My writing journey (and how I got published)

I’m often asked about how I became an author. I thought I’d write this post in the help that it might be of interest to other aspiring writers!

I’ve wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. When I first worked out that someone had written the books I so enjoyed reading as a child and that this could be a job, I knew it’s what I wanted to do. Since then it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do with my life.

I spent my childhood reading voraciously (JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Roald Dahl) and writing poems and short stories. I entered endless competitions, subscribed to Young Writer magazine and queued up to get my books signed whenever an author visited my school or a local town. Some of my happiest childhood memories are from the residential writing courses I occasionally went on – where I and a bunch of other bookish children would spend a weekend or part of the school holiday at a house in the Somerset countryside, being set writing assignments and gaining tips from writing tutors. Funnily, I’ve never been on a residential writing course as an adult, but these courses I did as a child were wonderful for encouraging my love of writing.

One of my early poems!

On the advice of many writers I admired, I kept a diary too, something I’ve done on and off throughout most of my life. As I write this in my home office, if I glance to my left I can see a pink box that is filled with dozens of diaries, the pages filled with words that no doubt would make me cringe to read now, but which I still count as an important part of my writing journey. Writing a diary regularly helped to cultivate a habit of writing; now I feel just strange if I’m not writing in some form or another every day.

Although my dream of being an author never changed, as I got a bit older I started to understand that it might not be as straight forward as I’d imagined. I read the statistics about how few books that are written get published, and how few published authors actually make a living from their writing. I became discouraged. I decided to study journalism at university and chose to specialise in fashion journalism. I thought it would bring together my passion for writing and my general creativity and love of clothes and fashion history, and yet be more of a steady job and ‘proper’ career path. (Although, knowing now how few fashion journalists manage to make it their career I wonder what I was really thinking, and whether perhaps I am just a dreamer through and through.)

I think of my university years as a dry spell in my writing life as I did very little creative writing during this time. But when I look back I realise I was still writing all the time, just in different ways – I kept a blog and of course wrote assignments for my course. There were many parts of the degree that were interesting and great fun, but by the time I graduated I realised that fashion journalism ultimately wasn’t for me. My first job was in the student section of a national newspaper, a job I got after doing some writing for the editor while I was still studying, and then completing a grammar and editing test and week-long trial once I’d graduated.

Like my experience in fashion journalism, there were many things about working at a newspaper that I loved. It was a dynamic, buzzy environment and I loved interviewing people and researching and writing articles. But I also found it incredibly stressful, and over time found that after writing all day at work my desire to write creatively when I got home had totally disappeared. After a year I realised something had to change – I was stressed and unhappy and felt that I was never going become an author if I stayed there. I switched to a career in marketing, something that wasn’t my passion but which gave me more headspace to get back to what I loved to do in my spare time: writing. It was while working in one of these marketing roles that I first had the idea for The Lido and began to write, squeezing in time before work, in my lunchbreak and in evenings and at weekends.

It took me about six months of planning and thinking and then another year of writing to finish my first draft of what would become The Lido. Once I’d finished it I sent it to my mum and sister for initial feedback and then started the long and gruelling process of submitting to agents. Despite wanting to be an author, I actually knew very little about the publishing industry itself and didn’t know anyone who worked in it. My mum bought me a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook; I read all the advice and started contacting agents from the list printed in the back.

Then came what felt like the longest wait of my life. Over the course of twelve months I submitted the manuscript to probably around twenty or so agents. I kept a spreadsheet of who I’d submitted to and whether I’d received any feedback. Some people replied with nice comments, saying they liked my writing but didn’t feel strongly enough to represent me. Some sent me standard rejections. Others never replied. Although I tried my best to stay positive, it was hard. You can’t help but feel as though you are being personally judged when you’ve shared something that you’ve worked so hard on, that you care about so much and that contains so much of yourself within its pages. And the endless waiting can send you slightly mad. I remember refreshing my emails about every thirty seconds (not an exaggeration), in the hope I might have received a response from an agent.

