Take the plunge
The summer will see hundreds of holiday-makers take their annual dip in the sea, but for an increasing number of swimmers, being outdoors has become the norm
From coasts and rivers to lakes and lidos, the UK is blessed with stretches of wide, open waters. Over the years, these have become home to an increasing number of swimmers looking to meet, greet and hone their strokes yearround, combining the positive effects of swimming – including improved sleep, toned muscles and lowered blood pressure – with fresh air and stunning views.
The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) offers a comprehensive community for swimmers to connect – both online and in real life – and provides advice and support to every type of swimmer. “It’s about jumping in, joining in and immersing yourself in nature,” says Ella Foote, OSS Ambassador. Since it was formed in 2006, OSS has grown to over 27,000 members and has reported a steady 30% increase year on year. It holds a number of events each year – “not races,” points out Ella, “but journeys up and down rivers” – and manages the site wildswim.co.uk, which crowdsources the best places to swim at home and abroad.
Ella herself has been swimming for the last 12 years, and sports a varied “swim CV”. The official swim season runs from April-September, but for the last three years she has braved the water year-round. “You can see every tiny detail about how a river fluctuates,” she says. “There’s more weed and it’s much greener in summer, but the water is clearer in winter.” River swimming allows Ella “to smell, taste and feel the seasons”, something she has done across the country, from Devon, Cornwall and Dover to Norfolk, Suffolk and the Orkney Islands. The water is full of surprises and, she reassures me, “the River Thames is not what you might think”, but can be crystal clear in her home county of Berkshire. A recent trip to Black Moss Pot, near Stonethwaite in the Lake
District, was “like an emerald” she says, with deep, green water.
Such experiences are part of the attraction. The combination of water and green space is known as green and blue therapy, and is proven to have a positive effect on mental health. “The sense of calm, the stillness – it stays with me long after a swim,” says another swimmer, Joe Minihane. His debut memoir,
Floating: A Life Regained, follows in the strokes of naturalist Roger Deakin, and charts his wild swimming journey across the UK as he conquers his anxiety. A low-impact, all-body workout,
‘The sense of calm, the stillness – it stays with me long after a swim’
Joe finds that swimming provides him with an anchor to the present. “The after-effects are a lot like a massage,” he says. “I struggle to find the same sort of feeling in other forms of fitness.”
Although the suggestion of cold water might, at first, dissuade you, its effects are proven. Cold water immersion can reduce blood pressure, tighten pores and improve circulation, as well as induce an overall sense of calm. “It can be addictive,” says Joe, “but requires practise as you allow your body to acclimatise.”
Among his first swim spots were Tooting Bec Lido and the Hampstead Ponds, both of which he discovered while living in London around seven years ago. Hampstead was particularly important, from the ritual of getting there to the people it attracted. “The whole experience of swimming outdoors has a great sense of community. It is body and mental health positive – there’s no sense of competition.” Hampstead still remains one of Joe’s favourite spots to swim in, along with Bryher on the Isles of Scilly and Geldeston Locks in Norfolk.
Where you choose to swim is crucial to your overall experience, and while Ella herself prefers to swim in more natural areas, she believes lidos – supported by lifeguards – to be a great starting point for those wanting to swim outdoors. Representing “historic moments in British history”, they were first popular in the 1930s and are now experiencing a resurgence. Sites across the country have been restored including East Sussex’s Saltdean Lido, due to open later this year, and Thames Lido, in Reading, opened at the end of 2017.
Part of their role at the OSS is to encourage responsible swimming, and the first step for anyone, says Ella, is to ensure that you can swim. “Get back into the pool if you have to,” she suggests, “just to regain your fitness. Then figure out where you want to swim.” Along with lidos, lakes are a good starting point. “Ensure you can get in and out safely,” she says, “particularly with rivers, which have steep slippery banks, and be prepared for afterwards, too. You need to get dry, dressed and warm after every swim.”