Category Archives: Sophie is swimming

Sea life

When I was twenty-one, I was bitten by a turtle.

It was the first summer of the new millennium, and we were in the middle of an incredible family holiday in the Seychelles. I was standing in a natural lagoon where the sea met the shore, watching with wonder as turtles swam around me. There were plenty of other people there too, but the turtles seemed quite happy as long as they were left undisturbed. I remember being conscious of wanting to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible, standing stock still so as not to disrupt the sand or cause ripples in the water. And then I felt a sharp pain in my calf, and looking at my leg saw two little dribbles of blood. I had been bitten.

Apparently, this just didn’t happen. The locals were as surprised as me, but once I’d got over the initial shock of it we laughed it off as just one of those things. We were, after all, in the turtles’ habitat – it was perhaps not that strange that they might get curious eventually about these unusual tree trunks in their midst.

It certainly didn’t put me off feeling that in some way the sea was my territory, too. It has always mesmerised me – to be near to it, floating on it, swimming in it, is the closest I get to perfect happiness. For many years that pleasure was reserved for holidays: the excited glimpse of blue from a car windscreen or aeroplane window, that gulp of fresh, salty air, that feeling of cool water on skin. I dreamt of living by the ocean, with windows overlooking the waves and a desk for writing.

It’s always a little odd to remember that when I’m sat here, writing at my desk overlooking the sea.


When we first moved to Brixham six years ago a new goal manifested itself: to be one of those people who swam through the winter. Each year, as spring turned to summer, I would relish the first swim of the season, that sharp intake of breath as the cold water engulfed me, washing the winter away with every stroke I took. But when it came to autumn I would falter.

This winter, though, something changed. I didn’t stop swimming as the days got cooler, found that as long as I went in at least once a week I didn’t experience that sharp intake of breath and the increasingly icy dips brought a sense of summertime even to the dullest days.

Hence why I found myself, in the middle of January, swimming in the sea with a lovely group of new aquatic friends, clad in a tankini with socks and gloves and hat for warmth – not forgetting my trusty swimming shoes.

We were almost back at Breakwater beach after a bumpy swim across to Ladybird cove when something grabbed my calf. It felt exactly like a large hand. Disconcerted, I looked behind me to see if one of my companions had reached out – but they were all ahead. My mind briefly considered divers, until my eyes widened as I realised the more likely explanation. Trying not to panic, I kicked my feet to scare the creature away and quickly swam the few metres into shore, grateful to feel the familiar stones as I stood and stumbled up the beach.

Looking down at my leg, I saw dribbles of blood running down my calf. Something had bitten me. Our spotters on the beach, realising what had happened as my fellow swimmers gathered around me, confirmed that a large seal had been following us.


My leg didn’t hurt – in fact I was more concerned about the fact that I’d lost a shoe! Until I looked at the remaining one and realised that its mottled grey and green design quite possibly looked an awful lot like a mackerel meandering in the water behind me. I am very, very glad that the seal did not go in for a bigger bite.

My companions cleaned me up, and sent me home with strict instructions to get it checked out – seals carry all sorts of interesting diseases apparently. Cue an evening at A&E on my GP’s advice, resulting in several intrigued and amused medics and a hefty dose of antibiotics.

Having spoken to some other wild swimming friends this is, you’ll be glad to hear, not something that happens very often. Maybe once a year, amongst the whole community of sea swimmers in this part of South Devon. Once again (now that the adrenaline has died down) I can write it off as just one of those things. Even if I am getting a little worried that I might exude a  peculiar allure to sea creatures!

I am not going to stop my swims – the winter sun outside the window is reflecting off the waves as I write this, and I know it won’t be long before I’m in again. I might just be a little more mindful of the animals I share my element with the next time though…

Lido love

I have loved to swim outdoors for as long as I can remember.

I didn’t often, when I was growing up: my first seven years were spent in the middle of the Welsh countryside, and after that, Birmingham. My over-riding memories of swimming during my childhood were the nights spent coughing with an aching head and burning eyes after spending the afternoon at our local leisure centre, contrasted starkly with the freedom of swimming outdoors on holiday – in outdoor pools, the sea, lakes – it didn’t matter, just as long as I could escape the cloying claustrophobia of chlorine-filled air.

I moved to London aged sixteen, and soon after discovered the Oasis sports centre in Covent Garden. It was a bit of a revelation. As often as I could, I would step off the grey and dusty streets and into its little outdoor pool – it was surrounded by tower blocks, but up above there was a rectangle of sky, and that made all the difference.

Several years after that, having gravitated towards East London, I found the lido on London Fields. It had only recently re-opened, and I was instantly won over by the brightly coloured poolside changing rooms and the trees peering over from the park. It was a relief from the city heat in summer, but it was in the winter it really came into its own: stripping off the mummifying layers to swim lengths between the warm water and crisp, cold air. It made me feel so alive, clawing my soul back from the S.A.D. that threatened to engulf it every year as the darkness crept in.

It’s not surprising, really, that I have found myself so consumed by Shoalstone since I moved to my new house by the sea.


There is, after all, a narrative to continue: but it was only by listening to inspirational writers, artists, campaigners and fellow lido lovers speak at the first ever National Lido Conference last weekend that I realised it had always been there.

It felt a strange thing to be doing as I headed up to Portishead on the train and the bus: two whole days discussing outdoor pools. I mean, I loved my local lido, but I was always a little self-conscious about how much it meant to me – I’d never quite been able to put my finger on the reasons why.

And then as people began to speak I realised that there was a whole tribe here to which I very much belonged. This wasn’t just about pools. It wasn’t even just about swimming. It was about community, about equality, about inspiration, about freedom. It was about finding meaning in the chaos, about connecting with people and with nature, about the very essence of what it is to be alive.


I had gone to the conference with a very specific and practical hat on: that of local councillor and chairperson of Shoalstone Pool. That persona, which sometimes feels accidental, is almost entirely separate to my writerly one, however much my town has begun to inspire my writing.

It soon became clear though that my other hat was just as welcome here – the one that dreams of better worlds, and tries to make sense of this one through carefully crafted words on a page. More than that, the weekend helped me to make sense of my entire self – the self that I’ve become – and to see how it has been woven out of the strands of my past that I thought I had long since left behind.

I realise that all sounds a bit bonkers. Maybe the euphoria was simply the result of that age-old therapy of immersion in water. As part of our weekend there was of course the chance to swim – in Portishead Lido, and in the nearby Clevedon Marine Lake.


Both were wonderful, in their very different ways – as was bobbing along next to almost-strangers, deep in conversation about this love we shared and how it might shape our futures and that of the pools we have taken guardianship over.

I know I have returned with a new passion for making Shoalstone the best that it can be, and with a sense of being part of a community that I never really knew existed. But I have also returned with a stronger sense of myself as a writer, of someone with stories to tell and a bubbling desire to get them out into the world.

Not bad for a day and a half of lido chat – and even better for the fact that all it will take to reignite this passion if ever it begins to fade is to slip beneath the waters of one of the many outdoor pools we have at our disposal in this country. First stop: Kings Cross Pond this afternoon, and hopefully Parliament Hill Lido tomorrow too.

Arthur and I are on our way up to London on a far less exciting mission than seeking outdoor swimming opportunities, but one other thing last weekend has taught me is that they are never far away – and I intend to take advantage of them whenever (and wherever) I can.


Writing Bubble