Dungeness – channel swimming

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“Thirty feet below the raised beach, down a steep bank of pebbles, this stretch of the English channel looked calm but a long way off, like water at the bottom of a well. I clattered down several tiers of stones and, quite alone in the mist, dived out into deep water.”

My Medway failure was frustrating and has left me desperate to make the most of the last of the summer’s good weather before the days of early gloaming, wetsuits and cold hands came on in a flash. So now, one week on, Joe, Tom, James and I find ourselves on the high speed train out of St Pancras, hurtling over that same industrial river once again, but this time to more alluring waters.

Dungeness is calling. This desert hinterland has been uppermost in my thoughts ever since I began retracing Waterlog two years ago. It’s close enough for a day trip from my south London home, but not particularly enticing for a solo venture. But thanks to coinciding days off and a desperation to escape the clamminess of the city in August, the four of us disembark at Rye and make for the bike hire shop.

Our steeds are somewhat rickety: A clunky pedal here, an errant chain there. Still, having sat out an almighty downpour outside the town’s deli while loading up our lunch supplies, we make our way out towards Camber Sands and the barren lands beyond.

The gravel path is covered in deep, muddy puddles. Soon my legs are caked in splashes, the lack of a mud guard leaving a dirty wet streak up the rear of my backpack. Brambles need to be ducked and thistles avoided as we dip and turn through sharp corners, starlings scattering from bushes as we shout back and forth to each other. Cutting through Camber (where we’ll swim later), we take the path to Lydd, followed by rabbits as we go, pushed on by a stiff breeze at our backs.

The final ride down to Dungeness is brutal. Flat it might be, but this empty space is buffeted by strong winds which make cycling a near impossibility. When we pull up at The Pilot pub, I lean my bike against the railings in relief, raising a weary hand to passengers on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway as it steams past on its miniature tracks.

All present and correct, bikes bolted to a road sign, we make for the distant shore. There’s no mist today, just a sense of time standing still in this strange little corner of England. Couples munch on sandwiches in their cars and watch as we stride over the pebbles. Pubs and shops appear stuck in a happy 1980s time warp that will forever be my childhood. There are fences around gardens though, a change I’m sure would disappoint Roger no end. This is not supposed to be a proprietorial place.

At the water’s edge, we settle on a spot and begin to peel off our sweaty cycling clothes. This is done under the watchful gaze of a huge family, who seem to have followed us from the car park and look on as if we’re zoo animals about to perform tricks. There are dark warnings from parents to children about the dangers of undercurrents, spoken loudly for our benefit. We ignore them and stride in.

The churned up brown channel doesn’t look particularly inviting, but once under its hefty pull it feels heavenly. I was loath to believe Roger’s claim that this was ‘some of the purest bathing to be had anywhere on the south coast’. The water at Mothecombe and the Erme was surely better. But a summer of being warmed has made it fresh and joyous. I even manage to forget the distant hulk of Dungeness B in the distance.

I swim out and let myself be pushed back in by the powerful rollers, as Joe practices his butterfly stroke, Tom firing off snaps on the waterproof camera and James carefully leaving his sandals on the shingly shoreline before ducking in. All thoughts of the long ride back to Camber have been banished as the sun blazes off the last of the cloud and we settle down to a well–earned lunch of pork pies and a handy bottle of red, secretly stashed in James’s bag.

A single fishing boat lurches back to shore as we finish up. There is no sign of industry on this western–facing stretch of Dungeness. Time may have stood still, but the nature of this place has changed. We pack our bags, eye up signs for locally caught fish, but I can’t help think that only a few boats must still ply these waters, traditional methods disappearing with them. We unlock our bikes and turn them towards our next, distant swim.

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