River Erme estuary – dream swimming

“…the estuary was all too real and none too warm, as I swam across it on the rising tide two days later…I had crossed to the centre of the wide bay from Coastguard’s Beach. A little group of surfers clustered waist deep, waiting for the big grey rollers that surged out of the open sea, breaking on a sand bar.”

The sun is up as Tom cautiously steers his Jag down the single–track lanes of South Devon. Out of Yealmpton, the high hedges and dirt–streaked roads make for slow going as we drive towards Mothecombe and a date with the River Erme estuary.

After three swims across Dartmoor, today promises different, dreamy, coastal dips. As we bump over the sloping field which doubles for a car park, handing over £4 for the privilege of leaving the motor for the day, we get our first view of the Erme.

In all honesty, I’d thought Roger’s poetic description of this place as an ‘English rainforest’ and a ‘tropical scene’ might have built this stretch of water up a tad too much. I was wrong to doubt him. Spectacular, azure and aquamarine waters stretch from the raging river mouth back into a narrow, hilly scene which I immediately fall deeply in love with.

Practically racing downhill to the Coastguard’s Beach, we emerge onto the massive empty sands. The tide is beginning to rise, but is distant enough that we can easily walk across to the small sweep of the River Erme in the distance.

Rather than throwing ourselves into the waves, we decide to wander further inland. We pass Roger’s limekilns, where he beached himself after his wild ride with the surfers, and instead nestle ourselves into the dunes on the east side of the river at Boult Hill Plantation.

Keeley heads off to get changed in a convenient cave as Tom, Joe and I wrestle ourselves into still damp neoprene shoes, all the better for wading through the sea lettuce which slicks the rocks.

I immediately feel the tide’s pull as I lead the group into the Erme. It’s barely knee deep, fine for wading but no good yet for a swim. I wonder whether we’d have been better off getting in the saltier waters further out to sea as my boots slurp out of the shallows onto the far bank. I reenter by some moored boats and find the water deep enough for more than a just a paddle.

Refreshing is how I describe it to the others as they look on skeptically. But soon I’m well out of my depth, with a small beach under the trees just a few feet away. I’m joined by the rest of the gang and we head off further upstream. I feel impossibly far away from everything. The Erme is even more remote than the Sherberton Stream on Dartmoor. With only narrow roads to reach it, you either need patience to come or already know about its magical atmosphere.

I sit on the beach for a while and simply stare at the water. Its deep blue colour is so different to the clear, brown–hued water of the West Dart it’s hard to fathom. This is surely what Roger talks about when he calls the Erme ‘dream swimming’. It’s ethereal and only the onset of the shivers stops me from loitering longer.

Dried and changed, we begin the walk back and on to Mothecombe beach. The tide has come in fast and all of a sudden we’re joined by dozens of locals, dog walkers and surfers as they emerge from the woods in fear of being stranded for the rest of the day. There’s a chirpy atmosphere as a greyhound sniffs a labrador’s rear end, kids jostle towards the car park and birds sing at ear–splitting volume. Roger would doubtless be as overjoyed as us after one of the best swims yet on this Waterlog journey.

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