It’s been a while since I’ve hit the trails for a run. It was September last year I ran a Half Marathon on the remote and rugged island of Lundy. But since then? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
I’ve been wondering why…
It’s not because it was hard. (I mean, obviously it was challenging and I always knew it would be!!). But I think I shocked myself at how hard I was on MYSELF more than anything. What was required of me physically nearly broke me! The terrain was difficult and precarious in places, and despite the wild beauty of the island it was an unforgiving landscape to run across. But I would not let myself give up. There were points where I didn’t think I could make it, but like the landscape I found that I was also unforgiving! So I made myself crawl, climb and run the course until I’d finished.. even if it made me sick.
I was immensely happy that I completed it, and amazed that my body and mind had been capable of getting me across that finish line. It DID make me feel like anything was possible, and this IS a massive positive to experience. But over the next few months I lost all desire to run. I began to question my motivation. Did I really need to do these extreme challenges. Ok, I’d been interested to see how far I could go. To test “mind over matter” but WAS it good for my mental health?. Or was I just beating myself up?
In the months after Lundy Island, I decided to be kinder to myself. As the days grew shorter, I found myself moving slower, walking and sleeping. I gave myself permission to rest. I entered these dark, cold months of Winter with a warmth in my heart as a result. I’ve been rising at dawn to greet the sunrise at the beach, slipping silently beneath the waves has been the only movement and wild remedy I’ve needed. I’ve been recharging.
But now I feel something is shifting. As first light comes earlier and lasts longer every day, I feel the need to move more, to breathe the air deep in to my lungs. To stretch. To reach a little further. To feel what my body is capable of again.
I don’t mean setting myself goals, or challenges in terms of distances or frequency, I’ve just felt that “spark” to want to feel more physically active.
So this morning I asked the dogs if they’d take me for a run. Their joy and enthusiasm for their two (sometimes three) daily outings is utterly boundless. They are born to run after all! It is fun for them! I said to my son I was going for a run for the first time in a long time and he said “you can stop if you want mum. Maybe 3 or 4 times if you want to”. I couldn’t help laughing as this is the same advice I give him when he has to run the daily mile at primary school! So with permission to stop if I want to, me and the dogs set off early, running together up the muddy tracks, between hedgerows and out into the misty fields.
And all of a sudden, I remember what it is I love about trail running! Moving through nature, the air firing up my lungs as my cheeks glow and my heart pounds. The blur of greens and browns and blue as I move through the landscape beneath the vast sky. Noticing the lay of the land with each step, my energy connecting and colliding with the ground; earth, stone, grass, rain, mud, frost. Looking for signs of the seasons as they change and transform, seeing these as metaphors for life.
I remember how I enjoyed the feeling of growing in strength. The progress. The improvement and development. The shifting from one form to another. That last year, over time, I moved faster, and further, my body and mind always in transit. I remember that it is transformational.
I am on that journey. Again
This by no means looks like a 21km distance right now. But then it never did. Not when I first started running. I certainly never imagined running around Lundy Island!
Perhaps I will always want to challenge myself. Perhaps I need extremes. By reaching as far as my outer edges will possibly allow, then retreating safely back to centre. Maybe these are the limits I need to go to in order to truly know the expanse of my self and to understand my mental health. By swinging between these counterpoints, over and over, perhaps my inner pendulum will one day reach an equilibrium.
I would rather stop and start, then stop and start again, than never begin at all.
I feel the need for space right now. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I prefer the peace and quiet when I’m on my own. I can relax, completely. No need to state, or answer, or navigate the “to and fro” of a conversation. These things may come naturally to some, but to me it is something I have to practice. It takes time. It takes effort. To be alone is to take time out, time off. I revel in it.
I have been going to the beach with the dogs. The company of animals never draws on my energy. It is effortless. We happily fall into a rhythm of walking, stopping, looking, running. We are a pack. But when I peel away my clothes and walk to the water’s edge to swim, this is where we part company a while. They watch from the shore, alert and interested. But then – I am alone out there in the water. Separated by the elements, we are still in each other’s company. I am alone, but in the company of wolves. Our dogs, and their wolf ancestors.
On Monday night it was the January full moon. Known as the Wolf Moon it is named after the wolves that are active during the early part of the year. As the breeding season approaches wolves are likely to be heard howling to their pack mates. If there was ever a full moon to swim in the company of wolves, this is it.
So I took the dogs with me to swim beneath the rising moon, their wolf blood and I. Although our oldest lurcher “Yanto” is suspicious of water, our younger dog “Spook” is known to launch himself into rivers and lakes. But this night “Spook” was suspicious of the sea, warily backing away. Whining as I slipped beneath the waves and swam away from him. There beneath the Wolf Moon I drifted with the tide while they tracked and followed me along the shore.
Since the full moon I’ve been watching it’s waning phase. Standing in the garden at night, crisp and clear and quiet, it’s beam shines bright defining silhouettes and shadows. At dawn it shines on, hanging bright in the west, casting an eerie light as the eastern sky changes.
