When Paul and I arrived at Ballyholme Beach the sun was shining, there was a light breeze coming off the sea and the tide was beginning to come in. There is a long stretch of sandy beach, broken at the western end by concrete “groins” running into the sea. The ends of which are marked with tall posts, so there should be no risk of getting too close and swimming into the wall.
A few people were out enjoying this fine September sunshine, walking dogs and kicking off shoes to go for a paddle. At the eastern end of the beach, where the strand is left open with no groins to spoil the sweep of sand, a horse and rider were enjoying the soft sands and shallow waters.
By the time I reached the rider she was bringing down her second horse for a swim. We waded out together, chatting about swimming and the horses. I think the horses were a little confused that this human was walking into the water with them and not on their backs. It was my first experience of swimming beside a horse, (at a careful distance, I know how hard hooves can be.)
The sea was calm and clear, and a slightly surreal experience to be chatting to the rider as I breast stroked along, occasionally breaking into front crawl so as not to be left behind. Although, I think I enjoyed my swim more than the horses.
The sun was warm on my back, the only movement in the water the small waves in the wake of the distant ferry that passed on its way into Belfast Lough, I could have stayed in for hours.
A little way down the beach, a group were wading out, trousers rolled up, they stood in a small circle and began to sing. A girl stood in the centre of the circle with her head bowed, ready for baptism. As I enjoyed my gentle swim, accompanied by my equine friends, this girl was having her own deep spiritual experience… I watched as she plunged under the water, washing away her sins as I wash away the stresses of the day each time I swim… rising up to the cheers and songs of her friends.
As I left Ballyholme, I will not forget the mix of the surreal and the sublime that I found that day.
Words By Maureen McCoy
Photography By Paul McCambridge