Co Down

Supermoon Swimming
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Words Maureen McCoy
There is something magic in a moonlight swim, with that disc gleaming pearly white.
The call of a bird across the beach, I can’t see her in this muted light
As I take off my shoes and press bare feet into the cool, damp sands,
I remember a time many moons ago, when I held my brothers hands.
Our first night swim, a Donegal beach, we begged our parents consent.
And scrambled our way down a steep sand-dune, there stood with nervous intent.
I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight but I remember that night so clear.
Adventure, excitement, the cold and damp, all tinged with an escence of fear.
Now forty years on and again I stand, as wavelets caress the shore
Silver threads dance that are soon to be lost, as the waves retreat once more.
As I cast my clothes in a heap on the sand, my skin glows a milky white
And I step into the water, a silver-tipped grey, under pearlescent moonlight.
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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media –  Renown Irish Artist Neil Shawcross takes his weekly dip in Strangford Lough, over 40 yrs he has kept this ritual

Words by Maureen McCoy, Photos by Paul McCambridge

Neil arrived in the café, casually dressed in jeans and a shirt, he immediately spied us across the room and approached with a smile. I was relieved as we had arrived late due to the horrendous traffic and a staff member had told us that Neil had had to go on to take his brother to the airport, but that he would be back if we would wait. Of course we would.

As Neil shook Paul’s hand he introduced me saying,

“This girl swam the Channel…”

Neil shakes my hand and seems intrigued, he pulls himself a chair as I launch into the reason we asked to meet.

“I believe you are also a keen swimmer.”

“Yes.” He confirms, “I swim in the sea every week, all year through.”

I explain the concept I’m working on, this diary of swims, writing how I feel during the swims and of others who swim, what they gain from it, why they do it. Is it meditative? Does it clear the mind? Is it for the health benefits?

Neil thinks for a moment then looks intensely at me, smiles and says

“I do it for fun. There is perhaps an element of the rest, I’m sure there are health benefits and it’s certainly become a habit, but mostly I do it because it’s fun and I have done for forty years.”

It’s refreshing to hear such a simple explanation, something so in line with how I feel, it is fun, and that’s the point.

His face becomes more animated as he talks of his regular swims with his friend, Henry French. He clearly does love this, it’s written on his face, and he seems pleased to talk to a couple of like-minded folk who understand.

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media – Maureen, Henry and Neil

I think of how many of the poets and artists of the past who also enjoyed the freedom of swimming in the sea, rivers and lakes. Of course, then, that was where one bathed – swimming pools are a fairly modern phenomenon – but it seems sea swimming is now done by a growing number as simply an enjoyable thing to do. It’s not seen as a workout, performed for some future goal of health, fitness or weight loss but rather for the pleasure it brings at the time. That strikes a cord with me, being ‘in the moment’ is something I strive to be aware of and I catch glimpses of it. Swimming can be one of those glimpses, the watch is discarded time is forgotten and so, briefly, stands still. Of course later, after I dress, or perhaps it’s during that dressing, time has to catch up again and suddenly I am brought back to the fast world with a bump.

Neil is quite right, it is fun.

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media – Renown Irish Artist Neil Shawcross takes his weekly dip in Strangford Lough, over 40 yrs he has kept this ritual

Since that first encounter, I have been able to meet up with Neil and Henry, Bob and Dougie many times to join them for this fresh sea dip. There is no ‘Hanging around.’ With these guys! My usual tentative, halting, walk in means I am put to shame. They will drive up, jump out of the car and nip behind the nearby wall to quickly strip into swim shorts then, with a childlike exuberance they race across to the water’s edge, walk straight in and begin to swim – no fuss.

I am left standing, marvelling; how do they do it? I know standing there and waiting will not make it any easier to take the plunge but for some reason I simply cannot will myself to dive straight in. Once I do stretch forward and move out into the deep water to join them my body tingles with the cold and I giggle with the joy of a swim for no other reason than pure pleasure.

The current is strong here so we will look at the boats moored a little way out and decide which direction to swim, the aim each time is to get in and allow the water to assist, sweeping us down towards the slipway. In the warmer weather we might take two of these trips, or begin by pressing up against the flow, working hard to gain a little ground against the strong current and then stop, lie on our backs and drift lazily back to our starting point.

Over-coated onlookers gaze down at us calling out; “Is it cold?” We reply; “It’s fabulous! Lovely! The water feels beautiful!” Surprise in our voices even though we do this every week, each time feels new… a tiny little adventure.

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media –  Maureen and  Neil Shawcross

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The Hermitage – Tollymore Forest Park, The Mournes
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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photos by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

From the car park at Tollymore Forest follow the River Trail under the impressive stone arch and follow the stream as it chatters on its way down to meet the Shimna. The first of many pools sits just below a small waterfall and bridge, pleasant for swimming with broad flat rocks on the edge.

