A Permission of Seabirds

Finding a flock where you belong, where you are accepted, where you are at ease is a thing to be treasured. It gives you permission to be you. And that was evident in abundance during a weekend away with the Seabirds in Suffolk.

Last weekend, a flock of Seabirds and I headed to Suffolk for a weekend of swimming. It is a beautiful part of the country and we became enamoured by her quiet beaches, meandering rivers and tidal creeks. We’d done something similar the year before when we spent a few days in a bunkhouse in Pembrokeshire. As soon as we had unpacked from that weekend in Wales we had booked this years Seabird tour to Suffolk. It’s hard to imagine that a group, like ours, where many of us suffer with mental illnesses, wellbeing issues and physical difficulties would want to spend a weekend away with a big noisy group doing physical activities. But it is what bought us together, these flaws of ours. We accept that everyone in this group has a back story. More importantly we accept ourselves. So whilst the scenic swims and adventures in new places is a big draw, giving ourselves permission and being granted permission, to just be, was an even bigger draw.

Right up until the day of departure our flock was dwindling. Covid has not been kind to anyone and many circumstances have changed that meant a few of the flock had to stay at home. But with an itinerary of swims, a YHA Hostel booked, a silent disco at the ready and enough food to feed an army we were Suffolk bound. Cath and I left early to spend the day ‘working’ offsite which included a visit to Dunwich beach. The rest of the flock were travelling after work so we were the first to arrive at the hostel. Gradually the birds began to arrive in dribs and drabs. Every car load a wondrous surprise of which birds had travelled with which. The success of this community evident in friendships that had formed in the sea, only a few months ago, but now away from the beach, arriving together.

Once we’d all arrived, dumped our belongings, had nana naps, been to the loo, we headed out to find a tidal creek to swim in. 18 women walking along a narrow footpath with tow floats and swim robes trying to find a suitable spot to get in was more than a local bird watcher could believe. With eyes like saucers she asked if she could stay and watch. After investigating a jetty and a floating pontoon it was deemed too muddy to get in and out without getting stuck. So we headed to the sea and the familiar feel of shingle under foot in Aldeburgh. A convoy of cars in the dark soon lost each other but we all made it to the beach and were content to swim in car loads scattered along the shore. Tow floats illuminated with bike lights or being buff on the beach. Swims in different stretches but all experiencing the magic of being in the sea after the sun had set and the light had left for the day. Almost brackish to the taste, silky to the touch and quiet apart from our cackling. It was a wonderful way to start the weekend

Saturday, and the plan was to swim 1.5 miles along the River Stour from Dedham Mill to Flatford Mill. This wonderful part of the world was captured in Constable’s The Hay Wain and it did not disappoint. Two of the flock needed rest rather than a swim and set off for a beach stroll and lunch instead so down to 16 we set off to walk between the two mills before swimming back. It was an incredible swim through chocolate box countryside. The water was clear and void of litter, wonderful underwater woodlands of aquatic plants grew in abundance, shallow gravel bends meant sighting fish was easy and there were Constable painting worthy lily pads in the shade. A few walked the first section and got in later. A few got out early. Some hopped in and out as the mood took them. We ended up back at the starting meadow in different groups to the ones we had set off in, at various different times. Once the swan and her cygnets at the exit bridge were negotiated, we picnicked on the grass by the river. Cake is the most suitable way to celebrate a swim safari. Then it was back to the hostel to dry our kit while we read books, snoozed or sunbathed on the beach.

The next swim was an early evening dip at Thorpeness. Again the birds opted in or out depending on their mood. Some stayed behind to cook. Others were already on the beach. I opted for the beach but went for a wander along the shoreline to look for treasure before jumping in the big blue. There is a lot of tidal erosion in this part of the world but also a wealth of wildlife and nature reserves. It is a beach combers paradise. As I returned to the fold some were getting out of the sea, some were getting dressed, some where still in the water. As I slipped into the cooling waters, doing my own thing, I realised so was everyone else.

That evening we were treated by the culinary skills of the group and had a feast of curries, followed by meringues and lemon curd. A firepit was built in the back garden and we danced to a Silent Disco. (Silent it wasn’t with lots of singing). Again the group came and went – some danced all night (well til 11pm), some opted for an early turn in, others went straight to bed after dinner. We didn’t care, we didn’t mind. If they were happy, we were happy.

The next morning and more food. Also, aching bodies and ailments taking their toll. So instead of the planned long river swim in Cambridge we opted for salt and the sea once more. Over breakfast some of the group made an early start home with work and family commitments to attend to. Simple shouts of goodbye and waves whilst the rest of us remained at the breakfast table were enough. With beds stripped and the kitchen empty the remainder birds headed for Covehithe beach with the contents of the fridge in a cool box. Covehithe is a beach at the end of a lane and was a stunning place to spend a sunny morning. Sat Navs took us various ways and when we arrived there were birds already bobbing and bathing. Clear blue skies and warm winds meant a morning of sunbathing, swimming and strolling. More left after a quick dip as they needed the rest and respite of home and again farewell shouts from the shore to the sea were sufficient. Lunch was eaten, sea glass was searched for and final wees were had in the sea before it was time to go home.

