Sea swims in England are all rocks, cliffs and shingle

In our Nature column, Sophie Elmhirst tips her toe along Dorset's Jurassic Coast to discover the reality of sea-swimming on home turf.

There is sea-swimming and sea-swimming. There’s the fantasy: clear Mediterranean water, bluegreen and warm, lapping at white sand. And then there’s the English Channel, that thin, cold arm of the Atlantic ocean.
 
I swam recently, while the heatwave was still thick in the air, at Burton Bradstock in Dorset where the shingle is rough under your feet and the water’s dark and choppy. The breeze was up and so the waves were curling and crashing on to the shore but it didn’t stop anyone, even children small enough to be enveloped from head to foot by the water, turned upside down and then spat out again with a look of thrilled surprise on their faces. The trick, I learned slowly, was to manage your entrance: plunging through the surges quick enough so one didn’t take you out.
 
I’d take the rough reality of Dorset sea-swimming over sandy beach life any day. You can’t be elegant or selfconscious swimming here; it requires a certain sturdiness, a willingness to pick shingle out of your swimming costume and an ability to negotiate a sudden shelf in the sea floor as you walk into the water. On the flip side, dolphins and seals have been spotted in recent weeks.
 
The water’s cold too, though the day we went, after weeks of that strange, hot sun, it was as warm as I’d ever felt it. On the beach, there were tentative attempts at sophistication: gazebos, cool bags, picnics and so on. But mostly it was the usual windbreakers and towels thrown down on the stones, flushed babies stowed under battered parasols, bare and burning flesh.
 
At one end of the beach was a large yellow sign warning of danger and death if you pitched too close to the cliffs. These aren’t just any cliffs. This part of the Dorset coastline is on the dramatically named Jurassic Coast: a natural World Heritage Site (England’s first) because of its geological history that spans three periods – Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous – with rocks up to 250 million years old.
 
You can find ancient fossils here and admire the stone at West Bay – the next beach down –which glows deep orange in the sun.
 
The cliffs are monumental walls of rock, layered and compacted, worn by centuries of weather so that useful steps have emerged for the birds. But they come with their hazards.
 
Last year, the wettest on record, the cliffs disintegrated. They’ve done this often over the years, and the risk of rock-fall is constant, but in 2012 the rain was so heavy that a great chunk of the cliff simply collapsed: 400 tonnes fell on the beach at Burton Bradstock, killing a young woman out walking with her family. It took nine hours for rescue workers to dig her body out of the rubble.
 
Those endless drenched days seem remote this year but the sign on the beach is a reminder: while the scene around you might look like something out of a children’s book – buckets and spades, ice creams, kids yelling as they career out of the surf on body boards, sweating old ladies on low chairs wedged in the sand, helplessly, hopelessly fanning themselves – behind you, these great natural beasts rise up out of the earth. For millions of years the cliffs have worked at their own invisible pace, liable to splinter and crash to the beach at any time. There’s nothing we – passing travellers – can do about it.
 
You don’t get cliffs like this on those fancy Euro beaches with their golden sand. There’s no resort here: those marshalled enclaves that attempt to enclose the unenclosable, the sea. This isn’t a beach, but a coast, which runs for miles along the bottom of England and spends much of its life ignored, being battered by wind and rain. I almost prefer it here in winter, when it’s monochrome and empty apart from a couple of miserable dog-walkers and you can’t imagine ever being able to swim in the black water. But on the rare days when you do, at a safe distance from the cliffs, you can’t believe your luck.
Jurassic Beach: West Bay in Bridport, Dorset. Photo: Jorge Luis Dieguez, South End Sea Project (2012).

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt