You can hear it before you see it. The gentle shoosh-shooshing of the sea, followed by the roar of pebbles being dragged back into the water. There’s the smell of salt and sun cream; families on the beach. You follow a tunnel through the Ilfracombe hillside and if you run your hands along the wall, you can feel the grooves of pickaxe marks, left by the Welsh miners who created this place the 1820s. Closer, closer as the bolt of blue at the end of the passageway widens. Then, peering over the iron railings to your left, you get your first look at it: the tidal pool at Tunnels Beaches.
I visited North Devon as part of my adventure to swim in every tidal pool in Britain. From a quarry lagoon in Wales to Cornish mermaid pools via the Scottish fishing village of St Monans, I swam in 36 in a year. The Tidal Year is the book about my journey, and the journey with grief I experienced after my brother Tom’s death in 2016. My obsession with them came from a search for symbolism. The sea can be full of dangers, with its rip tides and strong currents, but a boundaried tidal pool protects you. They’re a safe place to swim in turbulent waters and I needed to dip my toes into a grief that felt overwhelming, all-consuming and unbounded.
The pool at Ilfracombe — and its complex network of six tunnels — was man-made in Victorian times. It was formed by damming the water, so it’s covered by the sea twice a day. When I arrived, the pool was submerged. I’d have to be patient. Swimming was, in many ways, a parallel exercise to grief and I found that the learnings were often the same. It ebbed and flowed. It was stormy, then calm.
While I waited for the tide to change, I walked around town, to take pictures to send my grandmother. During the Second World War, she lived in Ilfracombe. Her father was in the Merchant Navy and worked on the North Atlantic run bringing food back from America in convoys. In 1942, he came home with an address on a slip of paper and told my great-grandmother to go to Devon. She travelled with her two small children to Mrs Jewel’s Guest House, which was taking in families fleeing London. They stayed for three years.
I photographed a seagull on a traffic bollard, the queue outside The Ilfracombe Fryer and the church’s clock tower sign that reads: It Is Time To Seek The Lord. I thought about my grandmother’s life and how we were connected by our own personal histories at Tunnels Beaches. I’d asked if she’d swum there, but she only recalled boys being whistled down from climbing the cliffs. She later went to a convent school, so wasn’t keen on swimming. “It was a mortal sin to wear a swimsuit,” she told me. Tunnels was originally gender-segregated, and horse-drawn boxes called bathing machines were wheeled to the water’s edge to protect the modesty of the ladies.
When it was finally time to return, the tide was out and the pool revealed: blue-black water hemmed in by a lime-mortar wall, the surrounding rocks standing like totems. That day it was cool. Cold, in fact. My skin tingled as I breaststroked across the water. I felt spring’s rays on my face, the disinfectant that is sunlight. My heart rate slowed.
Nothing else cuts through the pain of grief like cold water. For decades, people have visited Tunnels for this very reason. Cold-water swimming became popular in Victorian times as an antidote ‘to the ailments of modern life’. I learned this in the guidebook from the kiosk. They’ve done well to preserve this place’s history. You feel it everywhere: in the turnstiles and deck chairs for hire for £3. It’s a common theme at all the tidal pools I’ve visited. Pittenweem in Anstruther created a mini golf course to raise funds to restore the pool wall. Brixham’s Shoalstone Pool campaigned against the council to prevent its closure. Clevedon Marine Lake in Bristol relies on volunteers to keep it running.
When I swam at Tunnels Beaches, I could feel the past around me. It was in the water and the rocks. There’s something ancient about it. The tunnels have told many stories. Before they were carved, the coves were used by smugglers. The rock pools surrounding the beach were studied by Philip Henry Gosse, a biologist and friend of Charles Darwin, who found new seawater species there.
That’s the special thing about tidal pools. They’re these magical places that connect us to the past — and to future generations — in a way I’ve not experienced elsewhere. My grandmother has her stories here. So do I. It’s where, I’m sure, you’ll write your own, too.
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