Today is the third anniversary of my wife Melanie’s successful cross channel swim. To celebrate I thought I’d share some of the highlights along with some Vintage Travel Posters that relate to her journey. The fun, exciting, arduous and exhilarating experience just to stand on the golden sands of Wissant Beach in France – for ten minutes.
So, it begins.
For Mel, the journey began with a simple challenge. Well, in hindsight, it wasn’t actually that simple at the time. As a complete novice swimmer she had entered an event called the Great North Swim. The aim was to swim a one mile course of Lake Windermere. The swim, in 2008, was Mel’s first experience of the brutality of a deep-water start. Open-water swimmers casually swim out to the middle of the lake and tread water waiting for the start of the race. When the klaxon sounds, mayhem ensues. Anything goes! Kicking, punching, the gouging of eyes, ears and mouths and the pushing of heads underwater. People literally swimming over one another in a bid to knock half a second off their one mile PB times.
At the end of the swim battered and bruised, Mel compared it to doing ten rounds with Mike Tyson. The ominous start was not fun. However, swimming in Windermere’s cool water, on a bright summers day, in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape turned out to be an exhilarating and enjoyable experience.
There have been many Vintage Travel and railway posters that feature the incredible natural countryside and the surrounding mountain peaks. Amongst the best examples I would include the panoramic Lakeland poster by Ronald Lampitt titled The English Lakes that features one the steamers at the Head of Windermere. A.J. Wilson’s Visit Windermere and Go by Train travel poster offers a view of the magnificent scenery from the deck of a steamer. Lander’s English Lakes poster features a more generic image of the area. He has pitted the countryside against an almost burgundy background that really makes the image pop off the poster. Norman Wilkinson created several railway travel posters promoting tourism to Cumbria. One of his best travel posters is simply entitled The Lake District. It offers a beautiful view of Windermere from Bowness and includes several yachts on the water.
Mel’s time was slow! However, the experience, enjoyment and sense of achievement was clear to see. It was love at first swim! Windermere would be a lake we would revisit several times over the next few years, with one visit involving Mel and swim buddy Dave swimming the entire 10 mile length.
More venues, more swims.
Following that first swim, we travelled quite extensively, looking for any big puddles large enough to swim in. Llyn Padarn, which can be seen in the Peter Collins illustrated North Wales vintage travel poster, with its views towards the Snowdonia Mountain range is a beautiful venue for outdoor swimming. Grasmere is another. The magnificent scenery of Grasmere’s lake is illustrated to good effect by renowned poster artist Norman Wilkinson. His painting of the lake on his Grasmere poster for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway is a permanent reminder of the area that became one of Mel’s favorite training grounds.
Other venues such as Gaddings Dam and Boundary Park, became places to meet up with friends. We would both enjoy visits up to Coniston Lake near the beautiful village of Coniston and Ullswater became a firm favourite. The remarkable image in Schabelsky’s vintage travel poster for the London and North Eastern Railway of Ullswater hangs on our wall, a memento of some great times. I don’t really get outdoor swimming but I do understand the appeal of swimming in these beautiful lakes. Total immersion in the peace and quiet of the natural surroundings, in a natural environment that has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.
Then one day, something clicked! Mel said she wanted to try and swim the English Channel! Now, as you probably know, the Strait of Dover is the busiest stretch of water in the world. Braving the perilous 21-mile stretch of sea between England and France, is still considered a major feat, even for the most competent of swimmers. Many excellent swimmers have attempted the swim and failed. And yes, there are now bigger more dangerous swims. However, it’s the English Channel that draws people from all over the world. They all want to attempt the “Everest” of swimming – the English Channel.
So, it was game on! Swimming was now being taken to a whole different level. We’d be saying goodbye to breaststroke and taking in the relaxing lakeside views. It would now be heads down, focussed, no-nonsense front crawl. Just like the proper swimmers do! So, Mel swapped Boundary Park for the Manchester Aquatics Centre, Gaddings Dam for Salford Docks and the Lake District for the Seaside towns. Living in Cheshire, Mel’s best chance for regular training were the seaside resorts dotted along the North Wales coastline.
The Victorian seaside resort of Colwyn Bay was a regular sea training ground. George Ayling captured the essence of the region in his ‘Colwyn Bay, The Gateway to the Welsh Rockies’ travel posters. His poster provides a magnificent panoramic view of Colwyn Bay town with the Welsh mountains as a backdrop. More days were spent at Llandudno, Aberystwyth and Rhyl. And despite what Septimus Scott’s beautiful travel posters claim, Rhyl is NOT Sunny! Not when we’ve been there swimming anyway. Mel’s dedication to training meant that even during our week’s holiday, she was taking daily swims at various beaches around Newquay.
