Monday, 22 November 2010
Our instructors travelled over from Brentwood swimming school, enthusiastic and graceful. Amy slipped into the water to demonstrate first hand, she moved like a seal with a winning, gleaming smile. The rest of us grimaced with more splash than dash in our efforts to master the basics. Sculling feet first, then head first, up and down the pool while keeping the body perfectly still and on the water line wasn't easy, toes just peeked above the surface while the hands went like the clappers underwater in a twisted version of a royal wave.
The oyster tuck proved another challenge, bum down, legs poked straight up in the air. The tub was a little easier, knees bent and legs tucked, turning on the spot. Finally we tried out a co-ordinated routine, perched on the side of the pool in mexican wave formation to the strains of 'Don't stop me now' slipping into the pool and advancing towards each other, toes meeting in star shape floats, smiling, all the time smiling. Despite the lack of sparkly eye shadow and wonky nose clips, we did manage to keep in time with a passable routine, but I don't think the olympic squad have anything to worry about.
Thursday, 28 October 2010
She Who Dares Factor ***
My first encounter with surfing was in the form of a lesson with the excellent Harlyn Bay surf school, a result of a mother’s day gift from my children. Perhaps they were tired of me wistfully gazing longing after athletic surfers on our annual holiday, or maybe they were just tired of me. This seemed more likely on a rough and unwelcoming day in North Cornwall. I sat huddled in my car, alone in the car park, skin speckled with goose bumps from cold and fear, gazing out over the empty beach and the restless sea. The temptation to turn round and snake back through the narrow lanes to the warmth of the holiday cottage was a strong one. Yet hopes of escape were dashed as two figures suddenly emerged from the concrete hut nearby, donning wetsuits and the bright t-shirts of the surf school. I shuffled over and introduced myself to the affable Chris Rea, the man, not the singer. He’s run Harlyn Bay Surf School for over eight years, and shot up in my estimation when he sized me up and handed over a wetsuit labeled, ‘small’.
I listened carefully during the lesson on the beach, paying particular attention to the distress signal as I eyed the waves. ‘Jaws’ had fevered my imagination for sea swimming, who knew what was lurking threateningly below? Even if we were only going waist deep and it was early May, hardly conditions to attract a great white. I tried to ignore my thoughts and focused on jogging behind the nubile instructor as he darted up and down the beach. Back on the boards and practicing the standing position, I leapt upright with an impressive goofy (right) foot first. A position I have never repeated on the water. I hauled my board to the water’s edge and marveled at a young instructor who dashed into the sea like a merman, swimming out and flipping up on the first crest of a wave, before inverting and surfing to shore in a headstand. As I struggled to lift my board with my little arms, I knew any such skills would be a long way off for me. There followed a day of intense physical activity, sheer exhaustion and total immersion, I never knew water could come out of so many orifices at once. At one point I took umbrage with the constant battering of the waves and began swearing and punching the water, to no avail. I was beaten into submission and respect.
At lunch I staggered to the local pub encountering a shocking woman in the ladies. Her salt scorched hair was twisted into blond ringlets, skin covered with a thousand tiny freckles, deep creases round her eyes. When this surfer dudette glared back at me from the mirror I didn’t recognize myself. I staggered to a corner of the pub with my sandwiches and ordered a brandy at the bar. Somewhat fortified I made my way back to the beach and struggled back into the sticky wetsuit. Despite the fatigue dragging me down, something began to happen that afternoon. The clouds rolled back, the sea glittered and calmed, and I began to enjoy myself. The sheer thrill of catching that first wave has never been beaten, my tired body caught and lifted with ease, shot forward on the crest of a wave. I was hooked enough to book several follow up lessons on return trips, sometimes alone, sometimes with the family, in the wet and windy spring and baking summer when the beach was packed with holidaymakers.
So I was quietly confident as our SWD mini bus approached the wide sweep of Bude bay that I could show the other girls a thing or two, maybe this would be the year I would actually stand up. We changed in the car park (where else?) donning wetsuits, wet shoes, and in Pippa’s case a rubber balaclava that made her look like a cross between an escapee from a bondage dungeon and a demented seal. We stopped laughing later when she was warm and insulated and we were all follicle freezing. The beach was empty as we trotted through a running warm up and settled at the end of our boards for instruction. Soft rain fell and wafts of ozone opened our lungs and minds. I dug my toes in the sand, impatient to get in the sea and warm the wetsuit, which was rapidly cooling in the spring breeze.
