Benacre Broad – a double spring swim
“I had come down the path along the disintegrated cliffs from the magnificent ruined church at Covehithe. Each year, the path moves further inland across the fields because great hunks of England keep falling away in the winter storms.”
A hazy spring sun hangs out to sea as we pull up by the ruins of Covehithe church. A coastal breeze is whipping up the sunken road, where a sign warns us ‘No Access To The Beach’. Today’s mission is a dual swim, in the sheltered salty lagoon of Benacre Broad, before following in Roger’s footsteps and hopping into the swell of the North Sea. I’m joined by Yanny, whose amazing guidance on my Waveney swim last autumn has been a highlight of my trips so far. With him is his lovely wife Suz and my good friend, the writer Molly Naylor.
Much has changed here since Waterlog was written. The cliffs continue to edge ever closer to the marvellous church, the path Roger walked to Benacre now shifting sand under the heavy longshore drift. Nonetheless, we stride past the no access signs and branch off across the same rolling field Roger would have traversed (albeit now significantly smaller) towards a small wood, from which opens out the vast expanse of Benacre Broad.
Across a heavy wooden gate, the broad appears calm, the sea roiling to our right. The still waters of the salt lagoon are covered in migrating birds: bitterns, terns and plovers arriving to nest and rear their young. When Roger swam here, Benacre Broad was a freshwater oasis. Now the sea’s salt has begun to seep in, beginning the slow process which will eventually see this glorious reserve become part of the muddy ocean.
After exploring the empty hide overlooking Benacre, it becomes clear that our mission to swim in the broad is to be thwarted. Two fences, one electrified, are strung tautly along the beach, protecting the burgeoning ground nests. Rather than take the risk of an electric shock or unwittingly terrifying some of Britain’s rarest birds, we decide to head for the sea instead. I won’t be repeating Roger’s 30 yard yomp across the beach, contrasting the warm siltiness of one body of water, with the chill, churning effects of another.
Quickly stripping off, wetsuit remaining buried in my rucksack, Molly and I make tentative moves towards the crashing waves. The first water to hit my feet immediately numbs my toes. We stride on. By now, the beach has shelved and the current is lulling me towards the depths. One more step and we both take the plunge.
Gasping for air, I push forward with an attempt at strong breaststroke which is probably more akin to the doggy paddle that was my stock in trade until I was about 21. Fully numb, I roll onto my back and take in the enormity of the sky. Nowhere in the UK has skies like the Norfolk coast, all endless hazy blues and stratus clouds. I can tell as I attempt a few more strokes that today’s swim will be brief. But as I turn to Molly and announce my exit, I’m overwhelmed by how good doing this makes me feel. Without the wetsuit, I feel more alive, more in touch with what’s going on around me.
Staggering up the sand and towards a hot flask of coffee, my body doesn’t descend into its usual post-swim shivers. Instead, I’m overtaken by a warm glow. Rubbing myself dry and getting dressed, sand in my jeans and in the far corners of my socks, I’m reminded why wild swimming is my favourite thing in the world.
Roger would doubtless still recognise this place, despite all the changes. The skeletal trees he mentions on his August swim here are still in evidence, weathered remnants of another time. The same empty skies and the birds swooping to land overhead too. We walk back slowly to Covehithe church and I think of how this landscape is always changing, but always staying the same.