The Swimmer by Lesley Matthews – Part 1

Margaret Dixon, 1934

When Lesley Matthews spoke about her mother’s love of swimming where she grew up in the North-East of England, we thought you might like to hear about the race she entered as a 14-year-old girl. Thanks to Lesley for sharing this story with us…

June 1934. All along the steps the swimmers stood. The day was warm and fresh, the tide high. The steps from the Groyne were slippy with bright green sea grass. Margaret stood, shivering, in her black regulation costume and rubber cap, waiting for the starting pistol.

Barely 14, Margaret was competing with people much older than herself, there because of her undoubted ability as a long-distance swimmer. She feared that she would let down her Uncle Billy, that the lads she hung round with would call her ‘cissy’, that she wasn’t ready for this race even though she had practised the distance for months, helped by her Uncle Billy shouting encouragement as he rowed alongside her in his dinghy.

She was determined to win.

The starting gun fired and she leapt into the cold North Sea. The seagulls screamed encouragement, wheeling and swooping overhead. Swimming strongly, she moved as fast as she could, knowing that she had to stay in front of the pack if she was to avoid becoming entangled with the others. In and out of the water her head and arms dipped, legs propelling her forward.

All along the sands the onlookers cheered and waved. Small boats lined the course ready to haul aboard any who struggled or got into difficulties, but the sea was where Margaret felt truly alive. Cutting through the waves with precision, her whole being focused on her goal to beat all rivals, to win and make her family proud.

As she swam she thought of those who had helped her to achieve so much. A small and sickly child, she had been born prematurely and suffered from a weak chest, prone to colds and bronchitis. Her dad had been the first to teach her to swim, to help her develop her lungs.

Uncle Billy Trattles had seen her potential and spent hours taking her, unwilling at first, to swim in the sea, to enter races, to train her until she was the intertown schoolgirls’ champion, winning every race she entered.

The medals were wonderful and gratefully received but she had to compete in and win adult races if she was to earn any money. Money was hard to come by. If she won, the winnings would keep the family for a month.

The journey was helped by the current, which ran north to south. She conserved her energy and allowed the current to carry her along. The silky water caressed her and buoyed her up. She had no fear of the depths below; she felt she could swim forever.

All the swimmers could see was the sea and the occasional fellow competitor. The sound of gulls filled their ears, the sweet salt smell their nostrils. After the first mile, passing Trow Rocks, the pack became more spread out. The leaders were passing Marsden while the stragglers were reaching Trow Rocks. It was important to swim well offshore to avoid the undercurrents, which clung to the swimmers and tried to drag them shorewards onto the sharp rocks below.

On and on they swam, past Frenchman’s and Smuggler’s Coves, Ladies Rocks, across Marsden Bay to the Lizard. Many gave up, were hauled, shivering and cold, into the boats, sad and disappointed that they had failed.

Margaret swam on.

All along the cliffs the crowds shouted and cheered, taking bets as to who would finish, who would fail the course. With so many unemployed, especially in the North-East, marathon swims were all the rage. Betting offered small opportunities, faint hopes.

Reaching the Lizard, you could rest awhile, hang on to the side of a steward’s boat and drink lukewarm tea from a milk bottle before making the return journey. Margaret felt good as she made the turn, she had strength in reserve – but now she would be battling against the current. The tide was on the ebb now and she was conscious that without care she could be pulled out to sea, travelling more than a mere ten miles.

Screeching gulls, less intent on her than one another… a black-headed gull swooped past her head, startling her. The cramp struck just after Marsden Rock. Her side began to contract, the breath pushed from her lungs. She began to flail, lost her rhythm and began to sink into the depths. Water poured into her mouth and up her nose. Struggling frantically, kicking against the pain, she tried to calm herself. Tried to remember the advice she’d been given (don’t panic, relax) but all seemed hopeless. She wouldn’t win, would drown and die here in the cold North Sea…

To be continued tomorrow…

Lesley Matthews

Lesley Matthews has been concerned about climate change for a very long time, so when she happened upon the Fishguard and Goodwick Community Fridge, she was delighted to get involved.

“After over 20 years visiting Pembrokeshire with my husband, we made the move from Bristol to live here about two years ago. I love waking up every morning and seeing the sea,” she says.

As a retired teacher, Lesley found herself with time on her hands and a need to be part of her new community. However, since she found the Community Fridge, she has also taken on the new role of food saver champion.

Kitty Parsons

Kitty Parsons

Kitty is an incomer, with five summers under her belt and the knowledge that even the wettest and greyest of winters have not diminished her love of Pembrokeshire. She knows she will never live long enough to be considered a local but hopes to leave some small mark through writing about this beautiful county and its people.

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