Experience

Swimmers explore hidden cave and dodge jellyfish

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When it comes to life-changing experiences, you might think of having a first child or joining a Buddhist monastery or ditching your office job to cycle round the world.

But what if there was a trip that might not change your life, but would certainly affirm all the best things about it, that you could do in half a day and you’d still be home in time to pick up the kids from school?

On a scorching hot Friday morning when I should have been at work, I was instead gathering with my fellow adventurer and best friend from pre-school and 11 other people I barely knew in the car park at Bigbury in the South Hams.

Read more: 11 of the best wild swimming spots in Devon

Squeezing into our wetsuits, giggling about our inappropriate costumes, chittering about dry bags and steamy goggles and car keys and mobile phones, we were given our safety briefing and headed down to the tiny stretch of sand left by the high tide.

Our mission was to swim the one mile around Burgh Island. Home to the famous Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel – better known for its Agatha Christie novels than its adrenaline adventures – most people only visit the island via its unique sea tractor or on foot across the stretch of white sand that opens up at low tide.

A compass jellyfish floats on the surface of the water at Burgh Island
(Image: Rachel Meir)

But we’d chosen the high tide for our swim for the best conditions and waded into the flat, calm water straight from the bottom of the slipway.

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Our guide, Kate, and her team of helpers from Coast To Coast Water Safety led us out through the shallows and we made our way in an anti clockwise direction round the island – a watery convoy in slow breaststroke.

It wasn’t long before the wildlife came into view – creatures you might not see from the beach or the shallows gathered in the island’s nooks and crannies.

A crab the size of my head was crouched in a rock below me – I’d never seen a crustacean so big in this country – and my fellow swimmers gathered round to take a look.

Numerous compass jellyfish quietly floated on the tide – at first their presence was a little intimidating and we all questioned how badly they might sting until our Kate picked one up and held it above her head, a picture of bravery – or foolhardiness.

“It’s just like a nettle sting,” she said, lowering the massive jellyfish back into the water and cooling the sting that she pretended not to feel with sea water.

Burgh Island swim guide Kate Doison holds up a jellyfish
(Image: Rachel Meir)

I swim in the River Dart several times a week to feel the cold water on my skin and immerse myself in the freshwater. There I spend my swims staring up at the trees and the birds and surrounding fields, fully aware of what’s outside the water, but only vaguely aware of what’s below in the clear but dark water.

But a sea swim is almost entirely different. Here I spent most of the time looking down through beautifully clear turquoise waters, staring into seaweed forests and scanning for sea creatures.

Huge shoals of tiny fish swam below us, sea anemones and sea fans clung to rocks. The coast of South Devon is not exactly the Great Barrier Reef, but as a British seascape it’s pretty spectacular and unexpected.

Our intrepid Burgh Island wild swimming group

On the right hand side of the island we swam through towering rocks, the gentle waves just helping us glide through Cormorant Corner, as it’s known for its flock of elegant black birds preening and posing on the sharp slate-grey cliffs.

And then we were round the back. Burgh Island has always been on my bucket list as a place to circumnavigate. I’d done it once before by paddleboard but never actually in the water.

Inside the cave at the back of Burgh Island
(Image: Rachel Meir)

There’s a cave at the back that you’d never spot on a paddleboard or boat, hidden in cliffs. We swum into it as a group, half a dozen of us comfortably inside the rocks at the same time, floating in the water or sitting just above on the rocks, hidden away and smirking like naughty teenagers on a school trip.

And then we were on the home straight. Round the next corner of the island, the busy beaches of Bigbury and Bantham stretched out before us, distant shrieks of children hopping about in the shallows and building sandcastles.

A stone wall came into view at the side of the island and we swum to investigate, peering over into the exclusive sea water lido of the Burgh Island Hotel where a handful of swimmers actually wearing the kind of bathing suits and rubber hats you’d expect to see in the 1950s, like they were the standard issue of a hotel trapped in a time warp, floated around.

The imposing Burgh Island Hotel

The final stretch was a straight swim into shore and a chance to reflect on our magical island adventure.

By the time I stepped onto the sand I felt like I was still floating – all the worries and stresses of the world washed away by a 1.5km swim.

If not a life-changing experience, this was certainly a life-affirming, unforgettable hour that should be on any swimmer’s bucket list, finished with coffee and cake in our cosy dryrobes at the fabulous Bigbury Community Cafe.

Jacqui Merrington and Rachel Meir in their Dry Robes after their Burgh Island swim-venture

The Coast To Coast Water Safety Bigbury Island Swim-venture costs £30 and can be arranged as a group to suit your timings or individuals can join one of their organised adventures.

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