Winter swimming – what’s all the fuss about?

This is my first year of trying to keep swimming all throughout winter in cold water, without a wetsuit. ‘WHY?’ is a question I’m regularly asked when I talk about my dips in chilly lidos and ponds. Here are my top seven reasons for taking the plunge.

1. The chance to be in nature.

 

I live in London, and as a city-dweller I crave moments where I can feel like I’m connected to nature, where I can see the seasons changing around me. It was at the Hampstead Ladies Pond in North London, where I swim regularly, that I saw my first ever kingfisher. I was swimming my usual lap when a friend pointed out a flash of turquoise and orange at the far end of the pond. We trod water for a while and watched as the kingfisher darted about by the bank. It felt truly magical, and a moment I would never have experienced if I’d stayed at home that day.

At the Ladies Pond you regularly see herons and cormorants swooping low or fishing as you swim quietly in the water. You get to see them up close, truly noticing the patterns of their feathers. And if you swim in winter at a lido you can watch birds and planes flying overhead and notice the shifting patterns of the clouds. I find it incredibly peaceful and humbling, a reminder of my place within the wider scheme of things.

2. The post-swim rush.

As I pull myself up the ladder at the end of a swim my skin glows bright pink and I feel so full of life that I could tilt my head back to the sky and roar. There really is nothing like the rush you get after a swim in cold water. It’s a euphoric high that can become quite addictive. When I swim in a pond or lido in the morning it energises me for the whole day.

3. The community.

When you swim through the winter you get chatting to other swimmers in the changing rooms or on the banks of the pond or river. Immediately you have a shared connection, something to talk about and to bring you together. There is such a wonderful sense of comradery. I have also made great friends through outdoor swimming. I am now part of a WhatsApp group called ‘Pond Ladies’, friends with whom I try to swim twice a week. On a grey day when I don’t feel much like climbing into cold water, they spur me on. I go to the pond to see them just as much as I go to swim. Afterwards, we sit on benches watching the other swimmers, drinking hot tea and sharing biscuits. They are some of the happiest moments in my week.

4. To discover the beauty in winter.

Winter has always been my least-favourite season. I usually sink into something of a slump from October to March struggling with the lack of sunlight and the long, cold nights. I look ahead to spring with a sense of desperation, wishing each winter’s day to go by so the sunnier seasons can get closer. But this year, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the season because of my cold-water swims. In the water I take the time to watch the trees and sky and find that actually, winter can look pretty wonderful.

5. Because it makes me feel good about my body.

After a swim in the Ladies Pond I have a (cold) shower, totally naked, standing in front of a floor to ceiling window looking out on the water. In those moments I feel totally unselfconscious, thinking only about what my body has just achieved and how it felt to be in the water. For a moment I feel free of any worries about the way I look and realise actually, it really doesn’t matter.

6. It’s a way to get out of my head.

When you’re in really cold water all you can think about are the sensations in your body, which can be a huge relief it you’re feeling low, anxious or generally stuck in your thoughts. I find cold water swimming incredibly freeing for exactly this reason – it’s a time when I don’t worry, when all I think about is what I’m doing. You leave everything on dry land when you slip into the water.

7. It makes me feel brave.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly brave person. But the fact that I swim in cold water in the middle of winter makes me feel fearless. If I can do this, I can do anything.

Want to try cold water swimming?

  • Take your time. If you’ve never swum in cold water before it’s not a good idea to suddenly give it a go in mid-January. Instead, start swimming outdoors in the summer and keep going through the autumn, sticking at it for as long as you feel comfortable. Over time you should acclimatise, particularly if you go regularly (at least twice a week).
  • Get some gear. When I swim I wear a swimming costume, a thin neoprene rash vest with short sleeves, neoprene gloves and socks and a woolly hat. The gloves, socks and hat make all the difference in my opinion. I love feeling the water against my skin but there is no shame in wearing a wetsuit, especially to begin with. Up until this year I always wore a wetsuit, but gradually started getting used to not wearing one, by doing a short swim in the suit then taking it off and going back in for a very quick dip.
  • Bring lots of layers for after. And when I say lots I mean LOTS. When I pack my bag to go for a winter swim I bring as many layers as feels ridiculous. And then I pack another one. When I’m dry and warm I can’t imagine needing quite that many jumpers, but when I’m shivering after my swim I am so grateful I brought them!
  • A hot drink afterwards really helps to warm you up from the inside – I always bring a flask of tea with me when I winter swim.
  • Don’t jump in – as it can be quite a shock to the system. When I swim outdoors I ease myself in slowly, splashing water over my shoulders as I go to get myself used to the temperature. When you’re in, don’t forget to breathe. Take long, slow, calm breaths as you adjust to the temperature.
  • Check out more tips from the Outdoor Swimming Society here: https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/6-tips-for-cold-water-swimming

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.

Sisters wild swimming in the Lake District

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Me and my sister Alex

My sister always wished she’d had a brother. Growing up she was very sporty and most likely to be found up a tree; I’d rather hide somewhere with a book. Throughout her life she has done (and excelled at) most sports: hockey, rugby, rowing, judo, and swimming (sorry if I’ve missed any, Alex). I went along to watch and support from the sidelines, but I could never join in.

Since discovering swimming I have been able to share so much more with my sister, and I think we’ve become closer as a result. Last weekend we went on a long weekend to the Lake District to swim in tarns, lakes and a waterfall. It was my first time visiting the Lakes, and my first real experience of wild swimming.

