Bamburgh beach – swimming out to sea

“I was on my way south from Edinburgh along the Northumbrian coast, where I came to the sands of Bamburgh beach, once trodden by the early Celtic Christians from Iona. In a flat calm sea I took a long, cold–water swim straight out towards the Farne Islands, almost hidden in the lead grey mist.”

Keeley and I each suck on an extra strong mint proffered by the taxi driver as the car pulls round the corner and Bamburgh Castle looms into view. It’s a blustery August morning, the sun up as we pay our fare, the minty–fresh cabbie dropping us at the edge of what must surely rank as one of the most picturesque cricket pitches in the country, its baize expanse spreading inland from the castle’s thick lower walls.

Today though, no–one’s turning their arm or loading up on homemade cakes in the clubhouse. The only action extends to a pick up truck being loaded with a collapsed marquee. We walk around the outfield, the castle to our right, and out onto the dunes of Bamburgh beach.

Like Roger, we’ve also come south from Edinburgh, taking a break from the thrum of the fringe to tick off another Waterlog dip. And like my predecessor, I’ve come to Northumberland following a failed Jura swim. His came immediately prior to his misty soaking on this wide, sandy stretch, having understandably baulked at the seething energy of the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Mine, almost a year ago, after being unable to wade into as much as a lochan for fear of soaking the plaster cast on my then broken wrist.

As we come through the last of the marram grass, a huge gust hits us. The beach is full of walkers, dogs scuttling into the shallows and darting back, while surfers practice close to shore. A young boy wades knee deep, his parents watching on with an understandable mixture of anxiety and awe.

Today the North Sea is anything but flat and calm. It is a roaring, uneven mess of high white breakers, causing us to shout above the din. We’re both already kitted out in our bathers, but Keeley (perhaps wisely) decides she’s going to stay dry. I drop my bag by the dunes, pull on my neoprene boots and run as fast as I can to the water.

It’s immediately clear that I stand no chance of a ‘long, cold–water swim’ like Roger. The waves are huge and I’m the only person in the water now without a wetsuit and a board. A windsurfer’s sail cuts high into the sky as wave after wave smashes through me. I begin to jump, before finally working up the courage to fall underneath one. I swim out to meet the next. And the next.

The only thing to suggest the Farne Islands is close by is the occasional glimpse of the lighthouse above the curling white lips of the rollers. I long to be able to swim out towards them, to get a last glimpse of the renowned birdlife as it finishes its long summer of breeding there. Instead, I content myself with playing in the increasingly vicious waves. It’s a more strenuous workout than my paddle in the shallows at Camber Sands last week.

Elated, I wade back through the foamy, fizzing sea, Keeley flapping my towel at the back of the beach. As I run towards that starchy blue flag, a walker approaches me, his jacket buttoned right up against the increasingly stiff wind. ‘Well done you brave man,’ he says. I can only offer a laugh in reply. The water, as ever, has done strange and wonderful things to my basic cognitive abilities.

After drying off, Keeley and I walk through the churchyard of St Aidan’s in the village, the water a distant, deep blue past the gravestones. There are reminders everywhere of the power of these seas. The tombs of men lost. The memorial to local heroine, Grace Darling, who saved the lives of nine seamen before succumbing to TB, her body rendered immortal in stone effigy. Pied wagtails pick through freshly cut grass as house martins, wings outstretched, hardly move against the wind. The weather may have been very different to Roger’s trip to this holy corner of England, but there’s unquestionably the same feeling that it is all ‘absurdly magnificent and sad’.

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