So the weekend was a success. Not because we managed to squeeze it in before ever changing Covid regulations. Not because the beaches and rivers were idyllic and far from the madding crowd, unlike our home town. Not because the food was lush and the company was salty. But because we are a group that accept each other. A group that doesn’t judge how many eggs you’ve laid or even if you’ve ever laid any. It is a group that enables you to give yourself permission to be imperfect, permission to chose, permission to try new things, permission to take chances. Permission to come and go as you chose. Words cannot express how freeing that is.

We speak the common language of permission to be happy. That is to say, we’ve all (to varying degrees) stopped looking for approval or seeking consent. We’ve realised it is pointless and we don’t need permission from others, we give ourselves permission, we chose to do things that make us happy. We’ve accepted our flaws and given ourselves permission to be imperfect. Perfection isn’t real and only serves to steal happiness. We permit ourselves time to step out of the day to day and try new things, visit new places, find new adventures. If we fail, we fail together but you’ll have a bunch of Seabirds cheering you on from the sidelines regardless. And in this safe environment we have permission to take a chance, take a risk, a leap of faith where the rewards make us happy. This is why the weekend was a success. We accept and are accepted.

When home at last, I was soaking in the bath reflecting on my gratitude for the flocks’ time, cooking,  enthusiasm, sense of adventure, sense of humour, quiet conversations, sea glass hunting and not forgetting swimming. My greatest love is seeking out new places by the sea,  but my biggest fear is the  loud and busy bustle of being around groups for extended periods of time. That weekend I was able to walk alone on the shoreline yet dance with friends. I was able to read on my own, yet join in the chatter in the kitchen. I was able to float in solitude yet be part of the flock as we headed downstream in idyllic settings. I was able to say loud rude sweary words where I wanted and whenever I needed. A place of permission and acceptance is a thing to be treasured.

Love Birds

It isn’t just the love of swimming. We love each other. Birds of a feather flock together.

I love my Swimming Family. My Seabird Flock. My Salty Sisterhood. Swimming with the Salty Seabirds is a true love story.

 

Richard Curtis reminded us all that, ‘Love Actually’ is all around us. Love comes in many guises and sizes. On a regular basis, I #sharetheswimlove with an eclectic bunch of (mainly) women, in the sea, off Brighton and Hove’s beaches. It ain’t all hearts and roses all of the time and not everyone in the group is my post swim cup of tea. But there is a lot of love.

We are bonded together by our love of the sea. At times, it can be a romantic love, a passionate love, a familial love. It’s not the romantic love you share with a partner or the unconditional love that you have for your family but it is still the type of love that can feel like butterflies in your stomach. There is no physical attraction, instead a strong connection, but it can make your heart sing all the same.

I have experienced and witnessed the love of friendship as kindness, trust and companionship within our salty community. You may not know the name of the swimmer that held your hand and helped you into the sea. Or the name of the swimmer who gave you a pair of gloves when they could see your hands were turning blue. Or the name of the swimmer that shared their hot drink with you when you forgot yours. But in that moment they showed you the love of friendship. When someone wants the best for you, when you are comfortable and happy around them, they are your friends.

I sometimes refer to the Seabirds as my swimming family or the salty sisterhood. Like conventional families we have a strong bond and a mutual love for one another and swimming in the sea. As is the case with your closest loved ones, you wish to spend time with them and share a special connection. It is not the blood in our veins that bonds us, but the salt on our skin. Your family are people that are always there for you and have a positive influence on your life. This is acutely apparent in our group.

We recently swam under the starling mumurations during our Snow Moon swim. It was incredible. Watching nature’s mass ariel stunt show from the best seat in the house, in the sea, floating on your back, was quite possibly the best swim of my life. They move in unison creating patterns and shapes that change in an instant. No-one is really sure why they do it but there are theories.  One is that they come together as there is safety in numbers and their mumurations confuse potential predators. Another theory is that they gather together as dusk for warmth and to exchange information before roosting. A bunch of birds that don’t know each other coming together for the good of the group. Now where have I come across that before? Over the last 18 months I have watched in wonder at our group’s capacity to love. A fierce protective love of the group and a kind and supportive love of individuals. We are swimming starlings.

It isn’t just that we share a love for the sea, we share a love for each other. I see so often a seabird scooped up by the group when they have needed to be held and helped. Our group is only 18 months young so the friendships that have been forged are still in their infancy yet, cemented in the sea, they are strong. Single salties spending Christmas day together. Seabirds looking after each others dogs and children so they can work or have a restorative swim. Sharing experiences of bereavement and finding comfort in each others stories. Providing shoulders to cry on or a welcome distraction. Answering calls to arms to raise money or awareness for causes close to swimmers hearts. We accommodate, we adapt, we go the extra mile for swimmers we hardly know. Birds of a feather, flock together. What is that, if that is not love?

Author: Seabird Kath

Starling Photo Credit: Michael Knight