This morning I woke early to swim beneath the waning Wolf Moon. With stars still plotting the sky. The moon sinking, making way for the emerging dawn. The dogs, sensing my movement within the house began to whine, alert to the possibility that something interesting might be afoot! I gathered my swim kit; hot water bottle, gloves, warm clothes. The only signal the dogs need for confirmation of adventure. Their eyes bright, with dancing paws, they weaved between my legs whipping me with their tails. As we fell out the house into the cold air, the wind chill was -1. Breathe hung in cloud around us.
Arriving at the beach, a layer of peach and purple emerged on the horizon. The tide pulling deep while the moon begins to bid farewell. The sun rising as the world turned. We stood a while, wolf blood and I. The world to ourselves. A vast solitary silence, but for the sound of the waves and the lone cry of a gull.
These transitory moments, between two worlds, the dark and light of a new day and the past night, is so significant. I often miss the depth of this when I’m with others. Like skimming a stone across the surface, the fleeting moment is there to see, but there is so much more happening as the weight of it collides. When I am alone I see beneath the surface. A knowing that sinks deep into my soul. A greedy soaking of wild. I am saturated in my solitude.
As I enter the water the violence of the sharp biting cold is electrifying. I sense every single cell in my body jolt awake, alert and alive, ready for the fight. As I swim east with stern intention, the sun begins to rise. A burst of blood orange bleeds across the water, kissing my bare skin, soothing my soul. As I soften to soak it all up, I feel a blissful happiness hard to describe. I cast my gaze to the shore where the dogs stand still. Motionless. Then as they lift their heads towards the sun, they scent the air as the warm light floods the landscape, reflecting in their eyes.
Together then, we greet the day. Our spirits soar; wolf blood and I.
With the start of a new year comes new resolutions. A fresh start and a good time to consider how we can feel better, and make changes that might improve our lives. For some of us it’s for personal gain, for others it might be for the “greater good”! Either way, although I’m very much of the opinion we shouldn’t feel under any pressure to make resolutions or commitments simply because it’s January, I am all for taking the opportunity to hit a “reset button” if the opportunity arises!
So with a focus on wellness and self-care, in this post I’ll be exploring how wild spaces can be better for our wellbeing than a luxury 5* spa. Better still, evidence shows that the more time we spend in nature, the more we benefit, and the more we feel prompted to care for our planet.
When I worked full time in finance (a fact that still somewhat baffles me, and anyone that meets me!), my tiny office had no natural daylight. I would arrive in the dark and leave in the dark with absolutely no clue as to what the weather had done that day. I was completely disconnected. My eyes and skin were dull, my body ached from sitting at desk and I worked sometimes 10 hours a day to get on top of my workload which was never ending. I’d reach a point, often in January around the time of the delightful tax return, where I’d worked so hard, for so long, with so little self care that I’d be desperate for a chance to re-charge.
Occasionally I’d book a spa day as a way to look after myself. And there is no doubt that this is a great way to commit to some down-time and “reset”. But it does comes at a price. These places are expensive. Not just because the facilities are costly to design and build (and don’t get me started on the energy bills!), but also because it’s an industry that knows only too well how tired and burnt out we are as a society. It is supplying our need to feel better in ourselves. I would justify the cost by telling myself it’s an “investment in my wellbeing”. But reflecting on previous Spa experiences, compared to how nature makes me feel now, I can’t help but think that although it seemed like a treat, I question whether it gave me any long term benefit.
The wellness industry is booming (we all want to feel well after all). In 2020 it was estimated to be worth £12.4 million in the UK*. So it is evident that we are spending money on wellness and investing in feeling good. Which is great! Self care should absolutely be a priority. More and more we are hearing about the importance of it, and how we must look after our mental health as well as our physical health. We know how important it is to relax, de-stress and take time out. But now that we know this, could this pave the way for a more long term, sustainable way to invest not only in our own wellness, but in that of the planet’s? After all, since lockdown in particular, it seems that the health benefits, similar to those sold to us by the Health and Wellness industry are attainable from simply spending time in green and blue spaces. So could it be that by spending time in nature we can find a far more accessible alternative to spas and health retreats. Not just in terms of cost, but as a socially inclusive space? And by doing this, are more of us gaining a deeper understanding of our natural world. An understanding that fosters a desire to care for it?
Despite the “wellness” benefits of this kind of experience, I’ll confess that going to a Spa actually creates a low-level anxiety in me! It’s the intimacy of relaxing with people I don’t know that I find uncomfortable. But also it’s an enclosed space. No freedom to roam. On top of this I always have the suspicion that the staff are judging me somehow. Thoughts like “do my legs need shaving? Is my “bikini line” unsightly? Does my swimwear look like it’s seen better days?” Admittedly this is just my anxiety talking, but I wonder how many of us feel the same, and so simply avoid these situations all together?
So this is where I question the benefit. How can I truly feel good and well in myself, if I am in an environment where I’m not able to BE myself? Does it really give me what I need?
An article in The Guardian in Dec 2021 highlighted a fascinating report by Forest Research who are the first to estimate the financial amount that woodlands saved the NHS this past year. Through fewer GP visits and prescriptions, it is estimated that woodland walks saved the UK £185 million last year in mental health costs. Sir William Worsley, the chair of the Forestry Commission, which funded the report, said: “It demonstrates just how vital it is to invest in healthy trees and woodlands. It makes medical, economic and environmental sense”, he said.