The sea was rough again, but instead of fighting the water this time, I floated my board over the frothing swell and allowed my body to bounce lightly over the top of each wave. The instructor pointed out an incoming wave, and as one we turned, ankles strapped in leashes, body to the sea, board to the land, gripping the rails (sides), launching on to the deck (top) and sliding toes down to the end. I began paddling with the wave behind me, waiting for the lift. My timing was misjudged and it broke over my head, washing me under the surface and tumbling my body over and over in the shallows, until I’d forgotten which way was up as I struggled to the surface for air with a mouth full of sand. Looking down the beach I could see the others had shared the same experience. I waded out to try again. This time the wave found me and I felt the sheer joy of a natural force lifting me easily and speeding my body towards the shore. Several attempts and a lot of exhilarated whooping later, I was able to exert some control, and made it up to kneeling. My technique was impressive in this area – slicing, diving and gliding easily like a pro, a new sport was born, I could now be the champion of kneeling while surfing – knurfing.
Lunch was taken in our wetsuits, nibbling sandwiches with frozen fingers clutching hot chocolate outside a nearby kiosk. Linda’s newly acquired bothy bag wasn’t quite big enough for all of us, we’ve since bought our own. We staggered back into the waves in the afternoon as the rain persisted, as did we, demonstrating that Sarah Beardmore, British champion, has nothing to fear from She Who Dares
A bit of history
Women have been surfing as long as men, from surfing birth in Hawaii and Polynesia, There are many great female surfers competing today, and many who just like to surf.
Where to try
There are an increasing number of surf schools dotted round the coast of Britain. Surf hot spots include the South West, Wales, Scotland and the West Coast of Ireland, even Northumberland, if you’re hardy enough to brave the North Sea waves.
We’ve personally tried:
The excellent Harlyn Bay surf school, who do holidays, weekend packages, day and half day instructions, stag and hen parties, everything really, and the instructors are lush.
Watergate Bay (try lunch at 15 afterwards)
Bude – Okehampton YHA
Or look through British Surfing Association:
Female only surfing at:
Hibiscus surf school
Ripcurl run annual Girls go Surfing days involving some of the top female surf schools in the UK, see:
Try Surfgirl magazine for lots of hints, tips and schools:
Monday, 20 September 2010
Nordic pole walking
SWD Factor *
This is Pole walking, not pole dancing, that’s another chapter.
We meet our instructor, Jane, in a pub car park on a damp autumn morning. We’re a stone’s throw from the Outdoor Pursuits Centre, the bleached wood panels of the climbing wall-building tower above the trees beyond. Shrieks of their first school group of the day float across the quiet river. For most of us Harlow is a central point, although our activities take us across Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, with an annual trip further afield, to the South West, Wales, Scotland, and as a group we’re well travelled on our adventures; Ecuador, Venezuela, Australia, America, Eastern and Southern Europe, all in pursuit of the outdoors.
It shows commitment that some of the girls get up early and travel a 70-mile plus round trip to be here every week. Although our pursuits are low impact, we witness at first hand the effects of human activity on the environment we use. The irony is, we must be generating a pretty large carbon footprint to travel to activities. We always car share, cycle or train to venues, and many of the girls are involved in environmental and wildlife conservation projects, but like everyone, we could always do more.
As if to remind us of this, the trees drip gently and incessantly over our line of cars. I scrabble for the dog-eared notebook that I take to every session, stuffed with lists, names and other assorted paper. Since the website has gone live we have a booking procedure which allows us to check who is coming. Before then, the notebook, word of mouth and a sense of anticipation was all we had. Today there are 16 of us, and like some sessions, we have a friend or family member dragged along. Pippa’s sister has joined us, from Maine, USA. She’s delighted by the group and wishes she got out more at home. In Maine, surely one of the great outdoors of the world? This demonstrates how contained our modern lives are in ‘developed’ countries. We move from house to car to building to car to house, perhaps we should all step outside the front door more often.
Our Pole Walking instructors car is parked alongside the river, boot open, with a selection of poles resting against the shiny paintwork, like a giant version of pick up sticks. Jane used to be in She Who Dares years ago, before work got in the way. A former academic librarian, she’s a qualified health walk leader, Nordic walking, cycling and fitness instructor. We just hope to keep up as she fits us with the right length poles for our height and demonstrates how to loop the straps on to our hands. After a brief battle with the Velcro fastenings we’re good to go. Jane strides across the car park, she cuts a dashing and graceful figure, lithe and slim in pale yellow jacket and blue craghoppers with poles flashing behind. The rest of us shuffle after her, arms and legs akimbo, with all sense of normal walking co-ordination gone. A couple of passers by scurry out of the way as this group of mad eyed women lurches towards them.
It’s not as easy as it looks. The poles must fall gently behind you, propelling the body forwards; the temptation is to lift them in front, like ski poles, pumping the arms in a power walk march. We strike out along the river towpath, crossing the bridge past the lock keepers cottage and fanning out single file towards the fields, settling into a rhythm, and remembering to use alternate arms and legs. The skiers amongst us seem to take to it more. Pole walking originated from cross-country skiing in Finland in the 1930’s. Skiers used the poles to practice out of season, and a new sport was born.
