THE HERMITAGE The Mournes – Tollymore Forest Park

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THE HERMITAGE    Tollymore Forest Park       Mournes, Co. Down

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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Wild Water – Armagh (Conroy’s Pond)

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Molly Conroy clearing the ice for her Ireland Ice Swimming Challenge training

Words by Maureen McCoy

Photos by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

SNAP! – the sound of the ice cracking as Molly stepped into her back garden swimming pond. The sunlight diffusing as it shone through the fence panels, not yet warm enough to make any indentation on the water’s frozen surface. Picking up a slab which looked like a thick piece of frosted glass, Molly tossed it behind her to shatter on the ground. Half an inch thick it lay in the growing pile as she tentatively cleared a path through towards the deeper water.

My toes, I thought were already cold from the bitter water until I placed my foot on the ice, waow! What a shock, almost sticking to the surface, the skin a bright pink vying with my nail polish, I should have brought my skates!

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All the time asking ourselves why did we want to do this? the whole Conroy family cheerfully urging us on. Quickly our feet were so numb we could barely feel the ground and our fingers tingled from lifting out the great lumps of ice.

The pond, surrounded by wooden decking, is 25 metres long by 2 lanes wide, 2metres at the deep end and 1.2 at the shallow where steps lead in off a gently shelving toddlers paddling area. A good deal of thought has gone into the design by Ian, using his experience of working in set design and large art installations. Along one side wooden jetties disguise the filtration pumps while creating shallow stoned bays which will be planted out in the spring. For now they serve as excellent access points to the water.

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ICE-SPY…

Sitting on the jetty at the deep end, pink feet in the water and frost glinting on the wood we gently lowered ourselves in. Another minute sitting on the edge of the bay, mentally preparing for the next shock of cold and then again I slid very gently down into the water. Breathing out slowly the pain was limited to my fingers and toes, compared to that, the rest didn’t feel too bad! The thick ice stretched across the shaded part of the pond and firstly I wanted as little splashing as possible, secondly I feared I would either cut myself or bruise my hand if I tried to break it!

“Madness!” I hear you say. Yes but a special kind of madness, the urge to pit oneself against the extreme, mind-power over body. Yes, it hurts. Yes it’s cold and no matter how often you tell yourself you know it’s going to be cold and it’s going to hurt, you still cry out as if in surprise. Only those who’ve experienced this know just how cold and how much it hurts and, which is more, you are doing it by choice, for fun. Is it a little crazy? Yes, but many people do it and have done for decades. we expound the health benefits – when I winter swim, I rarely get a cold, when I don’t I am plagued by sniffles and feeling “under-par”. After a cold dip or swim I feel buzzing, revived, energetic and enthused. This is why I do it.

Saturday 7th February 2015, Molly and 15 other local swimmers will push their boundaries in the ICE Challenge and attempt to swim 1000 metres in water under 5’C, and perhaps break the record time! Conroy’s Pond is the venue and with experienced ICE swimmers coming from Scotland, Russia, Estonia and Germany, Ireland has a strong group of dedicated swimmers who have been training for the past four months.

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Thank you to the Conroys for allowing me the honour of being the first non-Conroy to swim in your pond and I wish the best to all the Ice swimmers taking part on Saturday – I am with you in spirit on every stroke!

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IRELAND ICE SWIM – SATURDAY 7TH FEBRUARY 2015 @ WILD WATER, CO ARMAGH.

Lough Derg – Co Donegal

©Paul McCambridge.com / MAC Visual Media

Words By Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

The reeds whispered in the gentle breeze as we walked into Lough Derg on a warm summers evening and swam out into the dark, peaty water. Far across the lough rose the impressive structure of the Sanctuary, the circular Basilica with its great copper dome dominating the lake. I thought of the many thousands of pilgrims who have travellled here seeking enlightenment, or to ease their suffering and that of others, or came here in thanks. Clearing my mind of the everyday rush, I stopped making lists and simply enjoyed being here, immersed in the water and the moment. In a kind of meditation I let myself relax and breathe, taking the time to enjoy the cool water, the warm sun and the soft breeze.

For hundreds of years, Station Island where the Sanctuary sits was believed to be a special place, even before Saint Patrick travelled here in the 12th Century. But it was after Patrick’s vision of the afterlife during contemplation in a cave here that it became a place of Christian pilgrimage and the island was given the name, Purgatorium Sancti Patricii.

©Paul McCambridge.com / MAC Visual Media

The largest lough in Donegal at six miles by four, Lough Derg can afford the swimmer plenty of quiet places to explore without interrupting anyone else’s spiritual experience. Away from the main car-park there are plenty of access points used by fishermen and with no motor-craft allowed, the peaceful air is tangible.

Although it would be tempting to swim out to the Sanctuary, they ask that no craft go within 300m of the island, and I accept that this would include swimmers and so I am happy to enjoy my solitary contemplation, enjoy the peace and admire the grand building from afar.