With the government now committing to ramp up tree planting to 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres) a year by 2024, as opposed to just 13,300 hectares planted in 2021, this is a hugely positive move not just towards our health, but long lasting impact for the planet. It’s a win-win scenario!
But it’s not just our woodlands that are helping us to feel well. “Blue Health” is also being recognised as having a positive effect on our wellbeing. The Blue Health Programme is a multi-disciplinary research project that has been researching the effects of blue spaces on our wellbeing in order to further inform decision makers when it comes to future development and investment. This short film is well worth watching as it explores the history and the science behind how water can help us feel good. There’s even a bit towards the end that talks about a trial they are doing in Devon to try and “bottle the benefits of the coast” and bring the outside to those that can’t access it – including in hospitals and dental surgeries. (Fancy “wearing a beach” when you have dental work?!!!)
There’s no doubt that being in, on or nearby water can make us feel better. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone. I mean, it is no co-incidence that we spend millions of pounds each year to go on holiday and sit by a pool, or sit on a beach. It’s relaxing right!? But there’s SO much more to it.
A fascinating book that explores this is “Blue Mind” by Dr Wallace J Nichols It shows us the science behind how water is having a remarkable effect, in all it’s shapes and forms, on our health and happiness. The blue mind of the book’s title refers to the neurological, psychological and emotional changes our brains experience when we are close to water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers in a study that is both highly readable and rooted in real research. As a highly informed marine biologist he urges us to get closer to water, not only for our own sake, but for the environment and a healthier future for us all.
The Health and Wellness industry is, after all, only filling a gap in the market and providing something we all need. Often it can be difficult to access wild spaces, and the convenience of a Spa is therefore getting as close to it as possible. But this is reserved for those that can not only afford it, but are physically and mentally comfortable with it.
But perhaps by accessing the “real thing”, we can discover the same, possibly longer lasting, health benefits, while also connecting and fostering a desire to care for our green and blue spaces. If more funding is invested in developing these spaces and looking at ways to make them more accessible to all, then surely a more meaningful relationship and understanding of the natural world will begin to blossom?
So what other forms of wild wellness can we experience outdoors!? What can a Spa provide that nature can’t? Well, there are treatments. The facial, or massage isn’t something you can find easily in a forest let’s be honest! But let’s not forget that the products used to enhance this experience found naturally. Massage oils and aromatic creams are specially formulated using herbs and botanicals to boost our mood, or relax us depending on our needs. Lavender, Rosemary, Eucalyptus, Camomile flower to name but a few. Although not all of these can be found easily, and you often just need to know where to look. A park, or garden. The pine scent in the forest. The wild honeysuckle in the hedgerows. Where I go trail running locally there is a whole patch of camomile that grows on the ground. As I run through it, and apply the weight of my body, it releases an incredible aroma and I can’t help but smile.
But back to the massage, or body therapies; You know what? I would still prefer to feel the sun on my face than an electric light, or let the salt and sand exfoliate my skin. To feel the refreshing sensation of dew on the grass as I walk barefoot. The energy of a waterfall as it pounds against my back.
One thing I DO love about a spa though, especially in the winter, is a sauna! The oldest known saunas in Finland were made from pits dug in a slope in the ground and primarily used as dwellings in winter. The sauna featured a fireplace where stones were heated to a high temperature. Water was thrown on the hot stones to produce steam and to give a sensation of increased heat. The first Finnish saunas are what nowadays are called savusaunat, or smoke saunas. These differed from present-day saunas in that they were heated by heating a pile of rocks called kiuas by burning large amounts of wood about 6 to 8 hours and then letting the smoke out before enjoying the löyly, or sauna heat.
There are now an increasing number of wood-fired units making it possible to take saunas and hot-tubs out of the spa and off grid. As a result we can now head outside and experience this warmth under the stars or up in the mountains. More and more are popping up all over the country. You can find them on beaches, in forests and next to lakes; so we can now experience the benefits of a Spa without being disconnected from nature.
We are incredibly lucky here in Dorset (UK) to have The Seaside Sauna Haus. This mobile sauna came to our coastline as a result of a Crowdfunder initiative launched by Sarah Higgins. Situated on the beach, just yards from the sea you can now reap the benefits of the sauna while connecting with the coastline. Hosted by Sarah, she is incredibly passionate about the health benefits of the sauna and genuinely enjoys being able to offer this to her guests.
In terms of it’s carbon credentials; The wood used to heat the Seaside Sauna Haus is from the Log Store, and is 100% sustainable. The sauna itself was built by the Cedar Sauna Company who pride themselves on using locally sourced and sustainable materials.
I recently joined a “Sauna Club”. A small group of wild wellness seekers. We meet once a week to sit in the wooden hut and sweat it out in the heat, then we run to the sea and plunge into the cold water. Screaming, shouting, revelling. Sometimes, if it’s wild weather, we just sit at the water’s edge and watch the waves while we refresh and reset. Sometimes we throw buckets of sea water over each other. But the feeling of returning to the heat of the sauna is divine! It’s fun, and it’s wild! I can always feel any anxieties slipping away. The wood smoke as it drifts out towards the sea somehow makes me feel at home while at the same time being in nature. It’s not free, but as a group we pay just £10 each for an hour. A lot more affordable than a luxury spa, and so much more laid back!
