Ebb and Flow of the onward Tide

September 2019 came along all too quickly and with it the return to school for both teenagers. At this point I was on bereavement leave from work with much to digest and sort through. I took up walking sessions with a fitness trainer called Tim at the colourful Bedgebury Pinetum near Goudhurst. Through the following months I walked 5km every couple of weeks with Tim and it just helped to get me out in the winter months whilst I was having counselling at Hospice in the Weald. In addition I returned to work at the end of October 2019.

Bedgebury Pinetum – 24/12/2019 – Taken by Anne-Marie Billingham

During this early time I had tried a day’s spa and swim at the wonderful Knowle Grange Health Spa near Frant, East Sussex. With the exquisite outdoor pool under a bubble in the winter months, I elected to take out an annual membership so I could continue. This was magic! At this point this was about a sustained return to regular swimming and exercise, which I could also fit in with the days I was working at home for my job. At this point I had office days on Mondays and Thursdays, so swimming twice a week at least on other days was very straightforward and essential for my well-being. I should add that returning to work was also essential for my wellbeing especially as I was able to take a phased approach to my return. The support of management and my friends at work over this period was critical to the success of my return.

Over the festive break from Christmas 2019 into New Year 2020 we took a break at Shearbarn Holiday Park in Hastings where we had the luxury of a hot tub outside our lodge. It was a magic time away from home, work and to regroup. Having the daily option also of their onsite swimming pool, and walking with our good friends New Years Day was so welcome.

Wavy Sea at Hastings 01/01/2020 – Anne-Marie Billingham

January 2020 brought the Interim Accounts time at work and also concerted mentions of the word Covid-19 in the press. At the time we had no idea what would follow. Swimming at the pool continued as did my younger teen settling to secondary school alongside my pushing for help and counselling for both my teenagers. Both schools were in fact amazing however March 2020 arrived and with it the unprecedented lockdown which would last into the summer. Prior to that I had had work started on my chimneys on the house which was not completed until work could restart later in April 2020. Also I had started refurbishment of my bathroom. I write about this because in the months following bereavement it is common for people to start doing projects with the pretext of keeping busy. In this context it added to the stress loading of having unfinished works alongside the pretence and frustration that became home schooling for myself and both teenagers. We went out for the permitted hour per day walking and were luckily able to enjoy our garden too. As house works were able to restart late April, we had the entertainment of my plumbers finishing the bathroom and the teens and I painting it afterwards. All these were merely ongoing distractions from the isolation that was lockdown. Zoom calls with my friends were an absolute blessing as was the first steps out of lockdown in terms of meeting outside for walks. The real boon for exercise and sanity was of course the reopening of the outdoor pool at Knowle Grange in June 2020. Safe booked sessions became the way forward.

With the further lifting of lockdown restrictions the teenagers and I were able to holiday in Selsey early August, and return to Borth later in August. I was able to use up accumulated leave and take all of August out. At this point I had also found swimming at Hever Castle Lake to be available and told myself I would do this. I started at Hever also in August 2020. First of all the magical Selsey evenings…

The Teens swimming at Dusk – Like Mother like….Sons – Anne-Marie Billingham – August 2020

Both the boys (aka “the teens”) had taken to evening walk together and quietly packing their swim kit. I would go for a walk and catch them up, but on the above evening clearly I figured out this walk had become a meeting in a secret evening swimmers paradise whilst of course the tide was out. This memory lives on. Swimming at the on site beach at Bunn Leisure was great fun and I live for it each year on our return. Long may we….

Our next summer adventure was to Seabreaker cottage at Borth via a stay at my cousin Naomi’s Pillar Box Farm Cottages – The Forge. A lovely experience I cannot recommend enough – we return again this year. https://pillarboxfarmcottages.co.uk/ – the weblink.

Swimming whenever I could was of course a core aim of the week but it was challenging as we were blessed (or not!) with two storms during our week’s stay. The full might of the wind and sea buffeting your windows really made sure you understood the full might of Mother Nature. To that end a photo follows below with a poem I wrote during Storm Francis:

In the Eye of Storm Francis 25/08/2020 – Borth – Anne-Marie Billingham

Stormy Seabreaker

Stormy Seas today in abundance
Rain batters you into a trance
Hurling against your sea view window
Casting in you desire not to retreat into your shadow

Up you rise to the commanding sound
As the elements hurl rain and waves abound
The waves furl at you their relentless foam
The wind buffets you hard trying to send you home

There is still serenity out there in the grey
You are still at peace and miles away from the fray
The wind is confounding many today who prefer to rest
Certain you are a nutter unable to wait for the best

They are wrong for I get peace at all times in nature
Marvelling at her amazing ability to change her stature
From the serene and the calm magical scene of yesterday
To the bewildering and chilling fierceness of today

I saw a chink of sun in the distance over the sea
It poked it’s head out in temporary glee
Glistening through the dark clouds who laughed for sure
I was lucky it is true to glimpse a brief golden azure

The evening has now fought the night
The white of the waves have disappeared in the windy blight
It is an alarming whip up now the sound of the wind
Surely soon it must go forth and rescind……..

