Open water swimming in the pandemic lifts lives, creates community, forges friendships. Nature holds us in her arms, blurring our edges. We carry our troubles into the water and have them shocked out of us, emerging ‘rebooted’, our immune systems and mental health boosted by the cold-water.
I live near the coast and swim in Cullercoats Bay, an actual Geordie shore. It’s the sort of place that spoils you for other swim-spots. The sea is calmed by two protective piers that curve out into the North Sea, the beach is sandy and clear, facing east. The sun rises like a daily miracle out of the sea, incandescent at the horizon or blazing through the clouds on clear days. We swim above crabs, lobsters and little fish, alongside seabirds and seals, and, on a really good day, within sight of the pods of dolphins that come and go between St Mary’s Island and Tynemouth.
There’s plenty of space in and out of the bay for us beachniks- plodgers, paddle-boarders and pier jumpers, swimmers, surfers, and sandcastle-builders, kayakers and people who just come to sit, look, chat, think, or stand at viewpoints with their cameras ready to catch the beauty.
It is also a business-like place. Although there are only a few boats still going out to sea from the bay, the fishing industry, which built the piers and created work for local families, continues. There are some distinctive buildings along the shore too, including Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory and the RNLI lifeboat station with the old Watch House above it.
For me it is a soulful and serendipitous place, good for chance encounters, sharing stories, having a laugh, and inspiration (it has been inspiring artists for many years). In the second spring of the pandemic Newcastle University (NU) Women sent out a call for reflections about how their members were coping, for their blog and ‘zine. My swimming friends and I responded with a collective artwork recording our group swims and what they have meant to us.
This was the spark for Ebb & Flow, a community art event celebrating everything that is wonderful about Cullercoats. The organising team comprised: Shana, linking us with our chosen venue (The Boatyard Cullercoats); David from the Cullercoats Collective; Elisa, an NU Woman; and me, an artist.
The timing was good, just as COVID restrictions were lifting and summer was arriving, and with the sense of solidarity and gratitude (for all that Cullercoats had given us over that first pandemic year) still fresh in our minds and hearts. As we got talking and posting online about our plans, the response was overwhelmingly affirmative- everyone said ‘yes’ and offered their ideas and support.
We sent out an open call to local artists to submit work, of any kind, written and visual, for us to select and install in The Boatyard. Over 20 local artists responded so we planned and publicised two events- a Grand Opening of the Ebb & Flow exhibition, and a performance night, ‘Open Mike’, on consecutive nights in July. Luckily the sun shone and altogether nearly 100 people took part.
Although our first thought about the finances was the need to raise funds to offset our costs, we soon realised that it could also be an opportunity to support a good cause. The obvious choice was the Cullercoats RNLI, who were happy to get involved. Eventually we handed over a donation of £440, from sales of tickets and merchandise, a raffle, art sales and submission fees.
A ‘zine was produced as an exhibition catalogue and a record of what we achieved. It was inspired by the fabulous ‘Swimzine’ published in Sheffield and described by its as ‘a love letter to outdoor swimming in magazine form’. Kerry and Sarah, who produce Swimzine quarterly, came up from Yorkshire with back-copies and were guests of honour at Ebb & Flow Grand Opening.
The community of swimmers was central to Ebb & Flow. We submitted most of the creative work that was on show or performed. The photographs in particular were wonderfully evocative of the joy we find in the power and beauty of sea and sky. The written submissions expressed the emotional aspects- bringing tears as well as laughter. Some of the people who submitted their work had not thought of themselves as artists before, but do now. One young person submitted several wonderful pictures, to raise funds for young people’s mental health services. The work stayed up in The Boatyard all summer- a great make-over for this well-liked local café.
The ‘Open Mike’ was the first event of this kind for most of us since the pandemic hit. It was truly marvellous to be together as an audience for live performance. Kate Fox, Beccy Owen, Jim Mageean and Peter Mortimer were just some of the well-known local ‘stars’ who gave their time. It was a post-pandemic first for them too, and they shared how special it was for them to perform to real, 3-dimensional people after so long away. The atmosphere was both warm and invigorating for everyone.
Ebb & Flow was a bit like waking up from a bad dream- seeing that we can be together again to celebrate creativity, community and place- a much-needed point of light. It has opened up enthusiasm for more of the same. Next plan is for music and spoken word events to raise funds for upkeep of the Cullercoats Watch House, probably in the New Year when we will again need a point of light in the darkness. Reflecting on the months of planning and organising, as well as the outcomes, the good stuff seems many-layered. It reached out and dived deep. All the different creative aspects augmented each other- they, and we, are always more than the sum of our parts. It was a full-on affirmation of Cullercoats. As my friend Mary who came up from Bristol to help out, put it: “Cullercoats Rocks!”