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.

Swim and Tonic

I thought I was doing OK, and I am, but there is definitely a storm brewing in the distance. Low pressure is here and it relentlessly keeps coming. So one morning this week, I released the pressure with the flock on the beach and in the sea.
As I sit, days later, thinking about that morning I cannot help but smile. Better yet, the exhilaration, excitement and elated mood I experienced was shared. It was just the tonic!

We’re at the tail end of Storm Francis and the weather is changeable. Strong winds are keeping us on our toes and permanently glued to weather and sea forecast apps to identify swimming windows. We had a Seabird birthday to celebrate this week so opportunity was key. The birthday girl settled on an 8am swim at King Alfred Beach, the dog friendly side. I was also meeting a friend that morning, having a swimming lesson and generally galivanting about the beach between lessons and courses. So I agreed to the birthday swim but said I wouldn’t get in just come for the cake and the craic (the birthday girl is Irish).

Another Seabird spotted me as soon as I got out of the car. I don’t have particular, favourite or regular swim buddies. They all fill my cup in different ways. This bird is bloody funny and her quick wit and clumsiness have your sides splitting. So I knew I was in for a fun gathering of the flock. We wandered down to the beach watching birds come from different directions, drifting until they spotted the ever growing brood. There was lots of talk of the weather and the waves. The beauty of a westerly is you can see the squalls and the fronts coming over the sea and the sky has been putting on quite a show of late.

There was lots of pre-swim chatter. It’s the summer and we all naturally migrate in the warmer months, coming back together in September when school starts. And although this has been a strange summer of staycations, we have still not met in big groups or seen much of each other. So the chatter was excited, urgent, loud and bloody lovely. Two of the birds I’d seen the day before but there was still so much to say. One I hadn’t seen for months and was keen to hear about her freshwater swimming adventures. There have been house moves, holidays, exam results, illnesses that all needed airing. Most of the birds are parents and a child free hour means cramming conversation in.

Finally, they got in the sea. A couple of years ago, particularly on a wavy day, they would wait for me to lead the charge. That is not an arrogant statement, it is merely a fact. I am not the Queen of the Sea (I am) but I do have confidence when getting in the water. Looking to my left and right there would be lines of birds waiting for when I would make my move. Now they all nonchalantly stroll in and if a wave takes them out they laugh. From my strange, dry vantage point I feel like a proud mother hen. This is why we did this. These women were strangers to each other not so long ago. Now they are firmly established in each other’s lives. We may not venture far from the beach but we venture into each other’s experiences, worries and doubts and are welcomed like old friends. There’s screeching, laughing and wonderful rendition of Happy Birthday in a mermaid ring. A couple swim off to get some mileage in, others bob and chat, a few practice their strokes. Doing their own thing but doing it together. Then it was time for cake. The only reason for swimming in the sea year round other than connection is cake. And lots of it.

Before the birds even had their clothes back on the cake came out. Various varieties. You cannot have a swim and then be offered just one type of cake. The distance swimmers were back and needed warming up so cake was eaten in a stood upright shaky position. Others wrapped in robes hunkered down to get out of the growing wind. Positions swapped as conversations changed. Then finally, someone said “Right I must go now”. The reason for an 8am swim was so it didn’t eat into peoples day and we could prepare for the return of routine mornings. Inevitably, the first “Right I must go now” was responded to with “Yes, me too.” But no one left the beach. The chatter changed but continued. You just ended up talking to someone else further up the beach. I walked the neap high water line with another bird looking for sea glass and putting the world to rights, others picked up litter, some had another slice of cake. But no one actually left. When I go back from my slow dawdle, they were all still there, just in a different flight formation. Finally the first one left and gradually people began to leave. It was so gradual it was hardly noticeable and the “Right I must go now” was replaced with “I thought you were going” or “Are you still here?”.

