Last summer I made a promise to myself: I, after many years of paddling at the edges, would swim in the sea. Growing up in South Devon, swimming in the sea (apart from at Teignmouth – my dad worked for the water board and knew all about the sewage outflow up and down the coast – nothing like the way it is today) was something I did a lot when I was younger. The beach was only ever half an hour away and my mum often used to decide, during that 3 o’clock lull when everyone had run out of ideas and were knocking around the house bored and starting to bicker, to take us there for an hour or so to play.
When we got older, we ventured further afield. Dawlish Warren, with its unchanged straggle of tatty booths and arcades and floor-level rusty trampolines was cast aside in favour of Exmouth – a bit more of a trek but apparently more desirable in terms of the posing possibilities presented by a long, beach-side road along which the town’s youth would drive, windows down and new-romantics blaring, despite the tide, which would drag you half way along the coast before you knew what was happening.
Before last year, I can’t quite remember the last time I swam in the sea or why I got out of the habit. It could be because all the times I have been to the beach in the last eighteen years I have been accompanied by my children, and the paraphernalia (and need to sit guarding said paraphernalia) that taking the kids to the seaside entails. Instead of frolicking in the ocean blue, I have been the one to hold hands, hold towels, pour children in and out of wetsuits and brush sandy toes, in between judging sandcastle competitions and attempting to calm an increasingly paranoid husband that he is not burning and neither is he about to pass out with the heat.
Then of course, there is the logistical challenge of getting changed in order to take the plunge when one is a fully-fledged adult. No longer do bath towels cover a person up in the way that they did during childhood. Running around in towelling underpants and a pair of flip flops is…well, let’s just say that the advent of child-bearing has brought upon me untold swathes of body consciousness that bear no relation to those flashes of awareness from my teenage years. I’ve got at least three swimming costumes and a sarong sitting upstairs in my chest of drawers, but most of the time all that preparation, all that decision making (get changed before and go in the cozzie, or after and struggle to get non-sandy pants on) all that breathing in seems like too much effort.
For years I have dabbled at the edges and, once I’ve got my toes in the water, chickened out. I don’t know about you, but the sea, the sea that laps the coast of South Devon anyway, is an awful lot colder in reality than it looks. Maybe it’s the contrast to the sweat-sticky beach, maybe it’s the fact that it is, actually, really, really cold, maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age; whatever is, for years I have been content to stay in the shallows, nothing higher than my shin getting wet (unlike my parents, both of whom separately accompanied my children to the waters’ edge and came back soaked from head to toe), the challenge simply being to be there and get back in one piece. But last year, tired of being the bystander, the carrier of bags and general dogsbody and enabler of other people’s fun, I decided, come what may, to take a swim in the sea.
So I did. Despite the jellyfish (you wouldn’t think it once you were in it, but the water temperatures were higher last year and with them came more jellyfish than a girl could shake a stick at) and the boats coming in and out, depositing children and cricket sets onto the sand, despite the wind and the crowds, to the encouragement of the wet-suited lady who warned me not to get stung and the squealing excitement not only of my own children but their friends who came and joined me, I did it; I swam in the sea. It was freezing and funny, joyous and shocking, scary and empowering: it was good.
And, having achieved the thing that I set out to do, I felt good.