Above Below – adventures on a swimming and hiking retreat in Devon
Have you ever heard of cross country swimming? It’s a unique form of exploring that involves hike-swim-hiking your way along a coastal route, travelling across both the land and the water as you go. The best way to try this adventurous mode of travel out is to join Above Below, weekend retreats based in Devon that introduce wild swimmers to the joys of self-supported surf and turf adventures.
Above Below all started with the RuckRaft. This innovative floating dry bag is an inflatable, waterproof raft that lets swimmers carry kit, food and even shelter with them on long cross country swims. Pop your rucksack inside, clip it around your waist and you can tow it as you swim. It opens up the routes you can explore on foot – there’s no need to go around a river or an estuary when you can swim straight across it!
RuckRaft want the world to experience the joys of cross country swimming – so they launched Above Below, three-day swim-hike retreats along the Devon coast, based out of a secret woodland on the edge of Dartmoor. Sounds like my kind of weekend.
The secret swimmer’s camp
Above Below is about a sense of place as well as about aquatic adventure – the first evening of the retreat is spent at their off-grid camp, a seriously special place so hidden in the woods on the outskirts of Dartmoor that you have to follow careful directions – and spot swim hat markers in the trees – to find it. In a clearing is a big firepit, a cooking hut and best of all, a wood-fired hot tub that also heats up an outdoor shower.
Here at basecamp, swim leader Nigel Jenkins, a former British Army Commando, readies the troops for the two-day adventure to come, chatting routes, safety and how to read the tides over cups of wine around the fire and under the stars. Nigel plans each retreat around the weather and the tides, but each day always involves hiking (the Above bit) and swimming (the Below part) to make one big cross-country adventure.
The Life Aquatic
Rain is falling steadily the next morning but we’re still up early – woken by a military 6am bugle for a quick dip in the river nearby. Our group of ten swimmers slip one by one into the fast-flowing water and let it carry us along to the bank – at first, it’s skin-numbingly cold, but afterwards my skin tingles. This has to be the best way to wake up of a morning – especially when followed up with hot coffee and rolls.
As we eat breakfast and pack kit, Nigel whips out maps and gets planning the route for the day. Weather conditions make every Above Below retreat different. We’ll be staying close to the shore this weekend due to windy conditions and looming storms, but on sunny weekends swimmers can also loop Burgh Island or take on the Bantham Swoosh, following the tide down the River Avon. Today and tomorrow our group are headed to the more sheltered waters of Mothecombe Beach and the Yealm Estuary.
We may not venture far out to sea on the first day, but we still cover over nine miles, hiking the coast path to reach Mothecombe, where we change into wetsuits, pull on goggles and load belongings into RuckRafts before swimming across the estuary. Nigel’s advice on reading the water conditions and the novelty of swimming in a group make the kilometre swim feel much less intimidating – this is a great way to swim further in the sea if you’re like me and are still building confidence with outdoor swimming. Despite the fact that I’m towing all of my belongings, my bright RuckRaft floats behind me effortlessly. Back on dry land, we pop the floats back into our rucksacks and keep going, hiking in wetsuits through fields and along the cliffs. The sun comes out to warm us we wade back into the River Erme for a final swim, paddling up to the little village of Holbeton.
Blustery weather awaits on our second day, but warm in our wetsuits we still cover five miles of paths and swimming routes, hiking from Wembury along the coast and crossing the River Yealm to reach Newton Ferrers. Even after just a few days of cross-country routes I can feel my swimming confidence improve, and I start to feel at home even in the shock of the cold water as we swim as a group, dodging boats and trailing our RuckRafts behind us.
There’s time for one last kilometre swim, and although the skies are turning grey there’s a treat at the end – we swim right up to the Swan Inn in the little village of Noss Mayo, and are soon wrapped in dry robes and holding well-earned beers. Most Above Below retreats end with a steam in the hot tub among the trees back at come – but the weather, having been merciful for most of the weekend, holds off no longer, so we pull on dry clothes and head for home. I’ll just have to come back for that hot tub – any excuse to try another Above Below-led adventure.
Go cross country swimming: Find dates of upcoming RuckRaft retreats here. Above Below recommend the retreats for swimmers who are comfortable swimming a mile. You can also get your own RuckRaft for solo swims – read my full review of it for T3 magazine.