She Who Dares plough forward on the riverbank. There’s less chat than usual, it’s not possible to get two abreast on the narrow path, and difficult to turn around to talk to the person behind without skewering your foot. We’re all concentrating too hard on the technique to lapse into talk anyway. Long lolloping strides draw us out into a line of spotty dogs, or we’re bunching together, pole spikes lodged in muddy, uneven ground. Soon even the skeptics are panting and perspiring, and there’s another two hours to go. We stride past the back of factories and retail estates, partly disguised by patches of rough undergrowth, across the river on bridges we’ve leapt from in past sessions, out into open fields. Looping back to the river we’re startled by a giant animal leaping from the bushes and splashing past us into the water. The dog is called back by his owner, confining it’s not a sighting of the Essex beast.
Where to try Pole Walking:
Jane Leary runs local walks in Hertfordshire and Essex:
UK wide sources of Nordic walking information:
Monday, 13 September 2010
A new chunk from the She Who Dares book, more to follow.....
SWD Dare factor ***
Not to be confused with Canoeing, a canoe is an open boat – more on those in Canoeing.
A kayak is what I would have called a canoe years ago until I was re-educated by the lovely Linda and Barbara. I suspected they were more experienced after I witnessed the easy way they slipped a splash deck on and tore up the river, flipping the boat over and rolling, graceful and seal like, nose clip intact.
You never know where being in She Who Dares will take you. Linda joined after listening to a speaker at a women’s motivational seminar share her experiences of the group. Linda went along the following Wednesday to find out more and watched the kayaking:
“They looked like they were having fun, until they started larking about and capsizing. I took one look at the colour of the river water and thought ‘this is definitely not for me!’ Goodness knows what made me return – the camaraderie I think.”
Going back the following week took Linda’s life in new direction. Over the years she gained her kayaking and canoe qualifications and is now a member of Herts Canoe Lifeguards, patrolling outdoor swims and triathlon events, she runs a social paddling group from work, as well as establishing the charity ‘Active Works’ which raises money for disadvantaged and disabled youngsters to participate in kayaking, canoeing and other outdoor sports. Most weekends she, Barbara, Sonia and others are to be found strapping their own kayaks to the roof of a car and heading off in search of white water.
When it came to my first paddling session with She Who Dares, I hadn’t been in a kayak for over 20 years. Getting in to the boat was half the problem. I tried a technique I remembered from Ranger Guides, shifting my weight across a paddle balanced over the back of the boat. My hopes of impressing the others with my technical abilities were soon sunk, along with the lower half of my body as I found myself waist deep in the water, at least I had now warmed my wetsuit. Equipment is important for this activity; most centres will provide or hire what you need; a wetsuit, waterproofs, buoyancy aid, helmet and a boat and paddle. Wet shoes are a good idea, and possibly gloves. If you want to undertake longer trips, you may consider investing in a dry suit. The formidable Barbara often kayaks in hers. She may look like a punk version of the creature from the black lagoon advancing down the river, trussed in black rubber decorated with a multitude of zips, but those zips are designed to be in just the right places. Caught short on a long trip, she can employ a she pee, inserted in the right zip; it gives her the freedom to wee standing up. True equality at last!
Kayaking is a sport that can be enjoyed all year round. My initial session was in mid January. It was bitterly cold, the sky the colour of weak, cold tea. The river had frozen into ice and stretched out like a winding glass road through brittle banks. I was on the point of turning for home, but She Who Dares don’t mind about the cold, so I had to go through with it. Clad in a wetsuit, fleece, waterproof trousers and top, socks, trainers, buoyancy aid and helmet I slid gingerly into the boat, and after a brief weighing of the paddle in trembling hands, I was off. Well, almost, the icy water was dripping down my arm and soaking into my woolen gloves. Phil made a dash for the kitchen and emerged waving, not a flask of brandy, but a pair of bright yellow marigolds and some elastic bands. Suitably attired I set off trying to keep up with the others.
Four years and a lot of keeping up later, I’m just about able to hold a straight line and show off a few paddling skills. It’s excellent exercise and really builds core strength. That January day it was enough to just keep moving forward, my boat skimmed like a puck over the frozen surface as it cracked and creaked beneath me, driving the paddles through the ice, churning forwards to pools of still water, where I pushed the paddles through clear water. I was exhausted. It wasn’t a long trip, but it was an eye opener. Who were these women who could traverse through such conditions, were they mad? I was struck with a creeping admiration.
