Brighton Odyssey

“Brighton in October”. These are not words that you normally associate with “blazing sun” or “flat sea”. However, the impromptu ice-cream van parked in the Lido was not the only beneficiary of the unexpected heat-wave that allowed people unused to the sight of sun for, oh, practically the whole of the summer, to top-up their supplies of vitamin D and freckles.

For a number of years now, a gang of lido-goers (joined by members of the Brighton Sea Swimming Club) have made their way to Brighton on a Sunday morning in early October for an unofficial (i.e. organized privately rather than by the SLSC) end of season sea swim. We swim about 3.5 km either from Hove to the Palace Pier, or the Marina to the Palace Pier, depending on the tide. Normally, this involves hopping around on the painful shingle, trying to preserve one’s modesty with an uncooperative towel whipping around in a strong breeze. Very occasionally the sea is calm, even if the skies are grey and the water temperature hovering around 14 degrees centigrade. More often, it is at best choppy and at worst, mountainous (at which point, if one is sensible, discretion should win out over valour and diving into a large cup of coffee in a café should be the closest one gets to liquid).

This year, the first glimpse of the sea from the hills above Brighton was of a gleaming, huge pond with barely a ripple on it – we knew, from that point, that it would be a fantastic day’s swimming. This year’s swim started out from Hove, and we gathered by a bench, while Tom Hudson, who masterminded this swim, took names. Those of you who have ever been to Brighton will know that the beach is not exactly famed for its fine sand, but recently, successive storms have pushed the shingle higher up the beach exposing some sand near the water, which at least limited the duration of the undignified hobbling over pebbles to the sea.

The tide was low, so we had to wade out quite far before we could launch ourselves into water. And what water! Clear, warm (relatively speaking – I reckon it was about 16 – 17 degrees) and flat, flat, flat with a soft pinky peachy light on the horizon. Because we were swimming with the tide, we felt as if we were flying through water.

The swim took us past the silhouette of the ruined west-pier – now so battered by the elements that only the semi-submerged black skeleton of the frame remains, looking like an outsize version of an old Victorian birdcage. The water immediately surrounding the pier is dangerous because of the debris underwater. A red buoy marks the border between the dangerous part and the “safe” water so we all made sure that we skirted round it.

It was such a beautiful morning, and I was so conscious of the fact that we only rarely get days like these (even in the height of summer) that I kept having to stop every so often just to look around me and try and imprint the scenery on my memory.

I used the end of the Palace Pier as a convenient sighting point. One of the great things about swimming in Brighton is that there are houses all along the seashore by which you can mark your progress, even if your destination does not seem to be getting any bigger. As is often the case with sea-swims, there suddenly comes a point where that destination does suddenly start to get closer, and the nearer I got to the Palace Pier, the more clearly I could pick out the individual rides and the stanchions that look so fragile but which hold up the pier in the heaviest of storms. There were already other people in the water (a number of whom, I suspected, were cooling off after partying all night – we were in Brighton after all). We were far enough out so that all you could hear was a general hum and the odd shriek. The only other sound was the water and, towards the end of the swim, the mosquito-like underwater whine of an outboard motorboat. There were a couple of paddleboarders sharing the sea with us, but that was all.

Some of the swimmers went round and then under the pier. I decided against that as I would have been far behind everybody else, and got out of the sea just before the pier where Tom, organizational genius that he is, had shoes waiting (essential for scaling the shingle hills) and bags piled up in the Brighton Sea Swimming Clubhouse. The club had generously allowed us to use their changing and shower facilities so as well as not having to change in a car park (normally the case with open water swimming) a perfect swim was topped off by a freshwater shower. Luxury! Swimming is hungry work, so it’s just as well that we all went to the Regency (a Brighton institution) for fish and chips washed down with…champagne. If you have not tried that combination before, I recommend it.

Thanks to Tom Hudson for organizing, and to the Brighton Sea Swimming Club for their hospitality. Thanks also to all the swimmers for making it such a great day out. Please note that if you fancy swimming in Brighton (or from any other part of the coast, for that matter) there are a few precautions you should take:

  1. Make sure you know when high and low tide is and where the current flows.
  2. Always let somebody know where and when you are swimming – if the beach is guarded, tell the lifeguards.
  3. If possible, try to swim with others, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area or it is isolated.
  4. Know your limits – if the sea is too rough, there is no shame in deciding not to swim.
  5. Check your exit points – are there rocks where you want to get out? Is the beach very steep (which makes it harder to leave the water)?

by Naomi Branston