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  • Barbara Nicolson-Martin

Are you a mad swimmer?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

The sea temperature today at Combe Martin is 8°C – let’s swim!

Are you a mad swimmer?

On most days of the year, if you go to Combe Martin beach, especially at high tide, you will find a group of us ladies cavorting in the sea. Most mornings, in fact, I awake to the sound of my phone pinging me a WhatsApp message, “Is anyone swimming today?” And it’s so hard to resist the call. We are a hardy swimming group in Combe Martin, known as the Devon Belles, and we love to swim all year round. Yes, even when the sea temperature is 8°C! It’s addictive. And we Devon Belles love it. There is a real sense of community in our group – how can there not be? You can nearly always find another mad person who wants to swim. Whenever the sun shines, even on cold days, my phone goes crazy with requests to swim. The hardiest swimmers, however, do not need the sun – they just need to swim. And I’m very lucky as I live in Combe Martin, and I can throw my stuff in a bag and be in the sea within 10 minutes.

In recent years, open-water swimming – or cold-water swimming or wild swimming, call it what you may – has become very popular all over the country. There are a whole raft of books detailing places to swim in lakes, rivers or the sea. And in fact many people now even have barrels in their gardens where they can dip their bodies into cold water in the open air; I think we can thank Wim Hof for that!

For me and many others, Combe Martin bay is the ideal place to swim for so many reasons. It’s easy to access the beach, and if you’re visiting there is a really convenient, reasonably priced car park. In the winter, the car park is vital, as we can swim in the cold, get dressed and warm, and be back home in minutes. We have lovely clean water and the beach slopes very gently, so there are no surprises as you enter the water. Along the central part of the beach, there are no rocks to crash into or stub your toe on.

The sea is different every day. Sometimes it’s flat and shimmers, sometimes there are small waves, and sometimes there are huge waves and it’s not a good idea to go in. At low tide, there is a lovely expanse of sand beyond the ‘weir’ and the water is shallow and beautiful. At high tide, the sea is high up the beach, and you can quickly be in water deep enough to swim in. There’s a webcam, so you can see what the sea is doing at any particular moment:

If you want to start open-water swimming, it’s a good idea to begin by swimming in the summer when it’s a little warmer and then continue on into the autumn and winter. If you swim often in the sea, your body does acclimatise, and you can stay in comfortably. It’s often advised that you should only stay in for 1 minute for every degree of temperature, so 8°C equals 8 minutes in the water. However, you can get the same exhilaration from just going in and splashing around for 2 minutes. When you first get into the water, it’s best to get in slowly, as diving in to cold water headfirst can cause problems. Go slowly. There’s no rush. Just enjoy the feeling. And if you’re a beginner, stay close to the shore and within your depth.

When you get out, be aware of the phenomenon called ‘after-drop’. Your body will continue to cool down for at least 10 minutes after you’ve left the water, so it’s vital to not hang around, get changed into warm clothes and have a hot drink. Lots of us take a hot water bottle to warm us up too! The ‘after-drop’ also means you should get out of the water before you start feeling cold – it can be hard to do this if you’re enjoying the feeling, but remember those 10 minutes of continued cooling. You can find lots of advice on the precautions you should take on

What do you need?

Before and after swimming, we mostly wear dry robes, which are lovely and warm and keep the wind off you. In the water, some people wear a wetsuit, some a thermal vest and some just a regular swimming costume. It’s up to you! We all wear something, though; it’s a public beach and we don’t want anyone to be offended or frightened away. Most people take the precaution of wearing a tow float. You may have noticed them if you’ve been by the sea. The brightly coloured tow float attaches to your body and floats along behind you. You can hold onto it for a little rest, and it makes you visible in the sea to other users. The other great thing is that you can get one with a dry bag on to keep your snacks and phone in. Which means you can swim over to a rock and have a picnic! I always wear wetsuit gloves and boots to keep me cosy.

Undoubtedly, one of the best things about swimming with a group is the chat and laughter afterwards … and the eating of cake. In the summer, all I need is a costume, a towel, some beach shoes and something to sit on. And a truly special experience is to swim in the evening, then have fish and chips on the beach as the sun goes down.

Combe Martin is an ideal place to start your sea-swimming adventures, and it’s great for experienced swimmers too. At high tide, we might swim to the buoy in the middle of the bay, around 100 metres, or to the post on the weir, around 200 metres, or even further out to ‘Cheesy Rock’ and the ‘Camel’s Eye’. As the North Devon coast has the second highest tide in the world, however, at low tide things look very different.

Swim with others

We like to make sure we swim with at least one other person or that there is someone on the beach keeping an eye out for us. It’s vital to know what the tide is doing and to understand what that means for your swim. If you swim out when the tide is going out, it can all feel so easy. Then you turn round to come back in and immediately notice how much more effort is needed. That’s why you need to be careful to swim within your ability. The hour before and after high and low tide is called slack tide, when there is less water moving about, so that’s a good time to swim. Of course, you can always just swim close in parallel to the shore within your depth ... there are so many choices!

If you like to swim, it really is worth trying year-round swimming. The feeling of gently swimming along in the Big Blue at Combe Martin surrounded by the beauty of the cliffs, rocks and natural landscape, the open sky above you, is addictive, exhilarating, exciting and adventurous. Whatever your swimming level, you can enjoy that feeling. So, if you’re visiting Combe Martin, whatever time of year it might be, give it a go. Dip your toes in, have a paddle, maybe break into a swim. You won’t regret it. It really is such fun, and you are guaranteed to laugh and feel alive!

Barbara Nicolson-Martin

Pictures show a Christmas Day swim.

Check this out for more information on cold water swimming.


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