The long May bank holiday weekend (2010)just gone was the perfect opportunity for me to have a little adventure. Firstly I wanted to make the most of the van, secondly to get some good swims in and lastly just to be at one with my inner gypsy. So that’s what I did...
Packing the van and hitting the road (Jack) straight after work I knew my first target was Dover as Saturday (1st May) would be the first day of the Channel swimming season. I was lucky enough to take in spectacular views from the M40, M25, M26 and M20 all the way down (I felt like I should have been eating M&Ms). I was at least lucky enough to have a Billy Connolly comedy CD and arrived in Dover literally crying with laughter. I parked up on top of the white cliffs not far from the castle, a pretty impressive site. I joined a couple other vans which had similar ideas and spent the remainder of the evening supping beers with two guys; one with an impressive beard and hodgepodge converted ambulance and the second, clean shaven in a monstrous floodlight heavy beast which had seen him across the Dakar rally previously. As a newbie it was certainly an interesting gang for the evening. I retired fairly early to the back of my wagon following a fry up and beer. Not a bad way to end the working week and I was far away enough to genuinely feel I was on adventure.
I managed a few chapters of ‘The Great Swim’ by Gavin Mortimer, a book I’ve read before but a great source of information and my original inspiration for considering the epic Channel swim challenge. It was excellent timing as I went to bed glad to have come up with a name for the van....Millie. This is after Mille Gade who was the second woman to swim the Channel. Why not the first (Gertrude Ederle)? Well, because unlike Ederle and Lillian Cannon (the two sponsored favourites), Gade and another lady called Clarabelle Barrett, attempted the Channel on the cheap, staying in Dover (not the more popular French coast at Cape Gris-Nez), training hard without the ‘best’ coaches and generally just getting on with it quietly. She wasn’t the pin up girl but an aging mother of two. Not one for the publicity and marketing she was there to get the job done and I think she represents perfectly that you don’t have to be the first or the fastest as long as you test yourself at least once, that’s all that really matters. For her grit and determination and underdog type expectation she is proudly the inspiration for Millie. Anyway, I digress; it had been a good start.
Saturday saw me start the day completely penniless as my student overdraft was cut in half unknowingly I was left unable to buy any petrol or indeed pay for the car park by the sea to even go swimming. Luckily a delightful receptionist in the Premier Inn lent me a quid and I will be forever grateful. Within minutes I was down to trunks. The 1st of May sees the start to Channel swimming and there was an impressive turnout to begin tackling the harbour. I was an unofficial attendee alongside many beginning their official training for attempts this year. I was there with some other Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) members, a good bunch who also just enjoy being out of the repetitive pool and in the real watery world.
The water was a chilly 9˚C and I entered slowly, fearful of brain freeze. I couldn’t don the wetsuit as no one else had! The trunks protected all they needed to and I swam about a width of the harbour. Loved it! I came out very blue and shivering considerably, although not as bad as some, luckily I had trusty Millie nearby complete with double duvet, heater and kettle. You could call me a wimp but I’d say well prepared, plus I’m too poor to put on a significant amount of weight at the moment so for now I’ll stick with the extra blanket. Very gratefully, after surfacing from bed for the second time that day and some speedy internet banking from my mum (on her birthday...oops) I was solvent enough to carry on tramping.
I spent the rest of the day toe-to-toe with the sea cruising along the south coast after a great trek along the white cliffs with some backpacking Americans. It was most definitely an awesome Saturday and ended rolling back into Oxford for Sunday times with the Tinker clan.
As I’ve alluded to I’d asked my mum for money on her birthday so you could say I owed her. We had a day around the museums of Oxford and looking a shrunken heads, dinosaur bones and numerous pots from around the world is certainly one way to encourage the sense for exploration.
I had been fed and watered again and Monday morning rolled on with another exciting swim to get up early for. This time the watery Mecca was the River Cam just outside Cambridge and the inspiration was commemorating the 200 years since Byron’s crossing of Hellespont (Europe to Asia). Poet, playboy and one of the first recorded long distance swimmers- Lord Byron led a pretty interesting life. The sun was shining (when it wasn’t hailing) the wind was blowing and the water again cold (10ºC). A very strong OSS contingent turned up, all taking comfort in finding others with the unusual hobby. It was wet suit country due to the distance and an absolutely lovely stretch of water, one I’ll certainly be visiting again when over that way next. I’d have to argue there’s still something much nicer about just trunks, when going back to nature the wet suit is just another reminder we’ve created something that ultimately makes it that little bit easier. After about 2 miles and some bombing from the riverbank we ended at a naturist’s camp. Members of the OSS trumped themselves again, organising another very good day, the naturists were very accommodating and Byron would most definitely have been proud.
The drive back was also nice with more sun interspersed with hail, Lionel Richie blaring from radio BBC Cambridge and using Millie’s excellent foot warming heater. All in all it was a cracking weekend, clarifying that once I can afford it I will most certainly being attempting the Channel and secondly that it was definitely well worth bankrupting myself for Millie.