By the end of that year I was feeling pretty despondent. But I wasn’t about to give up on writing all together. Although I did want desperately to be a published author, the most important thing always was (and still is) the actual writing. I knew I was a writer, even if the publishing world hadn’t opened its doors to me. I am a writer because I write. Because it’s the thing I love most in the world, the way I communicate and express myself, and because of something I can’t totally understand but has been there inside me ever since I was a child and would shut myself away in my room, scribbling stories and poems onto whatever paper I could find.

I decided that perhaps this book simply wasn’t meant to be. I would shelve it and start a new story, and perhaps have better luck with that. My plan was to write something new and then submit it to the agents who’d said positive things about The Lido, but who ultimately hadn’t chosen to represent me. And then I saw via The Bookseller that a new agency was being set up and that they were actively looking for new clients. I read the article and discovered that one of the agents represented one of my favourite authors, an author who’d been a huge inspiration to my own work. It felt like it was a sign to send out one final submission – to give it one last shot.

And it’s at this point that everything changed for me. After a year of waiting, things suddenly moved very quickly. Within a week or so of sending my submission I was signed up with my agent and working on editing my first draft with him. Not long after that he shared my book with editors. And one Friday night while I was at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I got the call from my agent with details of the deal I was being offered by my now publisher. As he told me what was happening I sat on the stairs and cried. The next Monday I handed in my notice at my office job.

I now feel so lucky to be able to call myself a full-time author. My second novel has just been published and I am currently editing my third. I know it’s a cliché to say it’s been a dream come true, but it really has.

My writing journey has taught me the importance of perseverance. It’s also made me realise just how subjective publishing is – in the same way that I love books that my friends aren’t keen on and vice versa, the same applies to agents and editors. At the time, I felt so disappointed when I was rejected by agents who said nice things but just didn’t feel strongly enough to make the leap and sign me up. But in the end, I am so pleased I waited because it meant I found the right person, an agent who truly loved my work and who then sold it with real passion.

I hope my journey might encourage others that despite the statistics you might read, it is possible. When I started submitting to agents my manuscript landed on the ‘slush pile’ and I was rejected by lots of people. But ultimately my story made it through and found its place. If you are an aspiring author, I hope that the same is possible for you too.

My top tips:

  • Do your research about the agents you choose to submit your work to. Is your story really suited to them or would another agent be better? Really read their requirements too as some agents want different things from a submission – three chapters vs the first 50 pages for example.
  • Perhaps you’re someone who can talk about your own work with ease, but personally I found writing a synopsis really hard. I found it impossible to distance myself enough from my work to describe it in a page. In the end, I got my mum and sister to help out. They’d both read it and were that bit more removed from it to be able to describe the themes. If you have someone you trust, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As long as the actual writing is all yours, I personally think there’s no shame in using an outside perspective to help sell yourself in a synopsis – something that doesn’t always come naturally!
  • Don’t lose sight of why you are doing this. If you are a writer you are a writer. You don’t need anyone’s permission in order to write. Yes, being published is a wonderful dream (and it was mine too!) but I think you still have to write ultimately for yourself, because you want to, not with the goal of publication as your sole motivator. I feel so lucky to call writing my job now, but even if I’d never been paid a single penny for it I would still be doing it (shh don’t tell my publisher!).
  • Stick at it! Trying to write a book and then trying to get in published can be a long process and it can feel quite demoralising at times. There were so many times I considered giving up on my novel because I felt it just wasn’t working, or nearly gave up on my dream of getting it published because of rejections. But I’m so glad I didn’t.

Useful resources:

  • The Writers’ and Artist’ Yearbook is a wonderful resource for any aspiring author, with details of agents and publishers as well as useful articles about how to submit. They also have a great list of other useful resources here: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/108/a-writers-toolkit/essential-information/websites-for-writers
  • The Riff-Raff is a great community for new writers. They host talks by debut authors who talk about their writing journey (I gave a talk with them when The Lido first came out!) and also have a mentoring scheme and manuscript-feedback service.

Birthday swimming in the Lake District

There is nothing I enjoy more than wild swimming with my sister. That’s why I chose swimming together as the way to spend my 26th birthday last month. I headed up to the Lake District where she is currently living, carrying a swimming costume and towel stuffed in my bag and an eagerness to get into the water.