Many kayaking trips have followed on the river Stort and the Lea, in much better weather, and with better water quality than when Linda first shuddered at the water colour twenty years ago. There is a sense of being part of a secret world, away from the traffic and bustle, sliding past on calm green water under lush trees and hidden inlets. In a kayak you’re on the same level as river life, ducks, swans and water voles skim past, electric blue dragonflies dance. You see the river from the surface, and on capsize drill, from below, plunging into a willow green blurry waterscape. Exploring the waterways takes you past restored towpaths and artistic sculptures. Beautiful clapperboard houses with gardens hidden from the road are revealed in all their glory from the riverside, small jetties and rowing boats moored at the ready. People are friendly too, if you follow river etiquette and stay away from fishing lines and narrow boats.
Teamwork along the river has been established in the many games we’ve tried out. Cilla, one of the instructors, always paddled with her yellow rubber duck. She’d start an improtu game of water polo at any point by flinging it into the air, resulting in a melee of crashing kayaks. A favourite anecdote of another instructor, Russ, he of the enviable golden flowing locks, involved the legend of the giant pike that lurks in the deep pools of the river. He made his presence known one day during a game of water polo, as the ball arched through the air towards Russ it was intercepted by the leap of the huge pike, who snatched it between his jaws before sinking back into the water, ball and fish were never seen again.
More of our kayaking has been on the lake at the excellent Enfield Scouts Sailing Association. The placid, and marginally warmer, waters are good for beginners. The games and dunking still continue under the tutelage of Barbara, she of the punk dry suit. Another kayak enthusiast inspired by the group, although it wasn’t always the case:
“ I first sat in a kayak in 2003 – I hated it, I couldn’t control the thing, it was uncomfortable and I was scared… the following year I went to pool sessions with the group and was rolling within six weeks. Since I could now roll, I set about learning the other stuff. The obsession began to bite. Before kayaking I was unfit, flabby and coasting seamlessly from having babies to middle age. Now I’m fanatical about my core stability, keeping my weight within boat’s weight range and maintaining fitness for paddling.”
Sea kayaks are much bigger than river craft, flat based and more buoyant, where you often sit on, not in, the boat. Although waves can turn you over quickly on the shore, it’s shallow and easy to stand up and get on again. Once out over the shore surf you can turn round and experience:
Using the kayak as a large surfboard, you can bob about and catch a wave, like surfing, but use the paddle as a rudder to give you some steering and control. This is the theory. In the choppy swell of South Wales a turn too far one way or the other results in a quick washing machine experience and a mouthful of sand.
After we’d played around in the surf we set off under huge skies and wheeling gulls. Hugging the coast, a kayak can see things denied to the hill walkers on the cliffs above, secret coves and nesting birds, rock arches and seals. We paddled parallel to the headland, turning the corner to a deserted bay, the sound of the sea churning tumbling pebbles drowned out the birds. Reaching the shore we heaved the kayaks up on to the beach, stepping gingerly over the giants teeth boulders, back into the water like a harem of sprightly seals to commence the annual game of balancing on one kayak. After much heaving, puffing, panting, shoving and grasping of inappropriate body parts, we hit a record eight.
Sea kayaking has now become a holiday pre-requisite for our family. From the creeks and coves of Cornwall, to the bays of Majorca, still waters of Cuba, weaving between boats at Balmoral Bay, Sydney, or the shallows off Maui, where the first inhabitants of the island arrived by dug out canoe, any beach with a boat has us donning buoyancy aids and grabbing paddles. In Maui there was a moment when my heart stopped as a large fin broke the water, feet from our kayak. I uttered a stream of expletives and stopped paddling as more joined it; only to swoon in relief when my daughter pointed out we were surrounded by a school of spinner dolphins, not great whites. We floated gently, allowing them to explore our bobbing boat, before swishing away through the turquoise water, effortlessly spinning over the surface of the sea.
Where we’ve been kayaking
Start at a recognized base; never go out on your own (unless you have a large insurance claim to make)
BCU – British Canoe Union (it’s kayaks too), list centres in the UK
Enfield Scouts Sailing Association – ESSA, near Naezing, Essex
Herts Young Mariners, Cheshunt, Herts.
White water at Llandysul – North Wales:
Morfa Bay activity centre, South West Wales:
Sydney, Australia – Balmoral Bay
Friday, 13 August 2010
Jet lag draws me to the computer at 3am, I wish I were still in Cuba, enigmatic, different, vivacious, hot, Cuba. The SWD in me drew me to the watersports on offer in Varadero, slicing across turquoise seas on a hobie cat, paddling out solo in a sea kayak to toast my knees on clear, but strangely fishless waters. The obligatory outdoor sea swims and snorkeling over coral reefs till an ear infection put paid to that, and a dip with a dolphin, beautiful, sad and moving. Another day, leading the pack in a precarious speedboat, full throttle over open seas and slowly through mangrove swamps. I'll head back one day to investigate the lush hinterland, for now, beach memories will see me through a rainy August.
