The sport that defined Britain
Wild Swimming with the Belles of Penzance
Swimming Beyond the Pool
As the first signs of a new day shone through the bedroom window, I reached for my wife's watch. Gently stirring she asked about the weather; "calm and sunny" was not the report that she was hoping for, the warm comfortable bed seeming infinitely preferable to a dawn swim in a September sea, but as conditions were favorable there was simply no excuse for a lie in. We were staying with friends in their beautiful cottage overlooking St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. We had arranged to join the Penzance swimmers for their daily morning plunge in the early hours. A cup of tea and a short car ride later found us outside the Jubilee Pool on the seafront. This iconic Lido looked cold, sad and lonely as we peered through the tightly locked gates, but thankfully this was not our ultimate destination. Walking along the footpath to the left of this celebrated pool, we joined a group of sea swimmers who truly appreciate the benefits of swimming in the wild.
A Cornish Dawn Swim
We arrived at 7:15am and were greeted by a warm and friendly group of very active veteran swimmers. Some quite elderly members were already gliding across the water, setting the pace for those of us have yet to reach the twilight years. Then, yet more swimmers arrived, who quickly changed and stepped into the water with the enthusiasm of a group of commuters anxious to find a place on the tube. I found it refreshing and uplifting to encounter this group of smiling enthusiasts, who so obviously enjoy their exercise. Their fervor and glee springs from a daily bath in the swirling waters of the Atlantic. Like me, you might remember the spring in the step of those who discovered the fountain of youth in the film Cocoon. Here in Penzance, the passion for swimming is not a Hollywood mirage; rather it is a tangible exuberance for life and friendship born of a shared passion for open water swimming.
In rough conditions most swim from the slipway in the harbor, even if they occasionally get chased away by an unsympathetic and 'jobs worth' boatman. But a few insist on swimming from the Battery Rocks, even if only for a few strokes, knowing that they will emerge from the sea reborn for the day ahead. As I swam with my friends, the conditions were perfect. The water's surface shone like a mirror, giving a depth and richness to the magnificent view of the sun rising over St Michael's Mount. When the sea is as smooth as this, it seems a crime to use anything other than the breast stroke for swimming. My hands cut into the water rather like spoons slicing into a perfectly clear jelly. By swimming with care it was possible to maintain a crystal, bubble free view of the waters deep beneath me.
The Jubilee Pool, Penzance
Much has been written about the Jubilee Pool, which in its heyday was packed with Penzance swimmers. But now that 'Mr Elf' and 'Mrs Safety' have seen to it that the slide and diving boards have been plucked from the poolside, most of the swimmers have jumped back into the sea. Majestic as the aging pool looks, its memory lives on through the swimmers who take to the waters daily, beyond its walls, in the freedom of the Atlantic. I returned to swim each morning until the end of my holiday and encountered the sea through a range of moods. From calm, placid and glass-like, to stormy and cross as the wind speeds approached a near gale. Clear skies on one day were replaced by blankets of cloud, mist and fog (or heat mist according to the Cornish). Even on the roughest of days I thoroughly enjoyed swimming in these hypnotic waters.
Wild Swimming keeps you Young
As the Wild Swimming movement attracts more and more followers, there has been no shortage of advice to comfort those who need their hand held as they step into the unfamiliar environment of the outdoor swimmer. What a contrast to the Penzance Swimmers, who with the minimum of equipment, without fuss, pomp or ceremony, take time each day to indulge a passion that keeps them out of the doctors, and very much connected with living one day at a time. It is a delight to be acquainted with the 'Belles of Penzance'; the beautiful ladies who have their youth renewed each morning by an invigorating encounter with Neptune. Those gentlemen, who are privileged to swim with them in the rejuvenating seaside waters, discover that there is wisdom in the ritual of a cold water bath. And as for me; I learned that it's not how old you grow that matters, rather it's how you grow old that really counts. See also: Swimming with the Merpeople of Pemberth.