Continue walking upstream and in a matter of minutes you come to the Hermitage, perched on the edge of the rocks, this whimsical folly leads you through tiny medieval style buildings.  The open windows look down into the miniature gorge beneath and a deep pool that curves around the rocks.  Follow the path through each room to a low, castellated wall, step over and climb down the rocks to the pool.

Allow your imagination to run wild as you swim downstream, under the turrets of the Hermitage, looking out for trolls or other dangerous creatures hiding in the crevasses! Returning upstream, the light, dapples as it breaks its way through the trees to play on the waters’ surface. As you approach the top of the pool the flow of the water increases as it spills from the river above, forced into a narrow channel. With the thrill of fast moving water bubbling past your ears, swim hard towards the fall into the melee of churning water, a natural jacuzzi, then relax and let the force sweep you back to the calm of the wide pool.

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The little row of charming buildings tends to bring out the child in each of us, the urge to duck through the low doorways and play games of knights and castles. They never fail to bring a smile to my face and it’s lovely to think of the thousands who have sheltered from the rain in them since they were built in the 1770s by James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil, in memory of the Marquis of Monthermer.  In those days gone by the ladies would shelter inside while the gentlemen fished for salmon in the Shimna below.

Children will love exploring the path and buildings and for a longer walk continue on up the river where there are many more pools to explore. A full day can be spent happily walking the many paths of this superb park.

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Solar Eclipse 2015 – Bloody Bridge – Newcastle Solar Eclipse 2b

Words by Maureen McCoy

Walking down from the car park and over the rocks towards the shore the sky began to take on an eerie deep grey.

Imagination or anticipation? Was the Solar and Lunar pull on the earth also pulling me? Not sure quite what to expect, how dark would it be? Would I see anything much at all? Would this be like a night swim? No, but it had its own special quality.

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The sun gleamed on the water and chinks of blue sky could be seen through the darkening clouds. Here was quiet, just the surge of the water as the tide rose, spilling over the rocks, oily and heavy. Millions of tonnes of water drawing in and out. Eddies curled around the rocks creating whirlpools as the sea breathed softly. Glancing up at the cloud covered sun I got a peek at the bright disc, a little bite out of its side, then the clouds once more hid it from view. As the sky grew darker; it felt like twilight, at 9.30 in the morning, the air cooled and an involuntary shiver ran through my body.

Gingerly stepping over the rocks I made my way to the water’s edge, the scene monochrome; dark sea, black rocks and grey skies above, the horizon a dark line with that shrinking silver gleam on the water’s surface. I slid in, slowly, quietly, breathing in and out with the cold strong tide as the sea wrapped around me. Above I could glimpse the crescent sun through a light film of cloud, strange to see that shape I know so well in the moon now mimicked by the sun. As the shadow slowly moved along and the warmth and light returned, I felt connected. There I was, floating in the water just for the sake of it, no reason other than it felt good. I had immersed myself completely, my first solar eclipse, spring equinox swim.

Wrapped in my towel and sitting on the warming rocks I watched the sea lift from dark grey to light and the shimmer of silver extended again beneath the horizon.

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HELEN’S BAY – NORTH DOWN

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

Helens Bay is a very popular beach on the coastal path that runs from Holywood through to Bangor.  My swims here have been many and varied, including swimming right through the winter before my Channel swim in 2009. I have never had a bad swim here, even in the cold of February, when I felt the muscles in my back tighten, protesting against the chilly 3C of the water, but instead of resisting I relaxed my mind and concentrated on the winter sun shining down making the sea sparkle on the ripples I created as I swam. Getting accustomed to the cold I thought of the swims my Mum and I would take in all weathers when I was a child. How pleased she and my Grandpa would have been that I follow in their footsteps, loving the sea as they did. Other beach users, wrapped in puffa jackets against the cold, gazed astonished as I swam the length of the bay.

Helen’s Bay has always been a popular place for swimming and I’ve been told many times of a lady who swam there every day until she was well into her 80th year.  I can only hope that I remain fit and well enough to do the same.

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Now with face-book messaging it’s so easy to find like-minded souls to join for a dip. A swim was posted and, despite concerns raised of jellyfish, 11 of us met at the car-park at 10.30am. Some wet-suited some not, we walked down the grass to the beach, the tide high and the sand higher. The waves rolled into shore and shivers of anticipation ran down my spine as I searched for my goggles and hat. As the first few headed into the fray we were greeted by 2 Oceans Seven swimmers; Kimberly Chambers who completed Oceans 7 with her North Channel swim on Tuesday, and Darren Millar who completed last year. They had heard about our gathering from “a guy in a bar last night” and decided to come and meet us. What a pleasure to meet such accomplished swimmers, emphasising the community spirit and support in open water swimming. They wished us a good swim and admired the view before returning to Bangor.

