The Oasis #favouriteplaces

It’s hard to decide if this place is retro cool like Danger Mouse, or reliable children’s entertainment like Blue Peter. I think because it lacks tedious health and safety (always felt Blue Peter would be a rule follower), and has a bit more of a slap dash approach, it’s probably more the former. This is a good thing.

I first went to the Oasis in Swindon in the late 80s, and thought it pretty much the coolest place ever. It wasn’t just the wave machine and huge leisure pool, it was being allowed on scary slides that gave you a wedgie and got water up your nose. Frankly, a slide’s not worth its salt if it doesn’t cause a bit of pain.

The main area of pleasure-pain is the Domebuster, which has three slides: the Great White, Sidewinder and Storm. In the main pool, there are three hydro-slides and an open flume. There’s also a little pool with a pirate ship complete with squirters, sprays and small slides.


Fun under the dome!

This is where I start to rant. So many water parks and leisure pools have stringent height/age restrictions for their water slides. Blue Lagoon, part of the Bluewater holiday village in south west Wales, for example, has a lifeguard with a measuring stick and the deduction skills of Columbo at the top of each slide barring the vertically challenged and under-eights.

But since when was age and height an indication of swimming ability or awareness of danger? The Oasis is much more sensible. You can take a small child down the Great White on your lap, which gives the more daring little ones a chance to go on a big slide.

Our three-year-old loved it, and after a few goes wanted to upgrade. Could he? “One of you go down first and catch him at the bottom,” said the lifeguard. So we took on the Sidewinder. You have to go down head-first and one at a time, and there’s one bit where your whole body is airborne. No wedgie, but a satisfying bumping of the iliac crest, which leaves a bruise-of-honour.

I was quite anxious to catch the expression on my three-year-old’s face as he shot out the end of the slide after me. Rapture was not what I expected. But he loved it so much I had to endure at least seven more bruises before we called it a day. I have to admit loving standing in the queue with my audacious preschooler, while children twice his age in arm-bands snivelled at the idea of going on the Great White.

We were there for a good two hours, all three children adoring it much as I had in the 80s. It’s not the most sparkly, new, flash water-park, but it’s fun. And health and safety quips aside, the lifeguards are friendly and seem to use judgement and experience rather than blindly follow rules.

Besides, its 90s indie band namesake took its name from the Oasis after seeing it on a poster for a gig by Inspiral Carpets (in the adjoining live music venue, not the Domebuster). I think that backs up the retro-cool argument rather than the tired, in need of a refurb comments made by Trip Advisor reviewers. Sure, it probably hasn’t been updated much in the last 30 years, but then nor have DipDabs, so that’s not always a bad thing.

*promise I’ll review some proper open water swimming places soon!


Dog beach

This is proper cheating. One of my favourite winter beaches is on the other side of the world, where technically speaking, it’s summer. As in sizzling, 35 degree heat, summer. I’d actually like to just nip there just now, but Perth, Australia is a bloody long haul. Worth it, though; there’s a lot to love about Dog Beach.

My cousin put it best when she said “dog beach is a happy place”. It really is. Of all the beaches in Perth: long, soft golden-sanded expanses, pretty much deserted, Dog Beach is the busiest. That’s not busy by UK standards: it’s empty compared to Fistral in Newquay on a hot day, but on a balmy evening, there are plenty of people scattered on the sand. And dogs.

That’s another thing we loved: the way Dog Beach typifies an Aussie say-what-you-see approach to naming things. Dog beach is called dog beach because it’s a beach and you can take your dog there. Just as galahs are called ‘pink and greys’ because they’re pink and grey, and Shark Bay is a bay where sharks can be found.

Sharks were the only sharp-toothed, potentially deadly downside to Perth beaches. Probably because I’m a pom, I was terrified that there’d be several great whites lurking just beyond the breakers ready to snack on one of my children. I’d eat them if I were a shark. My cousin and sister’s Perth-born husbands were both very philosophical about the shark threat, and logically I knew that an attack was very unlikely, but still, we stayed in the shallows.


Looking out for Jaws.

Our trip to Perth was incredible. We were there for Christmas following the birth of my nephew, my sister’s first baby. She’d been living there for a couple of years with her husband, and our cousin was living a few streets away with the man who’s now her husband and their three dogs. In fact, this beach is the place where he later proposed.

They took us to Dog Beach one evening. The Aussies tend to visit the beach early in the morning or in the evening, otherwise it’s too hot. There’s something wonderful about being able to bathe in the sea and golden, evening sun. The atmosphere is one of peace, contentment and relaxation that you don’t really get in the UK. I guess it’s the knowledge that these endless summer evenings are yours. It’s a lovely way to live.

Dog Beach is just north of Hillary’s, a harbour development with shops and restaurants that I’ll write about another time, and south of Horse Beach (guess what happens there!). It’s about a kilometre of white sand, lapped by clear water. It’s quite exposed to the wind, so the waves can get to a decent size, though when we went it was pretty tranquil.

