Wetsuits are like wearing clothes in the bath

WE’VE done our first house swap — with one of our sons, writes Damien Enright. 

His pretty little cottage in the village of Casa de la Seda (The House of Silk) in the Valley of the Great King (Valle Gran Rey) La Gomera, Canary Islands, in return for our somewhat larger gaff in the Court of the Son of Geoffrey, Courtmacsherry, West Cork, as called in our native tongue.

Today, on the black sand beach at the bottom of the Valley of the Great King, there were 35 people in the sea, including half a dozen small children running in and out of the medium-high waves. Nobody was wearing a wetsuit.

My son, in a text message we received this morning, tells me that, on this 13th day of October, the weather is lovely at home. When he’s finished his day’s work — start early, finish early —he may well head for Dunworley Strand on the Seven Heads for a late afternoon swim.

There, I’d imagine, almost everyone brave enough to enter the October sea will be wearing a wetsuit. It’s the fashion these days, even in July. I have noted that, throughout this failed summer just past, at least 60% of Irish bathers were wearing neoprene.

Yet, I remember my pals and I, and our parents too, happily cavorting in some Indian summer seas wearing nothing but decent (very decent!) swimsuits. Maybe the Irish have become soft. At home, I did not swim at all this summer, the first Irish summer I have failed to do so. I tried; I walked in, and ran out. I did not, however, to my credit, resort to neoprene. I have always thought that bathing in a wetsuit was like wearing one’s clothes in the bath.

Today, on this blessed isle, albeit it was cloudy overhead, I entered the water and it was, of course, quite painless. A frisson of skin-tightening (skin-toning?) chill and then total immersion, a brief period underwater in shallow, sand-warmed sea to get acclimatised. Now, for some weeks to come, I will adopt a ritual I have previously employed with gratifying success in La Gomera. Rise very early, work on my latest scribbling project until early afternoon, then beat it to the beach or to the hills for a moderate hike and the enjoyment of high-altitude fresh air, exotic vegetation and the seductive cooing of the endemic fat, blousy laurel pigeons, which one never sees but hears — and, where the forest opens to wild, flowery pastures along the rim of the escarpments above the valleys, the voices of wild canaries, their thrilling song. At the weekends, there will be local music, enjoyed with local friends we have made over the many years we have spent in whole or part here.

La Gomera is spectacularly beautiful, but not an iota more so than Cork, or Kerry, or Tipperary or where-have-you on our own blessed isle. But it is a change. Some Celts came from Spain, and even on this island, where Spanish blood is mixed with that of the first settlers, mountain Berbers, we have an affinity with the people, and the sun.

En route to Tenerife, whence we took a boat to Gomera, we spent a day with family in Hertfordshire in the UK. As always, Britain is surprising in how easy it is to walk through the countryside, with no hindrance, along foot-worn paths far from habitation, all this within 55km of London.

In places, the hedgerows wore dark red mantles of haws, not space for a green leaf showing so dense were they on the branches and, elsewhere, and even more dramatic, were the sloes, fat as dessert grapes, dark blue-black and shining. My sons and daughters picked caps full. They are all foragers it seems, perhaps fearing, as infants, that their father wouldn’t feed them.

A grandson disappeared over the near horizon and came back bearing puffballs of sundew-melon size and made of firm, pristine-white mushroom meat. An aspiring domestic chef (like many of the 20 to 30-year-old men I encounter these days) he planned to fry slices, coated in eggs and breadcrumbs, along with bacon, for breakfast next day.

A daughter told me that in her local Hertfordshire park, she and a friend had harvested Cep mushrooms, Boletus edulis, in abundance the previous week, while parasols and lawyers’ wigs were also numerous.

My mushroom-gathering pal in Kerry was recently bemoaning the late arrival of Boletus in his patch. I wondered if, like butterflies, they too, would be almost absent this year.


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