She lives in Keswick just a few minutes’ walk from Derwentwater. I envy this closeness to water – when I visit I love spotting signs that point ‘To the Lake’ and knowing that we are never far away from an opportunity to swim. It calms me, knowing the lake is there should we feel we need to plunge into cold water.

We spent the two days walking, canoeing and, of course, swimming. Together with my friend Kim who had joined us for the weekend, we canoed the length of Derwentwater, stopping every now and then to let our paddles rest on the surface and simply admire the beauty around us. The birds landing on the lake, the boathouses tucked among trees and the green weeds beneath the surface of the perfectly clear water.

Once we reached the end of the lake we dragged the canoe up onto a pebbly beach that we had entirely to ourselves and ate our sandwiches, feeling very Swallows and Amazons. And then it was time to swim. I increasingly believe you haven’t really lived unless you have tried wild swimming. For me there is nothing that matches the joy it brings, that feeling of being completely alive and free.

On our way back we stopped at an island in the lake and swam again, unable to resist the call of the water.

The next day we swapped the lake for a river, walking through fields alongside its bank until Keswick felt far behind us and we stopped at a secluded spot. We picnicked on the pebbles and then ran into the river, floating and swimming and drifting with the current. Sometimes wild swimming is about swimming, but often it is just about being in the water. The feeling of the cold on your skin and the sun on your face.

It felt the perfect way to spend my birthday. This past year has been a whirlwind for me: getting the publishing deal for The Lido, quitting my job and getting stuck in to my second book. It has been wonderful, but also at times overwhelming. Getting into the water with my sister is a way to pause and reflect on everything that has happened but also to take a moment to just be. I already can’t wait to get back into the water together.

Happiness Hack #1: Buy flowers for yourself for no reason

A love of flowers is in my blood. The first flat I lived in as a baby was above the flower shop that my mum owned in Clapham. She no longer runs a shop but works part-time in one and even wrote a series of illustrated books about flowers. Whenever I go into a florist’s I take a deep breath of the smell of blooms and wherever I am, my mum is suddenly with me.

But I never used to think to treat myself to flowers. It seemed too extravagant, reserved for gifts for other people rather than something to indulge in myself. Over recent years that has changed though and my life is so much brighter because of it. I now regularly buy myself flowers for no reason at all. Whether simple supermarket tulips or narcissi, or more unusual blooms bought from my local florist or Columbia Road Flower market, a bunch on my dining room table or in my office is guaranteed to cheer me up.

A reason I’d avoided buying flowers in the past was the temporary nature of them. What’s the point in spending money on something that is only going to die in a week’s time? But now that’s one of the things I love about them. Flowers remind me to live in the moment. Yes, the stems will droop and the petals will curl at the edges then fall, but aren’t they beautiful right now? The same attitude can be applied to so many other moments in life: it makes me a lot happier to try and treasure joyful moments than to mourn the fact they are only moments. And after all, what is life if not a collection of moments?

My favourite flowers

‘Miss Piggy’ roses

  • Rununculous (also called ‘turban buttercups’)
  • Sunflowers
  • Daisies
  • Peonies

What are your favourite flowers?

Running the Wales / England border

We ran 11.5km and only passed one other person. It was at the end of the run: a dog walker throwing a ball in a field for an energetic spaniel. For the rest of the time it was just the two of us: Alex and me.

We were staying for a few days on the Wales / England border, in the village of Longtown. We both needed a break, and found it in the cosy cottage with its log fire. But it was getting outside that really revived us.

One morning we both woke around 8am and slowly got ready and into our running things and headed out into the morning.

The garden looked beautiful – red berries covered in a dusting of white, the grass like stalagmites and a wren hopping into the bushes. It was frosty and sunny again, but the halo of mist had descended again onto the hilltops. We set out through a field behind the cottage. Alex spread her arms out wide and ran like you run when you’re a child – fast and free.

“Yes! I’m so happy!”

We wound our way up to the village and then headed out across the fields that would eventually take us to the top of the huge ridgeway that marks the old border between England and Wales. It soared above us, wearing a mottled coat of rust brown, sand, and green. The white blobs of sheep were scattered all the way along the hilltop.