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Kimberly Chambers, Rachel Smith, Maureen McCoy, Darren Millar

The choppy water was pleasant and no jellies to be seen, so after a couple of laps we gathered on the beach and urged the wet-suited to try a quick dip – sans suit. Well done to the brave boys who took on the challenge.

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Helens Bay          Co Down

Popular with families and dog walkers, the bay is well signposted after driving through Holywood and Cultra, good parking with toilet facilities.

Swim parallel to shore, spotting the last tall tree at the far end and the conveniently placed apartment at the near end make it easy to keep a straight course. Approximately 400 metres from the slipway at the apartment to the concrete steps at the far end.  With its’ gently shelving sand it is a super training ground for swimmers and triathletes as well as for family swimming.

(There is a patch of sea grass one will hit in the middle at low tide which can be disconcerting to swim through and seems to always get trapped in goggle straps. When the water is high though, it’s clear across the bay.) 

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BLUE LOUGH – MOURNE MOUNTAINS

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

Nestled in the centre of the Mournes Annalong valley, the Blue Lough is well-known to hill walkers and provides a lovely, cool dip after a hard days walking. I have often waded into this pretty Lough on a hot day, a favourite after climbing Slieve Binnian, walking along the tors and then the fast descent getting hot, and ready for a breath-taking dip in the fresh water!

On a hot day in July I brought Michelle and Erin up to this spot and after around thirty minutes of walking we rounded the Percy Bysshe and they had their first glimpse of the lough, surrounded by purple heather and tufts of Bog Cotton, the dark peaty water reflected the blue sky and clouds above.

We quickly discarded our walking shoes, stripped to our swimsuits and picked our way through the stones at the edge to drop down into the cool water, refreshing our hot faces and cooling our limbs. The scene was peaceful and quiet as we explored the lough, gazing up at Lamagan slabs to one side and Slieve Binnian on the other. We spent a good few hours in this lazy mood, climbing out to dry off in the hot sun, followed by another dip in the lough each time we got too warm.

Although easy to get to and a suitable walk for most families, one gets the sense of being right in the centre of the mountains, miles from civilisation.

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Down time for Michelle

Blue Lough     Annalong Valley         Mournes          Co Down

Blue Lough is situated above the Annalong Valley, between Lamagan Slabs and the North Tor of Slieve Binnian.  The route to the Lough is an easy walk from Carrick Little car park.  Follow the path alongside Annalong Wood, soon you will cross the river and the path rises up, passing Percy Bysshe you will see the small Lough straight ahead. 

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Darragh and Conleth enjoying one of the hottest days in the summer of 2010

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NORTH CHANNEL NEW RECORD BY MICHELLE MACY

