The North Sea beckons: facing up to the first swim of the year

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The first swim of the year will always be cold. That’s half the point, surely? After a winter and chilly spring bundled in layers and coats, there’s something cathartic about the burning freshness of the North Sea, still carrying it’s memories of January’s churning, grey waves.

We cheated a little. Instead of tackling the open sea from Blakeney Point, we walked down the harbour at low tide to a favourite swimming hole. Even when the water is out, there’s enough depth left to swim a few laps.

A weekend of warm sunshine had taken the edge off that first plunge, but there’s still a degree of steeling oneself for a ritual which soon becomes second nature as the season progresses. Clothes off, don’t wait too long in the chill of the wind, tell the dogs to sit, dive under and then call them in: leaping with all their Labrador enthusiasm to save their floundering humans from their folly.

It’s never as cold as you expect and you never regret the decision to go for it.

There’s nothing like the feeling of the sea on your skin and I notice it especially on days when work has called me to the big city. There’s no better way to reconnect with life on the coast than returning home from a day of meetings, cycling to the beach and diving into the waves.

Emboldened by that first foray, I woke early the next day to find the sun already shining and a big tide rushing in past the quay. What better way to work up an appetite for breakfast than another swim? I walked down to the sheltered spot where the channel turns on its way to Morston and dived off the ramshackle old wooden platform.

Without the benefit of a full day’s sunshine to warm it, the morning tide felt much, much colder than before. Puffing against the incoming flow, I managed a few quick strokes of front crawl back up the channel, then let the tide wash me back down to where I’d started, escaping up the ladder to a towel and hearty breakfast.

It’ll get warmer every day. By September, there will be evenings when the water seems to melt into a liquid sunset around you and night swims glow with phosphoresence.

First swim at Cley and first of the Cromer Crab

First swim of the year at Cley; colder than it looked
First swim of the year at Cley; colder than it looked

When we moved to the coast last year I imagined swimming in the sea every day. Naively, I thought I’d simply make sure I went in daily, such that a consecutive day would never be that much colder than the previous one. I presumed I’d just gradually become acclimatised if I could stick to this routine.

The particularly bleak spell of Arctic winds and snow from the North East put an end to such plans and the last time I went in was a couple of weeks before Christmas.

I’ve been watching the weather every day since, waiting for a day like yesterday, when the winds were light and from the South and the sun was shining. The water is at its coldest at this time of year, having lost all of its temperature over the long winter, so the key thing is to ensure that, upon emerging from the sea, there’s not a freezing wind chilling you to the bone before you can get dry.

Even with the sun shining, blue sky and a gentle breeze at Cley Beach, I though it best to warm up with a run and a quick bike ride and to pack a big towel and some warm clothes. Suitably invigorated by the exercise, I took the plunge. The water was burningly cold, but I wanted this to be more than a splash and dash affair: if I could swim in these temperatures, then it would only get better for the rest of the year. I managed just a few minutes, time for some frenzied front crawl westwards, and back east again to my start point.

There’s no denying this a masochistic pleasure. At this time of year it is more about the feeling of leaving the water and getting warm than it is about the joy of swimming itself. However, it reminded me how lucky we are to live close enough to swim in the sea daily and the glowing feeling of total refreshment it brings.

Wrapped in a big woolly sweater and windproof jacket, I lay back on the beach, basking in the sun, watching birds and vapour trails making patterns in the deep pool of the sky. The only sounds were of the waves gently churning at the shoreline and, further down the beach, the crab boats getting ready to go out for the first time this year.

Crab boats going out for the first time this year at Cley Beach
Crab boats going out for the first time this year at Cley Beach

The weather, it seems, had been holding them back too. Usually they would have been out earlier in the year, but these two little boats, probably about 16 foot, were venturing out for the first time yesterday.

They launch from tractor and trailer off the shelving shingle beach, loaded with pots for the crab, going out around low tide and returning on the high tide. You can buy direct if you’re there when they come back in.

‘Cromer crab’ is renowned, coming from the waters near a chalky reef that stretches for several miles along the coast. Apparently this unique habitat imparts a particularly delicious taste. The season is just starting and will last until autumn, with oysters and lobster coming a bit later.

I usually buy mine from the little shed in someone’s back garden: look for the sign on the A149 coast road as you drive through Blakeney.