Anne-Marie Billingham, 25th August, 2020

Whilst staying at Seabreaker, Borth, Wales.

Stormy Sea Breaker 25/08/2020

We avowed to return after our week of glorious views and changeable weather. For me it was staying in this corner of Wales has always been about. It is magical and for me – it is somewhere reminding me of times in my twenties before marriage and very much somewhere I wanted the family to get to know. It is also now part of my path forwards and I long to be there again soon. Having negotiated the summer period of Covid-19 and lifting of restrictions both the children and I were looking forward to their return to school in the September 2020. Strangely I could say that I really had become rather used to them being around all the time so it would be a major adjustment on return to routine. One however, we all needed. That’s for the next time!

Thank you for reading 🙂 . Happy New Year 🙂

Changing Times and Tides

As a family we continued our love of swimming and swimming outdoors into the current times. However as I alluded to in the last blog, cancer had taken both my parents – my Mum in December 2014 and Dad in June 2018. During that intervening period I discovered the wonderful TriSwim who started up open water swimming at the local Honnington Farm Lake. Memory recollects this was the summer of 2016 that my local outdoor swimming adventures began. Alongside this wonderful venue was also Haysden Lake, within the Haysden Country Park in Tonbridge, Kent. I managed to elicit sometimes time to swim two evenings a week on my way home from the office, due in no small part to the benevolence of husband Richard who ensured the children were collected from after-school club or their childminder on his way home from work earlier on. Both venues were lifeguarded with kayaking lifesavers. From May through to September these venues would allow these wonderful opportunities. I never thought how much I would come to rely on being able to relax and get peace of mind swimming outdoors.

Haysden Lake, Tonbridge – July 2020 – Taken by Anne-Marie Billingham

Inevitably I swam mostly in just a swimsuit, hat and goggles. Due to lakeside conditions I quickly adopted wetsuit boots to save my feet, it was just sensible to do so. This is my preferred swimming attire to the current day, although I have upgraded the neoprene thickness of my wetsuit boots to gradually 5mm. This is because now for the first time I am swimming into the winter months in 2021. However that is for later….

My Dad passed from cancer in June 2018. Although I had booked with TriSwim for earlier swims in the May 2018, the pace of helping Dad with hospital appointments which necessitated 80 mile round trips as he resided in Croydon, meant it was not possible to throw myself in the lake in the 2018 season. We as a family had to satisfy ourselves with our August jaunts to Selsey, and the fabulous West Wittering Beach. However over this time it became apparent that my husband Richard was getting very tired and with a couple of ongoing issues, was unable to swim much with us in the sea on that holiday in 2018. We also took our first voyage to the fabulous cottage in Borth, where the children and myself swum at any opportunity from the beach just across the road. Richard enjoyed the week away but was mostly recovering from minor day surgery just before, and he was not unreasonably feeling quite despondent about this.

September 2018 and return to work and school for us all. In October Richard and ultimately also I had the news no-one wants ever to receive. He received a bladder cancer diagnosis, and the news that it had spread to his liver rendering his condition terminal. Palliative chemotherapy was given but for Richard he always questioned how much it really helped him as he felt his condition worsening, and his concern about leaving us and when. The chemotherapy began Christmas 2018, finally completing before Easter 2019.

Over the period of Richard’s treatment it is telling that I cannot remember hardly doing anything for my well-being as a carer, mother and full-time working civil service accountant. Swimming indoors was done when I could, however the 2019 outdoor season with TriSwim came and passed me by. By June 2019, I had taken stress leave from work as Richard’s condition had worsened and the local Hospice in the Weald took Richard into their care as an in-patient around the 10th July, 2019. Friends and family, and the children’s schools were amazing over this period when I was also starting to settle our younger boy Henry to his secondary setting.

