Swimming in the ice-cold waters of England’s spectacular Dorset coast evokes a sense of freedom in our contributor—one that the longtime travel writer hasn’t experienced since the pandemic began. By Sophy Roberts
As dawn breaks, I walk down to the beach to join my friend. I’m looking forward to our swim today. The English Channel is gleaming shell-pink. The waves meet the shore in gentle folds as if an invisible hand is shaking out a bolt of velvet. There are no boats on the water, no tourists playing on floating unicorns, no dogs being walked. This is in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mostly it is because it is seven in the morning.
To my right stands Golden Cap, one of the highest points on England’s southern coastline, its steep cliffs the colour of runny honey. I observe the strata of rock rising some 180 metres above the beach, layered like a mille-feuille of deep time. How many ages can I think of? Jurassic. Cretaceous. Anthropocene. My vocabulary runs out at three.
But if the words elude me, the metaphor in the landscape does not. This beautiful swathe of England is my bedrock. My family lives here—mother, father, husband, sisters, kids—where Dorset rubs against the border with Devon, close to the Regency town of Lyme Regis. This sliver of sea is always beckoning me; it is visible from the room where I write.
I strip down to my bathing suit, leaving my clothes in the lee of an upturned boat pulled onto the shore, and head for the water’s edge. I move as awkwardly as a teenager, the arches of my feet refusing to adjust to the shape of the ovoid stones. It is a pretty landscape, but glamorous it ain’t. Britain isn’t known for its swimming pools, unlike Spain or California. Not only is it usually raining but we’re also ringed with rocky strands and cold seas: the Atlantic, the North Sea, the English Channel.
Until the pandemic, I never thought to dip even a toe into the water, except on the very hottest days. But since travel has been restricted, I’ve turned to ocean swimming to fill the void. I’ve done it almost every day, including on the two trips I’ve made elsewhere in recent months, to Donegal in Ireland and Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands.
The pink dawn tricks me into thinking it will be warm. I never seem to learn. When I push off from the steeply shelving beach into the water, the shock is immediate. My chest tightens. My neck feels like it is ringed in ice. I swim as quickly as I can, counting the 10 seconds it takes for my body to numb until I can feel the flood of endorphins and the triumph of my fast-beating heart as I swim into a warm seam of sunshine.
Finding my rhythm, I cut a path through the water parallel to the horizon. I drift away from homeschooling the kids, which I’ve struggled to adjust to in recent months. I forget about the news cycle, which has been so relentless. Since May 2020, when I took up this habit, I’ve been swimming to enter a different state of mind.
It was my friend who persuaded me to try. She is like a fish. She moves quickly through the deep water with a powerful front crawl. She and I like it here at Seatown: the pebbles that hurt our feet keep other people away. We leave the unofficial bathing clubs to other, more sociable people—the ones who swim together in groups down at the sandy beach in Lyme Regis, or further east along the coast at West Bay.
But how much longer will she and I have this strand to ourselves? Because I’m not the only convert. If we come even half an hour later, others start to arrive. Sometimes I talk with them—the psychotherapist in his seal-coloured wet suit, who moved to England from Chicago; the ad executive who has fled the city for a farm. This pandemic year, they too have been drawn to the water cure for the first time. Is it just because vacations are difficult? Because we have time to discover our own backyards?
For me, it’s more elemental than that. In these restricting times, cold-water swimming offers some parity with the state of grace I feel in empty landscapes—the Masai Mara, the Arctic, the Sahara—where, aside from this beautiful corner of England, I’ve always been happiest. Where immersed in space and silence, I can feel the essential reverberate.
From the water, my friend and I look to where the cliff has eroded. In a normal tourist season, this is where children and fossil hunters come to chip away at the debris, searching for the distinctive curls of ammonites. Together we float on our backs in the water, looking at the sky. We talk about some friends who are getting divorced. We chat about what her son will do if his university closes its doors. She asks about my work. I tell her I’m going to write a story about today—the exhilaration of feeling small on a giant Earth. Just don’t tell anyone about this beach, she pleads.
At the end of the day, the wonderful thing about the ocean is that there is enough room for everyone to escape the sensation of being locked in. To live in such close proximity to this freedom is a privilege I hope I’ll never take for granted again.