The running was hard: the ground beneath our feet was frosty but not always completely hard and frozen, making it slippy and springy like running on wet sand. With every step I took my feet slipped slightly. It felt like I was running backwards at times, and as it got gradually steeper, in places I found it more efficient to walk. We could see the path we were heading for, winding its way up the hillside and we ran slowly towards it.

On our way we passed a cluster of abandoned shepherd’s huts. One was tumbled down completely but two still had their roofs and splintered wooden doors. I imagined shepherds huddling up here, looking down the valley at the village and the fields beyond. The grass here was wild and grew in tough mounds, and a bare tree stood in the clearing between the huts. Behind them was a path that followed a small stream up the hill, steep banks of trees on either side. It was dark and damp here but the sun rested at the top of the channel, showing us where we needed to go. We trudged and slushed our way through the thick carpet of brown leaves and the stream that trickled beneath. When we reached the top we came to the start of our ascent up to the top of the ridge.

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A flock of sheep gathered around a hay feeder stopped to look at us as we passed them and joined the path. I wondered how often they saw people here. But then they turned back to their hay, and we turned to face the hill. I want to call it a mountain, because that’s what it seemed like as we stood at its foot. It looked like a mountain, and climbing it felt like one (even if I have only ever climbed one mountain).

At times it made me nervous when I stopped focusing on putting each foot in front of the other and took a moment to look out across the valley. The view was beautiful, but the drop down the hillside was stomach-churningly steep, and getting worse the higher we climbed.

I tried to ignore the drop down the hill face and focused on the climb instead. And it was beautiful. Even the path was beautiful – bright green and mossy with sections of natural slate walls and nooks every now and then. Puddles were frozen over, bubbles of air trapped beneath and creating beautiful abstract patterns.

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And then suddenly, miraculously, we were at the top.

We climbed the last section of pathway and emerged on the top to see… Nothing. The ridgeway was covered in cloud, completely obscuring what I imagine would have been stunning views on either side – views out of the countryside miles in each direction. At first I was disappointed, but then I looked closer. Actually, the ‘nothing’ was beautiful too. The clouds rolled across the ridgeway in gusts and waves, obscuring patches of long grass and frozen pools, then revealing them again. The gentle moving of the cloud was hypnotic and magical. It made us feel completely alone in the world, like we were up in the sky and everyone else was far away on the ground. And we were alone.

It was bitingly cold at the top, so we started running again, following the old ridgeway path. This was wonderful running – not as hard as pavements but hard and smooth enough to spring from and run with ease. After covering only about 2km in an hour (because of the steep and tough-going terrain) we sped along and had suddenly covered another 4km without even thinking. Running here felt wonderful, like my body was doing exactly what it was meant to do. It was so cold that it was the only way to warm up, so felt completely natural. It felt better to run than to stop and face the icy wind.

Again, Alex spread her arms and ran like a child, making gleeful noises.

“Weeeeeeee!”

Her happiness was infectious, and besides, I was feeling incredibly happy too.

Eventually it was time to come down from the hilltop (or the mountain, as I will always think of it as. It really did feel like we were at the top of a mountain). As we got lower it got warmer and I recovered feeling in my nose and fingertips. We sped down, so much so that at one point I slipped and fell – covering my whole bottom half and one of my arms in mud. I just laughed – it was bound to happen eventually. My running shoes have no grip (I need to invest in some trail running shoes) and in places the path was just a trench of mud.

I was muddy but happy as we made our way back to the cottage I so quickly thought of as home. My legs were exhausted by now but I knew we didn’t have far to go.

“You’re doing so well,” said Alex, “We’re so nearly there.”

And we were. Suddenly we were there, jogging down the lane to the little cottage where I knew the heating and the fire would be on, and a hot shower would be only seconds away. We gave each other a high five – and I think we deserved it.

A New Year’s Day swim

The new year’s sun rose above the sea and we swam towards it. The cold was shocking. It bit at my face when I attempted front crawl, so painfully that I was forced to swim a head up breast stroke instead. The surface of the water was bright gold from the winter sun. To one side of us was a castle, to the other mountains. In front, only sea and sun.

It was New Year’s Day and we were swimming in the Welsh sea. The day before we climbed Mount Snowdon. I had never climbed a mountain before, and at times doubted that I would make it to the top. At the summit the wind pummelled me so hard that I couldn’t stand up – instead I stayed on my knees and gripped the trig point for dear life. But I had made it.

