Jason Goodwin: ‘A rising wall of grey water threatened to dash me onto the stones like a rag doll’

Our spectator columnist battles the waves on New Year's Day,

On New Year’s Day, our friend Roger led a posse to the beach to expunge the last traces of hedonism and 2019-ishness. He likes to greet the New Year with an icy plunge, which brings him down from London and allows us to see him every year. Dr Bowdler is an authority on funerary sculpture and old tombs; his new book, Churchyards, is the last word on memento mori, but never until that day had I come close to consulting him in a professional capacity.

The skies were overcast and there was a chill little wind. Plenty of people were walking on the beach, wrapped to the gunwales in scarves and woolly hats. We sat swaddled up for as long as we dared and finally flung off our coats and jumpers and ran, hollering for support, down the shingle and into the foam.


The younger members of our party, as wise as they were agile, stopped to prance about in the wavelets, but I kept going. The momentum of my run, no doubt enhanced by extra pounds accrued at the festive board, dropped me right into the gully that the waves had carved in the shingle. One moment I was running and bellowing, the next a rising wall of grey water teetered above my head and threatened to dash me onto the stones and roll me about like a rag doll.

I was still wearing my glasses because I am always afraid of striking out for the shore, only to clamber out of the sea hours later, blinking myopically, surrounded by men in berets and striped jerseys, or even clogs.

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Faster than you can read this, I had whipped the specs off my nose and, clenching them fiercely in my right hand, dived for safety into the base of the wave where the water is relatively still. How long I was under I don’t know, but a few kicks brought me safely to the far side and I emerged gasping into the grey swell.

‘A mixture of cold and anxiety turns me into a breathless, thrashing, weakening creature in the grip of a monstrous force I cannot control’

Swimmers battling with the sea can look childishly safe to an observer on the beach. The waves aren’t very big and they’re moving inwards. Throw a stick into the sea and, 10 to one, it will make its own way back onto dry land.

But I’m not a stick and a mixture of cold and anxiety turns me into a breathless, thrashing, weakening creature in the grip of a monstrous force I cannot begin to control or predict.

This is how people often drown. Twenty feet out from the breakers, riding the swell at sea, I was safe, but I was terribly cold. My single ambition was to return to the group on the shingle. Gripping my glasses, I lunged and plunged and made it back to the foam riding the crest of a wave. Of course, that wave then sucked back, my strength ebbing as the water dragged me back into the gully.

Durdle Door in the Snow

‘Brrr!’ I said, moments later, as I crawled up the beach to pick up a towel. I could hardly speak. My chest was bursting. It was all I could do to put out a palsied hand in an attempt to grip the towel.

Around me, everyone was chatting and getting dressed. I looked back at the sea with horror as it rolled on, implacable and persistent, for the sea is terrible, like the desert. ‘You look rather pale,’ Kate said.

An epiphany, I would have said, if I’d had the breath, but I let it go and took the proffered rum and hot chocolate instead.