Dolly's blog: Back to The Start
As a teenager in the 1980s, I was addicted to Capital Radio, desperate for enough money to buy a pair of Converse, and had a crush on the boy over the road. I dreamt of working with dolphins and adored my dog, but above all I was a long-distance swimmer. Swimming was the thing that was most me about me.
My teenage evenings were spent ploughing up and down the local pool, with weekends in Dover harbour, nursing salt burns and wiping oil off my face. Summer meant traversing Windermere and relay swims across the Channel. Watching my hands power into the water, bubbles streaming in my wake, I felt bomb proof.
But as an adult I turned my back on swimming in the same way I could no longer stand the thought of cider. I had overdosed on both. I rolled my eyes as the world went mad for “wild swimming”, splashed out on loads of kit, and used bizarre expressions like “skins”. I’d been there, done that, moved on.
Thirty years later the worst year of my life happened, I escaped to the Isles of Scilly for a week, and saw a sign advertising an adventure swim around the coastline of St Mary’s. “I’m going to make you do it” said my friend in a friendly yet threatening way. Emboldened by sunshine and rosé I didn’t take much convincing. Pass me a Dry Robe! But I woke up the following morning with a sinking “Oh no…” sensation and my mother’s text was, as ever, on point: “Umm, do take care!”
It was too late to back out. I found the meet point using the map co-ordinates provided (help meeeeee….!) and winced as my fellow swimmers compared their 2k times. I was no longer sure I could swim 2k but kept that to myself, muttering something about having “swum a lot when I was younger”, naked fear now plastered on my face. Fear was also now showing on the face of the expedition leader, possibly because she’d just clocked my deeply inappropriate swimming costume; bought for a pool in south-west France, slashed to the navel and decidedly more Liz Hurley than Speedo. A borrowed wetsuit made me look a bit more credible, although attempts to squeeze into the women’s medium had to be abandoned mid-thigh and the memory of settling for the men’s large still burns.
But 77 minutes later, shoulders aching and having navigated seaweed, tides, and numerous jellyfish, I was striding out of the sea again feeling like I’d conquered the world. Over 2.8km of open water I remembered a core part of me that I’d lost; the bit that made me feel bomb proof.
The next day I found a memento to entrench my new-found resolve to keep immersing myself in cold water: a necklace with a little swimmer pendant, one arm outstretched like a superhero as she plunges her hand into the waves.
On my last morning in Cornwall, now in the little fishing village of Mousehole, the seemingly endless sunshine ended, and a thick drizzle descended to test my resolve. Having planned an early morning swim before catching the train back to reality, every fibre of my being now preferred the idea of a massive fry up. But I looked at my necklace, climbed into my costume and waded into the harbour. And once I was in it was utterly, life-affirmingly glorious. And as I sploshed around in the rain, I noticed a little red boat moored in the harbour, battered by the years but bobbing happily. It was called Dolly of Mousehole.
Will I keep swimming through the winter? I don’t know, but so far so good.
After 19 years of fee earning, Dolly now works in a management role in a London law firm. Working four days a week she is supported by a wonderful (though often absent) husband as they attempt to bring up three children aged 16, 14, and 12. A lockdown puppy adds to the chaos but keeps her sane.