The joys of sea swimming, at any time of the year

It's well documented, the benefits of cold water swimming: a reduced heart rate, fewer colds, better sleep, improved general wellbeing (as if that wasn’t enough), a grin the width of the harbour and a sense of shivering accomplishment.

Article by Kat Taylor

This year’s traditional Christmas Day dip was no different. As I quivered in the car under layers of thick jumpers, coat, tracksuit bottoms and all the woollen essentials, my swimsuit frigid against my skin (and this was before I went in, mind you)  I knew it was going to have to be one of those ‘run or regret it’ entrances to the gently grey sea.

I love Gyllyngvase beach, with its triangular shore bordered by rock pools. It stretches towards Swanpool in one direction, and Castle Beach with Pendennis Point in the other. The characteristic Cornish palms and white-sailed boats in the bay could make you believe you were somewhere much warmer on a sunny day in mid-July. Not on this day though. The fine pebbles hummed with families and friends in huddles spread out around picnic blankets, with a strange dichotomy of people either in their full winter clothing, cold faces peeking out between scarves and hats, and people nearly nude, shivering but grinning, holding their towels tightly around them and clutching hot drinks. It was the grinning that set apart that they had already been in; the few in their towels but staring grimly out to sea you could be assured were considering how much ridicule they would get if they just put their clothes back on and went home.

The longer the wait, the worse it gets: the fear that is, the teeth-clenching, skin prickling, fear of the cold. I stared around at the group of friends that had persuaded me into this spot. “Shall we do it then?” was asked, and with much nervous giggling, a flurry of activity began, although not always a productive one. One friend insisted on folding all his clothes neatly on the picnic blanket, and while we groaned and shivered in states of partial undress, he delicately separated his clothes from the communal pile that had formed. Eventually, we were ready. “What about your hat?” my Dad, who had come to spectate and laugh with my friend’s parents, asked. “This warm woollen hat is essential to my survival,” I told him gravely. My head would not be going under that silvery roof today.

Us swimmers huddled, had a photo taken; whipped off our last vestiges of sensible winter attire, and ran, barefoot, bums visibly wobbling, into the sea. The first few steps felt like nothing; and then we were screeching and yelping and hopping, arms flapping, still edging deeper, half aware of our friends suffering the same fate around us. Have I sold it to you yet? 

The beach behind us was packed, but most people on dry land paid little attention to us on this bright Christmas Day, chattering and warm in their groups. A dog beach from October to Easter, from the sea all I could hear was the echo of our yelps: tens of scampering dogs chasing and playing together, small blurred lines whipping up the sand. And then we were swimming. We got out; we were so numb we saw no reason not to get back in. It was peaceful further out, with gentle rolling waves just high enough to obscure the beach, depositing pockets of quiet aloneness in the vast grey sea. 

I hope, despite the cold, I have sold it to you, as getting out of the water for the final time that year was tinged with sadness. There’s nothing like the rush of your body adapting – closing pores, lowering your heart rate, deepening your breath – when it’s dropped into the sea. Luckily, the sea is always open and free. Of course, between October and April on most Cornish beaches there’s unlikely to be a lifeguard present, so it’s important not to go alone, and always be aware of the local swell, tides and rips.

If you’ve been inspired to go for a cold Cornish swim, here’s some of the best beaches for it this winter:

Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth

A wide pebbles-and-sand beach with rock pools either side. Access to the water is easy at all tides. Gylly Beach Cafe serves hot and cold local food and drinks, and there are public (often fairly sandy, but otherwise clean) toilets. The beach has the coveted Blue Flag Award for clean water. Parking is free but fairly limited on the road, or there’s a pay per hour car park conveniently located a minute or so’s walk from the beach. There is even a formal, though small, open air sub-tropical garden at the back of the beach for family members for whom even looking at the sea makes them shiver!

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives

A wide and shallow sandy beach that is popular with surfers all year round. Access to the water is best during an incoming tide, but not difficult at either end (except for the long walk or occasional dumping wave!). Overlooked by Porthmeor Beach Cafe, there is a range of hot and cold food available, with several pasty shops scattered no more than a ten minute walk throughout town. Porthmeor also has the Blue Flag Award, and often seals and dolphins can be spotted playing further out around the rocks of Man’s head. Parking is fairly limited and often expensive in St Ives, especially right down near the beach, but there is a larger car park at the top of the hill with the added bonus that the stairs will warm you up after your swim. Dogs are also welcome at Porthmeor until Easter, and the Tate is right behind the beach should you need any more reason to visit this beautiful corner of town.

Porthminster Beach, St Ives

Another idyllic, Blue Flag awarded beach, with clear water and waving Cornish palms. Access to the water is fine at all tides, and the Porthminster Beach Cafe is close at hand for warming drinks and very local food, much of which is grown in the neighbouring gardens. The view stretches across to Godrevy Lighthouse and Hayle, and it is a beach ever-popular with dog walkers before the start of the seasonal ban in Easter. Parking is again limited, but the train line ends right behind the beach and is known for its sea views on the short coastal journey from St Erth to St Ives, so parking at St Erth station is encouraged to make the most of the trip.

Jubilee Pool, Penzance

Although currently closed for a geothermal renovation, the award-winning lido perched on the edge of Penzance’s sea wall is definitely worth a mention, although there is a small charge for entry. Reopening in the Spring of 2019, the deep art deco style pool uses filtered sea water, as it has done for over 80 years, and is beautifully arranged in a curving triangle facing out to sea. There is usually plenty of parking in Penzance, with a large pay and display car park in the town centre and often spaces available along the Promenade nearby. With bright changing rooms (including hot showers), a reinforced sea wall to keep the worst of the breeze out and a proposed cafe soon to open, it’s everything you could want for your first cold water dip. Add to that the new geothermal project, where a corner of the pool will be heated via natural energy to 35°C all year round, and this option could almost be considered cheating.

Bude Sea Pool, Summerleaze

Although a blowy winter sea on the north coast is best for surfers, for a swim without too many waves there are other Cornish options. Part natural and part man made pool carved into rock, Bude Sea Pool is therefore best enjoyed at low tide, when the waves crash onto the beach below, rather than into the pool. As it’s rock based, it can be slippy, and as it’s tidal the depth can’t be guaranteed – unfortunate for those that prefer the quick dive in. The pool is cared for and maintained all year round by a volunteer operation, The Friends of Bude Sea Pool (FoBSP), although there’s no charge to use it or Summerleaze beach, which it sits on. There are no lifeguard facilities during the winter, but FoBSP do organise winter swimming events if you prefer to dip socially. The beach at Summerleaze also has the added bonus of the wide open sea, as well as a Life’s a Beach cafe, and is open to dogs on leads all year round. Parking is available in a large pay and display car park that also houses the nearest public toilets.

Before you swim in the sea, it is important to be aware of the sea state and weather. Check out our Beach Safety guide and local websites for advice before you set off.