What I have observed by spending time in nature is not just how much I benefit from it mentally and physically. But the people I meet along the way, the ones who are outdoors often have a similar outlook on life. These wild wellness seekers; the wild swimmers, yoga yogis, trail runners, ramblers, hikers or sauna soul searchers. There is a willingness to stray from the crowd, and do something a bit different. But also a keen awareness of their natural surroundings and how important it is. There seems to be a collective consciousness, and I can’t help but feel hopeful for the future.
It seems that there is a mass movement, a shift taking place. Slow, but noticeable. What perhaps starts from a place of disconnect and neglect, and a need to feel better, can grow into an appreciation and understanding of how important it is to care not just for ourselves, but for what is at the true root of all health and wellness. The very thing that we ARE, and therefore need to care for;
So, whether you’ve made a New Year’s resolution or not. Whether you have great expectations, or you’re simply trying to get the through each day as best you can! (and I SO get that!). I hope you will look after yourself this year. Be kind to YOU. I hope you can find more time in the wild. To breathe it in and let it work it’s magic.
Above all, I hope that this will still be the case in years to come. That there will still be these green and blue spaces in the future, and that together we can all look after what’s important.
Set on the stunning Jurassic Coast in Dorset, inspired by a year of sea swimming in lockdown, this collection of poems, journal extracts and photographs is the diary of a Dorset Sea Swimmer.
Each poem was written shortly after the swim. Accompanied by a journal extract from the day, it gives the reader an insight into what it felt like to be there at the time.
With swims taking place throughout the year, you are invited to dive in and share the experience of sea swimming all year round.
These poems are like love letters to the wild. Showing gratitude for the sea and the seasons. A little book that celebrates the power of nature, and the positive effect that cold water swimming can have on our wellbeing.
Here is the story behind how this little book came to be…
When I was a little girl I wanted to be an author. I imagined sitting at a writing desk, at a window that looked out to sea. I wanted to write about adventure and magic; beautiful stories of escape, hope and happiness…
I remember this now, but in all honesty I’d forgotten about that little girl and her dream, until recently.
I’ve written a journal for the past few years. Beginning with short, awkward, self-conscious entries, they soon became a daily ritual for me; a time to reflect and a space to reveal. This journal was just for me, and I never thought it would be more than that.
But when we suffered a global pandemic that enforced a lockdown on our lives, my daily ritual of writing a journal felt as though it had perhaps been a sort of preparation. A “drip drip drip” way of writing, that would eventually begin to flow, once I had more time to do so. And then the time came.
It was during this time that I was also inexplicably drawn to the sea. Having been diagnosed with PTSD earlier in the year (a result of past trauma), I had been spending more and more time in nature. The wild was where I felt my anxieties slip away, and with the coast being so near, it was as if I could hear the sea calling to me.
And so began my sea swimming journey...
We all hear about the benefits of cold water swimming; how it can improve our mood, boost our immune system, but at the time I had no idea about this. I simply found myself beside the water’s edge in October, knowing that I needed to be in the water. I have written about this many times since, and how it has had an incredibly positive effect on my mental health, but what I hadn’t expected was that it would inspire me to write. How could I ever have predicted that swimming in the sea would help me to reconnect with my love of words!?
I began to write poems after my swims. I wanted to speak of the magic I’d experienced in the sea. To try to capture the feeling, and share it with others. I’d sit on the beach and write love letters to the wild. Showing my gratitude for what it had given me.
On Christmas morning 2020, I left driftwood gifts beneath the pier. I’d made them for those that would find them. My fellow sea swimmers who had gotten up early in the morning, to head for the sea. I burnt a message onto these gifts; “Seas The Day”.
I had no idea at the time that this would be the title for my book a year later. But I knew that it was significant.
After months of writing poetry with a passion, I realised I had written a whole year’s worth! One for every month of the year. Celebrating the sea throughout the seasons. Each one telling the tale of a swim. And somewhere during this process my inner wild child began to speak to me. She whispered that she still wanted to write a book…
And so it is, that these poems inspired by the sea, together with my private journal entries on those days have become a book! By accident almost. I’d never intended to create a book, but somehow it has come to be. With no plan or intention other than to write about the magic and adventure, the escape, hope and happiness that the sea has given me.
“Seas The Day – A Year of Sea Swimming Poetry” also features a beautiful linocut illustration by the talented Nicole Purdie (Prints By The Bay)
I think we can safely say that you CAN judge this book by it’s cover! Inspired by a photograph of me entering the sea at sunrise at West Bay, this really does sum up the magic of this little book and I can’t thank Nicole enough for working with me on this!
So now YOU are invited into the very moment each swim took place, to hear the story, and to share the experience. Perhaps it will resonate with you, perhaps it will inspire you, above all my hope is that it might speak to you of the magic that can happen in cold water, and the powerful effect that the natural world can bestow upon us.