We played with the children and dogs in the surf, the dogs swimming quite far out to fetch sticks the way dogs do. I watched for sharks, mostly, while my cousin watched their dear old, deaf (and now sadly departed) dog from wandering off with the wrong people.

The air and water temperature is quite warm enough in December to sit in the breakers, which is also an unusual experience for a British person. This was lucky, really, because as much as I’d have loved to have swum properly, the Jaws theme-tune was playing on repeat in my head.

Still, it was undoubtedly one of the happiest, most golden places I’ve ever been. A place where for the time you’re there, everything is right with the world. A place where human and canine joy abounds.

In memory of Rover and Kaiser

Clifton Lido

It’s still too cold for proper open water swimming, but not to go outdoors. Clifton Lido is a bit of a gem: sympathetically restored, heated, but still cold enough to whip your breath away. And you can wear a bikini.

It’s January. Clear, crisp, sun shining brightly, but doing a bit of a feeble job of warming this part of the world. Still, I’m in my two-piece and enjoying a few breathless lengths under the actual sky without a lifeguard or ceiling in sight. What joy.

This is Clifton’s rather special Lido. It’s been in Bristol since 1849, but closed in 1990. After a local campaign which gave it grade II listed status, it was restored, and re-opened in December 2008. You can see photos of the restoration project all around the venue.

The pool is beautiful. A tank design, 24m long, it is kept at a temperature of around 24/25 degrees and at a low chlorine level. There’s also a sauna, steam room and hot tub. When you use the facilities in conjunction with one another, you swim with an odd, heavy feeling that has to be good for you!

We swim, then sauna, then swim, then hot tub, steam, swim, hot tub again. This level of relaxation is quite exhausting! And builds an appetite.

This brings me neatly to a quality that none of my other favourite swimming places possess: an excellent restaurant. Downstairs, a tapas bar; upstairs, an a la carte dining room where you can also choose from a set menu or tasting menu.

We go upstairs, and choose a meal from the set menu: starter to share, main (something fishy) and then pudding to share. By this point, we are almost too exhausted to speak, and certainly too spaced out to sample from the wine list, so we just sit mesmerised by the swimmers ploughing up and down in the pool below, enjoying our food.

The restaurant is in the old pool’s viewing gallery, which apart from the modern floor to ceiling windows that overlook the pool, has plenty of industrial Victorian charm.

In the pool, in my bikini, I felt the eyes from the restaurant. But now I’m here among a curious mix of business lunches, friends meeting and people in white robes, I understand that those eyes were pretty passive: it’s hard to intently observe anything when you’re in a stupor of intense relaxation and food appreciation.

This is a gold plated outdoor swim, infused with expensive essential oils. It’s cleaned up, without being sanitised, so you still get to experience the sky above your head, and fresh, clear water – with just enough chlorine to know you’re not going to get your fingers caught in pond weed or swallow a pond skater.

No, it’s not the genuine wild swimming article, but you get to sauna, steam, hot tub and a nice massage if you want. And did I mention an amazing meal afterwards? In my eyes, it’s a good trade-off.

One day I might just do winter open water swims, but until then, I’ll take the luxury option because it is really, really rather nice.



Fossil hunting #favouriteplaces

Every Friday, I’m going to explore a great wild swim, pool, open water swimming spot or beach. Seeing as I’m not prepared to take the plunge in the UK this early in the year, I thought I’d start with some fossiling fun.

East Quantoxhead is on the Somerset coast, about 13 miles west of Bridgwater. The village itself has a church, grade I listed manor house and pretty thatched cottages its own duck pond and mill house dating from 1725. The manor was granted to an ascendant of the family that still owns it in around 1070, since when no part of the estate has been sold. The village used to have a small harbour which brought in limestone and exported alabaster. It is thought that it was also used for smuggling.

From the village, you can walk down a track that leads to the coast path, from which you can walk down steep steps to the beach. If you turn left and walk along the beach for half a mile or so, you start finding small ammonites in the flat rock sediment. There are also much bigger ammonites to be found.

We went on a cold, clear morning, parking in the church car park opposite the duck pond, and following the track the other side of the pond from the car park. Our cold children, who began by moaning, were soon warmed by the walk – and a bit of Dairy Milk for fuel helped!

It took a while to finding our first fossil, but it was all about finding the right spot. Fossil hunting is very absorbing, and we spent almost two hours scrambling over rocks, turning stones and chipping away with a small hammer and chisel. I think when your hunt is productive, it spurs you on, and fossils are plentiful here.

There’s a good AA walk you can follow, which is about 3 miles long. Or you can simply walk there and back. We parked and then walked from number 3 on the map, to 6, and then turned left along the beach.

You can’t drive to the beach, and it certainly isn’t accessible for wheels or those who are unsteady on their feet. Dogs are restricted. You have to be a bit careful of the cliffs because they’re unstable.