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North Channel Record and Oceans 7 Success for Michelle Macy – 15th July 2013
Words by Maureen McCoy
Photography by Paul McCambridge
Michelle Macy, the second female to conclude the Oceans Seven series of open water swims, did so in great style by finishing her final swim, the North Channel, in the record time of 9 hours 34 minutes and 39 seconds.
Just one week after first lady, Anna-Carin Nordin of Sweden, swam into the history books, Minnesota born Michelle was hot on her heels and finished the series also breaking Alison Streeter’s North Channel record, unbeaten for 25 years.
At 4.30 am on Monday 15th July 2013, Michelle and her crew met at Donaghadee harbour ready to load onto the ‘Guy and Clare Hunter’, a refurbished lifeboat piloted by Quinton Nelson. Via radio the Coastguard wished “Best of luck to the swimmer” as we motored round to Robby’s Point. In the grey-blue light just before the sun rose Michelle climbed onto the rocks, raised her arm signalling she was ready and at 5.00am, just as the red orb of the sun crept over the horizon, began to swim towards Scotland. With her toe-nails painted in a new green varnish – “Resolution” Michelle was off. In the first 40 minutes speedy Michelle had covered 2.3 miles and after an hour took her first feed, a warm energy drink, from here on she would stop every 30 minutes.
At 5 miles out, a seal popped his head up, he returned often during the swim, earning himself the nick name of ‘Curious George’, intrigued but keeping a cautious distance. Accompanied by kayaker, Conleth McCambridge to help guide her course in the chilly 13C water, Michelle soon encountered the North Channels renowned moon and lions-mane jellyfish. By 6.30 am Michelle had a lot of Lions-mane stings but, “My skin’s so cold I can’t feel them.” The hours went by with Michelle’s consistent stroke a steady metronome as each hand entered the water.
Nike endorsement??
3 ½ hours into the swim and bizarrely a lone Nike football drifted past “How random!” said Nike employee Michelle as the ball was rescued by the kayaker, a good luck charm perhaps? At each feed Erin, friend and training partner, would don various silly hats and wigs to keep Michelle’s spirits up Large laminated photos of friends back home were held out to remind her how much she was being supported. 4 hours 42 minutes into the swim and we had crossed the half-way point, now officially in Scottish fishing waters, “That’s the easy half done.” said pilot Quinton, “the push into Scotland is the hardest part of the swim”.  Michelle was getting colder and suffering more jellyfish stings but holding her pace and in the calm conditions with just a gentle swell, making good progress. By 12 noon, Quinton had the record in his sights and said, “If she can pick it up for 2 hours, we could have this swim finished.” Earlier quips about lunch in Portpatrick suddenly seemed within grasp. Michelle was asked to pick up her pace, “I’m doing the best I can! I’m not sure if it’s the cold or the stings but I can’t feel much.” By 1 o’clock tension was mounting, Michelle was looking strong but all were aware of how difficult the last couple of miles at the Scottish coast can be and with the tide bearing us south we held our hopes that she would get the record time. When asked for another hours push Michelle said “An hour is all I have.” We’ll have it then please.
At 1.22pm Michelle swam face first into a jellyfish, stopping abruptly she let out an angry shout and slapped the water with two hands – on the support boat we weren’t sure if it was jellies or frustration but, “If she’s got the energy to shout and slap she’s got the energy to get this finished fast!” was Erin’s comment. At 2 o’clock we gave Michelle the news that the record was in her grasp – this would her last feed – it was time to get this done.
After 9 hours 34 minutes and 39 seconds, Michelle climbed out of the sea at the cliffs just south of Portpatrick and finished the North Channel and her Oceans 7 quest.
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We motored into Portpatrick harbour and Michelle was able to get a hot shower, when asked was she doing okay, she called, “I’m going to stay in here for 9 hours and 34 minutes!”
ILDSA President and Vice President Billy Wallace and Sheena Paterson arrived at Donaghadee as we unloaded the boat to congratulate North Channel record breaker and Oceans 7 swimmer, Michelle.
Well done Michelle, it was a pleasure to be observer for you on a super swim and I look forward to Alaska!
Maureen
ILDSA President Billy Wallace, ILDSA Observer Maureen McCoy, Michelle Macy and Vice President Sheena Paterson
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1st LADY – OCEANS SEVEN SWIM – ANNA-CARIN NORDIN

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

On the 8th July 2013 at 7.11pm, after 14 hours and 21 minutes swimming from Portpatrick in Scotland to Blackhead Bay, Northern Ireland, Anna-Carin Nordin made history as the first woman to complete the Seven Oceans Open Water swimming challenge.

Meeting up with Anna the day after her achievement, she looked fresh and was happy to talk about her journey from the English Channel in 2010, around the world in swims and back. After such a long day before she was still keen to get back in the water for a “cushy” swim and I had the honour of a relaxing dip with this history-maker on another sunny day at Ballyholme.

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North Channel swim…

Brian Meharg, pilot of Anna’s support boat and Anna took the controversial decision to attempt the swim on a spring tide as the race was on with Anna one of  three ladies hoping to complete the North Channel this year and scoop the Seven Oceans 1st Lady title.

“Tide and time wait for no man or woman.” Said Brian, “The weather is good you should go now.” So at 4.50am Anna was in the water at Portpatrick with her hand against the rock face and the swim began. In the first few hours she encountered the swimmers dreaded jellyfish, Anna said “They were below me and spread out so I played a little ‘tricksie’ and was able to swim around them. I was lucky, I didn’t get stung.” She weaved her hand as she spoke showing how she’d avoided the jellies. “At the start of a swim you don’t want to be stung, at the end you are too tired to avoid them.”

Seal of approval…

The highlight of the swim for Anna was mid channel when a large male seal appeared and continued to swim with her for an hour.  “It’s so nice to see something different in the water with you – not jellyfish!” With the water temperature ranging from 11.3’C to 13.8’C, Anna got colder as the day went on, “But I came here to finish the swim, not to fail.”  So she continued on her way into the history books. The petite blond 41 year old from Sweden had just completed the Seven Oceans Swim Challenge with a smile on her face.  Her blue eyes glinting, she told me “My swimming rivals will have to fight for second place now.”

Finishing at 7.11pm on Monday 8th July 2013, Anna was greeted by ILDSA President Billy Wallace at Bangor Marina and Stephen Redmond, the first man to achieve the Seven Oceans, ‘phoned the first lady with his congratulations. Anna will go home to Jattendal, Sweden to a hero’s welcome.

Well done Anna and thank you for the swim and the chat.