Which leaves me with nothing more to say other than;
“It is the writer who begins the story. But it is the reader who finishes it”.
Girl Gone Wild x
If you would like to pre-order your copy please click below! 10% of profits will be donated to Surfers Against Sewage so you will also be supporting their work to protect our oceans, coastlines and marine life.
September. The kids go back to school, the tourists go home and, after a rather mediocre August weather wise, the sun finally comes out to give a last hurrah to Summer. Scorching hot days with smothering heat and skies the colour of cobalt.
I wave goodbye to my youngest boy as he walks through the school gates, face brown as a berry against his new white shirt. I wonder at how it must feel to be wearing black socks and leather shoes after weeks of barefeet and lazy mornings. But he is happy to see his friends and doesn’t give me a backward glance. Yet again I realise how often I imprint my feelings upon my children, when I need not worry!
And so, I’m off. My rucksack packed, I jump in the stifling hot van and wind the windows down. I’m heading for Dorset’s “jewel in the crown”, the Durdle Door. I’ve been waiting all summer to swim here, and now, with a day not being “Mum”, and the space to breathe now the crowds are a little quieter, I’m feeling brave. It is my turn.
I’m the first vehicle to arrive at the Durdle Door carpark. It’s situated in the holiday park, so there are other people staying here, milling around, but none that are walking down the steep coast path to the beach yet. The heat is already 22 degrees, and the warm morning breeze evokes memories of past travels in the mediterranean. While I walk down the chalky white path to the beach I am serenaded by cicadas interspersed with the cries of seagulls and the silent wings of butterflies. The view is simply stunning. I breathe it in deeply.
Man O’War bay glistens below to my left, a perfect horseshoe with water so clear you can see the pebbles on the bottom from high up on the cliff. As the sun rises higher in the East, it’s rays sparkle on the turquoise blue water. It looks so inviting I almost want to jump in from here! As I approach the steps carved into the rock I stop and simply stare. Here, to my right, in the cool shade of the cliff, the imposing and magical Durdle Door stands, waiting.
I make the steep descent down to the water’s edge, stumbling several times on the dusty path. I can’t take my eyes off this incedible natural structure rising majestically up from the sea. By now I’m so hot from the walk that I literally throw my rucksack on the shore and run to the cold water with delight! With not a soul to be seen this is exactly how I’d pictured my long awaited swim here; A solitary swim out to greet the Door, sun shining, water clear as gin, and a stillness that I can literally submerge myself in.
As I swim out beneath the ancient archway I am blinded by the sun. I turn to float on my back and look up at the jagged rock, like a carved crescent of the moon. The sound around me changes as the water gently crashes against the stone. Above, the sky is cloudless and as I gaze at my surroundings I drift further out to sea, in awe.
There are rocks and caves along from the Door, rock pools full of darting fish and seaweed floating gracefully in the warm shallows. I decide to swim over and climb up to explore a while. I’m wearing rock pooling shoes but graze my shin as I climb up the rocks. Once up, I nimbly jump from one rock to another. I can’t be seen from the beach here and it feels incredibly secluded. Looking out to sea, I feel a familiar happiness wash over me, the sense of freedom that I get from being out in nature, alone.
I pick my way along the slippery rocks so that I eventually return to the entrance behind the Durdle Door. Like being back stage, I peer through and can see there are people arriving on the beach now. I know it is time for me to head back before it gets too busy. With one last glance over my shoulder towards the horizon, my inner wild child wants to jump deep into the sea.
I leap from the rock and plunge feet first, hitting the cold water, waking up my whole body while billions of tiny air bubbles cascade upwards around me. I rise to the surface like a champagne cork popping. Heart racing, a huge child like grin on my face.
Back on shore I grab my rucksack and make my way up towards the cliff. There are lots of people coming down now. It’s a steep climb, but there’s a pleasant breeze against my damp hair and skin. I feel utterly invigorated, but also I feel intense gratitude for what I’ve just experienced. I am aware how lucky I am to be able to do this. Not just because I have it so close to where I live, and have the time to do it, but also because there are days when I simply don’t feel brave enough. My mind can play tricks on me, and my negative thinking over rules any courage I might have. This is why I am extra grateful on the days when I manage to make these SwimVentures happen. They are what keep me going…..
The oh so sweet combination of a swim and an adventure!….
I dream of adventures. You know the kind. Big deal experiences out into the unknown, into deserts or mountains, or kayaking in British Columbia, wild swim trekking in Portugal, something epic and exciting. But the reality is that with a hefty mortgage, work, kids and a global pandemic in the mix, it is fairly unlikely I’ll ever get to make those dreams happen.
That said, this past year has taught me that you don’t have to go big, or far to have an adventure! The spirit of adventure can be found in simply doing something, or going somewhere you’ve never been before. You can still go kayaking down a river, climb the biggest hill you can see, or head to a beach at dawn for a sunrise swim! There is still “escapism” up for grabs, right from your doorstep!
And so began my love affair with the micro adventure….