Tuesday, 13 July 2010
Another She Who Dares adventure
SWD Factor - *** depending on your relationship with the equine
I was never a ‘pony club’ girl, although I read books about horses, and imagined the romance of galloping on Black Beauty across moors and beaches. Our family didn’t have the resources for regular lessons, so my only riding experience was an occasional treat on holiday in North Wales in the rain, always in the rain. I would be left at a pony trekking centre, swaying uncertainly atop a large pony following another horse’s behind down a rough Welsh track, in the rain, always in the rain. There was a time when I was allowed to take a horse back to the paddock alone, bareback in Barmouth, and understood what all the fuss was about. In recent years there had been a single lesson at a local stable with my other half. He joked they wouldn’t have a horse big enough for him, but his face soon fell when the instructor called: “Bring out Satan”, and a huge black shire emerged from the shadows. Many She Who Dares members originate from counties where there are fields are choc full of stables and stud farms. Even in local urban areas there are horses loose in the green spaces, right across from the shopping centres of Harlow.
As my first weekend away with SWD approached, I was thrilled to see horse riding on the agenda, perhaps I could relive those brief childhood experiences, without the rain. It was not to be. When the day came the sky turned leaden grey and we bumped down a muddy track towards an isolated farm on Dartmoor, rain pelting at the windows of the minibus. A hopeful muttering broke out as we approached, the stable doors were shuttered and the house closed. We’d passed a welcoming pub along the way and would rather have been parked in front of it’s roaring fire listening to Kate Bush wailing “heathcliff’ on the juke box, than re-enacting Wuthering Heights on the rain soaked moor. Our hopes of a quiet pint were dashed as the stable door flung open and a red-cheeked lady in impossibly tight jodhpurs bounded towards us. She had more enthusiasm than the poor four legged creatures dragged out behind her, and the two legged types emerging from the mini bus. We scurried over to the tack room and fished about for riding boots, balancing on each other as we found the right size and carefully tucking our trousers in to keep our feet dry. That was our first mistake.
Sliding and squelching across the courtyard, we were sized up to the right horse, all of us wobbling up the little step provided, no one leapt eagerly from ground to mount. Frances was wary of horses and tried not to look her steed in the eye, but entered into a one-way negotiation with the animal, explaining her limits and setting out how she would like it to behave, before settling in the saddle. We watched, crippled with laughter, as the horse shook the rain from its mane and trotted off in the wrong direction, Frances clinging on, pleading with words, knees and feet.
I looked at my horse and it stared back mournfully, I wished I’d saved it a sugar lump or a mint, a pat on the neck hardly seemed sufficient for what I was about to put it through. As I climbed aboard gingerly, reigns looped through fingers a la John Wayne, jolly horse lady came tearing across the yard, shouting I was doing it wrong unless I wanted to lose a finger, she re-adjusted my clenched fists and dangling feet and turned my horse to head off up the trail, plodding on a well-worn route. The ground was fetlock deep in mud and rocks, and I prayed my steed had sure feet. I tried to assist the poor beast by leaning forward uphill and backwards downhill, but I don’t think it made much difference. The horse turned his head away from the horizontal rain, his neck at right angles to his body, trudging ever forwards. I tried to keep my head down too, unable to admire the scenery, as the rain streamed from my riding helmet down my face and into my eyes.
As we reached the ridge a group peeled off for trotting, the rest of us broke into a canter, my horse was slow to start but not slow to stop, the thought of getting back to a warm dry stable encouraged his speed. As we made it back and removed our riding boots we realized the folly of tucking our trousers in. Each boot contained pints of rainwater, tipping them up sent water sloshing around our feet. We led the horses towards the stables, patting and thank ing them for their perseverance, and staggered off to the damp minibus. Just as we were pulling away, another group turned up, I saw my horse glance over to the warm dry stable he was denied. I’ve never seen an animal look so unchuffed.
Where to try riding:
Most activity centres provide pony trekking. For Dartmoor try:
Klondyke Road Okehampton EX20 1EW
0845 371 9651 email@example.com
There are hundreds of riding schools dotted across the country. The following National organizations could help you find a suitable one:
The British Horse Society website has a search facility:
The National Riding Festival:
In Hertfordshire, these come recommended:
Hallingbury Hall Equestrian Centre
Maple Pollard, Little Hallingbury, near Bishops Stortford
And if you ever find yourself at the Grand Canyon, try trekking with the Diamond Bar ranch along the canyon floor, no rain, extreme heat and possibly rattlesnakes:
Tuesday, 29 June 2010
Saturday, 19 June 2010
Friday, 18 June 2010
Gorge Walking (see also Bumble and wild swimming)
She Who Dares Factor - **** (depending on the weather!)
Gorge walking is a more extreme version of the bumble, although it’s less of a bath, more of a power shower, and the ramble mostly takes place in water.