 

Donabate / Portrane Co Dublin

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

An early evening walk along the public right of way through the golf course, led us to the long strand at Donabate. Dotted along the beach were little family groups, a dad watching one son running in and out of the tiny waves and a younger boy perched high atop his shoulders. A bright picnic blanket in the distance made a splash of red against the pale sand, waiting for another family to return from their play in the sea.

I paddled through the shallows the water lapping around my ankles as I picked up and examined various tiny shells. The sand crunched beneath my toes and my sandals swung loosely in my hand, such simple pleasure. I could have been on any beach, anywhere in the world but for the next pair I came to meet.

A whimsical Irish sight; fiery red hair above freckled skin, bikini clad and wielding a hurling stick, she looked like a modern day, Irish Boudicca. I couldn’t have scripted such an encounter. Only in Ireland, aye but here’s the rub, neither of the hurling players were Irish. They were in fact, French!

Speaking in perfect English, Severine told me how she’d been in Ireland now for several months and had recently bought the hurling sticks as a souvenir of her time here. This quiet beach was the perfect place to hone their skills. Running and laughing as they passed the sloitar between them, trying to keep control of a steady volley back and forth, their game continued long into the cooling evening. As I left them and walked back along the boreen through the golf course, I could hear the gentle crack of leather on ash as it echoed across the strand.

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Donabate Strand – Lifeguarded during the summer months

12 miles north-east of Dublin, the town centre is served by both train and bus routes from Dublin.

The strand lies between the Rogerstown and Broadmeadow estuaries, both of which are designated Special Areas of Conservation with an internationally important population of Brent Goose and nationally important populations of other bird species.

Nearby Newbridge Demesne is a Georgian mansion built for Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin, in 1736. It sits on 370 acres of eighteenth century parklands with woods, lawns and wildflower meadows. The estate is now a public park used year round. Newbridge House was a location for the 1965 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton.

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Howth – Dublin

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

On this, the first weekend of summer, a festival vibe sweeps along the coastal path from Howth as a host of teenagers in swimsuits and shorts flock alongside tourists. Clutching their return tickets for the Dart they pass the cliff top shop, towels slung over shoulders and lost in chatter.

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No longer allowed to jump from the pier and now fined if they do, they instead have re-claimed an old diving haunt a little way along the craggy coastline. Leaving the tourists to watch as they drop down off the main path onto a beaten track clearly used year round by fishermen, they make their way to a vertiginous staircase. I thought of Escher and his drawings of the impossible stairs or Harry Potter with the moving staircases of Hogwarts. With no railings and seemingly suspended held only by their own weight, the steps span the cavernous drop to the rocks below and lead onto a rocky outcrop where the concrete plinths of old diving boards still remain.

The water is deep and clear, I can’t see the bottom but I can see that it is very deep and there are no dangerous rocks beneath the surface, a perfect dive pit.

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Plunging in and swimming the few metres to the diving platforms, teens scramble up the cliff in swimsuits, with socks the only protection for bare feet on the barnacle encrusted rocks. Tourists shout encouragement from their vantage point on the cliff path above as a wet-suited young man ventures to the highest plinth. He steps to the edge, clenches his fists then backs away. Gripping his long hair in frustration as he repeatedly goes through this performance. The spectators are getting restless, cries of “Go on! Do it! It’s not that high!” Cameras are poised for the action as anticipation builds. The board below him looks only about 3m from this height.

It’s only when I get down the path, level with the board that I can see I was mistaken. The lower board I would estimate 5 – 6 metres above the surface that would make the higher plinth close to 10 metres. I’ve jumped from 10 in Dublin’s NAC, once, and there’s a lot of time on the way down to realise that you just might have made a mistake.

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Across the deep green natural diving pit, four young men line up along the facing cliff. Standing level with the high plinth, one after the other they leap. The sharp smack as their canvas shoes hit the water reverberates around the cliffs, applause from the coastal path high above as their whoops of delight carry up to the crowd. They swim across to a small rock and rest in the sun. One standing as the others sit they look from a by-gone age. I am hit with a thought of this very same scene happening in the twenties or thirties, a ‘great Gatsby-like’ vision of young men in their prime enjoying the beginning of a seemingly endless summer. Finally they decide to join the throngs of younger divers on the main rock.

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We leave the rock littered with girls and boys, their happy chatter and laughter echoing as we cross that impossible staircase again.

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Jack Sail-By-The-Wind or Velella Velella

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Jack Sail-by-the-Wind or Velella Velella

Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

A strange creature has been washing up on the beaches of Donegal, at first sight I, and many others on the beach, thought they were mussels. Why would mussels, usually holding so firmly on to rock or rope, have detached themselves from their beds? On closer inspection these dark blue shells were perhaps only half the mussel, broken apart by stormy seas? As each wave flushed more to be stranded in the sun, it looked as though the top layer of shell was peeling off. Like fine clear silicone with a spider web pattern, but this wasn’t mother of pearl with its rainbow colours and pearlescent sheen. This was transparent and it was not a layer peeling off but a tiny sail atop a tiny raft. Twisting slightly as it stretched over the length of the shell in a long thin S shape with fine spokes fanning out connecting a series of concentric growth rings, a delicate pattern so like the spiders web.