Since being diagnosed with PTSD last summer, I’ve been regularly getting out into nature where I feel respite from my anxiety. I’ve made it my mission to explore every nook and cranny of Dorset, and there is still SO to see. My favourite micro adventure usually involves a wild swim. (aka SwimVenture!) My last outing was to Fiddleford in North Dorset (see blog post “Far From The Madding Crowd”), but the weather has been pretty uninspiring since then. But miracles of miracles, yesterday was the first dry and sunny day we’ve had for a while so I decided to make the most of it.
The beaches here in summer are crazy popular so if I want to swim in the sea I usually go early to avoid the crowds. But sometimes I just want to be able to go to a beach, in the middle of the day and not be surrounded by people! (Yes – I am pretty anti-social!).
I’d heard that Ringstead Bay, between Weymouth and the Durdle Door, is usually fairly quiet. If you’re prepared to walk a while you can drop down to the eastern end of the bay where there are less people. (but watch out for nudists!). On searching for tips on parking and possible walking routes I came across a website with a suggested circular walk route of 4.5 miles taken from the the Dorset Year Round Walks book. Knowing I’d only have a few hours this looked ideal, and would hopefully give me an opportunity for a dip in the sea too.
Parking at the National Trust Car Park was pretty busy when I arrived at 12noon, but with plenty of space and panoramic views it really didn’t feel stressful. Most walkers seemed to be heading down a farm lane, which is the most direct route towards the coast, but my circular route took me out the other end of the car park off the beaten path. (I was immediately delighted to be walking in the opposite direction to everybody else – obviously!)
The views of this part of the Jurassic coast are absolutely stunning. Within minutes I could see kestrels and buzzards hunting in the fields while the sea sparkled below. Several brimstone butterflies and the occasional scent of wild honeysuckle. As I dropped down to join the South West Coast Path I came across St Catherine Chapel by the Sea. Built in 1926 this little wooden chapel has been restored and is beautifully maintained. It wasn’t open to the public due to Covid, but the tiny graveyard, looking out to sea enclosed by yews and pines was a really peaceful place to sit for a while on a bench. I thought of all the generations of families attached to this place, and it’s history, and what it must have been like here in the early 1900s. Remote, to say the least! While sat on that sunny bench I could see a little cove below, the turquoise sea and sandy beach tempting me.
The sound of the waves carried up the cliff on the warm breeze
After around 45 minutes I eventually emerged from the wooded coastal path onto the wide open farmland immediately surrounding the medieval village of Ringstead. I could literally taste the sea salt on the air and all of my senses became heightened! With my heart racing at the sound of the waves breaking so close, I looked for an access point from the cliff down to the beach. I was surprised to find neat steps had been dug out of the cliff, so this made it a simple task to climb down. I took a quick glance down at the bay then with a hop, skip and a jump I was on the beach in seconds.
As hoped there were hardly any people on the beach, (and none that were naked thankfully!). Most people could be seen in the shimmering heat further west towards Weymouth. What I found was a lovely sheltered bay with a green backdrop of woods on the cliffs and a great view across to Portland. A mix of pebbles and shingle, with sand in places, the beach shelves fairly gently into the deeper water. After seeing glimpses of the beautiful turquoise water on my walk down, I couldn’t wait to get in the sea.
My goodness, the water was SO clear, I could see to the bottom. In fact, bobbing around in the waves happily there was so much to see; looking back inland from the water the terrain of the steep cliffs looked quite dramatic. On the horizon the isle of Portland and a huge cruise ship made it feel as though I was abroad. There were colorful para-gliders slowly circling in the blue sky above, and buzzards (clearly the experts) joined them as they were all carried on the thermals above the cliffs. It really was quite a mesmerising sea swim.
Feeling completely refreshed after my dip, and relishing the chance to strip off and get dry rather than do the awkward ‘getting changed dance’ under a poncho, I climbed back up onto the coast path and this time headed west through the busy car park and cafe area of Ringstead main beach, and out the other side before heading north through woodland. The shade was a welcome retreat from the sun and the dappled sunlight, canopy of green and sound of the breeze in the trees reminded me of why I love woodland so much. A pretty stream ran through the woods and I followed this uphill until I came out on a farm track. A little shrew ran in front of me, then stopped in surprise before scurrying away into the field. I’m pretty sure it was a pygmy shrew, it was absolutely tiny!
The walk back up to the National Trust car park took in some pretty spectacular views again and by now I could see the car park in the far distance, high up on the ridge. But here is where I came unstuck. In my somewhat buoyant mood, and knowing I was well on the “home straight”, I only briefly glanced at the map I was supposed to be following. Now, I am known to boast about my sense of direction, claiming it is one of my strengths, so when the style appeared with a footpath sign next to it, I didn’t think twice about hopping over and hiking across the field. I knew it was headed in the right direction, what’s not to love? Right?
WRONG! It pains me to say that, even once I realised it was a premature turn off, I stubbornly continued through a minefield of enormous cow pats while intermittently being bitten by horse flies and stabbed in the ankles unceremoniously by evil thistles. The fact that I was wearing walking sandals just further added insult to injury. But it was all self inflicted so no sympathy warranted!
Now, this sort of error only really becomes a problem when, despite there blatantly being no footpath to follow (possibly there was once upon a time, but not in recent years!) you still maintain the (slightly deluded) belief that there will be a gate, or a style, or an opening of some sort in the corner of the “field of hell”. Here is where the fun and games start.
