Swimming against the Tide.

One of my favourite places in the world is the Guillamene. I spent large portions of my childhood there wishing I was on the beach in Tramore, near the hurdy gurdys, the chip shops and the sand that is a bit of a prerequisite for making sandcastles. Rock mounds are just not as satisfying to make and break as sandcastles and can hurt your toes.

On a clear day from the the Guillamene you can make out Tramore bay and the amusements. As a child I imagined I could smell the sweet stickiness of the candy floss. Far away beaches are always sandier and all that.  It was fishing that meant the Guillamene was our most frequented coastal spot, especially in mackerel season.

We were were not deprived children, we sampled all of our coastal delights, Passage East and the Pier for bait digging, Woodstown for flatfish, (flounders, dabs) and dogfish,  Dunmore East for pollock, mullet , rock ling and elusive conger eels, the Saleens for evening bass fishing, but the Guillamene was the jewel in the crown. You could spin and ground fish from the same rock (but with two rods!) and the seas were bountiful.  My Dad had his preferred fishing rock and would ultimately always end up getting some fishing done from it on the rare occasions that we weren’t there early enough to secure it.

Dad's rock blog post
Grandads rock..where the fisherman to the right is standing.

The Guillamene was and is an excellent swimming spot, a big outdoor swimming pool with a diving board, access ladders and clear crisp cold Atlantic waters. From the carpark you have the choice of Newtown Cove, with its stony beach, slipway and in it’s day the high diving board or down the long steps to the Guillamene cove. The woods and the cliff walk to the Metal Man were added attractions. In my childhood, health and safety awareness was at a much lower level than today when dare I say it, common sense seemed to be in more plentiful supply.

As frequent visitors who spent hours there in all sorts of weather, we felt we owned the place. We knew it like the back of our hands. We rolled down cliffs, relying on natural ledges to be our brakes, we climbed up and down gullies when the tide was out and played chicken with the tide when it was coming in.  Mammoth games of hide and seek were played in the woods. We annually cleared out rocks so the stream that ran through the woods would have an easier journey to its’ final destination under the stony beach and into the Atlantic Ocean.  God love any visiting Jackeen who decided, it would be fun to throw a stone back in the pooling area. Our wrath and derision were of biblical proportions as we silently cast deadly daggers in their direction. We were surprised when they weren’t struck down on the spot  by the force of our malevolent whisperings. Our dog Scamp, much to my mother’s mortification once ran off with tourists ( from the North- escaping the madness of the the 12th) lunch a whole cooked chicken…we thought they were very posh..chicken was dearer back then. We shared our corn beef sandwiches if I remember rightly.

Back in the day, it was Newtown Cove which hosted us for our Dad’s days of fishing. The Guillamene being Men Only.  This irritated me as when it was low tide the Cove to my mind was worse than useless, as you would be combating a large bed of  bladderwrack & kelp seaweed with every stroke. My vivid imagination needed little or no encouragement to conjure up sea monsters.

The Guillamene on the other hand had good depth of water irrespective of the tide. In hindsight it was at low tide with swimming not an option that we did our best exploring. We would also sit on the grass overlooking the Guillamene, hidden from view,again there was no railing and it didn’t take long to figure out that some men just couldn’t afford swimming trunks.  For our amusement, we would roll smallish pebbles down the cliff slope to distract the male coterie and maybe cause the odd towel slip. It was rumoured (scandalously) at the time that even the bishop swam naked.

I clearly remember getting quite disgruntled by this arrangement. Newtown Cove to my mind should be Ladies Only, if the Guillamene was going to be Men Only.  It struck me as most unfair that boys and men could come to Newtown and fill the sheltered cove waters, take up valuable swimming space at high tide but never have to suffer the frustration of low tide swims. Actually before long it was the fact that they had a choice which was unavailable to me that really gave me ire.

At a very young age, I had no strong desire to swim in the Guillamene as you are immediately out of your depth once you enter the water and all those old men (with or without their dangly bits on show although I have since been reliably informed by my male relatives that the water is so bloody cold that dangly bits become undangly at a rapid rate) were off putting but forbidding me from doing so ………well you can imagine! The injustice did not sit quietly with me.

I have a hazy recollection that one summer my older sister had placards under her bed and was planning on mounting a one woman protest against this arrangement. She had already regularly gone down to swim, but in no uncertain terms was forbidden from bringing us into her defiant affray.  I think Mam disapproved as there was the risk of encountering nudity and being told off  by some of the regular older male swimmers. Mam probably feared for our safety in the water too. I don’t know if the protest ever came to pass or if Mam got wind of it and put a halt to it.

I do remember, however my first swim.  I was well used to going up and down the steps as that’s how I gained access to Dad and his fishing rock but I had only ever been down in the swimming area off season or when no one was about. I was probably somewhere between nine and eleven, a strong swimmer well used to the vagaries of the ocean and not frightened of voicing an opinion or two. I have to admit it though, when the opportunity came and I had to decide whether to continue past the fishing area with my towel and togs, it was with a racing heart and trembling knees and eyes firmly kept at ground level that I proceeded. To be told off by a grown up and the impact that would have had on me is hard to describe. It was indeed different times.

I was warned, no dilly dallying, get changed, get in. We weren’t going swimming when no one was about,  I was swimming with the big boys, no time for doubting my swimming prowess, no toe dipping. Added to the fact that it was not yet June..this was an act of rebellion against my mother too. “April May stay out of the sea…June July you can swim till you die”  was an adage that we were forced to adhere to for fear of us ‘catching our death of cold’. The Guillamene was always the colder of the two swimming spots.

However, with my big brother,( who must have been home for a weekend) and my sister as my flankers, it was as they say game on. My precocious verbal bluff was called and I dared to commit my first defiant act against an unfair status quo.  I was hooked. Nobody said anything to us,(on that occasion at any rate) and it was just on the cusp of an era of change. It was one of the most invigorating swims of my life.

It was delicious experiencing the piercing cold, swimming in a stretch of water never before explored, not being able to see the seabed but having great visibility none the less, knowing that there was no putting your feet down, no stony/sandy safety net. Within minutes I was already plotting the next swim.

The open sea is just so much closer from the Guillamene than Newtown Cove. The horizon appears within touching distance. Skin tingling, heart racing, the sense of freedom, the icy cold blast that the water delivers into your veins, the sea’s indifference to your state of mind and the invigoration and feeling of exhilaration when you emerge, knowing at a core cellular level and with every fibre of your being that yes indeed, you are alive. Those first swim sensations have been replicated many times since over the years.  I don’t know when it stopped costing me a thought to go swimming in the Guillamene. It just happened, I survived my first telling off, so I made it my own as was the rest of the place.

The Guillamene stopped being MEN ONLY  way  way back, probably in the mid 1980’s. It has become a rite of passage for all my children, their first swim in the Guillamene, with a fairly immediate report to their Uncle John and cousins. As usual, they have surpassed me, with their jumping straight in from the diving board at ludicrous young ages; a skill I never mastered, a fear never conquered.

I am no longer first in and last out of the sea. Even Small beat me to it this year, both for first swim of the year and first in the water. I can boast to having never worn a wetsuit (though that in fairness is just as much to do with my lack of patience and the wish to preserve some very small modicum of dignity).

I hope though that if ever given the chance and maybe with a little help from each other they too will enjoy the satisfaction of giving the proverbial two fingers to ridiculous restrictions and mores. I hope that they will “Swim against the Tide” in their own lives,  if the need arises or just for the pleasure of it.


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