She Who Dares experienced our gorge walking on Dartmoor. The rain had driven down in sheets all weekend. We were soggy, dispirited and damp by the time the last morning dawned and fully expected our final scheduled activity to be cancelled. Having shared our Youth Hostel accommodation with families supporting children on the annual 10 Tors, an annual event that has teams of teenagers completing hikes of up to 55 miles, carrying all their own supplies and camping out overnight on the last wildernesses of Dartmoor, we’d heard first hand how conditions had deteriorated. The weather had turned so bad the army were airlifting this year’s participants off the moor.
We were packed up and ready to head home when a fully kitted out instructor stuck his very handsome head into reception and asked if we were ready to go. There was a mass dropping of bags as we all nodded meekly and hustled for the equipment store, collecting extra thick wetsuits, still nicely damp from our last excursion, buoyancy aids and helmets. Another instructor joined us and we boarded the soggy mini bus, heading out through the town and over the moor.
Clearing a window in the condensation we peered out over grey sky and water lashed land, muted into one by the driving rain. The mood in the bus was subdued. The minibus trailed down a winding road, polished black with rivers of water, to a concrete shack by Red’veen brook at Meldon. It was less of a babbling brook, more of a raging torrent. We changed and lined up on the mossy bank our faces fixed and grim as we listened carefully to the safety talk. The instructors led us cheerfully down to the river, into the water, where we clung to each other wading from one bank to the other and slipping in the middle, neck deep in swirling white and cream water like sugar lumps in a crazy cappuccino. Fully immersed and the wetsuits warmed, the water pummeled at our thighs and tugged our feet off the riverbed. Keeping upright was impossible, eventually we released ourselves to the force and bobbed and swirled in a low pool, our bottoms bumping against submerged rocks. Helicopters whirred overhead, they must have looked down and thought we were old enough to know what we were doing, or old enough to know better, in any case they left us to it.
As we struggled upstream the land around was calm and immobile. It was tempting to climb out on the mossy bank and walk, but we pushed on, the sky gradually lifting a little and the rain pausing. Someone had a waterproof camera; we balanced precariously on rocks as they snapped away. A waterfall lay ahead. Normally it presented a small climb and a fun water slide; today the rocks around were completely submerged. There were no exposed footholds to see anywhere, so we felt with our feet under the sheet of creamy froth for a route to climb, an instructor ahead of us, one behind. We scrabbled into the torrent one by one, hands locked with the person above, who hauled us up as best they could. As soon as you found a foothold your body blocked the water flow and sent it spraying directly into faces and mouths. It was impossible to see or hear under this comedy water cannon, and all dignity was lost as the young instructor below put his shoulder to our behinds and shoved until we were finally all on the upper bank. Another poor young man scarred for life.
We bounced back down some more drops, and whirled across from bank to bank, a natural white water ride without a boat beneath us. Flopping exhausted on the bank, our instructor walked upstream to check conditions. He came back to tell us that the crossing of stepping stones they usually used was under several feet of water, the river level had climbed four inches in the hour we had been there. We stumbled back to the changing shelter, red faced and overcome with exhaustion. It had been a long weekend.
Where to try Gorge Walking
For River wading with Gorgeous instructors:
0845 371 9651
Morfa Bay (actually have very handsome instructors too)
Great Gorge walking setting in a deep valley with exposed tree roots to climb and rock crevices to climb through, very Mordorish.
Other venues (we can’t vouch for the handsomeness of these instructors):
Thursday, 10 June 2010
A bumble is a cross between a bath and a ramble. The bath part involves immersion in the mostly clean waters of the river, jumping from the bank, sliding down weirs and crouching under waterfalls. The ramble involves crawling primeval out of the river on the soft mud banks, and staggering, dripping down the towpath, until a new entry spot is found and checked, then plunging in and floating downstream.
We meet our instructor on the hottest day of the year , trussed up in wetsuits, flotation aids and helmets, sweating quietly in the shimmering heat. Our sudden plunge into the River Stort by Harlow Outdoor Centre startles some of the local fishermen, and we slip one at a time down the slimy emerald weir, losing footing on the pebbled river bed, the placid green waters rapidly cooling our bodies as we float downstream, willows bent overhead and ducks fluttering startled into the reeds.
Bumbles could be a version of supervised wild swimming, with more equipment. Swimming in buoyancy aids isn’t easy, especially with trainers on your feet. We muddle down the river, small fish darting around the shallows, trying not to think of the Pike that may be lurking in the deeper, darker parts. A few minutes splashing takes us past narrow boats, where a small chimney leaks wood smoke and the owner sits on deck, his dog barking madly at this new breed of fish that dares to come so close. A fisherman tuts as we pass, smiling and waving.