So if we could climb a mountain, we could swim in the January sea. Getting changed was the hardest part. We parked the car above the beach and changed beside it. Even with my clothes on (coat, hat, scarf and gloves) I felt cold, so peeling off my layers felt awful – and insane.

“Why are we doing this?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Bruno, who was keeping his coat and hat very much on, his camera slung around his neck, “I think you’re mad.”

Once I had done the awkward wetsuit wiggle and zipped it up at the back, I felt much better. They are so hard to get into, that there is never any going back. Once it’s on, I must swim. And I always want to. I know I must look ridiculous but in my wetsuit I feel like a superhero. It hugs me and warms me up and protects me from the wind that had made me shiver when I was in my clothes.

To prepare myself for the water I jumped up and down (woolly hat still on my head) and ran up and down the path above the beach. When Alex was ready we ran together onto the beach, the sand and rocks firm beneath our feet. I find the trick is to get in quickly. I swapped my bobble hat for a swimming cap, and then another one layered on top for warmth (I looked like an alien) and then strode out towards the water and the sun. I didn’t stop until I was waist deep. At that point I leant down, pulled my wetsuit out from my chest and scooped up a bucket’s worth full of water, letting it trickle down my chest and the rest of my body.

“Aaaaaaaa!” I sang into my scream – somehow singing it made the pain more bearable.

“It is so coooold!” I sang.

I looked out at the sun lighting up a beam of the sea and launched myself forwards, swimming towards it. A few quick strokes, letting my heart get used to the beating, and then I was able to float, looking up at the castle to my left and the mountains in the distance on the right.

“Come on Alex!”

She stood at the water’s edge, stretching her arms above her head, looking like an athlete. I will never look like that. I am in awe of it – of her. She strode out a little further and then pushed off too, ducking under and starting a quick front crawl, until she met me and we both treaded water, looking out to sea.

There is nothing better than swimming with my sister at my side. Even if the water is so cold it makes my chest tight and my feet numb. In the water I feel like a child again – away from the stress and responsibilities that wait back on dry land, and just floating with my sister. I can’t think of a better way to start the new year.

Swimming sisters new year swim

Winter swimming in Stoke Newington West Resevoir

On Saturday mornings most people prefer a lie in. But this Saturday I chose to wake early and head for an outdoor swim instead, despite the air temperature being a bitter 4 degrees.

As I changed into my wetsuit at Stoke Newington West Resevoir I wondered if I was completely mad. But there were a few of us in the changing room, so it made me feel at least less alone in my madness. We chatted – as outdoor swimmers always do. You already share a bond which brings you together and in turn separates you from others (your friends and colleagues tell you that you are crazy).

Once I was zipped up it was time to head outside onto the decking. I jumped up and down for a while to warm up and raise my heart rate, making myself laugh at how strange my neoprene self must have looked. Then I slowly stepped down the ramp until I was knee deep in cold. I looked out over the grey expanse of water as the chill seeped in through my wetsuit. Buoys marked the distance I would swim and looked further away than normal on this grey morning. Life guards sat in kayaks in the middle of the water, plump in their coats, life jackets and scarves. On the other side of the reservoir tall blocks of flats reminded me I was in the city, making stepping out into the calm water even more surreal.

I ducked to fill my wetsuit with water, making sure it ran all the way through, swearing loudly as the cold spread over my body.

Somehow I found my courage inside me and pulled it over me like a warm blanket, shielding me from the shock of the water as I launched off and started a quick breast stroke. My wetsuit socks kept my feet warm so it was only my hands and face as I ducked under that felt bitterly cold. The water gripped my cheeks and forehead and squeezed.

Beneath me the water was inky blue and all I could see were my pale hands and an occasional autumn leaf. It made me feel brave that the unknown beneath me doesn’t worry me any more. I have grown to accept that beneath is beneath, and I am above, pulling myself along the surface. Whatever is down there is down there, but the unknown doesn’t have to scare you if you don’t let it.

