Gayle heads to the East Neuk for a dip in St Monans sea pool.
As I drive across the border into Fife, I feel a wonderful sense of freedom wash over me.
The sun is shining, lockdown restrictions have eased, folk are out and about in shorts and T-shirts and the car’s temperature gauge tells me it’s a balmy 15C.
Arriving in St Monans for a dip in the awesome tidal pool, I deliberate “manning up” and ditching the wetsuit.
I’ve swum in many a loch, river and indeed the North Sea in just a cossie – but rarely in April, when the water is still exceedingly chilly.
I’m here to meet a group of St Monans locals who, having got together to clean up the forgotten pool, now swim in it regularly.
They’re all sporting wetsuits so, breathing a silent sigh of relief, I decide to follow suit.
The pool is in an idyllic location; the windmill which once pumped sea water into the long-abandoned salt pans standing proud on the raised beach above.
Hewn out of the rocky coast, the pool is ringed by man-made walls and access points which naturally replenish with a fresh cascade of seawater.
Those daunted by the prospect of swimming in the open sea, with its associated hazards (undercurrents, rip tides and so on), would do well to come here.
It’s a haven for “safe” outdoor swimming, with little chance of being swept out to sea.
It’s thanks to a huge community clear-up spearheaded by Jennifer Jones that the pool is once again thriving.
Prior to February, it hadn’t been maintained for 40 years and was, inevitably, full of lurking hazards such as broken glass, chunks of rusty metal and who knows what else.
Even though it’s been cleared, the advice for swimmers is to wear protective footwear – just in case.
I’m sporting a pair of cheap, flimsy 3mm neoprene socks which, I discover, are way too big for me because they immediately fill with water and flap around uselessly.
As I immerse my entire body in the chilly pool – “it’s 6C today”, Jennifer informs me – I shriek and utter a swear word or two.
There’s a sort of take-your-breath-away moment, particularly when the water drips down the back of my wetsuit – which, by the way, has no arms or legs and is called a “shorty” or “spring” wetsuit – but once I get over the shock and acclimatise, I begin to enjoy the experience.
There are no heroics today – nobody’s here for a race and most of us stick to breaststroke with the odd lap of front crawl thrown in.
Thanks to my thermal gloves, I’m able to stay in for about 20 minutes, but when my teeth start chattering, it’s time to exit.
I emerge, dripping, and realise I’m pretty darn chilly, so I’m very glad I’ve brought a flask of coffee and a dryrobe, a funky robe designed to keep you cosy post-swim.
Swaddled inside it, I warm up quickly, and it’s easy to change back into my clothes under the garment without indecently exposing myself to passers-by.
As I sit swigging my coffee and admiring the view, I catch up with fellow swimmers.
Jennifer tells me she gazed down at the neglected pool for months before eventually plucking up the courage to take a dip in February.
“My eight-year-old daughter encouraged me!” she says. “After we’d been in, a couple of neighbours who’d been watching expressed their interest in swimming in it.
“Two days later there were three of us, then four, then five.”
When the tide was out, Jennifer’s husband, a welder fabricator, was able to safely drain the pool.
Jennifer and three friends then spent a week clearing it of hazardous debris.
“We started picking up broken glass and huge pieces of sharp, rusty metal which were originally part of the pool,” she explains.
“We also chucked a few big slimy boulders over the wall and cleared a path to allow us to safely walk into the pool.
“Prior to that, we were literally climbing over slippy big boulders, glass and metalwork to get in!”
After Jennifer posted about the clear-up on Facebook, locals galore flocked to help out.
It was a huge community effort with people of all ages rallying together.
“Nobody had swum in the pool for 40 years, but now, whenever I walk past, there are people in it – locals who would never have dreamed of going in, never mind buying a wetsuit!” says Jennifer.
“Elderly ladies and gents and families and kids use it regularly, all kitted out with wetsuits.
“And of course the hardcore ‘skins’ community (those in just swimsuits) come from all over Fife!”
Jennifer says everyone who swims in the pool finds it an exhilarating and rejuvenating experience. And I can vouch for that.
Around 40 people use the pool on a daily basis and it’s a number that’s sure to increase as the weather improves.
“It makes me really happy to see a pool that’s been left to rot for so long being used again,” reflects Jennifer.
“But even though we’ve cleared it, it’s still not maintained, so people use it at their own risk.
“It might be safer than the sea but the water is still cold.”
St Monans is not the only tidal pool in the East Neuk, or indeed Scotland, which has been cleaned up by the community.
The interest in tidal pools has been triggered by the obsession with open water swimming, and nostalgia for a time when summers were spent enjoying Scottish beaches.
Hugely popular among Victorian and Edwardian swimmers, many tidal pools were abandoned when foreign travel attracted people to swim in warmer waters.