For the actual swim, we stayed over at the Grand Burstin Hotel in Folkestone. This hotel’s large ship shaped design looked a whole lot better from the outside than it did on the inside. And whilst we would have enjoyed it any other time, our stay coincided with a Ska Music festival playing in the hotel. Not much sleep then. Perhaps not the best preparation the night before a Channel swim attempt.
The Big Swim
Mel’s support crew consisted of Dave ‘The drill sergeant’ (there to angrily shout instructions) and daughter Kayleigh ‘The Whistler’ (needed to stop Mel straying too far from the boat). All three met up with their boat, the Connemara and crew, consisting of pilot Kevin and adjudicators Paula and Brendon. Most people think that the channel swim starts at Dover. It doesn’t! Kevin and the team took Mel to a beach about 20 minutes away from Folkestone called Samphire Hoe. There she jumped into the water, swam to the beach and on the sound of the boat’s klaxon, she was off!
This was Mel’s second attempt at a solo crossing and it was an arduous swim. However, there were highlights that will live long in Mel’s memory. Swimming in the water as the sun set was awesome and still swimming while the sun rose whilst entering French waters were definately two. However, swimming through the night, not helped by the regular jellyfish stings, collected on the way and the mental battle of the possibility of the swim being pulled because of tides, Mel would rather forget.
Some fifteen hours later, tired and elated, she stood on French sand. She had successfully completed the swim. Mel was given a warm welcome, being greeted by a lovely Frenchman called Patrice and some of his friends. They all had a quick, celebratory chat and Patrice explained they had videoed her arrival at Wissant. One of the rules of cross-channel swimming is that if you are not staying in France, the French authorities insist, that swimmers can only stay on the beach for ten minutes! So, it was straight back in to the water, back to the boat and after a three hour boat ride, back to the harbour in Folkestone.
The girl done good!
To celebrate Mel’s success, we stayed down on the south coast for a few days, taking in a few of the old seaside towns. A pleasant day was spent in Folkestone, which is going through a period of regeneration, especially along on the sea front. At Dover we enjoyed a long visit to the Castle and the Underground Hospital before taking a walk on top of the famous white cliffs. They also do a great kebab in Dover! We took a drive to Hastings to visit the quaint Hastings Old Town. Whilst we were there we also visited the seafront and Hastings Pier. This was my choice because Jimi Hendrix had once played there. Sadly nothing remains of the venue. Finally, we had a wander around Deal. I wanted to visit The Deal Timeball Tower – a Victorian maritime Greenwich meantime signal located on top a four storey building. The building features prominently on 1952 Deal and Walmer travel posters by Frank Sherwin We finished our time by taking the seafront walk up to the bandstand in Walmer and listening to a brass band playing there, before heading back home.
The travel posters from the 1930’s and 1940’s we’ve featured in this article, portray these seaside destinations as popular, exciting, modern and sophisticated resorts. Sadly, whilst there are still some nice aspects to all the towns, they all looked tired and past their best. However, we had a great time and thoroughly enjoy ourselves!
Even better than Captain Webb
So, 143 years after Captain Matthew Webb first succeeded in crossing the English Channel, a feat the Victorians considered ‘impossible’, Mel joined the elite list of successful swimmers. In 1875 Webb’s swim took 21 hours and 40 minutes. Swimming breaststroke his zig zag route meant the distance covered was almost 40 miles. Mel did it in 15 hours exactly and covered a distance of 36 miles. There is a common saying among swimmers that more people have climbed Everest than have swum the English Channel. To this day less than 4000 people have ever swam the channel solo. Of these, only 1500 are women, and of those, less than 50 were aged over at the time of the swim.
It wasn’t easy but it wouldn’t be called a ‘challenge’ if it was. An inscription on a memorial in Dawley in honour of Captain Webb himself sums it all up “Nothing great is easy”. Mel has come a very long way since that first one miler back in 2008. Her name now appears on the Dover UK website listed as number 188 in the 2018 successful channel swimmers record. I couldn’t be prouder of my wife’s achievement. And I’m glad she was able to use the personality trait I call stubborness, (that she calls steely determination), to good use.
Several of these vintage travel posters are dotted around our house as a reminder of the Channel swim. Old, faded, wrinkly and worn around the edges? Maybe! But She did it! What a great story to be able to tell the grandchildren.