Note: this is not an instruction document, it’s creative writing from personal experience: If you actually do intend to swim round the pier, the best thing is to talk to the local swimmers, and don’t do it on your own. However, there is quite a lot of useful information here:

Still.Scary.Topic: how to swim round Clevedon Pier

Clevedon Pier extends into the Bristol Channel for about 250 metres. Swimming the length of it is therefore similar in distance to swimming one length of Clevedon Marine Lake. Of course, you do have to swim back again, unlike the Lake you do not have the option of getting out and walking, should you get into a long conversation whilst in freezing water and find you are then a bit cold (it’s been known…).

And you must first swim from the beach to the foot of the Pier, but this is no great distance. Swim to the Pier, along one side of it, round the Pierhead at the end, back along the other side and to the beach and you might have swum 750 metres. For many swimmers in summer no distance at all, just getting going.

So why have so many capable swimmers never swum round the Pier, and why did it take me four or five years of swimming at Clevedon before I did? From the beach up the coast to Ladye Bay and back is over 2 kilometers, in summer it’s a popular swim despite the fact that you cannot get out of the Channel except at either end of the journey, and still some swimmers who do that will not swim round the end of the Pier.

To understand why, you have to be in the Bristol Channel beneath those massive pier legs. You pick your time, safely close to high tide, maybe you swim under the second arch and then, alongside the far side of the Pier, head straight out to sea. From the second arch past the third, reaching the fourth, you’re not so far out that you feel out of place, you’re just a little further from the shore. And you have the comforting presence of a grade one listed pier for company, its legs marking off your distance.

But by the 5th, you may pause for a moment to consider the distance back, by the 6th you have a rising sense of heading out into the unknown and wonder if it’s best not to look back. By the 7th arch – the last one – you almost have to carry on, why would you stop now? And you almost have to turn back, what are you doing all the way out here?

The Pierhead before you rises out of the sea on massive iron columns. On top is a dainty Japanese-style pagoda, placed there, like the Pier itself, by Victorians. Because they could.

The swimmer sees only a glimpse of the pagoda on the platform high above. Below, in the dark under the platform, is a maze all criss-crossed with iron ties. Both airy and shadowy, and a little threatening. Unlike the high arches of the pier walkway, this is not a place to swim under, but you can swim round it. On reaching the seaward side, however, you are suddenly confronted by the frankly ugly concrete beams of the docking platform which crouches behind the pier. You loose touch with the open ironwork that’s been your companion on this swim. Densely-spaced slabs of concrete glare sullenly at you instead. Now, you’re round the back of the pier, away from the shore, in the ‘middle’ of the Bristol channel, and it seems a long, long way back to the beach. The current, always significant in these waters, has been getting stronger every metre away from the shore: you’re no longer in the protected Clevedon Bay. You are a very small land-dweller in a vast expanse of water that doesn’t even have the decency to be a comforting blue. The next landmark… is Wales.

Unseen from the shore, a lonely St George’s flag flies here, the pole mounted on the monstrous concrete platform. But for all its insistence to the contrary, out here is the unknown. Out here is where mapmakers mark: “Here be Dragons”.

This is not your environment. This is not a place to tarry. If the tide has already turned, it will proceed to try harder and harder to sweep you down to Weston, or out into the channel. And eventually it will succeed: nobody out-swims that current.

But you have time to swim back to shore. Fishing-lines permitting, I recommend sticking close to the Pier: drifting without realizing it is the danger. And so as you round the other side of the Pierhead and reach the iron legs of the pier again, they are encouraging. And if you have that constant questioning of self and judgement that says “I have got this right, haven’t I?”, you need simply to swim for the next leg.

You might pass the loneliest seventh arch swimming hard, at an angle to the direction in which you’re travelling: the current hasn’t given up its prize yet. You pass the 6th arch, then by five it’s “yep, I got this. Me, worried?”, but to be safe, you may find you are still inclined to keep up a good speed.

4th arch, and 3rd passed, and by now you can head straight to the beach. All is good. But there might have been dragons, back there, the water-dwelling sort. And some day you’ll swim out there again, and discover all over again those nagging doubts that lurk behind the Pier, that loneliness. Every time. The place never becomes normal.

And if you are a fan of what3words, you may appreciate the location of that Union Flag in my drawing, just on the corner as you meet the sullen concrete platform. It is: “still.scary.topic”

A note about this drawing: if the walkway of the Pier looks an odd angle, and the Pierhead not properly lined up with the end, it is because this is indeed the case. The Pier, opened in 1869, had a new Pierhead built on the end which re-opened in 1893, and this was angled to be in line with the prevailing current. The Concrete landing stage behind, dates from 1913.


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