Wild Swimming with the Merpeople of Penberth

The Life of a Cornish swimmer

I spent the Christmas season with friends in Cornwall, and having sampled the delights of swimming in the wintery seas of St Ives, I enjoyed a visit to a family farm in the wildest part of West Cornwall. With no gas, electricity, mains water or telephone line, you might think that life on this windswept hillside would be unbearable, yet the house was warm and comfortable and my hosts Pearl and Walter, delightful. As Cornish as the day is long, this couple view a visit to Truro as a trip up country, and rarely venture beyond the horizon as seen from their wild and imposing landscape.

As we were taken on a tour of the farm, Walter explained that drinking water for the house was pumped up from a well that the Phoenicians divined and built some 2,500 years ago, to supply fresh drinking water straight from the ground, rather than using river or lake water as did the locals. They brought slaves to work the mine's three shafts, burrowing deep beneath the farm. Its treasure was exported along what was known as Solomon's Route to the ships, then on to distant shores. Walter is not a swimmer himself, but the pool he had built on his land delighted Pearl, a keen swimmer from childhood.

Wild Swimming at Penberth Cove Cornwall 

Back in the farmhouse we sat in candlelight as Pearl told me the story of her mermaid like childhood. She grew up in Penberth Cove, some 3 miles from Land's End, which supported a thriving fishing community. Pearl relates: 'Grandfather lived in the house next to the sea, and I grew up in a flat above the fisherman's cellars.' Born in 1942, Pearls childhood coincided with the golden age of swimming. She swam for 20 minutes each morning before breakfast, and after a day of schooling in St' Just, she returned to the sea for another 20 minutes before tea. Winter swells made the rocky cove too dangerous for bathing, but calm weather at any time of year put swimming on the daily agenda for this fishing and swimming community. Even when she started work Pearl would swim every day late into the evening, 'It was wonderful', she remembers.

Wild Swimming at Penberth Cove

As the tide goes out at the cove, three sand bars can be reached, and a small rock pool is exposed which became the playground of the young. Pearl learned to swim at the age five, her mother Eva swam out to the sandbars carrying Pearl on her back. The doggy paddle brought her safely home, but a fear of deep water developed when she could not touch the bottom along the way. 'I was eleven or twelve before I learnt to swim properly,' Pearl remembers. 'I spent the whole summer in my swimming costume.' The children were in and out of the water all summer long and when Eva took a plunge the children would shout 'tidal wave' referring to her corpulent stature. The water was home throughout the day to adults and children alike. 'Mother knitted my first costume, but it became so heavy when it was wet, that it would hang down to my feet. I ended up swimming in shorts and a t-shirt, it was more decent,' she said.

Swimming with the Merpeople of Penberth 

With a dozen boats in the cove there were always adults around, but the children were not supervised as such. Eight children lived in the cove itself and another 13 came down from surrounding villages to bathe. The older boys built a 12 foot raft with oil drums beneath for buoyancy, and anchored it in the middle of the cove to swim out to. 'Once it broke free during a storm and it went out into the English Channel, they had to put out a warning to shipping.' Teenagers would move the raft over to the rocks so that young children could use it to climb out of the sea and then jump in off the rocks. Pearls little brother was taken out by the older boys and swam back on his own aged only three. 'He swam with the doggy paddle and has swum like a fish ever since.'

Penberth Cove a swimming childhood 

You might think that this easy going attitude towards swimming could end only in tragedy, you would be wrong, no child drowned in the cove. Teaching children to swim in open water was always seen as a good thing as it put swimming abilities into perspective and taught respect for life and the sea. What a contrast these golden days of swimming make with the restrictions of childhood today.

I love listening to stories like this and visiting historic swimming holes, but unless an effort is made to capture our history it will soon slip beneath the tides of time. This year I hope to celebrate 100 years of swimming and with your help make 2012 a year for swimmers to remember. Please visit Look, Listen, and Swim: 2012, for more details.

See also: Swimming with the Belles of Penzance