Plunging into the unknown, in whatever form that takes, is daunting but ultimately liberating, says Liz Lowe
Last summer, I stood at Vobster Quay watching wetsuit-clad figures glide through clear, cool water. I was here for my first outdoor training swim, having fuelled an ongoing midlife crisis by entering a sprint triathlon. Feeling clumsy in the water, I swam slowly around the lake before staggering out, surprised to find that I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Swimming under open skies – whether for wellbeing or fun; in neoprene, a swimming costume or naked – is becoming increasingly popular. The Outdoor Swimming Society’s following has risen from 300 to 70,000 since 2006, and they list more than 60 social wild swim groups across the UK.
I swam in the lake for the rest of the summer, enjoying its vastness and the damselflies skirting the surface. Summer faded and my wetsuit lay untouched, but I missed my watery escapes into the wild. Despite the fact it was now December, I psyched myself up for another unknown and joined Wiltshire Wild Swim (WWS) for my first river dip.
WWS organises regular swim meet-ups, mostly around Bradford-on-Avon and Bath. Kristy Field and Sarah Webb set up the group, run through social media, because they needed more swim buddies. Both share a love of swimming, nature and what Sarah calls “the amazing post-swim feeling”.
“It’s an addiction; no other word,” says Kristy, who finds that outdoor swimming provides a break from real life and a bit of me-time. “Some people like to do that in a spa with a face pack on, some people do it in a river,” she says.
I didn’t know then that hopping over a fence into a misty field with a group of strangers that winter morning would lead to so many adventures and new friendships. “There’s a lot of joy in the group,” says Sarah. And she isn’t wrong. Outdoor swimming is a social activity: most people swim with a buddy (or ten) for safety, and something a bit magical seems to happen when people come together to submerge themselves in natural waters.
Outdoor and cold-water swimming are believed to offer many benefits including improved circulation, better sleep, increased metabolism, enhanced immunity and reduced stress levels. I swim alongside the evidence every week. An intoxicating blend of calm, clarity, excitement and endorphins emerge as we plunge in for exercise, to celebrate life events, to console each other or just for the thrill of it. “It’s sometimes just about frivolous fun and silliness: there’s a lot of freedom in feeling that childlike joy,” says Kristy.
Cathal Boyle grew up in coastal Northern Ireland, swimming in the sea and the streams, lakes and waterfalls of the Mourne Mountains. He hadn’t swum outdoors for years but, since joining WWS, now wild swims at least once a week. “I believe in the health benefits of cold-water swimming and its boost to the immune system,” he says. “I live in a house of three and I’m the only one that didn’t get a cold this winter, despite being on immunosuppressants for a chronic autoimmune disease.”
The effects are powerful and immediate for Cathal, who says: “The day I swim, I don’t have any of the chronic pain. There’s also a euphoric buzz that’s unlike anything I have experienced before.”
Around Bath there are many lovely swimming spots. One of the best is Farleigh and District Swimming Club, founded in 1933 and believed to be the oldest, non-naturist river swimming club in the country. “It’s considered the home of wild swimming, really,” says club chairman and author of Wild Swimming Europe, Rob Fryer.
“An intoxicating blend of calm, clarity, excitement and endorphins emerge as we plunge in for exercise… or just for the thrill of it”
“I learnt to swim in a river, so I regard the concrete and chlorine game as a bit funny,” says Rob, explaining Farleigh’s appeal. “There’s no way you can get nearer to nature than swimming in a river. You are actually immersed in it.”
The club has a loyal following, a rich history and even its own war memorial commemorating the 12 members who died during the Second World War. It’s open throughout the summer and offers easy access, shallows above the weir and a 70-metre stretch of deeper water. Families can purchase membership for £25 a year.
Claverton is home to the recently launched Warleigh Weir Project, a non-profit enterprise set up by Johnny Palmer to offset his business’s carbon footprint. Johnny and a team of volunteers have planted trees and are working to increase habitat diversity on the site, which is open to the public.
“I hope that by promoting the sustainable use of the countryside more people will learn to love nature,” says Johnny. “People protect what they love, and this affects their treatment of the wider environment. So I hope that Warleigh Weir Project will have an impact far beyond a grassy field and muddy river.”
As with most wild swimming spots, Warleigh isn’t a managed site and swimmers enter the water at their own risk. For those new to al fresco dipping, The Outdoor Swimming Society is a great resource for safety advice and understanding different bodies of water. Another useful site, the crowd-sourced Wild Swim, holds details and directions for many locations, including local gems in Freshford, Avoncliff and Tellisford.
For those who prefer their water less wild, restoration work is about to begin at Cleveland Pools in Bath with the aim of welcoming swimmers again from spring 2021. At 200-years old, the Georgian lido is the oldest outdoor pool in the country and will become the UK’s first naturally treated open-air public swimming pool.
“This is a lovely outdoor venue which is part of Bath’s heritage and the missing link in the story of water in Bath,” says founding chair/trustee Ann Dunlop. “The Georgians used the pools for socialising and bathing and that is exactly what we want the people of Bath to enjoy once again.”
There’s never been a better time to dip into outdoor swimming. And as WWS’s Kristy once said, while admiring a rosy sunset reflected in a pink river: “you’ve got a fresh summer breeze and this to look at – why would anyone swim in a swimming pool?”
GO WILD SWIMMING WITH:
Vobster Quay; vobster.com
Wiltshire Wild Swim; on Facebook and Instagram: @wiltshirewildswim
Farleigh and District Swimming Club; farleighswimming.co.uk
Warleigh Weir Project; warleighweir.co.uk
Cleveland Pools; clevelandpools.org.uk
The Outdoor Swimming Society; outdoorswimmingsociety.com
Wild Swim (wild swim map); wildswim.com
OUTDOOR SWIMMING EVENTS:
• Friday 21 June – summer solstice sunrise swim (gates open 4.40am, no booking required)
• Saturday 22 June – open water swimming day (workshops must be pre-booked)
• Vobster also offers introductory courses for those who are new to open water swimming.
• Saturday 15 June – Bradford on Avon slow swim and picnic, up to 1.7km river swim from the Tithe Barn; hamiltonsfitness.co.uk/BradfordAvon.html