We said goodbye to Richard at 10:30pm on Saturday 27th July. Not before he had requested that I find someone else for his place on our booked holiday to Selsey due to start end July as he would not be well enough to come. Truly a remarkable man to the very end, loved at work by his colleagues, and loved by us – family and friends.

Eddy, Henry and I did actually make it away to Selsey for the two weeks as we were quite frankly instructed to. With time to talk and swim, we tried to start processing what had just befallen us as a family.

Evening on West Sands Beach, Bunn Leisure, Selsey – August 2019

Being able to visit West Sands so immediately after Richard’s death provided the children and I with time and space to talk. I know I spent a lot of time in the water and we were able to have a visit from our friends during the time there. We spent time doing the things we’d enjoyed always as a family, and I hoped we’d carry on wanting to do. I realised that certainly I wanted to be outside more and in the water. During August there was inevitably many things to do and I found myself writing a poem for Richard’s funeral. I share this with you below:

SWIMMING by Anne-Marie Billingham 23/08/2019

My eyes are brimming
Waves of emotion
Inside me causing a commotion
I have to pace it out strong
To push our days along

I think back to our 2004 Scottish sojourn
Swimming isle to isle oh how I yearn
Our freezing knees landing on the beach after Isla to Jura
And swimming with the seals off Scarba
As we swam out for the mainland that last day
Our memories of joy before rejoining the daily fray

Sharing Cornish moments of “joy” swimming against the clocks
A freak wave on Poldhu beach threw us against the rocks
We swam back from the brink
I knew I’d seen visions then in a blink
Which is another reason why we taught the kids to swim
So their safety won’t cause our tears to brim

We practiced swimming indoors and outside at the local lido
Year in and year out without further ado
Enjoying the days out relaxing if we could too
To be entirely recommended we might say – to you
Swimming is an antidote to stress
As well as helping me to fit the right size dress

Every year we head to the sea
As a family buckets and spades in glee
Memories of West Wittering and Selsey abound
Lots of swimming there altogether as the waves sound
Covering ourselves in the smooth golden sand
We loved those times they were grand

The children and I hold all these memories dear
The way forward for us is clear
We must swim on as Richard decreed
Keeping our family time together indeed
I must carry on swimming down at Haysden Lake
And the children must practice so they can leave me in their wake

After we said goodbye formally to Richard on the 23rd August, 2019 with family and friends, we had much to think about and imminently the start of Year 7 at a new school for Henry. For Eddy it was a return to the known, but still apprehensiveness as to the way forward. We were and are very grateful to our friends and family for their support, you are all just amazing.

As it is clear by now, swimming outdoors is a massive part of our family life. My next blog instalment will take you through how ensuing events rendered me the desire for such a fulfilling hobby that now has me swimming into the winter for the very first time. It is incredible truly.

Thank you for reading.

Swimming with the Family – 2005 onwards!

With marriage to Richard on 12th July, 2003 we had both swimming indoors and outdoors as a shared interest which you will see was integral to our family life. In 2005 our first child Eddy was born in September. Prior to his birth I had carried on swimming until two weeks before. I made use of the fantastic 50m Crystal Palace Swimming Pool in the latter weeks of my maternity leave when I stopped my day job in the civil service for a year’s leave. In the months after Eddy was born it is very likely with moving house at six weeks and the loss of two friends to cancer in the lead up to Christmas 2005 that I was in the throes of post-natal depression. It was circumvented by a very astute health visitor who said the winter and all the change wasn’t helping and I really needed a sense of direction – so ultimately at that point I went out walking every single day. I recall also choosing Eddy’s day nursery for my return to work in August 2006. Before my return, Richard and I decided we needed to embrace the spring and summer months and make sure of some time away with our Eddy. So we booked a family room in the Great Yarmouth Youth Hostel, and alongside meeting my parents for a day, we were blessed with being right by the magnificent sandy beach of Great Yarmouth. At Richard’s blessing I crept out each evening at 7pm to embrace the long summer evenings with a magical sea swim. Memories of those calm swimming evenings remain to this day. During my year out with Eddy, I had of course been swimming some evenings when Richard was home from work, at the fantastic Tunbridge Wells swimming pool. Those sessions were a boon to my psyche.

In the September 2006 we joined my parents for a week at West Sands Holiday Park, Bunn Leisure, Selsey. This would become a regular slot for us as moving to June 2008, our second child Henry joined the Billingham family. Going to the West Wittering Beach each year on our visits to Selsey as a family, and with my Mum and Dad, became an absolute must do on our annual travels.