2010: English Channel in 12:00:59

October 2011: Molokai Channel in over 18 hours

1 May 2012: Strait of Gibraltar

3 July 2012: Catalina Channel in 12 hours 40 minutes

September 2012: Tsugaru Channel in 19 hours 11 minutes

8 April 2013: Cook Strait in 8 hours 17 minutes

8 July 2013: North Channel in 14 hours 21 minutes

Anna-Carin comparing tan lines with Maureen and Rachel Smith

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MILLISLE POOL

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Arriving at the beach car park, I followed the drive on round to the sea pool.  A lovely, old-style open pool with a low wall snaking around, separating the bathing area from the open sea.   Along this wall, I met some children fishing for crabs, keen to show me their bounty and explain their successful fishing technique.  Red Belly crabs they informed me, and looking closely at the patterns on their shells, I saw how intricate and pretty they could be.

From the sea wall behind, two older boys were jumping into the clear waters, although with the tide on its way out, play was soon halted.  The boys then joined the group at the pool and I was given the task of judging their dives.

Then it was my turn to brave the water, a little warmer than the open sea, with clear water and a sandy floor.  The climb out onto the wall for diving was not my most elegant moment with the steep sides slippery, and no little concern for whether the local crabs would take a fancy to my toes!  Clearly not, as I had no more encounters with the creatures until the boys were finished fishing and threw the whole bucketful back into the pool!

The pool has a clean sandy beach area and shelves very gently, giving a large, safe bathing area, ideal for families.  At the seaward, right corner, the pool is at its deepest, and when the tide is in, deep enough to dive.  The pool stretches approximately 100m along this wall, allowing swimmers ample room to stretch out and enjoy.

Well used by locals and holidaymakers alike, small children playing in the shallows, running in and out, older youths exploring the deeper areas, floating in inflatable dingies and playing on body boards, and the first group I met catching crabs and even the odd small dogfish, showing the life in the pool is abundant.

Houses behind the pool area enjoy the double benefits of easy access from their back gardens and a fabulous view over the swimming area and then on out to sea.

Millisle, in 2010, was awarded the Seaside Award for bathing quality and facilities and as well as this great pool area, there is a long strand with good bathing off the beach itself.

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LECALE WAY – BALLYHORNAN

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From the beach car park at Ballyhornan, I followed the way-marked path, the Lecale Way, south. This section of the path follows Rocks Road along the shore to a gate and stile.  Here the path becomes a grassy track, not a route for flip-flops, I might add.

Each rocky outcrop revealed another small cove, waiting for families to come and paddle, dip, swim and explore.  Follow the path on and the shore becomes steeper and craggier.

After a good half hour walking, the path moves up high along the cliff, and as it takes a great sweep around, there is a spectacular inlet – deep and clear green waters with high rocks either side.  At first I thought it was only accessible by boat, but on closer inspection, I found that one could walk down the grassy bank then climb down the rocks to get close to the waters edge.

The sunlight shining on the deep green water, the pale barnacle covered rocks stretching down into those depths, beckoned me in.  Looking out across the Irish Sea, I could see the hazy outline of the Scottish coast as I quietly explored this emerald inlet, perfect for jumping and diving.

A spot that has all the excitement of a great wild swim, a good walk to reach it, followed by a rock climb – then the treasure found – the swim!

Words By Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge

A word of caution, first establish where to climb out again before you take the leap! 

Remember, the water level will change as the tide moves in and out, so keep an eye on your exit route.

From Ballyhornan carpark , follow the signs for the Coastal path, Lecale Way, enjoy the views as the path climbs higher over the rocky coastline.  On a calm day you will see the inlet, clear green from the path high above.

On a rough day, this inlet churns like a washing machine.

Always ensure you have a clear exit from the water

Philips Street Atlas          Co Armagh + Co Down   pg 110   C1        (Benboy Hill)

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LOUGH MONEY – DOWNPATRICK

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On a cold and “mizzling” Sunday, we headed off to visit a new Lough.  Lough Money is on the Ballyculter Road out of Downpatrick.  This Lough is owned by the Fisheries and is well signposted.  There is a carpark, open from 8am to 10pm and a path around the near end of the lough.

There is good access for Wheelchair users, with designated parking spaces and boardwalk areas to fish from.

The Lough is picturesque with water lilies, just beginning to bloom when we arrive.  It stretches north, approximately 1 km long and fairly narrow.

We entered at the short slipway (aptly named as it turned out,) the boys managed to slide their way into the water – not very elegantly, may I add!  I chose the marginaly safer option of stepping to the side and braving the rocks.  Here the water gradually gets to a depth for swimming and as it’s very clear, you feel quite confident wading in.  The temperature was very pleasant, as soon as I glided off into the Lough it felt beautiful, a temperature where I knew I could take my time, stop for a chat and enjoy the view!

Choosing a line down the centre of the Lough, giving the lillies, reeds and any fishermen a wide berth, (I feel it’s common courtesy to give them their space and not scare the fish, plus I have no desire to be hooked myself!)

We set off, spotting tall evergreen trees on the island that marks the halfway point on the Lough, giving the lough the look of a French scene.  As we got close to this halfway point, we swam past an old metal structure.  At first we thought it was a support for a waterski ramp, then we noticed pipework, so perhaps it was an old pump.