I picked one up and as I set it on my hand I was surprised to feel its soft underbelly on my skin. I immediately thought of oh-so-innocent looking jellyfish with their vicious tentacles and decided that perhaps it was not a good idea to handle them – I wasn’t stung though.

 

No-one seemed to know what they were, so snaps were taken and google was activated, I introduce you to –Jack Sail-by–the-Wind (or Velella velella)

 

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The science bit;

About 6cm long they are widespread in the oceans where they float on the surface with their tiny sails driven by the wind. There are two kinds with the sails running in the opposite diagonal across the raft, so some will always sail to the left of the wind, some always to the right.

The little raft is a float, filled with many air sacks, on its underside are attached a colony of cnidarians – (specialized ocean surface animals which include the Portuguese man o’ war) but although they do possess nematocysts – (the stinging bits of jellyfish) they are relatively harmless to humans – (some people can be irritated by contact so best not to rub your eyes or face after handling them). They are related not only to jellyfish but to anemones and coral.

Also known as Sea raft, purple sail, little sail.

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Moville Lighthouse Swim – Co Donegal

Moville Lighthouse Swim (Dolphins included) – Co Donegal

 

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Written by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

The sun was shining on lough Foyle as a small crowd gathered at the harbour. Keen long distance swimmers and some completely new to open water were there to brave the sea on the 3rd annual Moville Lighthouse swim – 1.2km out from the harbour, around the lighthouse sitting pretty on its stilts and back to the slipway.

As the 38 swimmers, mostly “skins” (normal swimming togs) with just a few in wet-suits, walked down the slipway to ready themselves for the start of the race, an audience of family and friends cheered them on. Kayaks sat a little way off waiting to guide the swimmers and out near the main channel rescue boats hovered. As the field began to spread a huge container ship sounded its horn as it slipped on down the Foyle.

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The organiser Peadar’s comment before the swim, “Those of you not racing for a fast time, when you get to the lighthouse just take a moment…look back at the scenery” was ringing in my ears as we watched the swimmers finishing and a pod of Dolphins appeared, jumping and riding the wakes of the safety boats.

A spectacular show followed and I was jealous of the lucky devils out there in boats and kayaks with those magnificent creatures showing off around them.

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My apologies now to the swimmers, you did great but the Dolphins stole the show!

Certainly this event will continue to grow in numbers, it’s a beautiful swim, well organised and I am keen to sign up for next year, especially if there is a chance that the dolphins might return and I will be taking a camera with me!

 

Swimmer and spectator quotes

   “Moville Lighthouse Swim completed today. Can’t believe a few months
ago I started swimming. If you had said to me I would have done a
triathlon and an open water event, I would have laughed out loud. To top
off the swim today I was literally swimming with dolphins. Happy Happy
Happy.”

 “Congratulations , another superb event . We are getting bigger and
better each year , the dolphins were a master touch!”

   “…a great swim today.  I had the added bonus of swimming with the
dolphins for part of it. I look forward to next years’ swim.”
 

“Mammy, when will I be old enough to swim around the Lighthouse like them?”  – Comment by 5 year old boy to parent

19th July 2014

 

BT N I Press Photographers Association – Sports Feature Picture of the Year

This image of our own Maureen McCoy ‘Winter Dip’ at Murlough Bay, Dundrum, Co Down won the Sport Feature Award at the Hilton Hotel, Belfast. The N. I. Press Photographers Association awarded Paul’s image of Mo, who trains regularly at Murlough Bay throughout the year, winter included, the prestigious accolade.

********Not for Online Use******** ©Paul McCambridge Photography Winter Swim

 

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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Carrickreagh Jetty Fermanagh

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

Carrickreagh Jetty sits close to Ely Lodge Forest and, surrounded by trees makes a picturesque start to a swim. An early morning dip before the touring boats began to come in was the order of the day. I dived in to the dark water, surprisingly warm, and rose into sun glinting off the surface.  Tiny fish, silver flashes as they streaked away from me, suddenly to stop and hang in the water, nose down tail up, as if dying, only to sprint away again when I approached. Entranced, I watched as groups of three to five “spricks” would do this repeatedly. Then below I spied some slightly larger fish – perhaps this was a game of hunting and survival I was witness to. How many levels of bigger fish would I encounter? Glad of my choice to wear a bright swimsuit, still I kept my toes high in the water, just in case.

The fish parted as I swam from the jetty, following the depth markers I kept to the edge of the main channel, exploring safely away from any boat traffic, but in the early morning there was no interruption to my swim. I returned through the still quiet morning to climb the ladder and dry in the strengthening sun. 

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