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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hammond

Learn to swim at Watergate Bay Hotel

Not just for potential Olympians, dedicated swim clinic weekend courses at the Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall are designed to help any level of swimmer improve their technique. Here’s what the course did for me.

Swimlab's Salim Ahmed runs the swimming classes at Watergate Bay. Photo: Richard Hammond/Greentraveller

Cornwall’s Watergate Bay Hotel, just east of Newquay, has been a somewhat shape-shifting beacon of coastal hospitality for generations. Built in Victorian times as a railway hotel for a stretch of track that never reached it, it has been owned by the Ashworth family since the 1960s. For most of those years it operated as a classic, family-friendly seaside hotel but the last 10 or so have seen it reinvented once more. This time the hotel has cleverly tapped into the way surfing, wild swimming, cycling and triathlons have gone mainstream, offering outdoor activities (in a very relaxed way - think ski resort rather than training camp) as an add-on to stylish, pampering accommodation that comes with great food and a dedicated Kids’ Zone (including an Ofsted-registered play room, an outdoor play area, a separate games room for older children and supervised activity sessions twice a day).

Sea views from the Ocean Room at Watergate Bay Hotel, Cornwall. Photo: Richard Hammond/Greentraveller

Guests who want to tap into the sporting facilities will find everything on the doorstep (including a watersports hire and tuition outfit) while their partners and families can either join them or occupy themselves with less energetic pursuits before re-connecting at the end of the day for what regulars call the hotel’s après-surf scene: fine wines overlooking the waves in the Ocean Room bar; grilled plaice with cockles, samphire, parsley, lemon and brown butter in Zacry’s Restaurant, perhaps – or similarly fine food with an ethical flavour at Fifteen Cornwall, two minutes’ walk away; a burger or local mussels at The Beach Hut; or just a stroll, or a post-tea play, on the two mile-long beach below the hotel.

Pool with a view at Watergate Bay Hotel. Photo: Richard Hammond/Greentraveller

One other big attraction of the hotel is its stunning 25m swimming pool, with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows (get the angle right and it’s tricky to work out where the pool ends and the sea begins). The hotel capitalises on this several times a year by hosting dedicated Swim Clinic weekends run by experienced professional swimming teacher Salim Ahmed, of Swim Lab. I’m a keen swimmer, regularly swimming in my local pool and rivers, and when I get the chance, in open water but I was intrigued by Salim’s promise to help anyone improve their technique. I duly signed up and headed down to Cornwall to join one of his weekends.

Running from Friday evening to Sunday lunchtime (with tuition on the Saturday and Sunday but free access to the pool across the weekend), each course mixes classroom tuition with time in the water; expect three one-hour classroom sessions and three one-hour pool sessions plus a yoga class, a group hike along the coast and plenty of free time. Salim also makes himself available after the Saturday afternoon sessions for ongoing discussion.

Salim's swimming tutorial over breakfast. Photo: Richard Hammond/Greentraveller

Our group of six began in the classroom on the Saturday morning (over smoothies, porridge, fresh croissants, strawberry jam and steaming cups of coffee) with a run-through of the whys and wherefores of good swimming technique. Proving his point that these courses can help all levels of swimmer Salim showed us a video of a student in another class who had “the perfect technique” (for them – the perfect technique, we discovered, varies from person to person). This was a great way to ease us into the course – and quell any nerves – because this person wasn’t an Olympic swimmer. They weren’t even particularly fast. The point was that they looked effortless in the water.

The next step was to assess the individual technique of everyone in the group. Some of us were intermediate swimmers, others more advanced, but we all needed to figure out exactly where any issues might be so that we could make sure we all got the basics right, and could pinpoint individual areas for improvement. To do that, we headed to the swimming pool, where Salim filmed us (above and below the water), then ran back through the footage with us. This was a fantastic way to learn. We all thought we could swim pretty well in our group but, having watched our videos, we immediately understood where we were going wrong. In my case I was shocked to realise how little I was using my legs when I swam.

A break from the classroom, walking along the Cornish coast. Photo: Richard Hammond/Greentraveller

Having to focus and absorb information for several hours can be exhausting and Salim understood this, so the next activity on the schedule was a complete break – a group walk along the coastline. Not only was this a clever change of pace – and a welcome dose of fresh air – but there was a tangible feeling of the group beginning to relax with each other, and bond a little. This isn’t an athlete’s training camp after all. The courses are meant to be mini holidays, too – albeit holidays with a focus – which is why they take place in such scenic, pampering, surroundings, with access to lovely food and drink and stylish accommodation. Many of our group had come with partners or families in tow and being at Watergate Bay meant everyone in that wider circle was also having an enjoyable experience.

Over the next day or so this pattern of lessons, practical sessions and downtime was repeated. Salim’s relaxed but knowledgeable teaching was first-class and I came away feeling that I had improved my technique immeasurably, much of that down to the underwater filming and subsequent analysis.

The other crucial point I took away was how anyone can learn something from Salim’s expert eye, not just experienced swimmers. As for me, I’ve since put Salim’s coaching into practice on a few longer open-water swims (such as the Bantham Swoosh) and I can’t quite believe how much I learnt from it. Would I recommend it? Absolutely – dive in!

The next Swim Lab swim clinics take place at Watergate Bay’s newly opened Lake District sister hotel, Another Place – The Lake, in September and October and at Watergate Bay in November and December. Prices start from £170pp without accommodation or £310pp with accommodation (in which case breakfasts are included but not lunches or dinners);

Watergate Bay, Cornwall. Photo: Richard Hammond/Greentraveller


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