A text from my friend Plum, who’s suggesting she comes down for the weekend and we go somewhere nice. Yes please.
Out of interest, how do you feel about dressing for dinner?
Dressing for dinner? I have no clothes, I’ve grown out of all my dresses…
Well, I was thinking of the Burgh Island Hotel and I’ve always wanted to stay there so you’ve given me a bloody good excuse.
She calls back a bit later – not only has she managed to get us in for one night on Saturday we’re also booked into the Mermaid Suite, which overlooks the famous Mermaid Pool, built by damming an inlet on the side of the island so that it remains filled with sea water.
Naturally, being wild swimmers who regularly frequent this area, we’ve visited and enjoyed this private pool before on a number of occasions. The difference is, we’ve been there in a slightly less than official capacity. The normal raid involves swimming round the back of Burgh and swimming covertly (ish) up the gully to the dam, before scaling the rocks and sneaking in. I think we might have to skinny dip just to make our official swim less legit.
Mum makes one of her famous treat lemon tarts for the morning, we’re to be there by 12 latest as the weather’s looking iffy and there is only the landrover to get us across because the sea tractor is out of order.
I retrieve a couple of dresses from the cottage, and actually I’m not quite as fat as I thought, though it does look rather stuffed around the middle. My big gold velvet shawl will sort that. We joke about being told off at dinner for various sartorial crimes an or having unsuitable restraining underwear. Plum of course has made a call to the hotel and discussed our dressing for dinner worries with one of the staff. The gist of it is don’t wear jeans and make a bit of an effort, but you don’t have to go mad, although you of course may.
I’m so excited! Texts Plum. So am I. Once we’re there, we’re picked up by our Slovakian driver and over we go. I think of the Simpson’s episode where Homer joins the Masons. Another world of luxury is revealed, different entrances, different approaches.
A glass of chilled sherry, bags carried up, and there’s a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc on ice from Kari in the siting room of our suite.
We start with a postprandial sauna, then wander sweatily to reception for our green outdoor towels.
“You’re going swimming? I’ve already been today!” laughs the receptionist in a strong eastern European accent, arms waving and eyes rolling. Many of the ice swimmers on the various outdoor swimming social media are eastern European, the kind who saw a hole through ice with a chainsaw and pay a man to row around all night so it doesn’t freeze over before the morning dip. But this woman is clearly not of that ilk.
The staff are so funny, beautifully polite and attentive, with a formal style of speech that’s modified by twinkles in the eye, as much banter as you like and an eccentric edge to their dress and hair which makes me feel at home.
We have a wild swimming friend called Queenie, and the most famous regular guest in the Mermaid Suite from the 30s is her namesake, whose bedroom furniture was left to the hotel and now lives in the suite. Walnut art deco curves, gleaming and gorgeous. It’s not my favourite era in terms of style, but to see this icon from within emphasises how place and time can sometimes throw up a crazy perfection from such disparate elements. Back to constellations? Such formality, clean lines and control in Art Deco, such wildness and edge on this piece of heavenly Devonly coast. The colours and the light form the mainstay of the connective tissues, and the whole seems to hover in the spray while simultaneously bursting forth with pure glamour.
We sneak into the pool, as spray splats over the little dam and across the surface.
I don’t feel confident in my balance or movement but am able to swim a little, puffing, while Plum heads across to the wilder side. It’s blooming cold, we reckon 6 or 7 degrees.
The seas here are spectacular and often huge, and it is swimmable on the right tide at times when you’d think getting in was certain death. That’s why this is one of my favourite swims. Now I’m looking out at the wild sea where I’d more usually be found from the aquamarine stillness of the pool. I remember once glimpsing the pool from the top of a huge wave while playing the lookout game; you swim gradually closer to the rocks then swim then allow yourself to be lifted heavenwards on an approaching wave as it towers and rears in preparation for crashing down into the rocks, suspended momentarily on the top of the world. It’s a life-enhancing experience to look over that precipice, and drop off the back before the final crash. But for now I’m cocooned with the mermaid.