Wild Swimming in the UK

The Wild Side
by Charlotte Sinclair
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Ice cold shivers, furry rocks underfoot, nipping minnows… for fans of wild swimming, nothing beats the thrill of leaping into a natural pool. Charlotte Sinclair says it’s time to dip a toe in the water

Too Cool for Pool

Is there a better piece of writing about the allure of wild swimming than Eudora Welty’s short story Moon Lake? At a summer camp, the young girls walk into the lake in the coolness of the morning, shedding their kimonos like petals and feeling “in a hundred places at once the little pangs.” Actually, it’s a story not so much about swimming but drowning. But the evocation of the cool, slack skin of the lake under sunlight, its depths knifed by fishes and water snakes, the little minnows “trembling and running wizard-like in the water’s edge”, the bottom of the lake like “soft, knee-deep fur” underfoot, is about as magnificent a rendering of the appeal of rustic, fresh air, non-chlorinated swimming as you might wish for.

To judge by the growing number of books devoted to the subject, the guides to the best secret coves and leaf-shaded canals, the self-help texts on the mindfulness of wild swimming, (swimming elevated to art not act); to regard the heroes of the movement, chiefly the late Roger Deakin, whose account of swimming the ways and weirs of these islands is recounted in Waterlog; the websites tracking routes and recommendations; its tribes and proselytizing converts for whom a half iced Highlands loch in winter is not, as might be for most, a deterrent but a spur to splash right in; the notion of wild swimming as an activity but also a lifestyle choice, with innumerable physical and mental advantages: all is a measure of our current bewitchment.

It is now fashionable, not to mention very jolly to be photographed on social media, in swimsuit and cap, en plein air. Primary amongst these are the handsome shots posted by model Vivien Solari under her moniker @coldseawarmheart, detailing her swims off England’s South Coast. She writes on the Outdoor Swimming Society’s excellent and highly persuasive website of a day spent labouring six and a half miles through seawater to circle Gull Rock in Cornwall. “The sea was a deep clear blue and we could see a multitude of compass jellyfish.” A certain amount of endurance – frigid waters, incipient hypothermia - is endemic to the sport’s sense of authenticity and also, it seems, its enjoyment. Fashion author and curator Lou Stoppard tells of the cold-toed, gasping vigour of a winter dip at her regular wild swimming spot, Hampstead Ladies Pond. “It used to manifest as a stabbing pain like needles when I was in the water,” she says, adding, “If it’s super cold I keep a bobble hat on while in the water.”

Her tip for neophytes: “Once the temperature of the water drops below about 10 degrees don’t swim for a higher number of minutes than it is degrees - so if it’s six degrees, do five minutes. Once it’s one or two degrees, just do a minute.” The Outdoor Swimming Society’s website has a section titled simply, ‘Survive’, guiding fledgling dippers on how to understand rivers, how to acclimatize to the vasoconstriction and lung-punched breathlessness that comes with cold water – keep your head dry, breathe, get out if you start to shiver or feel unwell – and, helpfully, how to recognize drowning.

The UK’s water is rarely balmy, but with cold water come benefits. ‘All water,’ Roger Deakin wrote in a notebook, ‘river, sea, pond, lake, holds memory and the space to think.’ In Landmarks, the author Robert McFarlane spends a chapter venerating Deakin’s Waterlog. After the reading of which, McFarlane “ceased to see open water as something chiefly to be driven around, flown over or stopped at the brink of. It became, rather, a realm to be entered and explored. Britain seemed nearly permeable and excitingly deepened: every lake or loch or lough or Ilyn a bathing pool, each river a journey, each tide a free ride.”

For many, wild swimming is a route back into oneself, a watery metamorphosis worthy of Greek myth: a means to reconnect with the natural world as much as a way to overcome the daily, hourly accidents of life. As McFarlane wrote, "When I can’t sleep, and when I’ve been in the city too long, I occasionally send my mind out travelling through some of the wildest places I know. The Fairy Pools on Skye, where you can dive into gin-clear water, and swim under a submerged rock arch." To be borne up by water can offer a birth into a restored self. As Lou Stoppard continues: “wild swimming is my form of meditation. I’ve never been very good at mindfulness or sitting still - my brain always wanders. But when I’m in the water, especially when it’s cold, it’s hard to think about anything else. So you do give up your worries for a while. Even in the summer when you’re surrounded by the ducks and floating on your back, you tend to forget everything else.”