Meet one of Penzance’s fastest-growing tribes. A sociable, hardy and occasionally goosepimply crowd who are doing something literally breathtaking.
Day in, day out, summer and winter, they are plunging into the chill waters of Mount’s Bay. And they’re loving it. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that, for many, wild swimming in Penzance is a transformational experience.
Says Ella Turk-Richards, Penzance open water swim coach, ‘Time stands still when you are in the water: you can’t be reached by any device. It’s the one place I can truly put all that down and exist and feel wonderfully small.’
Two other Penzance wild swimmers we’ll meet in this post, physiotherapists and partners Gemma and Tim Rowland, also describe wild swimming as a profound experience. Gemma ‘loves the shock of the cold’ and the feeling of calm that follows and Tim describes the peace and the sheer joy of watching the wildlife (lots more on that later).
Here’s our guide to wild swimming in Penzance. By the time you’ve finished it, we’re hoping even more locals and visitors will answer the call of the wild and take the plunge in one of the most beautiful coastal swimming spots in the UK.
So why all this ‘wildness’? To some extent it is so much hype and marketing, but here’s a nice definition from Outdoor Swimmer Magazine that helps us pinpoint exactly what we’re talking about. Wild swimming is ‘swimming (or dipping) in rivers, lakes, pools, the sea etc; typically in more out-of-the-way locations with no lifeguard supervision’.
Incidentally, since lockdown a huge wave of enthusiasts has embraced the sport. According to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine, searches for ‘wild swimming’ increased 94% between 2019 and 2020.
Penzance is at the heart of the region’s wild swimming scene (and has been for ages)
Ella says the sea swimming scene in Penzance has been buzzing for many years. Then lockdown happened – and people cossied up and took the plunge in droves. ‘It’s just gone off the charts completely – exponentially, in fact, in the last two years,’ she says.
So what is it about Penzance that encourages sea swimming in such numbers? The obvious answer is the scenery. Penzance sits deep in the loving embrace of Mount’s Bay, with stunning coastal views and relatively (but not always!) calm seas.
More specifically, though, Penzance has a wonderful wild swimming asset in Battery Rocks, the easily accessible spot just behind Jubilee Pool.
Gemma sums it up perfectly. ‘Battery Rock was made for dipping. There’s steps and handrails, and two points of entry in case it’s a bit rough off one side. The view is fantastic and it’s a real sun trap in the morning.’
But it isn’t all about Battery Rocks. Adds Tim, ‘There are so many great spots to get in and, crucially, get back out. If you want to swim a good distance and still be able to get out easily, you can swim Penzance to Newlyn and back only a few metres from shore.’
Gemma also loves Roskilly Beach, to the West of Newlyn towards Mousehole, with its occasional glimpses of seals. Also, she says, Abbey Basin and the harbour (just below Ross Bridge) can be calm spots on wild and windy days.
For many Penzancers and visitors, sea swimming isn’t just about feeling the cool thrill of the ocean – it’s about meeting people too.
Says Gemma, ‘I really needed social connection last year after the lockdowns, so I joined local swimming group the Bluetits, which is open to people of all genders. We meet every Sunday at nine by Battery Rocks. I’ve got to know a great group of women and I found that I really looked forward to my swims as a bit of me time.’
Adds Ella, ‘The scene is very open and friendly, with a broad demographic of older and younger people. There’s always room and it’s not cliquey: there’s just something about doing activities in sea that brings out an openness in people. It makes me love living here.’
Joining ‘the scene’ isn’t essential. Tim tends to swim with friends. Meanwhile, scores of solo swimmers do their thing alone, taking the opportunity for a bit of precious solitude and to reconnect with nature.
Wild swimming is good for your body and mind
There’s a lot of articles out there already about the virtues of cold water swimming from a health and mental health point of view. It’s great for cardio and strengthening; it’s low impact, which makes it easy on your joints (Tim, one of our resident physios, points this out); and it even has mental health benefits. There’s a great piece here summing up some of the key points.