We checked the boys in the kayaks were feeling ok.  It was only Davids’ second time out in a boat, happy enough, we swam on to the far end of the lough.

The rain began in earnest.

It’s a lovely thing to swim in the rain, the surface of the water softened, broken by the raindrops, seeing the tiny splashes each time you turn and breathe, feeling  the cool  rain on your arms as you take each stroke.

As we struck out, on our way back down the lough, a swan moved in front of us.  Each time I lifted my head to check my course, there he was, about 10 metres ahead.  Not concerned, perhaps curious, he led us all the way back down the lake until he decided that was enough, and I heard the “wap wap wap” of his wing tips beating the surface.  I watched with awe as he half flew, half ran across the water, past me and back towards his mate.

Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

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ARDGLASS, VICTORIAN BATHING HOUSE

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As we pulled into the car park at the Marina, we looked across to the harbour and saw the little building on the sand.

Part of the Ardglass Historic Trail, there is a plaque which tells us,

“the little Bathing house was built at the turn of the century
by William Oglivie. At this time Ardglass was one of the
most fashionable watering places in Ulster, nestling on the
shoreline over looking the ancient Ward of Ardtole.”

Steps lead down from the footpath onto a small grassy patch, then one climbs down the rocks to the tiny stretch of sand. The Bathing House stands proud, looking like a miniature castle, as the tide rose, it surrounded the building and I could imagine the Victorian gents venturing out in their swimming attire, ready to brave the calm waters for “healthy exercise”
As I waded past this mini castle, I heard the eerie call of a seal, a long low howl – what a lonely sound.

A place to transport oneself back in time and imagine the many feet that have trodden these sands.

This is a little treasure of a building and I hope that it won’t be left to be battered by the elements… such a nugget in the local history.

Words By Mo McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge

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JANET’S ROCK, BALLYMARTIN

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Through Newcastle and Annalong, we drove out the Kilkeel Road where, just before we got to Ballymartin village, there was a small track down to the shore. Leaving the car near the bus stop on the road, we walked down the track.  Actually, we could have driven down the stony laneway, with care, as there is ample room at the bottom to turn and park.

The sandy beach and rocky outcrop which gives its name to the spot, forms a perfect cove for swimming.  The water is clear and quickly getting to a good depth, is a joy.

Only Oonagh and I were brave enough to enter the fresh seawaters.  We are not sure whether it was the thoughts of cold water or the curious seal that watched us from afar that put the boys off, but they missed a super dip.  The water was crystal clear with the rocky sea bed providing a home to sea weeds of all colours.  Fish hiding in the crevasses and tiny crabs scuttling across on their search for food.  There was so much to see under the water.  We climbed, barefoot over the rocks to slip in a rock pool then  swim underwater through a narrow gap into a larger pool, it felt like a great adventure.  Then to dive back into the main cove, watched from a distance by the seal, made one feel so alive.

This little bay seems to be a local secret and I’m glad to have discovered it.

Janet’s Rock       Ballymartin

 From Annalong, drive out the Kilkeel Road, before you enter Ballymartin itself, there is a row of houses on the right, and a bus stop on the left.  At this bus stop a stony laneway runs down to the shore.

Driveable in an ordinary car, with care, and space to turn and park near the shore.

 A beautiful bay, with a few locals during the summer, and the occasional fisherman taking a boat out to check his lobster pots.

No facilities but very close to Ballymartin village.

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BALLYHOLME BAY, BANGOR

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When Paul and I arrived at Ballyholme Beach the sun was shining, there was a light breeze coming off the sea and the tide was beginning to come in.  There is a long stretch of sandy beach, broken at the western end by concrete “groins” running into the sea.  The ends of which are marked with tall posts, so there should be no risk of getting too close and swimming into the wall.

A few people were out enjoying this fine September sunshine, walking dogs and kicking off shoes to go for a paddle.  At the eastern end of the beach, where the strand is left open with no groins to spoil the sweep of sand, a horse and rider were enjoying the soft sands and shallow waters.

By the time I reached the rider she was bringing down her second horse for a swim.  We waded out together, chatting about swimming and the horses.  I think the horses were a little confused that this human was walking into the water with them and not on their backs.  It was my first experience of swimming beside a horse, (at a careful distance, I know how hard hooves can be.)

The sea was calm and clear, and a slightly surreal experience to be chatting to the rider as I breast stroked along, occasionally breaking into front crawl so as not to be left behind.  Although, I think I enjoyed my swim more than the horses.

The sun was warm on my back, the only movement in the water the small waves in the wake of the distant ferry that passed on its way into Belfast Lough, I could have stayed in for hours.

