We moved to Clevedon in 1978. A beautiful seaside town that boomed in the Victorian age, when the craze for bathing in the sea was catered for by bathing machines on the beach, and there were apparently saltwater baths adjacent to the pier.
The Long Swim was a big event which usually happened around September time and my eldest brother swam it and won it three times. Then, they were dumped a mile out to sea and had to swim into the shore, emerging from the water with the silt clinging to them. Because the water is estuary water. As a child I would watch the swimmers come out and shudder. My mother tried and failed to get my other brother and I to swim the Long Swim. All of three of us were good swimmers but both David and I refused. You would never get me in that water.
Jump forward nearly 40 years and I have agreed to, with my sister-in-law, the December Full Moon Swim which involves (you’ve guessed it) swimming from Clevedon beach. In fact, I think it was me that suggested it.
Living in Cornwall, as I do, it’s a good 2 and a half to three hour journey, so I set off at lunchtime with the plans of having tea with my brother and his family before heading to the beach for 7pm. High tide was about 7.15pm.
I managed to get to Clevedon as the sun was setting and dashed over to where we would be swimming from in 3 hours time. It was such a lovely sunset and I had high hopes that we would see the moon that night.
Tea and a lovely catch-up were next on the agenda and then suddenly, it was time to head to the beach. Dave, Ali and the girls decided to come over and watch and my Mum was also thinking about having a dip. Both Mum and and my sister-in-law, Helen, are regular dippers into the Marine Lake, the tidal pool that originally opened in 1929.
H and I were the first ones there and we walked along the pathway that ran below the beach promanade. As you reach the end there are two or three “caves” which are locked, that have various things tucked away. I think these are owned by the coucil and you have to be given a key. H joked that they were considered not “grown-up” enough to have a key 😉
Once we reached the last cave, we strung fairy lights and hung up a lantern and waited for the swimmers to arrive. We didn’t have long to wait. About 10-15 people steadily arrived, some already with their wetsuits on. There was another newbie like me and she was slightly surprised as I took out my wetsuit, gloves, boots and softcore top. She was wearing a shortie wetsuit and shoes. There also a few people just in skins. H had said that the temperature of the water was about 6 degrees and that it had been 2 in the Marine Lake the other day!! I definitely was going out in a wetsuit.
As we got changed there was very little chatter; just greetings and introductions as we all, internally, contemplated the next stage.
My youngest niece wandered down to say hello and I admitted to her that I felt quite sick with nerves. She asked “why?” Why I’m doing it or why I’m so scared I’m not sure which it was but I think I replied that sometimes it’s good to do things that scare you.
And then it was time. Glow sticks broken and attached; headtorch on; a quick photo of Helen and myself, to prove that I had done it and then people were carefully walking down the stones to the shoreline and I could hear the small screams as the cold hit.
My turn. I plunged in (you have to enter fast) and was quickly swimming away from the shore. The wetsuit held off the cold momentarily as I quickly swam breaststroke towards H, but then it seeped in, slowly trickling down my neck until there was a layer of cold water in between me and the suit. Again, my hands went numb first (forgot to do my acclimatisation practice in the rush to get in) and I gave out little high pitched gasps as I got my breathing under control. I wasn’t the only one. But the thing is, we were all smiling and people were calling out to each other “this is brilliant” and it so was!
Two brave swimmers swam out to the flashing bouy and then on to the next one and I suspect, if I had been swimming with them, I might’ve been game too, but people were starting to turn back to the shore and I didn’t want to be alone. Such a difference when we came back in; excited talking, bubbling over with enthusiasm as we clambered out and started to get dry. I went over to Mum and she had also been in for a plunge in the shallows whilst Dad looked on.
Mulled wine, gin and coffee was shared around along with millionaires shortbread and some explosive snickers bar concoction that H had made. The eldest niece came over and informed us that she had made a date with Grandma to go swimming in the Marine Lake on Sunday as she wants to enter the Long Swim next year and so, the baton is passed to another in the Ball family. Who knows…. I might enter it too. And then that was it. We left as we arrived but this time with huge grins and and tingling skins and feeling lighter in the heart. Life affirming, Helen calls it, and it is.
And as I drove along the road and turned right up Alexandra Road, there was the full moon. A very brief appearance before she disappeared behind the clouds again…