Meanwhile, here’s a lovely personal anecdote from Ella, mum to a four year old, about how wild swimming in Penzance has supported her health. She says, ‘Sea swimming is so invigorating and such a great reset to the difficult side of parenting. There’s a lot of pressure on women to excel in all areas; the first bit of mothering is so all-encompassing and getting in the water puts things in perspective and is something physical to do outside the house. It warded off postnatal depression for me. I was so grateful, and it became ever more central to my life until it became a new career.’
Wild swimming in Penzance will lead to some awesome wildlife encounters
Encountering a seal is one of the most humbling experiences for many sea swimmers in Mount’s Bay. And not just because they are far better swimmers than us.
Tim had an up-close-and-personal experience. He says, ‘On one occasion, I couldn’t see anything but felt eyes on me. I turned around underwater and a seal was right in my face and close enough to touch. We had a look at each other and it took off at pace.’
Ella had a beautiful moment encountering a young seal at Battery Rocks, soon after the birth of her son.
Also humbling, but for different reasons (because they give many people the heebie-jeebies!), are jellyfish. ‘The barrel jellyfish is always interesting as it is so large,’ says Tim, with an air of admirable calm. ‘When the visibility is poor and you swim into one it is a bit daunting, as you don’t know what it is initially and it feels big!’
Readers, the truth is you need NOT let these gelatinous oddities stop you sea swimming! Very few swimmers cite them as a problem and on the whole the sting from a jelly does not have that much welly. Says Gemma, ‘I got stung by a compass jellyfish a few times but it was no worse than a nettle sting.’
Wild swimming in Penzance could be a life-changing experience
Could we possibly big up wild swimming any more? Yes! Our three interviewees have some beautiful epiphanies we want to share with you.
Says Gemma, ‘Back in May, I was swimming in the evening and I got to see a blood moon rise behind the Mount. The sea was still and calm, so the moon reflected in the inky water. It was incredible.’
Says Ella, ‘I always recall one particular day sliding into the silken surface of the sea. The clarity was stunning… and I spotted a starfish! It was magical. I had a long linger afterwards with friends, discussing life, the universe and everything.’
Says Tim, ‘One of my greatest experiences was finishing the Scilly Swim challenge - 10 miles of swimming and six miles of walking across islands. All that swimming in Mount’s Bay paid off! Also, a group of friends and I are swimming from Land’s End to the Lizard Point in sections. So far we have swum from Nanjizal to Gunwalloe.’
You should always swim safely and respect the sea
As with any sea-based activity, never leave your common sense on shore. Here’s five things to do to help keep you safe. However, you should also always carry out your own research before entering the water.
1) Swim with a partner. If you don’t have anyone to swim with, talk to a Facebook swimming group or get some lessons (see below).
2) Swim with someone who knows the area. Get local knowledge. How does the sea behave during certain seasons, weather or tides? And, crucially, what is the tide doing right now? (See more information about tides in the resources below.)
3) Know your boundaries – and follow them. Don’t get swept away in other people’s enthusiasm. If you decided to only swim so far, for so long, stick to these rules.
4) Get out of the sea while you are still feeling good. People can get hypothermic, even in summer. Also, we experience continued cooling as we leave the water, so you must warm up swiftly, from top to bottom, immediately after getting out. Start by staying in the water for only a few minutes at a time.
5) Avoid ‘swim failure’. Cover your upper arms to retain energy in the muscles. This will help prevent ‘swim failure’, a phenomenon where arms cool quickly and suffer fatigue. Everyone should look out for this as temperatures fall, but it’s particularly important if you’re a beginner or embarking on a long swim.
Wild swimming in Penzance: resources and guides:
Open water swimming lessons
Ella runs Wild Edge Swimming Cornwall, which offers open-water swim coaching mainly in the Mount’s Bay area. Courses can be tailored for individuals or groups in a supportive, fun environment. Ella has an NVBLQ beach lifeguard qualification and always includes sea safety in her sessions. Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/ellaturkrichards44
Battery Belles and Buoys
Penzance and Marazion Bluetits
Wild swimming organisations:
Swimming safely and understanding tides
Current tidal and weather information