West Wittering Beach – August 2021

As can be seen from the photograph, West Wittering is a heavenly sandy beach and magical for swimming. Over the years as a family, we have all grown in our enjoyment of swimming in the sea, and building fabulous sandcastles in no small part due to this wild expanse of beach and sea which is lifeguarded during the main season. Timing for visits has to be carefully done and these days you book car parking which actually makes planning to visit much easier.

No photo description available.
The Billingham Family in 2015 – at West Wittering Beach.

Both Eddy and Henry had swimming lessons in their younger years at Tonbridge Swimming Pool, which was the epicentre of many weekend activities in our younger family days. Getting that start in swimming with lessons somewhere suited to your children is essential. Anyone who has watched “Saving Lives At Sea” on the BBC which follows the Royal National Lifesaving Institution (RNLI) volunteers on various journeys to save life will appreciate that early tuition where possible is essential. As a ongoing supporter of their work I share their website link: https://rnli.org .

As a family we grew in our love of swimming and enjoying the beach. I had been following various magazines about swimming outdoors and wanting to do more. Joining the world of Facebook aka social media around 2011, I started looking more for opportunities. As a family we did also start visiting the magnificent Saltdean Lido, near Brighton and the Pells Pool Lido in Lewes during the summer months. During 2016 a local company called TriSwim was born, providing opportunities in local lakes for fabulous outdoor swimming, see website link: https://www.triswim.org.uk/ . The next in my series of blogs will look at life changes and the growth in my love for swimming outdoors.

I dedicate this particular blog to my Mum and Dad who loved our times as a family on the beach and in these latter times at West Wittering. Both were lost to cancer in 2014 and 2018 respectively, but spent their available retirement travelling and enjoying the outdoors.

Thank you once again for reading, please sign up for future editions!

Swimtrek Holiday in the Inner Hebrides – September 2004

As promised from my opening blog, now I write about an epic swimming holiday. Trekking to the Inner Hebrides was in itself a journey in September 2004 to join the Swimtrek crew waiting for us on Islay. From home in then Forest Hill, London Richard and I took the train to Glasgow. Then a bus journey to Lochgilphead, where we took an overnight stay. In the morning we took the bus to Kennacraig Ferry Terminal to get the ferry to Port Askraig, on Islay. Once there we were met with the Swimtrek team. Very quickly we were tasked with our first swim of the holiday, between Islay and Jura – around 1 kilometre. This was to decide on our swimming groups based on speed and experience as well. Richard and I chose to swim in skins, without the knowledge that the sea around the Hebrides in September is very chilly although picturesque and clear. I disembarked from the water onto the pebbly beach on Jura unable to feel either my feet or my knees. I fell twice onto the pebbles so numb I could feel no pain. After that epic and lovely swim, Richard and I both opted to utilise our wetsuits for the remainder of the holiday. This was our first taster of cold-water swimming. Little did I appreciate that the memory of that exhilarating swim would live with me forever, and tantalise my soul, begging me to go forth and try that again.

Having swam onto Jura, we found ‘The Jura Hotel’ at Craighouse, and went in the sea again for good measure, a further swim. We then had our evening dinner at the Jura Hotel, and it was here I was also introduced to Jura coffee. Others may have tried whisky and such, I cannot remember. Overnight we rested, in readiness for walking over the Paps of Jura over to the West of Jura. During the following day with our challenging walk, it was deemed necessary to divert into a nearby Loch to cool off. Not really thinking, I ploughed through long grass and bracken to jump into the Loch for a lovely swim. I was not the only one, but observed the water was clear but very peaty. Not thinking hard, I dressed and made my way back to the party. We walked over the remainder of our route to the shore of Loch Tarbet, finding a beach West of Glen Battick. The challenge to swim across Loch Tarbet was afforded to the strongest swimmers in the group of us, and the rest of us took the ride in the dingy across. We were privileged to watch seals swimming with those in the water.

Arriving on the other shore of Loch Tarbet, we were reunited with our belongings by our trusty warrior ship who was with us for the five day trip. Not enough can be said for our pilots skill and knowledge. Also his very quick derision on seeing a bottom sea trawler ship and how he did not appreciate the damage those did, to the sea bed as well as indeed the damage to local fisheries. It felt humble to see that first hand. We camped for the night by a disused Bothy known as Cruib Bothy. Since we were there in 2004 camping, it is understood the Bothy has now been renovated for use. We cooked by the tents and were very fortunate with the weather during our time on Jura. As I recall we had an additional swim as was customary in the sea before our rest for the night. However, in case you thought that was all dear reader, no, it was not! On inspection, my trip into the peaty loch, through the bracken had left me with unexpected present. Ticks. Thank goodness my husband Richard was on the trip as there would have been red faces indeed if someone else had helped me remove this unwanted buddies. Moral of story ? Think hard and fast before jumping in the first loch you see!! Wear long trousers not shorts. And so on. Substantial chuckles resulted on relating that story I can say. After calm had returned to our party, it was decreed that an early start would be required for some who would attempt the Gulf of Corrywreckan Whirlpool in the morning.