I began to quicken my pace in acknowledgement of this highly precarious gamble. When I still couldn’t see anything obvious up ahead , I dropped my expectations a little. (By this I mean, a gap in the hedge would be perfectly acceptable). But when eventually I reached the corner of the field, slightly hot and now intensely annoyed with myself, it was a dead end. With no opportunity to exit my torment, the feeling of defeat was only slightly improved by the justified string of expletives that were spat viciously at the startled cows. (Sorry cows).
Still. Onwards and upwards!! Accepting defeat and succumbing to the slightly comical aspect of my scenario I trudged up hill from the corner of the field, through what must be the most highly intensive methane producing field for miles, until eventually I found a gate that joined the path I was supposed to be on. No-one need ever know!
The (correct) route is much easier terrain and takes you through South Down Farm yard which is a bit like stepping back in time. The farm house, a large handsome red brick property is nestled above the yard, in the lush green countryside. This is proper Thomas Hardy country is said to have inspired his short story “The Distracted Preacher”. On a summers day with the chickens running around the yard, and hay being baled, it seems so quintessentially English, but it’s remoteness, and proximity to the sheltered bay easily lends itself to tales of smuggling and dark night escapades.
Pushing on up the hill was a great workout on the legs and with the sun beating down on my back I desperately wanted to run back down and dive into the sea. (If only to rinse the cow poo off my sandals and bathe my scratched and bitten legs!) But stopping every now and then to look back at the stunning coast line made the steep climb in the heat a tolerable one!
Finally back at the top, the strong breeze was very welcome. (on a side note It’s worth mentioning that being so high up on a ridgeway with amazing views, the car park itself is worth a visit! I stopped to take a moment, to take in the view, and feel a sense of satisfaction. It had taken 2 hours, and although I felt physically tired, I felt thoroughly nourished inside!
It was such a simple thing to do. It’s not an amazing achievement to some, but the benefits mentally and physically are huge to me. Being outdoors, experiencing nature, moving through the landscape, immersing myself in it (literally); this is my happy place. It doesn’t have to be epic, or world record breaking, it is the simple act of doing something I’ve never done before that energizes and feeds my soul. The sense of freedom it gave me will stay with me for the rest of the week. No matter what life throws at me.
Which just leaves me pondering; where will I go next!?…..
Ok, so maybe not wolves, but running with Lurchers. I’m discovering it brings a whole new experience to trail running!
My husband is the dog fanatic. He grew up with dogs, breeding his first Border Terrier at just 8 years old. Later he developed a passion for Lurchers. Not a breed in it’s own right, but a cross between a sighthound (greyhound, saluki, deerhound etc) with something else. (Collie, Retriever, Bull Terrier).
We’ve had several amazing Lurchers over the years, all from a long line of running dogs with a history of agility, intelligence and speed. At the moment we have two; Yanto and Spook. Yanto being the senior at 8 years old, and Spook the latest recruit who is now 11 months old. They are completely different in character. Yanto (below right) is sensitive and gentle in nature. Spook (below left) is fearless, bold and a bit feral right now!
I started running with Yanto a few years ago. It seemed crazy that I was out on trail runs in the fields and off road but not taking him with me. I’d come home covered in mud with brambles in my hair and he’d sniff my trainers with great interest. But I guess I was “in the zone” when I first started trail running. I was finding my feet and testing my endurance, getting slightly obsessed with my times and distances. I didn’t want anything to distract me from my progress. And I knew there was a lot to consider when out in the countryside with our dogs.
Lurchers are natural born hunters. Anyone that owns one will know that rabbits, squirrels, deer (cats!) will never go unnoticed. A sight hound, with incredible speed and agility they are designed to be predators. And they know it. My husband has trained them around livestock. They’re steady as anything with sheep, horses and cattle, and their recall is spot on. But if I’m walking our dogs, I am always alert to the possibility they might catch sight, or scent of quarry and be off. They have trained ME to be aware of our environment, wind direction, certain times of day, what season we’re in, what wildlife is likely to be in the vicinity. They are instinctively assessing all of this silently, and I need to be aware of all of these things if I want to try and be one step ahead, and prevent a catch.
So running with a Lurcher comes with the risk that you’ll end up running AFTER him, rather than WITH him!
I began running with Yanto a few years ago. Initially on a lead, I thought I’d need to get him used to me running, and that I’d need to “desensitize” him. My thinking being that the change in dynamic from walking to running might send a signal that there’s something to get excited about (and I didn’t want him to think we were “game on”!). I just wanted him to get used to my movement and pace.
We did the same route, a 5km loop our across fields and tracks for a few weeks. But he was used to being off a lead for long walks and his etiquette on a lead when running didn’t improve. He would often suddenly stop to smell something of interest (and yank my shoulder out of it’s socket), or randomly cross over in front of me and trip me up. I was constantly stopping and starting and found myself head first in hedges and muddy ditches on more than one ocassion!
The time had come to let him run free with me…… THIS is where it got interesting!……
I smile now when I say I’m taking the dogs for a run. I’m not sure when it changed, but at some point I realised that I’m not “taking them”…… WE are going together.