I swam to the first buoy, then the next, a mix of breast stroke (watching the sky, the buildings beyond and the surface of the water) and front crawl (seeing the body of one of the few other swimmers as they overtook me, black neoprene body and glowing bright white feet and hands).

Half-way round a lifeguard shouted from his kayak to one of the swimmers ahead of me, “How are you? Still got your fingers and toes?”

“Let me check,” said the swimmer, reaching under the water for his toes, “Yes, still got my toes.”

He waved his hands, treading water, “Yes, still got my fingers!”

As I swam I slowly warmed up, feeling invigorated. It was the latest in the season I have ever swum, and there were only a few of us in the quiet water. When I clambered out after completing the loop I felt like I had conquered the morning. While others lay warm in their beds I was dripping wet and cold, but felt like I had discovered a secret – something that everyone tucked up inside was missing. The cold water shook me awake and made me think, “this is what it means to be alive.”

Wild swimming in the River Usk

When I was younger I hated all forms of sport, especially those that involved running. So I surprised myself when I agreed to go trail running with my sister, early in the morning on the first day of our holiday in Wales. Our mum woke up as we changed into our running gear but we couldn’t persuade her to join us – instead she decided to go down to the river for a gentler walk.

The three of us were on a rare and special holiday together, staying in a beautiful country hotel just outside of Crickhowell in South Wales. It was the kind of place where you feel as though it’s okay to curl up in your tracksuit bottoms in front of the fire, poring over one of the many gorgeous hardback books they had on display. The view was stunning: out across the hills topped with trees and sheep, and down through fields and ferns to the River Usk, which flowed gin-clear at the bottom of the valley.

Alex and I stepped out into the early morning. The fresh cold woke up immediately. AI followed my sister down the hill, watching the white flash of rabbit bottoms as they disappeared into the hedgerows. The morning sun poured liquid gold onto the fields and the river. On the other side of the water was a small wooden hut painted slate grey and with two wooden chairs outside. The perfect swimming hut, we said to each other as we ran. I imagined sitting outside it with a thermos of tea and a book, drying off in the sun after a swim.

The track headed out of the field and up into the woods, where the light fell in patches through the trees. It smelt damp and quiet. I dodged rocks and tree roots and followed behind my sister, who is (of course) much faster than me. I kept her mostly in sight though, focusing on her to keep me going.

As I got used to the uneven terrain I started to relax and look around me more. Perhaps running isn’t so bad after all, or maybe it was the magic of the quiet woods. Every now and then we disturbed a bird that crashed up through the branches to the sky, but otherwise the woods were hushed.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” I thought to myself, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

What are my promises? The promise to keep running perhaps, to try my best to keep up with my sister, and to do what I can to keep my body healthy. It is the only one I have, after all.

We ran further into the woods, until the sound of rushing water below us became too tantalising and Alex veered off the track and down the hill. She ran deftly between the trees while I slowed to a walk, following the sound of the river.

“Wow,” she shouted back up to me.

And then we were standing on the edge of the most beautiful section of river. A waterfall crashed over slabs of rock, creating a rapid that rushed and then slowed into a deep pool. There was a slower flowing pool next to the waterfall too, with rocks leading down to the water’s edge. The sun reflected on the surface and it was completely ours.

We hadn’t planned on swimming, but the water was too tempting. Together we scrambled down to the water’s edge and stripped to our pants and sports bras, leaving our shoes and clothes on the rocks. And then we plunged in. The water was so cold it took my breath away. I swam quickly towards the waterfall and back, my heart beating against my chest like a restless bird in a cage. Alex swam for a little longer but I pulled myself out, warming myself on the rocks. Once out of the water my skin felt so cold it glowed.

This spot was magical and we feel proud; like we have found this place through some skill even though it has been here for thousands of years and was created by nature, not us.

I arrived back at the hotel damp and cold but with a fire in my chest. Mum told us that on her walk she saw an otter sunning itself on a rock. It gave the water even more magic. Even though I didn’t see one myself (and never have) it was wonderful to swim knowing that otters were nearby. It reminded me of when I was young and believed deeply in the existence of fairies. When I walked in woodlands I kept my eyes wide open, hoping to see one. But even though I never did see one, it didn’t matter. The woods still held a special magic because my young-self knew they were there. Otters are my new fairies. They are water fairies that fly through the rapids catching fish for their supper.