A shallow beach under the shade of an overhanging tree is the place we attempt to climb out, gripping the branches and each other in a sliding, ungainly dance until we’re all safely on the towpath, water dripping from every orifice. The instructor walks us up to our first jump of the day, from a bridge joining one footpath across the water to the meadow beyond. This goes against all sensibility, and is the complete opposite of all we tell our children not to do – don’t ever jump off bridges, you could break your legs landing on hidden rubbish in the water, or shatter your spine in the shallows. We consider these options as we peer over the railings to the softly stirring water below, a long way below. Trusting in the expertise of the professional, we let the instructor drag a chain across the riverbed, till we’re all satisfied there’s no lost Asda trolley lurking there. Just to be sure, we let him take the first jump. Eventually, we all follow, hearts in mouths, flinging ourselves into the air. Time pauses for a second, then a splash and a lunge under, glimpses of muddy water, ears filling, noses overflowing with river water, clenched into a ball, bottoms bumping on the muddy bottom and bouncing up to the surface, swimming for the bank to scramble out and do it all again.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Outside it was a cold October day, the river was still and birds wheeled over the freshly harvested fields. We assembled under a structure that looked like a homemade substation. Telegraph poles reached into the metal grey sky, steel wire strung between, suspending planks, poles and knotted ropes that looked impossible to traverse.
I was trussed up with the rope; my neck craned upwards, barely paying any attention to the knots or the technique that are now familiar. As a first timer it was my prerogative to go first and I was told to start climbing. I looked down at the small woman belaying me, and wondered if I could trust an absolute stranger with my life. Throwing sanity to the wind I climbed the pole quickly, hands gripping the staples and eyes fixed on looking up, imagining it was just a ladder. It was only when I reached the top and the miniscule ledge that I realized how scared I was. A long pole stretched out ahead of me, with a steel wire strung overhead, I had to walk across it to get to the other side. My body was reacting in panic, and I just wanted to get off, but that would mean climbing down again, I was stuck. There were shouts of encouragement from down below. I imagined them to be the roar of the crowd, and I was a circus performer in spangly costume (I didn’t know there was a trapeze coming up) and took a wobbly sep forward. The smell of sawdust and the roar of the crowd filled my head. Even if it was muck spreading in North Essex and chat from the women below, it got me across. I was encouraged to see others climbing up too, and their coaxing and support got me through the next few hours of fear.
Monday, 7 June 2010
Here's an excerpt from the early chapters of the book. All activities are given a 'She Who Dares' rating, which means they've been tried an tested by the group. This one gets a 4/5 - which means - take a deep breath! Contacts and centres are listed by activity, and in a reference section.
Coasteering really can be a gentle introduction to the wild forces of nature, just make sure you have a couple of great, strong instructors on board with excellent local knowledge of the coasts and tides. Dave the Rave has been our leading man for our escapades. He’s led us round the beautiful coastline of South West Wales, ably assisted by other young instructors from the Morfa Bay Activity Centre.
On our first outing, we were supplied with nice thick wet suits and packed into a damp mini bus with steamy windows. The hedgerows smudged into a watercolour wash of green as Dave careered down narrow Welsh lanes, assuring us his speed was justified as he knew them like the back of his hand. He was wearing gloves that day. We arrived at a car park near Lydstep and stepped out into a freshening breeze and clear skies.
Changing in a car park is all part and parcel of the annual trip, whatever the weather. You can try a towel dance or hiding inside the mini bus, but most of us find the quick off, quick on approach the best. This has resulted in scarring some young instructors for life as they emerge round the corner only to be confronted with a dozen near naked or completely starkers women, same age, or older than their own mother. Most run ran away screaming. At least they can now appreciate the female form in all of its goose pimpled, un-airbrushed glory.
You need proper kit from a proper centre for coasteering. Thick wetsuits for the cold sea, neopropene gloves with grip (bike gloves work tool) to protect hands from rough barnacles, buoyancy aids and helmets are essential. An old pair of tightly laced trainers or flexible thick soled wet shoes help. Lace the trainers very tightly, despite a triple knot, one of mine bobbed away after the first jump, past the nose of a bemused seal, who realized he had no use for it and swam away.
Once attired we moved awkwardly down the steep path to the sea, watched from the cliff top by bird spotters in bright anoraks, unsure what this species was they were witnessing stumbling into the water, looking like a bunch of extra’s from a 1970’s Dr. Who episode. The weather was kind for our virgin dip, blue skies stroked overhead and the sea remained calm, but the water was still freezing in May. This seeping cold is soon forgotten as the wetsuits do their job on full immersion. Except in the feet, trainers don’t keep out the ice, so neopropene socks can help. Otherwise your toes turn white and numb for the rest of the day.