I had no where to be other than the beach that morning. Something I had been fretting about as the TO DO list at home beckoned. But by now I’d been at the beach for well over an hour, almost two. Time had run away and relaxation had rushed into replace it. With a handful of us left, a sizeable piece of sea glass was found and that was it. We were going nowhere. Tales of legendary size finds were shared, shingle was over-turned in the search for fortune and shells offered in exchange for the gem. But the finder wasn’t to be parted with her treasure. Then she found another piece, even bigger, practically in the same spot. We swarmed around her plotting ways to relieve her of her burden of gems. Creating a sea glass colour and size hierarchy and beach currency to offer her as a trade deal. We were Sea Witches at their best.

No one mentioned leaving for quite a while again. Instead, we joked and teased each other relentlessly. They were the kind of jokes that made you feel like you belonged but weren’t exclusive. Yes you could be the brunt of them but not in a mean girl way. The jokes were based on joyful, jubilant times together. Childlike (some would say immature) innocent pure fun. Which continued long into the day via messages and concluded with another Seabird classic evaluation of our time together. “ I didn’t know how much I needed that”. Finally, It was just two of us left and we went our separate ways eventually because I was meeting a friend.

I stayed on the beach for another three hours after they had all gone. I met a close friend on a bench on the prom. We watched as Seabird swim coaches worked their magic with nervous new sea swimmers. Christine was running an introduction to sea swimming session and Emma was teaching a Breast Stroke to Front Crawl lesson. A lesson which Co-Flounder Cath was in. We were meant to go for a walk, my friend and I. Instead we sat and chatted about our kids, our lives and our goings on. All the while watching the sea and the ever expanding flock. Cath came to say hello after her lesson. Her sense of achievement radiated from her happiness more infectious than normal. Then it was my time to get in.

I’ve been swimming a lot in the summer but not swimming. I usually reduce my sea time in high season as I hate the crowds and despair at the litter but this year has been different. Having to meet in smaller groups has meant more salt on my skin. Outdoor swimmers are growing in numbers and so the Seabird, lessons, sessions and courses are thriving. My hair constantly has seaweed in it and there is always a cossie drying somewhere. But I haven’t been swimming swimming. My usual early morning buoy loops just haven’t happened. No point to points with the tide. No circumnavigations of either of the piers. I’ve been getting in and bobbing but I have replaced longer swims with cake, runs with crisps and gym classes with chocolate. I’m in the midst of a body moving funk and not the kind that gets your body moving. So I signed up to have technique lessons with Emma. Having a set times and place and someone telling me what to do in the hope that it would reboot my body.

It was wonderful. Moving my body with purpose. Recalling it’s hidden strength. Not thinking about anything else other than what Emma was telling me to do. Meeting the other swimmers, some of whom were just at the start of their sea swimming adventures. And Emma does everything with humour, putting the participants at ease. I lost my goggles on the first wave and did the rest of the lesson in a kids snorkel mask. Towards the end of the lesson one of the swimmers knocked against something in the shore dump. Poking out from the shingle, only visible every 5th wave or so, was a metal ladder. Only the first two rungs were not buried. With a lot of pulling, falling over and face planting I manage, with the help of two other swimmers to dig/pull it out. I proudly marched the 10ft ladder up the beach to the lifeguard post. Best beach clean find ever! And in that Amazonian moment my body and I made friends again.

tonic4

I remained on the beach for while longer to catch Christine after she completed her last Introduction Session of the season. She asked me how things were going. And I moaned and moaned a bit more and then for good measure a grumble. We’ve not been able to run the Women Wellbeing and Water free community courses for people that identify as having mental health issues. We’ve been running these for two years and this would have been our third summer. Cath and I are both huge advocates of the benefits year round swimming can have on wellbeing. This is our raison d’etre. In her calm, quiet way Christine helped me to see we’d achieved so much this summer. We’d run numerous tasters, lessons and courses to give others the confidence to get in the sea. This small part of Hove seafront had been full to overflowing with Seabirds seeking solace by the sea all morning. Reinforcing her wise words I turned to see a bobble hat and another bird I’d not seen for a while. She’d popped down for a solo dip. We chatted about how cold it was that morning and I realised I was cold because I’d been in the sea and on the beach for five hours now. I realised I was really looking forward to cold, skin biting swims again. I realised that this wasn’t the summer I had planned but it had been a brilliant one nonetheless.