A little way down the beach, a group were wading out, trousers rolled up, they stood in a small circle and began to sing.  A girl stood in the centre of the circle with her head bowed, ready for baptism.  As I enjoyed my gentle swim, accompanied by my equine friends, this girl was having her own deep spiritual experience… I watched as she plunged under the water, washing away her sins as I wash away the stresses of the day each time I swim… rising up to the cheers and songs of her friends.

As I left Ballyholme, I will not forget the mix of the surreal and the sublime that I found that day.

Words By Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge

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NEWCASTLE HARBOUR

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Drive through Newcastle and out to the harbour any weekend, and around high tide you are sure to find swimmers and divers enjoying themselves.  There seems to be a dedicated group who swim here through the summer months and a few who swim all year round.

The slipway at the side of the harbour wall is the preferred entry point, and it is a short swim out to the marker buoy and back.  Feeling we would like a longer swim, Paula and I headed on out, past the harbour mouth and swam down the coast.

Looking up at the steep sides of Slieve Donard, Paula pointed out the row of small cottages known as “Widows Row”.  These were built for the widows of fishermen who died at sea.  Instead of these women being thrown out of their homes after such a tragedy, they would be able to live out their days in one of the cottages looking out to sea.

We swam on a little past the far marker buoy then retraced our course back towards the harbour where the kids, and some adults, were having a great time jumping and diving from the harbour wall.

It was lovely to see that there are many people around the country still swimming in the sea for pure pleasure and entertainment, bringing their children along too so that the future generations continue the trend.

Each year, around mid-August, the Harbour Charity Swim is run.  On a Monday evening, swimmers will start at the Rock Pool and swim to the Harbour wall and back.  This is a popular local event, and added to this, the Rock Pool opens during the summer months, with an evening swim on Thursdays.

It felt nice to back at the open-air pool, where I first trained as a Swimming Teacher.

Words By Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge

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Ballymorran Bay

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photos by Paul McCambridge

Jon and Sarah, silhouetted against the gleaming water, little splashes from their hands becoming sparkling diamonds in the air as we swam in the low November sun.

We were taking advantage of the dwindling sunny days and with the winter fast approaching, to swim out across the bay toward Darragh Island.  The plunge was taken and the brutal chill awakened every sense in my body as we settled our breathing and then began to swim through knife-like cold, clear water. Jon and Sarah took great delight in introducing me to this secret spot their family have come to for years. They told me how there is now a community of wild goats on Darragh and that as you swim closer to the island there is a deep crevasse where one can feel the temperature drop suddenly as one swims into the deeper water.

Returning to the pier I had the urge to dive, as I climbed out, the water covered my feet and I stood amidst the bright yellows and greens of the lichen covered rocks on the 10ft pier wall. I prepared myself for the ice-cream-headache shock when I dived – it didn’t come! Perhaps two caps was insulation enough or brain freeze had already set in, but I simply felt further exhilarated. Sarah joined me, stepping out of her wetsuit to take the plunge in ‘skins!’ Bravely she jumped in with a cry; “You’d better have taken a photo of this!”

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The water felt fresh and clean and the jellies gone for the winter. The family must have had a blissful summer coming to this quiet spot in the hot weather to picnic and play.

As we helped each other into our warm clothes I extolled the virtues of fleece joggers and pyjamas, and thermal socks, easy to slip into with numb toes and sticky, half dried Skin.

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Murlough Beach – Newcastle

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Twilight swim at Murlough
Words by Maureen McCoy
Photography by Paul McCambridge
As I stood and looked out on the evening calm the air stirred and breathed in my ear, everything was still. A gentle sigh as the Sea swept across the sand and clouds drifted low on the Mournes in a smoky evening sky as the last few dogs and their walkers left the beach.
With the lights beginning to twinkle on in Newcastle I walked to the waters’ edge. Toes numb as sharp pins pricked my calves, my knees felt the pain of cold then my thighs raised in goose-bumps as I walked on, glad there were no waves to shock my still warm and dry upper body. I dipped my hands in, oh the shiver as I gently lifted the water and smoothed it down my arms, more boldly passing it over my shoulders and the back of my neck. I grit my teeth and dipped under, bouncing up again quickly – the air warmer than the chill sea.  Again a dip under and this time remaining submerged I took a few strokes, my back tightening in protest against the cold, the skin pulling taut across my muscles, but yet I was able to swim, even the icy cold across my face did not deter. I was glad of the two caps pulled down well over my ears and tight to the rim of my goggles. The seal was good and no water leaked in, yet I could not help but shiver at the thought that some of that icy brine could seep its way under my cap and creep into my ear.
I ran from the water and jogged up the beach, my body warmed and I felt revitalized, alive, almost glowing.  The ridges of sand were hard underfoot and I kept on my toes, splashing through the shallow puddles left by the low tide, warm now but soon to be swamped by the returning sea.
Dressed again I walked back through the dunes as the dim light seeped away.
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Christmas Day – Newcastle

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photographs by Paul McCambridge

Cries of “Happy Christmas!” mixed with “I’m cold already and I haven’t even got in yet!” greeted me as I arrived at Newcastle harbour where the crowd in various stages of undress milled about in anticipation.

