Letter from Aberystwyth
Thoughts on swimming in the sea are as infinite as the droplets of salt water in the oceans of the world, coming and going as eternally as the waves. The sea eternally gifts us its stories and treasures.
Aberystwyth’s shore is divided into two beaches by the long pier.
The North Beach and the South Beach are both crescent-shaped, but apart from that they are very different, and I have always wanted to ask a geologist how it comes that the shingles on each of the beaches are so different from the other when in fact they make out the same piece of land.
The North Beach is covered with a carpet of small multi-coloured rocks on a bed of dark gravel. On the South Beach you walk on flat blue-grey stones which cover a biscuit-coloured sand bed. It is as if the Irish Sea would intentionally deliver different shingles to each one of them.
I’ve heard about groups who meet here to swim together year-around. My neighbour, a champion swimmer, keeps urging me to join the Red Lobsters, an unofficial group of women who meet early every morning for a quick chill before work.
Better known are the Bluetits Chill Swimmers, a group initiated by Sian Richardson in 2014. Skilled in triathlon, marathon, ultramarathon and more, she decided to advance to cold water swimming as well.
The people in Aberystwyth, who are always keeping watch for mermaids and mermen, heard her squealing and whooping so loudly that some decided to join her.
Point of view
I still swim on my own. To me, swimming in the sea is like writing, like when I begin something new and my head holds a mass of chaos from which I must extract what I have to say.
Without squealing and whooping, I first dip my feet into the icy water until it reaches my waist, until there’s either diving in or giving up. But you cannot give up when half of the effort is done.
Whereas writing requires you to remain glued to your seat and focus, swimming requires you keep moving and focus. I swim to observe my thoughts. I observe the chaos. Thoughts rush down like a waterfall.
I stand sheltered behind the imagined waterfall, so the thoughts don’t fall on me. Then ideas take shape and I can choose and memorise them for later. As with the craft of writing, one can shift the point of view when swimming in the sea.
The natural world shows how possessed we are by our human point of view and why fables are so popular in every culture.
When I watch a heron standing there with its wings open wide in the sun, I wonder whether it is troubled by the wind tousling its feathers. They seem to be boasting when they dive for more than a minute and resurface with a big fish in the beak.
Dolphins are believed to be friendly because to us they seem to be always smiling. But they occasionally attack swimmers in wetsuits who represent rivals stealing their food. That is their point of view. The wetsuit makes the human body shine like that of a whale.
Maybe it’s because of the waterfall of thoughts that I prefer to swim along the South Beach. It is quieter there, and secluded, yet every sight in any direction is an inspiration. I have a view of the harbour on the left and the pier on the right.
The winged Goddess of Victory, known as the War Memorial, stands high above the beach next to the castle ruin. Behind that there are a few pyramidal green hills, and upon one of them is Pen Dinas, an Iron Age Celtic hillfort, and on it a column with no monument.
The monument, built in the 1850s, carries the name of Wellington, but his statue was never installed. Visitors to the area are likely to wonder why.
Wales is full of mysteries, which remain unsolved to remain mysteries. I never tried to find out why the Wellington Monument is without Wellington’s statue. I just thought that a monument with no statue on it feels just right, especially when it is situated upon an Iron Age Celtic hillfort.
It can be dangerous to swim at the South Beach if you are a bad swimmer like me. When the tide is high the waves turn into swells, and it has happened that I suddenly had no ground under my feet and had underestimated the power of such swells.
This is how I understood that swimming in the sea bears an element of suicide. Not in a sense of intentional self-harm, but as an awareness of danger to one’s life.
Climbers of high mountains are surely not tired of life. Quite the opposite, I would say. They are hungry for life and they must be enjoying every second between life and death when they reach for the highest summits.
It is the same with the brave swimmers I meet here in Aberystwyth. They swim in the distance and they swim long distances. They swim for miles sometimes. Together with others, so that they can guard each other in case something happens.
I stay close to the beach and need to have ground under my feet.
So, when the waves are high, I swim at the North Beach.
There is much going on during the day. There is the promenade lined with pastel-coloured Victorian and Edwardian houses, and there are restaurants and pubs. The life guard is there most of the time.
At the northern end of this beach, the Constitution Hill rises from the sea like a giant. It’s summit offers a view on twenty-six mountain peaks and much of Wales.
I swim here early mornings, when it is quiet and I can enjoy the horizon while following my thoughts. The scene is never the same.
Sometimes I am surrounded by a group of sea gulls and their juniors rocking on the surface of the water. They look like little boats. Sometimes there are a few herons fishing around me.
It is a particular pleasure to be in the sea on rainy days.
It’s not wise to swim in ferocious waters, but it’s fun to kick at the waves or to sit there at the shore’s line and let them punch at you. And the water is quite warm from its own movement. Showers of rain make flying herons and gulls look like abstract lines in the air.
I once saw the trunk of a massive rainbow upon the horizon, the rest of it was hidden in fog.
I was the only person on the beach and thought about what we miss when we don’t leave our home on such days.
We have created gods according to our own image and a human upon seashore is a soaked goddess perching on a slab of rock, unmoved by the chill of strong winds.
The pleasure of cold water has something divine. When you are up for the challenge, you must remember that our ancestors were as resistant to the cold shock as other animals.
However, swimming in the sea bears a peril which you might run into unknowingly if you are too deluded by the mystery and majesty of the vast dazzling blue: a dilution of raw sewage discharged into Britain’s waterways by water companies.
And the more so on rainy days, when their cesspools overflow.
Instead of mermaids and mermen, I then imagine water monsters who may appear and grant me a wish.
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