Swim Wild. Swim Free
Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as ‘wild swimming’. We went to the Victorian baths (long demolished) on a Saturday morning and jumped off the side or the diving board, messed about in the water. In the summer we went to the outdoor pool in Richmond, which amazingly is still there. Now run by The Richmond Leisure Trust, the complex is a Grade II listed swimming pool and leisure facility located in Old Deer Park. There were also trips to the seaside, of course, the sandy beaches at Bournemouth and Alum Chimes and the pebbly beaches of the south coast, further east, Littlehampton, Worthing, Brighton. A firm favourite for our family was Angmering, because it was, in the 1970’s, untainted by commercial concerns.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t swim. In my recent poetry pamphlet (Immersion) I have a poem entitled ‘Water Baby’ and it begins, ‘My parents chucked me in at an early age….’ The biographical detail is entirely true! I was born with, what at the time was called, ‘spastic muscles’ in my legs and my parents were told I might not walk. They had to massage my legs almost daily, and I wore calipers, at night, until I was 11. Swimming seemed like a good idea, I suppose, and I took to the water like a mermaid. I never grew a tail, but I certainly never used my legs!
My dream, when I was 11, was to swim the 21 miles of the English Channel across to France. I managed 17 miles in the pool, before running out of time, but had never even attempted to swim any distance outdoors. The swimming clubs I was part of, first Surrey Ladies and then Kingston Ladies as well, were only ever interested in speed. I wasn’t popular as I only ever came in last, or sometimes last but one. I did swim for my county though – mostly freestyle – and managed to be passable enough to compete at the old 50m Olympic racing pool, at what is now known as the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, 13 miles from the ‘London Aquatics Centre’ built for the London Olympics.
I swam at least three or four days a week back then. However, having obtained all my Amateur Swimming Association awards (ASA), The Royal Life Saving Bronze Medallion and teaching award (STA Level 2) I got bored with the constant pressure to swim better and faster and quit when I was 16. That is, I quit the swimming clubs, never the swimming. I have always loved water and taken opportunities to swim throughout my life.
A certain NTLPA member, who shall remain nameless, will vividly recall my pestering to take a dunk in the not-too-balmy English Channel during our weekend visits to The Isle of Wight and college friends will remember me dashing into the Atlantic Ocean on holidays to Devon, when the waves were crashing and everyone else on the beach had a coat on. I have always loved swimming outdoors.
Fast forward to 2008 and my move to the Scottish Highlands. We are lucky to live on the Fearn Peninsular, surrounded by the Moray Firth and the North Sea, and our nearest swimming beach is 10 minutes away. Needless to say, I have swum outdoors more in the last 10 years than in the previous 20.
My husband is a swimmer too and decided, in 2015, to begin training for a competitive swim the following year. Due to my health, I was unable to join him, but the Great Scottish Swim has featured on both our calendars since 2017. We don’t compete in the elite timed races – neither of us are good enough for that – we do it for fun and compete against our own times as ‘veterans’! Tony has done the mile and I started with a half mile course, which I completed in around 40 minutes. We have generally trained in the local pool over winter and in the sea and lochs for the rest of the year, particularly Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms National Park, which is a fantastic setting, with mountains and pine forest all round.
Last year Tony swam throughout the winter in air temperatures as low as -2 and water temperatures only slightly warmer. I am not a natural lover of the cold (my back can go into spasm in cold water and I tend to prefer the heating cranked up a few notches compared to your average human) but I was determined that this year would be the year I went all the way through. With this in mind, we signed up to a winter swimming course with ‘Swim Wild’ earlier this year. We both went along on a frosty January morning and Tony got into an icy Loch Insh with the rest of the group afterwards. I’d had surgery a week before and wasn’t allowed to swim, although whether I would have chickened out anyway is a moot point!
2020 was to be our ‘year of swimming’. After our Great Scottish Swim in 2019 we made a pact to swim in at least 12 lochs this year (loch bagging instead of Munro bagging!) via a series of swim events and our own adventures. Obviously Covid had other plans. Both our Great Scottish Swim and October swimming weekend (which included a swim across the Coran Narrows, a night-time swim at Glencoe and a short swim at the Falls of Lora) were cancelled, along with our own loch swimming plans. Tony was required to shield over the ‘lockdown’ period and as I’m classed as ‘vulnerable’ I was at home for most of the time too. As soon as I could get out again I was swimming once or twice a week at local beaches. I usually swim in a wetsuit because of my back issues and, let’s face it, the cold water, but some of the days have been really hot this year and one day in 24C of sunshine I couldn’t be bothered to faff about with a wetsuit and decided to brave ‘skins’. For clarification, this is not the same as ‘skinny dipping’ which is swimming nude; ‘skins’ refers to wearing a swimming costume or other apparel, which is not a wetsuit. I loved the freedom this gave me to vary strokes and swam ‘skins’ right up until the end of September.
My last swim was in the mirky waters of the remote and beautiful Loch Rannoch, a few weeks before my recent foot surgery. The air temperature was 6C and I decided to don my wetsuit, as the loch temperature was probably not going to be a great deal higher – we estimated 8C but forgot to take our thermometer with us. Swimming among towering mountains with no one else about is an amazing experience and definitely creates a rush of endorphins and recent research, conducted on swimmers at a London Lido, demonstrated that cold water swimming produces a protein in the brain that may protect against dementia, so there may be more than one reason to get out there and go wild!
Wild swimming is a great pastime: whether you simply want to do some gentle exercise in the outdoors, compete in events, enjoy the benefits of sea swimming or find some adventure in secret waterfalls, pools and rivers, there is something for everyone and I would urge you to give it a try.
Sara Norquoy, from Orkney, who curates the blog ‘Salt on my Skin’ and has written a book of the same title, took up sea swimming on her 49th birthday as one of the items on her ’50 for 50’ bucket list challenge. She was quickly hooked and says it has changed her life, so if you won’t take my recommendation, you could take hers. If she can swim in Orkney in January, then anything is possible!
I may be biased, but I think Scotland is one of the best places in the UK to swim, with a huge variety of water bodies to choose from. From deep water lochs, cold mountain lochans, secret pools and waterfalls and swooshing rivers to the sandy east coast or the rocky west coast, there really is a swim for everyone. If you ever venture this far north and want someone to meet up with for a swim, there are several ‘wild swimming’ groups around and I’ve listed them at the end of this article.
The Outdoor Swimming Society is a useful organisation for where to swim, and importantly, how to swim safely. As with any activity, swimming in open water can be dangerous and you need to be familiar with the quirks of your own waterways. There are plenty of groups and individuals about the UK who swim outdoors and are happy to mentor newcomers to the activity, so do check for your area.
Happy wild swimming! Do get in touch if you already swim wild, or if you would like some more information.
Some useful links:
Outdoor Swimming Society
Highland Open Water Swim Events
Sarah Norquoy’s Blog
Swim, Run Bike Events, Scotland
BBC News Article – Could cold water hold a clue to dementia cure?
Great Scottish Swim 2019