My buoyant happy mood continued for the rest of the day. I finally walked back through my front door at 2pm. My hair resembled the seaweed it had been dragged through. I was starving and cold but I was warm and full. This best bird morning was topped off by an indulgent day time bubbly bath. As I finally slipped my cossie off at 3pm, the sound of shingle leaving my gusset and landing on the tiled floor and the sight of wine red seaweed stuck to my body, I smiled. Being salty all day, on the beach teeming with swimming Seabirds was just the tonic I didn’t know I needed.

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Ellie

The forth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

I’m Ellie, I live in Hove with my husband and 2 kids exactly 15 mins walk from the Seafront! I’ve lived by the sea all my life and cannot imagine living inland at all. I lived first near the beautiful sandy beaches that give Sandbanks in Dorset its name. Not the posh peninsula, but still just a swift stroll to the sea. When I was choosing a university it was a choice only between places near the channel.

 

I really struck gold when I first arrived in Hove – a 1 min stroll to the beach and a glimpse of the sea from our huge bay windows. Shame the flat was so tiny!

Fast forward a few years; 2 kids, a stressful and emotionally demanding job as a primary school teacher and then management in a large school and my visits to the seafront to swim had all but dried up! Discovering the Seabirds has changed that in a big way.

Thinking back to my earliest swimming experience  it wasn’t in the sea at all. We had swimming lessons in the local Pool in Poole and I was awarded a certificate for swimming 5 metres! I think my mum’s still got it somewhere. I’ve never really liked swimming in indoor pools and that one was particularly noisy and smelly! I much prefer to remember my early swimming experiences as being back on that beach at Sandbanks. We often spent whole days (or that’s how it felt) building sandcastles in the white sand and collecting shells at the water’s edge. I’d often just run in and out of the shallow water watching my older brother but the competitive side of me couldn’t resist a challenge. Lifting my feet off the sandy sea floor and splashing along behind the rubber dingy dragged by my dad was a wondrous moment. The smell of sea is still one of my favourites even the algae that’s lurking around at the moment!

 

At the beginning of last year I’d resigned from my teaching job following increased anxiety and the return of my depression. I thought hard about why I’d suffered again with my mental health and concluded I needed to find a new community of people, to join something (I’m not a joiner!) and hopefully feel happier in myself.  I’ve not been disappointed!  The encouragement and support from the seabirds has been a huge part of my recovery and their companionship has been so powerful.

 

Just as I found the Seabirds wild swimming community on Facebook, I heard about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course they were running and joined the 4 weekly sessions. I loved hearing Kath wax lyrical about the tides and currents and it gave me great confidence and resilience in swimming more frequently in the sea. (The tea and cake after each dip helped too!)

I took the plunge and joined my first Seabird Swim on 1st May last year and could not have imagined how amazing it would feel. A year on and I was disappointed to spend only 5 minutes in the sea on my ‘Salty swimversary’. Although much more confident in the water than I was a year ago – big seas still scare me and the lack of Seabird laughter and screeching during this time has made the sea swimming experience a serious and almost silent one!

 

The great thing about swimming with the Seabirds is that you can just post a swim if you fancy one, no need to organise weeks in advance, and see who rocks up. Sometimes it’s just 1 other person sometimes 20. I’m still shy in big groups and often hover on the edge of a Monday Mass if I manage to get there at all. But at every single swim whatever I am  feeling when I turn up, the sea and the salty flock always make me feel welcome and part of the community and that is after all why I joined! Thanks to all you amazing people who’ve chatted, shared cake, swimming hats, laughter,  tears, lifts to Shoreham and companionship with me over the last year I’m so looking forward to being back with  the flock soon.

Unprecedented Times

A Guest Blog by Seabird Claudine

It was a clear, crisp day.  Filled with sunshine, then rain, then sun, then hail, all within 5 minutes.  A typical spring day then.  Perhaps not typical as in regular, but typical as in we’ve seen it all before, weather-wise.  Four seasons in one day.  It’s one of those days where we don’t go out.  Is that because we can’t be bothered?  Because it’s the weekend and getting the children dressed and out of the house is more effort than it’s worth?  Or is it because we are on lock-down, the pandemic of Covid 19 wreaking havoc on the world?  The entire world.

