By Sophie Pierce (St Hilda’s College, 1982)
Back in the early 1980s, when I was a student, we were well used to the sight of naked dons bathing at Parson’s Pleasure on the River Cherwell. Indeed, there’s even an apocryphal story about a young lady who punted past a group of sunbathing academics; they all covered their private parts except for one, who put a towel over his head, saying “I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford, I, at least, am known by my face”.
Parson’s Pleasure, as a nude bathing place, closed in the early 90s — but there has always been a tradition of swimming in Oxford’s rivers. The same is, of course, true for lakes and rivers throughout the country, and the sea which surrounds us. For some decades it went out of fashion, with the growth of indoor pools from the 1960s onwards. Now though, people are rediscovering the joy of swimming outdoors in natural waters, and social media is helping people meet up and share experiences.
People are realising that swimming outside gives an immense sense of freedom from the stresses of modern existence. If you enter the sea or river, you are a world away from the normality of life dominated by a computer screen. Swimming outdoors is sensual and immersive; it takes you to places of great beauty. Whether you are bobbing along in a river surrounded by greenery or drifting along a coastline looking up at the cliffs, you are absorbed in the moment, in a state of transience.
There is something about water which is incredibly alluring; it feels like another dimension, another world. Personally, when I see the sea, or a river or a lake, I instinctively want to jump in. Once submerged, all trappings of daily life fall away, and I seem to return to my natural state, as lithe and weightless as a fish. When I come out, I feel my ‘factory settings’ have been restored.
I now live in Devon, where we are spoilt with a veritable cornucopia of amazing places to swim. I’m based on the edge of Dartmoor, very near the River Dart, with its crystal clear pools and cascades; I also frequently swim on the South Devon coast, with its coves, caves, islands and reefs.
In the past few years, I have swum in a group with friends, and we have learnt — through pooling ideas and supporting each other — that swimming outdoors is about so much more than simply getting into the water. It’s about going on aquatic explorations and adventures. We have swum around islands, out to rock arches, and down estuaries to the sea. Just as walkers look at the map and plan their route, we like to go somewhere when we swim. And, yes, we use maps too.
It was when looking for new places to explore that I started to consider Torbay: the Devon borough made of up the three seaside towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. I had avoided it before, even though I don’t live that far away, as it is a large conurbation and I assumed the coastline there would be spoilt.
How wrong I was. It turns out that one of England’s best known seaside resorts has a wonderful wild side. By swimming just a short distance from the main beaches, I discovered a series of stunning spots, among them secret coves, dramatic limestone rock formations and caves containing amazing marine life. including starfishes, sponges and corals.
This kind of exploratory swimming is akin to going for a walk in the countryside with your binoculars — except you’re in the water wearing goggles and looking at the beautiful surroundings around and underneath you. For example there is a reef between two beaches in Paignton, which is festooned with many varieties of colourful seaweed, including mermaid’s tresses, bladderwrack, and dulse; swimming over this underwater garden is a magical experience.
Torbay proved such a revelation that I decided to write a book about it with a friend, Matt Newbury. We soon discovered, as we started our research, that actually the resort has a proud history of swimming, from the eighteenth century onwards, when people came to take the waters. Thousands of people have flocked to Torbay to swim over the years, including Oxford’s own Oscar Wilde.
Outdoor swimming is a great British tradition, so it’s wonderful that more and more people are rediscovering the joys of swimming in natural waters, as something that’s great for both physical and mental health. Whether it’s the rivers of Oxford, the lakes of Wales, or the seas off Devon, why not try jumping in?