Author’s Musings: Freya Bromley’s Journey through Britain’s Tidal Pools

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Tidal Pool Swimming

This piece is presented by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Before its sight, you can discern its sound. The tranquil sound of the sea, shoosh-shooshing, followed by the roar of pebbles tumbling back into the ocean’s depths. There’s a distinct scent of salt mingling with sunscreen; beach-bound families enjoying the day. A tunnel through the Ilfracombe hillside guides you, its walls bearing the impressions of pickaxe strokes, vestiges left by the Welsh miners of the 1820s. Drawing nearer, you see a glimpse of azure widen at the tunnel’s end. Looking over the iron railings to your left, it unveils itself: the tidal pool at Tunnels Beaches.

In my quest to swim in all of Britain’s tidal pools, I travelled to North Devon. From the quarry lagoon in Wales, mermaid pools in Cornwall, to the Scottish fishing village of St Monans, I explored 36 such pools in a year. The Tidal Year, my book, not only encapsulates this journey but also parallels it with my personal journey through grief, following the death of my brother, Tom, in 2016. My fascination with these pools stemmed from seeking symbolic meaning. Despite the perilous tides and fierce currents of the sea, a well-defined tidal pool acts as a safe haven. I needed to tentatively wade into a grief that felt overwhelmingly vast and boundless.

The pool at Ilfracombe, with its intricate system of six tunnels, is a man-made creation from the Victorian era. Formed by trapping water, it is submerged by the sea twice daily. Upon my arrival, patience was key as the pool was covered. I learned that swimming, much like grieving, is a similar process, with its ebbs and flows, periods of tumult followed by calm.

While waiting for the tide to shift, I meandered through the town, clicking photos to share with my grandmother. She resided in Ilfracombe during World War II, her father serving in the Merchant Navy, engaged in bringing food from America across the North Atlantic. In 1942, with an address on a scrap of paper, he instructed my great-grandmother to relocate to Devon. Accompanied by her two young children, she found refuge in Mrs Jewel’s Guest House, providing shelter for families fleeing London. They remained there for three years.

I captured a seagull perched on a traffic bollard, the crowd awaiting their turn outside The Ilfracombe Fryer, and the clock tower sign of the church bearing the inscription: It Is Time To Seek The Lord. I reflected on my grandmother’s past and our intertwined personal histories with Tunnels Beaches. When asked, she couldn’t recollect swimming there, but remembered boys being cautioned against cliff climbing. Having attended a convent school, she held no fondness for swimming. “It was a mortal sin to wear a swimsuit,” she confided. Tunnels was initially segregated by gender, with horse-drawn bathing machines ensuring modesty for the women swimmers.

“Swimming at Tunnels Beaches, I felt surrounded by history. It pervades the water and the rocks. The place is seeped in age-old stories.”

When I finally returned, the tide had receded, revealing the pool: dark blue water held within a lime-mortar wall, with surrounding rocks standing sentinel. That day, the water was more than just cool, it was cold. As I swam, the chill nipped at my skin, the spring sun warmed my face, a natural antidote. My heartbeat calmed.

There’s nothing that alleviates the ache of grief quite like cold water. For ages, people have sought solace in Tunnels for this very reason. In the Victorian era, cold-water swimming gained popularity as a cure ‘for modern life’s ailments’, a fact I gleaned from a guidebook at the kiosk. The history of this place is well-preserved and palpable: in the turnstiles, in the £3 deck chairs available for rent. This is a common thread across all the tidal pools I visited. Pittenweem in Anstruther established a mini-golf course to raise restoration funds. Brixham’s Shoalstone Pool rallied against the council to prevent its closure. Bristol’s Clevedon Marine Lake is kept functional by volunteer effort.

Swimming at Tunnels Beaches, I felt surrounded by history. It pervades the water and the rocks. The place is seeped in age-old stories. Even before these tunnels were sculpted, the coves served as smugglers’ hideouts. The nearby rock pools were studied by biologist Philip Henry Gosse, Charles Darwin’s friend, who discovered new marine species there.

That’s the unique charm of tidal pools. They serve as magical portals, connecting us to the past and future in a way unparalleled elsewhere. My grandmother has her stories associated with this place. So do I. And I am certain, you’ll pen your own here, too.

Published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Tidal Pool Swimming

What is the main theme of this article?

The article is centered around author Freya Bromley’s experiences swimming in Britain’s tidal pools, and how it became a part of her personal healing journey following her brother’s death.

Who is Freya Bromley and what did she do?

Freya Bromley is an author who embarked on a journey to swim in all of Britain’s tidal pools. This experience was not only an adventure but also a therapeutic process to cope with the grief of losing her brother.

What is the book “The Tidal Year” about?

“The Tidal Year” is a book written by Freya Bromley. It documents her journey of swimming in 36 tidal pools in Britain over a year. The book also touches upon her personal experience of dealing with grief after her brother’s death.

What historical aspects does the article touch on?

The article explores the history of the tidal pool at Tunnels Beaches in Ilfracombe, which was made in Victorian times. It also delves into the author’s personal family history related to the town, as her grandmother lived there during World War II.

What did Freya learn about grief through her swimming journey?

Freya found parallels between her swimming journey and her journey through grief. She discovered that just as a swimmer has to patiently wait for the right tide and navigate through calm and stormy waters, dealing with grief also requires patience and acceptance of its ebbs and flows.

More about Tidal Pool Swimming

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BeckyGreen June 19, 2023 - 10:52 pm

I read “The Tidal Year.” Its beautifully written. this article gives me more context to the book, so thanks!

Sandra O'Reilly June 20, 2023 - 2:53 am

Never thought of swimming in tidal pools but after reading this, im thinking to give it a try, sounds pretty cool actually.

Gary Smithson June 20, 2023 - 5:54 am

Wow, Freya Bromley’s journey is so inspiring! kinda makes you think about how nature can heal us in unexpected ways, doesn’t it?

Jenn P June 20, 2023 - 9:17 am

my heart aches for Freya. Losing a sibling is so tough, bless her. swimming as a way to cope with grief is quite interesting.

David Clarkson June 20, 2023 - 11:00 am

Have been to Tunnels Beaches myself. Its truly an amazing place. this article really captures its magic. kudos to Freya for her adventure!


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