11.30am Christmas morning, in Santa hats, Christmas dresses and bright swim-suits and all in festive spirit, giggling nervously and rubbing hands, we made our way down the slipway and huddled together for a group photo. The RNLI crew shouted their support from a rib sitting just outside the harbour as around 30 people braved the sea.  Swimming and wading, holding hands and trying to keep hats from falling into the brine, laughs and grimaces against the cold and the age-old calls echoed around the harbour-

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“I can’t feel my hands!”

“My toes hurt!”

And; “Don’t you feel so – ALIVE!” –

Does that feeling of vitality and newness ever wear off?  Seeing the mix of generations, teenagers, parents and grandparents makes me think, no, it mustn’t. It’s why pockets of people all around the country do this daily, weekly, year after year.

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I joined Kathleen and her granddaughters, Rachel and Emma, holding hands as we picked our way over the rocks trying not to stub our toes. When we reached the sand, Emma lifted each foot and pulled off her flip flops, turned and threw them back to the shore. As she did, Rachel leaned forward and started a swift head-up front crawl out towards the buoy, Emma quickly followed. We each swam out around the buoy and back, then met again in the shallows and joined hands to make our way safely out.

Dressed and some hugging hot-water bottles, we squeezed into the RNLI station for tea, coffee and mince pies, a chance to catch up and for organizer Kathleen to thank everyone for raising funds for this years’ charity in aid of Motor Neuron Disease. Soon we parted, with cheeks glowing, to head home for the rest of the days’ festivities. A lovely start to Christmas Day!

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Bloody Bridge River Rock Pools

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

“You don’t actually get in and swim, do you?” This is often the incredulous question we are asked when we inform others of our intentions to venture out for a winter swim. Quickly followed by exaggerated shivers and a look that relays considerable concern for our mental stability, you know that look. If you’re the swimmer, you’ve received it and if you’ve not yet tried a REALLY cold swim, then you’ve probably given it to someone who has. Check the mirror, it may be on your face now…
Still, if you’re reading this, you’re curious – Yes, it hurts. Yes, it takes ones’ breath away and yes, it IS amazing. Your skin tingles, the sharp intake of breath as you enter the water, the thoughts that you can’t do it and then the realization that you can and, what’s more, you are going to. Okay, so it’s pride that takes over, someone else has gone first, you can’t turn back now and lose face, so you grit your teeth, clench and unclench your hands take a deep breath and… wait… just another moments’ preparation, delay, before the inevitable.
Shocking cold wraps your neck, pain cuts across your cheeks and every muscle in your back tightens. But as you try a few fast, uneven strokes you find that you can cope, those tight muscles may protest but they don’t tear, when you lift your face out of the water the pain in your sinuses eases and you feel the first flush of euphoria.
You tell yourself, “Next time I’ll get straight in, none of this faffing and going slowly, it doesn’t make it any warmer!”
I tell myself this every time, yet every time I go through the same routine! Still, I love it!

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8 thoughts on “Co Down

  1. thanks so much for this resource, we cant wait to make use of it all this summer! do you have any ideas for places to go pot-holing? we have done it in tullymore forest park, but is there anywhere else? many thanks!

    • Stuart, sorry, potholing is not something I have tried and so I have no advice on that. Bloody Bridge river from the shore up into the Mornes is great for bouldering though.

    • I have heard that there are some triathletes who may train there but I have not been able to find a definitive contact or time that they meet. As soon as I hear more I will let you know, meanwhile if you get any info please let us know and we can inform the wider swimming public. Good swimming! Maureen.

  2. Im Lookin for a regular group of Outdoor Swimmers in the Ards Penninsula Area of Co.Down.
    Have been a previous triathlete and swimming is the only thing i do regularly now. The pool
    is so boring ! lol . Would love to find a group of people who use Strangford or Belfast lough
    to swim and join them. Please advise how i could contact someone. I dont have facebook or anything like that.
    Michael

    • Micael, I’m with you on this one. I’d love to find a group to help me pluck up the courage and just get in and get on with it. I’d always been a swimmer but the last 10 years on the peninsula has kept me away from an indoor pool for far too long. Need to get back in.

    • Hi Ruth, a great way to meet up with other swimmers is on facebook; check out Northern Ireland Open Water Swimming and Northern Ireland Outdoor Swimming.
      On both these pages people post when and where they are planning to swim and whoever wishes can join them. There will also be charity swims in various parts of the country over the christmas period. These are great fun! – I plan to swim the New Years Day “Dare to Dip” for Cancer focus; 11 am Crawfordsburn, Co Down. Best of luck. Maureen

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