reflection of a swimming summer now long gone.
Was it the last swim of the year? I’ve yet to brave a Boxing Day dip but it gave me a hankering to try at least.
The climb back to the footpath was hard-going and, after a packed weekend, we were all tired. We decided to curtail our adventure in favour of heading back up the motorway to home and hearth.
Still, the memory of the climb faded fast, while the recollection of the swim still lingers. Another day spent between land and sky, feeling our way back to nature, floating into happiness.
*Wild Swimming Walks Dartmoor and South Devon: 28 Lake, River and Beach Days Out in South West England by Sophie Pierce and Matt Newbury (Wild Things Publishing).