By Tom Cox
A book about hills. Actually, that’s not true. It’s a book around hills: the magical names we have given hills over the centuries, the legends associated with them, the history hidden in their folds, the exhilarated feeling you get when you’ve walked at pace to the top of one on a crisp autumn day, the perspective they give us on the land, on life.
The lunar eclipse had happened and people in town were saying it had been doing weird stuff to everyone’s sleep, infiltrating dreams in troubling, vivid ways, but I’m always just a bit out of step with town. I dress differently, like different music and talk differently to most people there, and I slept soundly during the eclipse. I’d got my freaky dreams out of the way a week earlier. In one dream, my washing machine, which already has a tendency towards nomadism, totally broke free of my house to start a new life on the road, performing for coins. In perhaps the most disturbing dream, I woke up on my back in the sea, having realised I had made the error of falling asleep in the sea. I sort of assumed I was somewhere a few hundred yards off the shore of the hard-to-get-to Devon cove where I most regularly swim, but in truth there was no landmark to suggest I was actually near that cove, apart from the sea, which, while undoubtedly a very distinctive landmark with a lot of personality, is a landmark only specific enough to tell you that you are somewhere on seventy percent of the planet’s surface. I did get a sense that it was the particular kind of sea you get near that cove, but I couldn’t be sure. I then woke up again, and realised I was now properly waking up in my bed, and I hadn’t really woken up in the sea at all; I had just dreamt about waking up in the sea.
I often starfish out and let myself float when I’m swimming at my regular cove. It’s my sea swimming equivalent of the time you might take for a breather between lengths at a pool, but it’s also my nearest current version of meditation, as someone who always intends to meditate but rarely actually does. I am very relaxed when I’m in this state, my mind a fuzzy blank, preoccupied only by the tiny noises beneath the surface, which, like everything at the cove, are always subtly changing. I doubt I could fall asleep in this state but I am not entirely complacent about it. This lack of complacency might be a result of the period during my childhood when my dad would regularly convince himself that my mum was going to fall asleep in the bath. “TOM, ARE YOU UPSTAIRS?” my dad would ask. “Yeah,” I would reply. “CAN YOU CHECK YOUR MUM HASN’T FALLEN ASLEEP IN THE BATH?” my dad would then ask. After which I would knock on the bathroom door and ask my mum if she had fallen asleep in the bath, and my mum would confirm that she hadn’t fallen asleep in the bath.
A lot of people around this bit of Devon call my regular cove “Jenny’s Cove” but that’s not what it’s called. Jenny’s Cove is much smaller and directly next door and anyone who enjoys studying maps would know that, but a fact of life I am slowly trying to accept is that most people don’t enjoy studying maps. They just hear something being called something by somebody else so they start calling it that, too. It’s not dissimilar to the recent trend of people adding “s” to the word “vinyl” just because they heard other people doing it: a phenomenon I find baffling, because when I tried to start a trend for calling cattle “cattles” it didn’t catch on at all. One day so many people will probably call Not Jenny’s Cove “Jenny’s Cove” that the OS, with a deep defeated sigh, will rename it. Back in May, on my birthday weekend, I visited it with a group of friends, including my friend Jenny, which you might consider apt, if you lie down and accept that we are living in a post-truth world. The tide was in, making it very difficult for Jenny to swim around the corner to her actual cove, and we were in an unpedantic mood so agreed to let her hang out with us on the cove that is only designated as hers because of modern gossip and hearsay. Jenny, Pat, Jim, Neal and Amy sunbathed and swam a little. Meanwhile, having been acclimatising myself to the temperature of the water for several weeks, I threw myself in and did a couple of lengths of the cove. A few people, such as Jim, who is from Sheffield and had last seen the sea during the 1890s, looked at me like I was mad, but nobody was bold enough to point it out, unlike a month earlier, when a paddleboarder had rowed past me in the same place and remarked, “Look at you! You’re crazy!” Not Jenny’s Cove is known for having the most mysteriously cold water on the whole of the south Devon coast, but craziness is all relative. I probably seem bold and hardcore to some for doing long swims in nine degree water, without a wet suit, fairly early in the year, but one look at the Instagram account of a serious outdoor swimmer who lives up north will disabuse you of this notion. In swimming, as in life, it doesn’t matter how hardcore you are, there is always somebody out there more hardcore than you. My friend James is amazing to me, as he can swim two lengths of the local lido entirely underwater. But what is he, ultimately, compared to Ellise Wallenda, who was famous in Victorian times for being able to undress, sew, write, eat and drink underwater, and - in 1898 - managed to stay submerged for a record four minutes and forty five and two fifths seconds?