As I sit in the sunshine whilst the heavens aren’t opening, I wonder if there are parts of the world unaffected, remote and cut off from others in a way that is protecting them from all that is going on.  I wonder what it would be like to live in those communities.  Before this, as well as now, I sometimes dream of the ideal “getting away from it all” lifestyle change, as many do I’m sure.  A log cabin on the coast in a remote part of Canada, on the Sunshine Coast, maybe near Sechelt, away from people, near bears, (but friendly ones), with a glorious sea to swim in literally on my doorstep.  Or in another daydream fantasy, one of those houses the characters live in on Big Little Lies; a modern mansion on the beach with a luxurious expansive deck, with sofas bigger than my entire living room, and a roaring fire-pit, overlooking the waves, and a little wooden boardwalk down to the golden sand.  Anyway, I digress.

“It is unprecedented” is the phrase of the week/ fortnight/ month – who knows?  We have all lost track of time.  It’s like something from a Sci-fi film.  People in hazmat suits (a term I wasn’t even aware of until the virus hit) all over the news, looking like they are treating people who are radioactive, or taking evidence from a crime scene.  Who knew the world could be put on hold in this way?  For some it has all come to a standstill. No-one needs certain products and services right now, maybe they never really did.  I have always looked at certain jobs and industries and wondered if they really needed to exist.  Occasionally even my own.  But for some it isn’t like that.

Simultaneously other people’s worlds have gone from high pressure to incredibly intense.  People working night and day to adapt, to change to find a need and meet it.  For some that means profiteering: opening a shop especially to sell overpriced toilet roll and hand sanitizer.  For others that means thinking how they can use their skills to provide a slightly different service and continue to make a living; restaurants offering take away service, coffee delivered to your door, everything possible being offered online, even the things that “couldn’t possibly” be done online before.  Whilst others do their best with the limited resources they have to take care of others.  People risking their lives working in hospitals with the most sick, trying to reduce the death toll and slow the spread.  People have made the sacrifice of leaving their own homes and families so they don’t take the virus home to their loved ones or from their loved ones to the workplace where the most vulnerable are.

I miss things.  I know I am privileged to have a nice house, large garden, family members to keep me company, the tech I need to stay connected.  I still have the ability to go down to the seafront occasionally, get in the sea, as long as I do it alone.  But I’m not sure if I should. It isn’t as much fun as going with a few others, or the big social swims when I am in the right mood for them, but it is still glorious to get into the shimmering sea and feel the bitey cold on my body.

I’ve realised, or remembered, that I am the kind of person who manages with a new situation, and doesn’t really notice how much I miss something until I get it back again.  It sounds a bit contradictory, but I just plod along, feeling not quite right but OK, and dealing with the challenges that “home schooling” and struggling children bring.  Some days are a battle, calming down the children who show their angst in ways that are difficult for the rest of us to be around.

But last week we had a zoom call (again, an app I was unaware of until the corona virus hit) with salty seabirds, most of us getting in a cold bath as a substitute for the sea.  And I realised how much I miss them.  I miss the whoops and squeals as we get in the sea.  I miss the chatter and banter when we are in.  I miss the giggles.  I miss the dialogue: sometimes ridiculous and hilarious and sometimes profound.  I miss the support when I need a moan.  I miss the empathy when I have a cry.  I miss the hugs when a fellow seabird just knows I need one.  I miss touch.  I miss conversations about something other than my family, school work, and C19.  I miss the wide open space.  I miss the horizon, I look at and enjoy its endlessness, it represents infinite possibilities.

But this too shall pass.  Many people are in far more difficult situations than me.  Many people won’t make it through.  Many people will be living with the financial, emotional and physical fall out of this for years.  I am lucky, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling.  It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel low.

For many, life will go back to normal, soon enough, and we’ll be back to rushing around, cramming too much in, getting stressed, spending money.  But at least then we will be back with our wider tribes, we will have the freedom to come and go as we please, we will have the sea and we will have the horizon, where anything is possible.

Author: Seabird Claudine