The next day we brought Mum to our swimming spot, after a long day of walking along rivers and canals (broken by a pub lunch and a pint of beer). She was surprised as we are when she pulled on the wetsuit Alex lent her and jumped into the river with us. It was her first experience of wild swimming.

“I can see why you love this,” she told us as she floated in the cold pool, watching the trees above us.

We had the river to ourselves, and swam up and down it, Alex and I jumping off the rocks as Mum watched. We were alive, and sharing the same sensations: the cold water on our skin, the rustle of the trees, the beating wings of a heron. The river held a magic that binded us together.

As I changed after the swim in our secluded spot I turned and faced my bare chest to the river. I felt part woman, part wild river creature. I wanted to tip my head back and roar.

Six ways to beat the autumn / winter blues

How to beat the autumn / winter blues

Every October I find myself sinking into the autumn blues. At the end of September I sense it coming; a grey cloud over the hill, a muddy puddle to trip into at the next step. My energy fades with the dying light and all I want to do is hide in my bed, curled up like a mouse.

This year is no different. But I’m doing my best to shake off the blues.

1) Get outside

Being outdoors and being active is the best kind of medicine. It feels like there is magic in the waters when I swim (wrapped up in my wetsuit) and in the trees above me when I walk. I take deep breaths of air and I feel the blues get blown away on the breeze like they are no heavier than feathers.

2) Or bring the outside inside

Fresh flowers on the table, autumn leaves pinned to my noticeboard. Following outdoorsy people on instagram. Putting up pictures of nature – places I’ve been, places to go. There are ways to bring the outside inside, even when it is dark and cold beyond the window.

3) Cups of tea

There is nothing quite like the sound of tea being poured from a pot into your favourite mug and watching the steam rise as the cup fills. Wrapping my hands around a mug of freshly brewed tea I feel safe and calm.

Fresh mint from my balcony, with a dribble of honey. The apple and cinammon teabags I first tried on a pottery-making workshop in an atelier in Montmartre (the smell of cinammon makes me think of Paris and wet clay). Green matcha tea – because the packet tells me it will ‘restore magical powers’.

4) Plan for the summer

I recently bought a 2017 calendar with the sole purpose of planning adventures for next year to look forward to during the winter. I flick through the pages to remind myself of all the possibilities – empty pages to be filled, sunny days to be enjoyed.

5) Lunchtime walks (or runs)

It seems unfair that the only daylight hours we get during the winter are spent at work. I’m trying to combat that by heading out for some fresh air on my lunchbreaks, either for a walk or run. Last week I ran from my office to the top of Primrose Hill. Standing at the top I felt like a superhero. I looked down at the park, painted shades of autumn, at the zoo, busy with families, and across at the buildings making a scruffy horizon. I am not a runner, but my very slow plod up the hill felt like my mountain. And it felt good to be at the top.

6) Make the most of the season

What does winter have that summer doesn’t? My favourite knitwear, unfolded and taken out of hiding. Scarves that feel like hugs and remind me of my mum. Slippers. The warm, orange glow of candles that smell of birthdays when they are blown out. Hot water bottles. The ‘winter duvet’ that feels like a giant marshmallow. Mince pies. Warming my bum against the radiator. The smell of wood-smoke from the boats on the canal. Pumpkins with smiley faces. Wellington boots with frog faces. Frosty cobwebs. And a grey sort of sadness. But also an opportunity to be kind to myself, to find big joy in the smallest things, and to spend time focusing on making myself happy.

How do you shake off the autumn / winter blues? Add your tips in the comments below

 

Discovering the Thames

 

Seeing a river from a duck’s level is completely different to seeing it from the bank. The Thames stretched ahead of us in an elegant curve, looking much wider than it had from the side. All along its length were plump trees that jostled each other and bulged over the bank into the water.

You notice things at this level that you don’t when you are walking along the edge. The pattern of the water stretching ahead of you, rumpled like a crinkled tablecloth; the size and awe-inspiring nature of the trees and the sky; waterboatmen swimming their crazy backstroke beside you, and the reeds blowing gently at the edges of the water.