On the day in May when my friends and I visited Not Jenny’s Cove, the temperature was about twenty degrees, there was a light breeze and the water was the colour of two minute-old dishwater into which somebody had spilt half a cup of tea. I would estimate that I have visited the cove seventy times over the last four years and each time it has been a slightly different place. Two days ago I went there and the sea was full of dead wasps. The week before, large waves drove diagonally towards the east side of the beach and, swimming back against them, into the wind and sun, my eyes burned with salt and the journey took almost three times as long as usual. A month earlier I’d arrived and the water had been so still and clear I could almost pick out every individual jellyfish and driftwood chunk from the top of the cliffs. I swam out to my friend Nick’s boat, ate half a melon, and briefly forgot I wasn’t in a big lake. One day last August the beach was covered in thousands of dead white bait, glinting in the sun - a mass suicide pact, chosen as an alternative to being eaten by a shoal of hungry mackerel. The place stank so pungently, I cut my swim short. The sea teemed with debris, like overly herby soup. The pebbles, which at the west end of the beach are only just over the line that separates stone from sand, had a tired look and the untidy sadness of summer’s conclusion was apparent.
I don’t think my regular cove is the best cove in Devon and Cornwall for swimming - there are warmer coves, with clearer, more benevolent water, and better rocks to leap from - but when it comes to an equation involving ease-of-swim and closeness to my house, it works out as the logical choice. Considering it’s just a place where I go to keep fit and clear my mind, I’m surprised to discover that, through it, I can to an extent tell the recent story of my life: the books I have read, the books I have failed to read, the changes to my body, the little shifts in my life philosophy. I have fallen in love at first sight twice on the cove, which is quite a high ratio, when you compare it to the same period inland, where I have only fallen in love at first sight once. I have been physically attacked fifteen times at the cove: fourteen of them by jellyfish, and once by a black labrador, which swam over to me and climbed on my back, leaving my ribs covered in scratches. I don’t think any of these attacks were genuinely malicious. The jellyfish were just defending space that is rightfully more theirs than mine, and I think the labrador - which was owned by a semi-oblivious Dutch man - just wanted a nice big wet cuddle. At least the salt water went quickly to work on my injuries, as it does with pretty much any other injury I have when I arrive at the beach, magically curing small patches of eczema, cuts and bites.
I am sure that the very first time I zigzagged my way precariously down the steep hill above the cove and got in the water, I must have done the same thing that I always do, which is neurotically check that I have not still got my car keys in the pocket of my swimming trunks, even though I always make sure I put my car keys in the pocket of my rucksack, before I start to swim. But I think if I was to see some footage of myself that first time I went to the cove, I would be startled by how different I looked. I didn’t start my recent swimming regime as any kind of major fitness project. I was definitely not overweight or noticeably unfit. I started to swim a lot because I noticed that it made me think more clearly, seemed to eradicate the back problems that had niggled me for years and gave me more energy. But after three summers hard at it, it has made me a noticeably different shape: my stomach is close to washboard flat, my legs are, in the recent words of my friend Ash, “strong and goatlike”, my shoulders are broader, and I found out recently that, miraculously, I’m very slightly taller than I was a decade ago. On top of this is an ever-expanding mop of increasingly seaweed-like hair. Even when I’m away from the sea, I look increasingly like something you might find in it.
Not all of this is a plus: I now can no longer comfortably get into seventy percent of my favourite t-shirts, including, most mortifyingly, the ‘Mrs Robert Palmer’ ladies medium I bought in 2014. But I do feel happier with the way I look than I have for years, and whether I am or not in the minority regarding this matters little to me. I rarely feel lethargic. It’s like the sea has helped me return to some sportier, fitter, truer early notion of myself that I gradually, unconsciously, wriggled away from. This is not me advocating outdoor fitness regimes for all. I am talking about a personal preference. The Internet is full of people telling other people what they should be: a mass of self-appointed life coaches, shining up their online selves. What you should be is whatever the fuck works for you. And being a long skinny nut-coloured sea creature, I’ve found, is just what happens to work for me. In a way it is just another part of my faith in the sea as the only life coach worth trusting: the one who will not bullshit you, the one who can cure your ailments, wash away your hangover, the one who can help you think more clearly and smack you into shape.