You see, when you run with a dog there are a two major shifts that take place. The first is that all of those things that you need to be aware of; the conditions that dictate whether there is a hunt afoot, (wind direction, the time of day etc) that is all still relevant, but somehow you are IN it, you become a part of that. You’re not observing it, you ARE it. Your impact on the environment and how it responds to YOU is much more noticeable.
The second shift is that of the relationship between you and the dog. There seems to be a sense that you are now a team. That ancestral instinct kicks in and you’re alpha male/female, part of the pack. You are running wild together. We instinctively stop as we enter a field and survey the land, we push on when we’re tackling a steep track, and most incredibly, this creates a deeper connection to the land, to the wildlife, to the wilderness on a level that I’ve never experienced when just walking the dogs, or running on my own.
I wonder if this is how it feels to be a wolf, running with wolves!?? This is what I think when we’re out there together.
My obsession with how far we’ve traveled, and how long it’s taken us, isn’t there anymore. I have a rough idea and that’s mainly just for practicality. The experience is more important, and we go at our own pace. If the dogs stop and take interest in something, I might stop too, or I might push on and they catch up. But on the whole we are training together as a team, practicing our skills and communication and deepening our understanding of the land.
The difference being of course that I am a human, running on two legs! Generally seen wearing flourescent lycra, sweating profusely and whistling loudly to make sure any wildlife around has a head start or can go to ground. Just. In. Case!
For brilliant advice and tips on running with dogs click on the link below.
I live in Wild West Dorset. A popular holiday destination for so many reasons. An area of outstanding natural beauty it has The Jurassic Coast with its stunning beaches, cliffs and popular section of the South West Coast Path, lush rolling countryside, market towns, literary history and so much more…
But as a local living here in the summer it can sometimes feel a little over crowded. My anxiety levels definitely increase, and I easily become stressed by the influx of people, traffic, noise and litter. Places I’d usually consider a wild sanctuary are now busy and bustling with human activity. I feel like a wild animal cornered.
It is this time of year that I begin to avoid the coastal areas and head inland into deepest darkest Dorset. Sea swims are now reserved for early mornings only, before the beach becomes busy, and I find myself exploring local woodland, rivers and lakes. In search of a bit of freedom, and the peace and quiet I so crave.
One such place is Fiddleford, near Sturminster Newton in North Dorset. The River Stour is one of the few rivers that is recommended for wild swimming in this county, and it passes Fiddleford Manor feeding into a lovely mill pool. It’s been on my radar for a while and with the July heatwave it seemed like a good time to go and find it. So, on a summer’s morning, with our 11 month old puppy, I jumped in the van and set off in search of adventure.
Aware that even the most rural spots inland can get busy in summer, I set off early. The temperature already 20 degrees by 8:30am, a sure sign of a scorching hot day ahead. But travelling away from the coast and into North Dorset the roads were less busy with most traffic heading to the beaches. I could feel myself physically and mentally relax, and despite my sat nav telling me our destination was an hour away, I had faith I was doing the right thing.
Arriving in Fiddleford the free car park was empty, and all I could hear was the sound of water coming from the trees, and goldfinches chattering in the hedgerows. With the pup on a lead, and a towel under my arm, we set off along the narrow country lane with the sound of a cockerel crowing at us as we passed the old Manor farm yard.
On first glimpse of the water, I breathed a “wow” as damsel flies flitted around us and the water cascaded down the sluices and into a welcoming pool edged by reeds and weeping willow. The landscape itself appeared timeless and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a Thomas Hardy novel.
With no-one else around my four legged friend and I were eager to investigate, and hunted out a suitable place to enter the water. In no time at all we were swimming among the fishes and dragon flies, surrounded on all sides by this picturesque setting.
It never ceases to amaze me how the water can still the mind. How, as soon as my body is immersed, I am fully present in the moment. No anxiety. No mental chatter. Just breath. Just peace. My inner wild child is contented, and I somehow feel a sense of resilience, as though all is well in me.
I often find myself swimming solo, mostly because I can really engage with my senses and fully appreciate the experience, but also because I am very much at the mercy of my mental health. When I am anxious, or low, it is often a spur of the moment decision to get outdoors and do what I know makes me feel better. Conversely, if I am having a good day then I often just want to run with it, while I’m in the flow. Neither scenarios lend themselves to prior arranged swims.
I am aware of the risks of going solo though, and I do mitigate against this by always telling someone where I’m going, and researching the location before I go. I enjoy swimming with my local group of sea swimmers when I feel able to, and also have a great sense of loyalty to the monthly Mental Health Swims group I did my first ever winter sea swim with. But a solitary swim is sometimes the only remedy I can access.
Today though, I have a swim buddy. I look across at my pup, swimming like an otter, delighted with his new skills. His confidence is off the scale! I feel so happy that he is enjoying it as much as I am.
Feeling reconnected, and refreshed we walk back through the fields, the hot summer sun beating down on us. I swear there is a more vigorous wag to the puppy dog’s tail post swim. I also detect a familiar spring in my step.
Another adventure, and another wild swim for the soul.