It was a busy stretch of water, and as we swam we tucked in under the trees to let barges, river cruisers and little motorboats pass. The captains and their passengers waved at us and we waved back.

We swam up and down our little stretch and crossed over to the other side, looking back and forth in each direction as though we were crossing the road and watching for traffic. On the other side was a National Trust property and grounds (Cliveden) and people sat eating their sandwiches and watching us. A beautiful stone staircase swept down from the bank into the river, ornate with carvings and flourishes. We swam to it and wished we had a camera with us.

At points we swam with our heads down, Alex in front and me just behind and following in her bubbles. We swam in bursts to keep warm. I looked down into the water beneath me. It was mostly a milky green and too deep to see the bottom, but then a patch of weeds would loom out of the darkness, reminding me that water does always have an end. I wondered what other creatures shared this river. I didn’t want to see them – I was happy keeping ourselves to ourselves – but it was nice to know that other animals were with us in the water.

The cold clutched at my forehead and squeezed, feeling like the brain freeze that you get from eating ice cream too quickly. But then we would stop our front crawl and lift our heads like ducks bobbing up from under the surface. We lay on our backs, lazily watching the sky and the boats. Because for us, wild swimming is not just about swimming. Thinking that’s all there is to it misses the point.

It’s about the shock of the cold and the sense of adventure at leaving our dry clothes on the land and stepping out like explorers into an unknown stretch of water. It’s looking up at the sky that looks somehow different from the water, and realising how small you are but that it’s okay. It’s feeling part of nature, not just an observer on the shore. It makes me feel more alive than anything. Wild swimming is living.

 

Swimming at Vobster Quay Inland Diving Centre

img_1057The lake is down in a hollow, surrounded by trees. Their lowest branches dip into the water making slight ripples. On the far side are rock-faces where birds nest. Orange and pink buoys sit on the surface among fallen leaves and the arms of swimmers can be seen breaking the surface between them. The lake is larger than I expected, stretching away in either direction until I can barely make out the buoys.

The five of us sit on a jetty above the water: my sister, her three friends and me. It reminds me of a Pink Floyd poster Alex used to have. Five women sat on the edge of a pool, their naked backs to the camera. I always used to want to be the woman in the middle with the curly red hair and the tiny waist who looked as though she was in conversation with the woman next to her.

We are not naked though. Alex’s friends wear bikinis and swimming costumes and we wear wetsuits. When the others said they were braving it without one I considered it. But not for long. More than anything I like how buoyant my wetsuit makes me: I can stand upright in the water without moving and I don’t sink. It makes me feel calmer and swim further. I think about the Scottish myth of the ‘selkie’: part woman, part sea creature she is not fully at home either on land or in the water. Her selkie skin is her tether to the water, and when she puts it on she becomes more sea creature than woman. I love the story, and sometimes I feel part-selkie myself.

One by one the others push off from the edge, sending a splash into the air. They swim in quick circles to warm up, their breathing quick at first but gradually slowing. Then it is Alex’s turn and I follow quickly behind her. The water crashes around me as I break the stillness of the surface. I am plunged for a moment into the grey-blue darkness. I watch the bubbles of my breath and my hands that look so pale underwater. I watch my feet below me as though I am watching a film of a girl underwater. And then I pop to the surface like a cork.

The others are swimming head-up-breastroke out into the lake, heading for the orange buoys on the right hand side where the trees trail in the water. They chat as they swim, catching up on the week and saying how lovely the water is. When I duck my head underwater I see their legs kicking like sea creatures. Bodies look completely different underwater – at once graceful and strange-looking. Beneath them is the grey blue darkness and then nothing. Occasionally the sun catches the water just right and I make out some sign of there being a bottom: a rock or the rope that tethers the buoys.

Every now and then Alex and I pull away and swim front crawl to the next buoy. We swim side by side. I focus on pulling my arms in time with hers and keeping close to her, swimming in her bubble stream. Although I am growing in confidence in open water, I feel my calmest when I swim next to her. My breathing slows and I think just about my stroke, not about what might be lurking in the deep. We reach the buoy at the same time and bob up, looking around us at the lake. After a stretch of head-down front crawl, with sky only seen in snatches under our elbows, the view is stunning.