Swimming must be good for the soul. As I stood in front of the still and peaceful water I felt something inside me move like someone standing up and shaking out their body after a long time sitting still. I took deep breaths and prepared myself for the shock of the cold. Together my sister and I waded until we were standing with the water at hip-level.

“Shall we count to three?” I said, looking at her and then out over the water.

“Okay.”

“One, two, three…”

And then we both pushed ourselves off the bottom, diving together into the cold, clear water. As we swam I looked down at the tangle of weeds and up at the sky in the window made by my bent arms. And across from me was my sister, never too far away. We swam in each other’s ripples, following the patterns our bodies made and the bubbles kicked up by our feet.

Here’s where we went….

Blea Tarn, Little Langdale

The water at Blea Tarn was perfectly still and painted with the hills and trees that surrounded it. It is a short walk from a car park and a less-than-short walk up the hill behind (which I learnt was called a Wainwright, not a hill). The walk up the hill was worth it though for the beautiful views down the valley and at the water we had just swam in.

Easedale Tarn, Grasmere

On our second day the weather was heavy and damp. We walked up from Grasmere to Easedale Tarn, passing soggy sheep and waterfalls trailing down the hill. Finally we reached the crest of the hill and saw the water below, only broken by a pair of ducks on the surface. The mist rolled in over us as we swam. It felt like swimming on the top of the world. We walked half way down the hill in our wetsuits and walking boots and then stopped off for a dip in one of the waterfall pools. Walkers past us with raincoats and in waterproof trousers and shouted down to us, asking if the water was cold.

“It’s lovely!” we shouted back.

Ullswater

Ullswater was the only lake we swam in on our trip, and we noticed the difference in the temperature. I had been told to watch out for the glacial tarns, but it was the lake that froze my fingers and face (the rest of my body was thankfully kept warm by my wetsuit, socks and bright pink swimming cap). We swam from the shore out to Norfolk Island, where the seagulls shouted at us to get off their island. As we were sharing the water with sailing boats and a small local ferry service I wore a neon pink safety buoy that tied around my waist and trailed in the water behind us. It also doubles as a handy dry bag.

I can’t wait for my next experience swimming in open water – hopefully with my sister.

For more wild swimming spots in the Lakes take a look at the Wild Swimming website. In Ambleside we visited a great open water swimming shop that is worth a visit!

 

 

My favourite books for swimmers

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Some of my favourite books about swimming

I organise my bookshelves by categories, and one growing section is books about swimming. Whether you are a pool-swimmer, an outdoor-swimmer or just have an interest in getting in the water, here are some of my favourites:

Down Stream: A History and Celebration of Swimming in the River Thames, Caitlin Davies

When I told people I was reading a book about swimming in the Thames their reactions were the same: “Eww!”

Most people associate the Thames with the murky brown central London section and bottles (or worse) floating on the surface. But humans have actually swum in the Thames for years. The book follows the river downstream from the Thames Head (the exact location of which is much disputed) right along to Southend, and tells the story of the people who have swum stretches of it over the years. I particularly loved the tales of kick-ass women who were swimming miles and setting records years before they were allowed to vote.

The book is full of characters and stories that made me smile and laugh out loud. You’ll have to read it for yourself to hear them all.

Swimming London: London’s 50 Greatest Swimming Spots, Jenny Landreth

I am making it my mission to swim my way around these pools, lidos and outdoor swimming spots in London (so far I’m on about 10). From central pools that you’d never imagine were hidden among the busy streets, to peaceful lidos a little further out of town, this book makes me realise how fortunate I am to live (and swim) in this city.

Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton trained as a professional swimmer when she was young, and is now an artist. Her book weaves together her experiences of training with vivid descriptions of being in the water and wonderful paintings. It also includes photographs of her collection of swimming costumes and a description of when she bought them all, which fascinated me.

It’s the kind of book that you can open at random and know what you read, and see, will be beautiful.

Wild Swimming Walks: 28 River, Lake and Seaside Days Out by Train from London, Margaret Dickinson

My sister bought me this book and I can’t wait to try out some of the walks and swims. They are all within easy reach of London and some include stops at pubs. When the weather is nice I am looking forward to slinging my swimming bag over my shoulder and heading off to one of the many places I have marked with post-its.

Do you have any other suggestions? Add them in the comments below

Word on the Water

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Word on the Water: a floating book barge

Every day on my way to and from work I walk past a boat filled with books. Word on the Water is a floating bookshop that is currently moored in Kings Cross. In the evenings music plays and the books are lined up in neat piles along the boat. I love the smell of the paper and the colourful faces of the books that smile up at me as you walk past. Sometimes one has a particularly large grin and it catches me. And I stop.

At the weekend I couldn’t resist buying The Sweetness of Life by Françoise Héritier. I want to buy a pile to send to friends and family if they are ever sad. It is a long list about the little things that give life its colour and magic. The small moments and observations that make life worth living.

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My current favourite book: The Sweetness of Life

Here are some of the things that I would add to Héritier’s list:

white Christmas tree lights strung in trees, when you see confetti outside a church or town hall and know there has been a wedding, baby’s hands and feet, shapes in coffee, eating things you did when you were younger (banana and custard, beans on toast), finding the perfect word to describe something, sweets in jars, perfectly smooth pebbles, love letters, wild flowers growing in unexpected places (cracks in pavements, the side of railway tracks), the smell of birthday candles, watching people you don’t know have moments you know they will always remember, throwing pennies in a pond or well and making a wish, finding sand in your bag after going to the beach, crumpets, floating book shops.

https://twitter.com/wordonthewater What puts the sweetness in your life? Add yours in the comments below