Saturday, 26 December 2009

"Yule find it's so bracing!"

Well, that's what the mad Christmas Day swimmers told me when I joined crowds of Budleigh residents, curious spectators and the swimmers themselves as they gathered on the beach at 10.00 am on 25 December. A new record for both actors and audience seems to have been broken every year as the ritual grows in popularity, and Budleigh's Christmas Day swim is now a great local tradition as well as being officially listed by the UK's Outdoor Swimming Society as one of their 'must do' events.

On a sunny morning with silvery calm sea, Budleigh is hard to beat, says the Society on its website and as far as I was concerned conditions couldn't have been better on Christmas Day, with a brilliant blue sky and radiant sunshine helping to make some good photos. The sea temperature of 10 degrees wouldn't suit everyone, and I was quite glad to have the excuse that I'd just come out of hospital. But maybe next year...

Just in case of mishaps, the Exmouth lifeboat is on hand for the event at 10.00 am before heading off to the even bigger Exmouth Christmas Day swim a few miles along the coast.

Supporting the RNLI at the event was Gilly Jones from Budleigh. She's been fund-raising for the RNLI for two years, and I hope that she left with a full model life-boat: there must have been 1,000 spectators and 100 swimmers there, she thought. I explained why I wouldn't be going in the water and she explained that she couldn't because of collecting. So her husband Russell had been the one who'd be taking the plunge, his first time. For information about the RNLI see

Local reporter Simon Horn from the Exmouth & Budleigh Journal was another spectator who had a good excuse not to strip off and join the mad people. He's been attending the Budleigh event for 13 years.

Dave Winter from Budleigh was there with his daughter Hazel. She now lives in Eastbourne in Sussex, where they also have a Christmas Day swim. I unkindly suggested that she might have come to swim at Budleigh because the sea temperature would be higher here than in the snowy South East of England. But no, it was simply "a great family tradition."

So now they're under starter's orders with an exciting countdown from 10 just to build up the adrenalin or whatever you need to keep you upright and alive in this bonkers situation. The countdown seemed to work. Nobody chickened out and ran the other way as far as I could see.

It could just have been a lovely sunny summer's day as they all splashed happily in the waves, but the Santa hats are a giveaway.

Running southwards into the sun does help maintain the illusion that you're heading for a warm bath in the English Channel, I suppose. I didn't know whether this sun-facing shot would come out, but it turned out to be quite arty.

You have to be pretty smart with a camera because no sooner have you taken a shot of everyone heading to the water than they start running back again! Understandable really. I say running, but of course those famous pebbles can be quite painful for frozen feet and this couple look as if they're suffering a bit.

Suffering or not, the face of this young man holding the Santa hat shows all the triumph of his crazy achievement.

Amanda Gulbrantson from Littleham has been doing a Christmas Day swim for 20 years. Both she and her dog Sam look as if they've been enjoying themselves. Ryan Morris, next to her, clearly can't understand why that lone swimmer is carrying on towards Sidmouth. I did hear the word "crackers" being used to describe him.

Ryan told me that the event was "non official" and had no organiser because of dreaded health & safety issues. He introduced me to his father Larry who had started it at Budleigh. "Originally it was a Boxing Day swim but that clashed with a raft race so they moved it to Christmas Day," explained Larry. A keen swimmer, he is a member of the local water polo club and was now on his way to swim at the Exmouth Christmas Day event, which begins an hour later at 11.00 am.

It's "very bracing" says Larry. And this event was clearly just a warm-up for him. "If you think this Budleigh swim is big, come to Exmouth. There'll be three to four thousand people watching and a thousand in the water."

And first-timer Russell Jones' verdict after his little dip? "Fantastic", "exhilarating" he said. But he did admit that the apr├Ęs-splash swig from his mini bottle of sloe gin might have helped.

It sounded fun. Yes, maybe next year...

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