Once in the silky water we felt the power of the sea pulling us away from the land. Floating like flotsam and jetsam on the tide, we bobbed around the coast, tiny specks swept past towering cliffs. We felt small and insignificant in this seascape as we swum our first tentative stokes out into the bay. It’s hard work in a buoyancy aid and trainers, and many of us fond the best way was to ride with the swell, don’t fight against the current, and always swim parallel to the beach if caught in a rip tide. We hauled ourselves out over the rocks, clinging to foot and hand holds as we hugged the cliff, scrambling up to higher ground to practiced jumping techniques, as a warm up for the higher launches further round. Instructed to try the pencil jump, or cross arm buoyancy aid holding. “Do not hold your nose”, Dave instructed “You’ll punch yourself in the face and pull it off on impact”. Good advice, we thought.
One spot between two outcrops caused much hysteria and mayhem, the water swept in and curled round as we tried to cross. It was hopeless to fight it, and we bobbed like champagne corks in a bucket, laughing as we reached one side, then were swept back to the other. It took a full half hour of heaving and pulling to get 13 of us across what was really a washing machine on full spin cycle. We clutched at the next cliff face as tightly as the barnacles locked there and swam round into a secret cave, accessible only from the water. This was a place where seals came to give birth, an underwater maternity ward. Mothers all, we appreciated how this must be for the female seal, just the sea for company as another life is brought into the world. There was an attempted chorus of “The circle of life”, but we soon put a stop to it.
There were a few large jumps to be braved on this first outing; a couple of us tried the higher ones. From below the cliff may not look that imposing, but something happens to your body when your toes are gripping the edge of the rock and staring down into the heaving waters below. Rationality, and the fact that the instructor has just leapt before you doesn’t stop the adrenaline from thumping through your veins and the legs from turning onto soft custard. It seems a long, silent fall through the air; I’ve never tried with eyes open. Given this experience I was able to step back from the highest jump at the Blue Lagoon the following year, safe in the knowledge that everyone had already witnessed my daredevil leap. A few members always go for the biggest jumps, and provide entertainment for the rest of us. The beauty of ‘She Who Dares’ is that you can give something a first try and get praise for the effort, but never feel the pressure to do it again. However, most of the time you will want to do it again.
The Blue Lagoon near Aberiddy is quite a remarkable sight. Especially on the wild, grey day we scrambled round to it, emerging over the headland from the white foaming sea to the turquoise waters and a still pool like a Mediterranean bay. We were offered the option of running then jumping down a cliff to enter the water, or climbing down. As I said, there’s always the choice. The next set of jumps are legendary, an old stone fortified wall towers out near the opening of the bay. The fact that our ‘hardest’ members wandered about and had a chat atop of it, before attempting the leap, is testament to its height and imposing nature. But they did it, and survived to tell the tale. Dave proved why he is called ‘The Rave’ and took a running jump off the highest platform, dive-bombing into the clear green waters below. We had moved out of the way first.
One of the pleasures of these extreme activities is to see members of the sane public watching your antics from the shore or cliff top, maybe they are admiring our bravado, and maybe they wish they were joining us, or maybe they think we’re a care in the community project. Whatever, it’s satisfying to walk past with a smug-ish look on your face.
Where to try it
Never attempt coasteering without a qualified instructor from a recognized outdoor centre. Even if they are insane.
Try the British coasteering federation for a description of what you centre needs to be able to take you out safely.
Most coastal outdoor pursuit centres offer coasteering (try Cornwall, Devon and Wales) or take a visit to the wonderful Morfa Bay, South Wales:
She Who Dares are an outdoor pursuits group for women. They're ordinary women, with a mad streak that leads us to extraordinary activities. From canoeing to coasteering, climbing to caving, sumo wrestling to sea kayaking, walking to windsurfing, axe throwing to archery. It's all there, we've done it, and if we haven't done it yet, we soon will be.
It's good to be outdoors, scientific research now proves this, although whether this extends to ten middle aged women in various stages of undress in a windy Welsh car park, I don't know.There is something wonderfully human about feeling the elements on your skin. Tipping out of the sailing dinghy into the silky water of a cold lake, the splashing surf of a glorious coast as you find the best way to warm a wetsuit, (it’s not all about falling in, that’s just me). Wind whipping at your sand blasted cheeks as you skim the beach on a land yacht, soil sinking below your nails as you grip for a new handhold on a rock face, fire warming same hands as you nurse a drink in a warm pub afterwards, sharing the experience.
Once I started writing this book, there seemed no limit to all the activities we could do, there are still new things suggested on a weekly basis, some of them make their way onto the programme, none too extreme or outrageous for us to consider, once we’ve taken that first step.
Maybe this blog will provide an inspiration to try something new, or to try something you haven’t done for a while. It’s hard to break the habit and step out of the comfort zone, but once you do, you won’ t regret it, and what better way to do it than in the company of like minded other women, age and experience no barrier.
Maybe this blog will also lead you to want to read more, and the aim is to get the book published. There will be chapters and extras coming up soon. In the meantime you can see more of my outdoors writing at:
Green exercise/blue exercise