As those of us remaining awoke to the day, the others returned from the Gulf of Corrywreckan trip which memory serves me was successful. We then all had a challenging swim up the west coast of Jura, before then disembarking for the night’s camping and campfire food on the magical Isle of Scarba. However not to be outdone, we’d seen seals in the bay at Scarba, and I went in the sea in skins for a early evening dip. Was privileged to swim with one, although I hasten to add that the seal was a safe distance away, and clearly it was not breeding season.

We woke to our last day on this magical holiday, and we were to swim back to the Mainland. From the shore of Shuna to Craobh Haven, on the Mainland. An epic swim with clear water and our trusty boat escort pilot. After this we alighted at the beach to be given all our belongings and the delightful news that tonight we could have warm showers and home cooked food at the pub for the first time in a few days. This rounded off an utterly idyllic few days. This had been a very laid back experience, and all the swimming paced to suit my ability i.e. slow swimming. Both Richard my husband, and myself had massively enjoyed the holiday and could not wait to book on another venture. We journeyed onward home the following day by bus and then train from Glasgow Central back to London.

Map of Inner Hebrides, Swimtrek Trip in September 2004. Acknowledgements to https://bing.com and search….

In my next instalment, I will be reflecting on changes to life with a family and how you can still ensure your fix of swimming outdoors. In addition the importance of keeping up your swim stamina. Prior to this SwimTrek trip both Richard and myself had attained swimming 5km indoors as part of the Butlins/MacMillan Swimathon in both 2003 and in 2004. Thank you for reading and hope you enjoyed it. Please like my blogs and register to receive the next one by email. You will observe at this point in my journey that I have not yet moved onto all the benefits that swimming outdoors gives me. That will come!

For information on SwimTrek and their fabulous holidays: https://www.swimtrek.com/ .

Swimming Outdoors – Where did it all start?

All of us hopefully are introduced to the sea and the beach in our infancy, but for me it seems swimming more seriously outdoors started on my joining Croydon Outdoor Pursuits and Social Events Club (COPSE) in 1998/9. We took weekends away and one notable weekend walking along the South Coast in 2002, I hopped in the sea whilst everyone else had coffee and ate their lunch. It was April or May, probably 14c. Was I mad, no, just hot from the walking and unable to understand why no one seemed to join me! At the time I was walking with my friend Richard, who in the year of 2003 would become my husband. We had been away on holidays in South West Cornwall where we particularly enjoyed swimming in Coverack, and tried to forget a more memorable wash under fierce waves at Poldhu Beach. However it did not put us off, and together we pursued swimming at Tooting Bec Lido outdoors once home in Forest Hill. Meanwhile we had joined the Beckenham Masters Swimming Club back in 2002 where a very helpful lady in the slow lane (like us!) taught me proper freestyle. She, was an absolute inspiration as since then I have swum freestyle or front crawl constantly. We joined in and swum the Swimathon distance of 5km for the first time in March 2003 at the indoor swimming pool in Victoria, London.

On July 12th, 2003 we were married, and headed to Funchal, Madeira for our honeymoon. The hotel afforded steps straight into the sea where we spent much of our time swimming and marvelling at the glorious, clear water. From this point on we were hooked on swimming outdoors and on our return booked a SwimTrek holiday to the Inner Hebrides in 2004 which will be the subject of the next instalment of my blog.

So the key points at what is the start of my journey swimming outdoors were simply that I love being outdoors, had the fabulous fortune to find a willing tutor in freestyle (for free, I was lucky!), and a partner in life who didn’t seem to mind this lifestyle. However I have swum all my life and memories abound of my Endeavour Shield obtained at Nautilus Swimming Club, Purley – purely for just having a go at the particular swimming gala in question. Never particularly fast, but endured and enjoyed swimming distance(s). As we go on it will become clear to you, the reader, why swimming outdoors has been such a gift to me especially with aspects of my life changing beyond expectation and recognition.

Thank you for reading this Introduction.