Chilly dip at the seafront with Bray’s year-round swimmers
DAVID MEDCALF SET OFF FOR THE BEACH IN BRAY WITH HIS TOWEL AND TRUNKS TO TAKE A BIT OF BRACING EXERCISE WITH THE WOMEN WHO ENJOY A SWIM EVERY MORNING, COME RAIN OR SHINE
THERE is cold. And there is very cold. And then there is omigod, that’s really freezing, get me out of here before my heart seizes up! That was the reaction of your reporter when he joined the ladies who launch themselves into the waves each morning in Bray.
Surely people in their right minds do no submit themselves to the perishing winter waters of the Irish Sea on a daily basis?
Oh, yes they do. Just turn up any morning at the north end of the seafront close to the boulders of the breakwater to witness them in action. And, if you do arrive there some day, then please consider bringing your swimsuit, because they will be glad to induct new members into their ranks.
Just be sure to have nice big fluffy towel so that you may dry off as quickly as possible after submersion in the heaving grey tide flecked with seaweed. At this time of year, it really is omigod cold and not for the faint hearted, though some days the water is probably warmer than the air…
The sound of the sea is inescapable all along the seafront, of course, as the waves rattle the stones of the strand even in the calmest of weather.
Most folk who come here for recreation prefer to stay dry, safe above the tide mark, as they walk the dog, go for a jog or simply take a stroll.
Those who choose to strip and dip are a minority but, though few in number, they are relentless believers in the health giving benefits of such exercise.
The women in action the morning that the pictures on this page were taken are all mature enough to know their own minds.
Their friends may well view their behaviour in this regard as slightly eccentric but they come across as entirely sane people in love with life.
And they are unanimous that sea bathing, even for just a minute or two, is a real tonic for the body and for the mind whether or not there is a brrr in the month.
Reporting on such an occasion is difficult, if only because there really is nowhere handy to store a notebook securely in a pair of Speedos.
It is also inevitable that shivering fingers will experience difficulty grasping a pencil after turning ghostly yellow in the cold and wet.
Just who said exactly what to the visitor has almost certainly been muddled on account of the poor working conditions experienced by your journalist.
Nevertheless, he wishes it to be known that, no matter how cold the water, no matter how painful the stones he had to walk across, no matter how cutting the south east breeze, the warmth of the reception he was given dispelled the chill.
The swimmers are drawn to a tiny red and yellow hut, more like an off-cut from a lorry container, than an actual building. It sits on its concrete base amidst desert of stones, at least 20 metres from the high tides mark.
For most of the swimmers, those 20 metres are a more testing challenge than the water, no matter how low the temperature or miserable the weather.
They learn quickly to ease the pain of the walk from hut to sea with slippers as they find that the choice of shoe is much more important than picking the right togs. Jewellery is optional.
‘Mind the dog poo,’ is the advice to the visitor. The swimmers perform an occasional clean-up of the litter that accumulates at this less fashionable section of Bray’s great lateral seaside park. They are quietly proud of their dedication to the cause and firmly convinced that swimming is good for body and mind.
Margaret: ‘It gives you energy for the rest of the day.’ She has respect for the power of the sea: ‘Most of the time it is lovely here but it changes by the minute.’ These free-spirited individuals are not given to laying down the law but one rule is strictly observed: no one goes into the sea alone. There is always someone around to raise the alarm or come to the rescue – just in case.
Annette: ‘How long we stay in depends on people’s constitution.’ Clearly it does not count as a swim unless you duck your head under the surface and perform a stroke or two. Some are quick dippers happy to wade in, splash around briefly and then head back dripping to the shore. Others are determined to take some genuine exercise and head breastroking off in the general direction of Bray Head. The trick is to swim parallel to the shore, without taking the risk of being swept out in the general direction of the Isle of Man by tricky currents. The exercise is abandoned completely during storms but today the swell is gentle. The attendance at 11 a.m. is shy of double figures. They report that they were able to work up a good appetite for the turkey on Christmas Day but New Year’s was a gale racked washout. They reckon the ritual is observed around 300 days out of the 365. The numbers showing up rise at weekends when younger enthusiasts are free to turn out because they are not at work. There is a national long distance swimming organisation but the Wednesday ladies all stress that they are an informal group not given to joining groups. Nevertheless, they and their male counterparts have been known to club together and raise funds for good causes such as Purple House cancer support.
In summer, they may hang around beside their hut and have a picnic, sitting on the stones to enjoy a chat but at this time of year, the comforts and hot beverages of a café on the Quinsborough Road are too alluring to ignore.
Audrey: ‘We are not here for lack of swimming pools in Bray.’ The town boasts two perfectly good swimming pools, the Royal and the Shoreline, but they do not make the outdoor ritual redundant: ‘ This is a totally different experience. You just feel a million dollars afterwards.’
Afterwards. Afterwards is the key word. After the swim, the skin glows and the air tastes like champagne and the whole body glows. Afterwards.
Audrey Collins is the main mover behind the outdoor swim and believes that the glow extends beyond the psychological to a series of health benefits, lowering blood pressure and toning up the skin, not to mention dealing with the symptoms of the common cold.
‘It is always cold getting in but warm coming out,’ she says – and it is true. She insists
that such exercise releases endorphins which combat depression: ‘If you have any worries, the swim drives them away.’ She also points out that seawater contains iodine which is good for the thyroid and all manner vital minerals.
She certainly seems to have taken the benefit. Audrey is 62 years of age and reveals that she has been swimming since she was four. She was just one among a generation who learnt their strokes from Peggy Steele at the other end of the seafront at the now derelict Cove pool.
HALF a century later, she is now a properly qualified lifeguard. Audrey looks back at days when, for six old pence, you could spend a summer’s day at the Cove lapping up the sunshine and playing with friends. She left Bray to study in Limerick but, when she returned, she was often tempted back into the open sea which is the town’s great natural resource.
It was around four years ago that she called a friend to join her for a morning splash around which became a regular occurrence. It turned out that they were not alone in their enthusiasm and the idea of the daily dip has snowballed since.
Audrey Collins has been a fierce campaigner for changing facilities to encourage the pastime, ever since the day she came out of the water to find that her knickers had been washed away. She learned her way around the relevant local council offices and introduced herself to the elected representatives.
‘ They all know me. I pestered everyone – it was a matter of stalking them.’ The lobbying has not ended with the provision of the hut, for which they are very grateful. The swimmers now want a second hut and a public toilet. Showers would be nice too, they all agree.
They are part of an impressive local swimming tradition which has produced some serious athletes. Former Olympian Gary O’Toole is from Bray, as is water polo champion. They are also part of an outdoor movement which extends to other towns and harbours along the Wicklow coast.
Back on dry, or at least dry-ish, land the women pile into the hut and the noise level goes up as everyone enjoys a good natter.
Margaret: ‘ The Forty Foot in Dun Laoghaire is beautiful but I found I was swimming on my own there. It’s the camaraderie here that appeals and you feel warm for the rest of the day. It is very good for the circulation.’
Fiona: ‘I go for the swim and not just the dip. You need to go every day.’
Anne: ‘I have been swimming in the sea for thirty years – it’s the energy you feel coming out.’
Annette: ‘It is invigorating and exhilarating.’
RIGHT: David Medcalf with Margaret, Fiona, Ailish, Audrey, Annette and Anne. BELOW: Audrey Collins.
Ailish makes her way out of the water.