Spending a lot of time in the sea has also made me so much more aware of the damage we are doing to it. By saying this, I am not saying I swim in the sea and see fragments of plastic floating all around me; I am saying that if you’re submerged in the sea frequently, you get a greater awareness of its importance - how much more important it is than you - and that makes you think about the vast ways in which we have abused it, just to make our lives fractionally more convenient. I was conscientious about recycling before I swam a lot; now I’m utterly pedantic about it. I avoid plastic where I can, would like to work towards avoiding it totally, and have a metal water canister that I take everywhere. We can’t be perfect, and so much terrifying, unrepairable damage is already done, but we can try so much harder than we have been doing for the last several decades. One early Saturday morning last summer, I arrived at the Thurlestone Sands Beach, ten or so miles west of my regular cove, and began - with the help of two people named Penny, and nobody else - to clean the beach. I felt that the Penny who was in charge had given me, herself and the Penny who wasn’t in charge a very easy beach to clean. Was there even any litter on it? But as I began to venture out with my litter picker and old empty compost bag I gradually began to attune my eyes to all the tiny fragments of plastic, the countless bottle bits and bottle tops and strips of crisp packet, to distinguish corporate detritus from seaweed. It felt like gradually peeling back a layer of faux reality. It made me, too, more conscious of the seaweed itself: the myriad different types. By the end, we had filled five entire sacks to the brim with litter. And I had decided that any fuckwit who bags up their dog’s shit then abandons it in any part of the countryside, coastal or inland, should be fitted with some kind of electronic ankle tag that prevents them from ever going anywhere even vaguely beautiful ever again.
I have wondered at times if I could live almost solely for the sea. Over winter, I lived briefly in a very landlocked place. It wasn’t swimming season - as I said, I don’t do wetsuits and I am not that hardcore, in the grand scheme of swimmers - but I could quickly feel a panic setting in about my distance from saltwater, an extra awareness of the many kindnesses it had shown me. My family and most of my other favourite people don’t live close to the sea so, if I was choosing where I lived purely for social reasons, I wouldn’t either. But I can’t quite do that. I’m moving house again later this month, to a different part of the West Country. The sea, or at least being less than an hour from it, remains an important consideration. I have moved a lot in my life, and not always out of choice, and it is expensive and tiring, but there is something about rootlessness and freedom that appeals to me. In the sea I feel at my most happily rootless: all the crap that goes with having an address - or even an email address - recedes. It is a rare admin-free zone. Maybe I like it additionally because by being in it I’m occupying my natural, stubborn place, which is on the edge of everything. In his excellent, exhaustively researched 1992 book Haunts Of The Black Masseur, Charles Sprawson explores swimming’s long association with romantics and rebellion. He also compares swimming to an opium high, and talks of the way the word “swimmingly” suggests “a state of suspension, a trance-like condition.” I do feel like I’m in a trance when I’m swimming in the sea, and there is an an element of addiction there for me: I duck out of other things and put them off in order to swim, as you might while addicted to a drug. Sprawson talks about long hands and feet as being classic elements in a swimmer’s body. I have long thin feet and fingers, but I’m no stylist. I’m not elegant, or fast, or well-trained, like some people I admire who flash past me at the lido with apparently zero effort, but I’m more fishlike and serene than I once was, purely from practice.
Down the far end of the cove is a little unofficial nudist section. I reckon I could join it, as I feel increasingly relaxed about the idea of being naked in public, but something stops me - maybe it’s the memory of those jellyfish stings. The nudists are nearly all 60-plus and uniformly almond-brown. There is no evidence to suggest that they ever leave the place. I would not be surprised at all to venture into the caves beneath the cliffs and find the beds where they sleep and have surprisingly agile pensioner sex, the hobs where they cook their fresh mackerel breakfasts and the showers where they scrub the pebbles and salt off their wiry old bodies. Maybe people who have visited the cove a few times think not dissimilar thoughts about me. “That hippie with all the dog scratches on his chest is here again,” they say, perhaps. I have, this summer in particular, come to see the cove as a home away from home. I wrote the last few paragraphs of my latest book there and have done so much of my other living there. In three weeks, though, it will be a significant hour or more further away - no longer just an afternoon nip in the car - and I will have to say farewell to it, farewell to the jellyfish, farewell to the naked cavepeople, farewell to the weird sheep on the hillside above who always stare thoughtfully at me and look a bit like kangaroos. There will be a last swim and I will try to make it a thorough one: at least two journeys from one end of the beach to the other, “two lengths of the sea” as I often describe it to friends, maybe even four, touching the rocks at either end so I don’t feel like I’ve wussed out. I’ll have a little rest in the middle, starfish out, listening to the tiny sounds beneath me. There’s so much to think about all the time: so many people to speak and write to, so many jobs, so much neglected, so many new plans and half plans. But for those few moments it will all float pleasantly away.