The first time I climbed down a riverbank and launched myself into the cold, murky depths of the River Avon I knew that I had found somewhere that would nourish, heal and soothe me.
The place wasn’t really the key factor. It was the icy, natural water. No more red eyes or grim film on my skin from our local, heavily chlorinated pool. After my first experience in a river I headed to a small lake that had been purpose built for outdoor swimmers. I say purpose built, it was in a field with a pontoon that swayed precariously as you entered the water and had a lifesaving ring at each end. Other than that, it was me, the water and the two swans who looked on rather suspiciously. For safety purposes I never swam alone, but even sharing the lake or with a spotter on the bank I still felt that this was my little world, a secret swimming hole straight out of a children’s book.
As the water has warmed up nature has started to flourish around and in the water. Shimmering demoiselles, dragonflies, ladybirds of every colour. Stroppy swans with their cygnets, slick black cormorants and playful great crested grebes. The lakes and rivers are overflowing with life, yet they still remain a place of peace and harmony.
Fellow swimmers come in all shapes and sizes and all swim for their own reasons. My husband, formally a pool-junkie, has been converted, since lockdown to an outdoor swimmer. His purpose is fitness and challenging his capabilities.
My purpose is mental wellbeing. I bimble along in the water, head always above the surface, observing the flora and fauna. I stop and talk to whichever duck is brave enough to approach. I rescue beetles that have landed upside down in the water, their legs kicking away at the air, trying to right themselves. I float along and let the crystal-clear water look after me, envelope every part of my body, cradling me in its silky hand.
Your experience of outdoor swimming is dependent on the season. During the winter it’s the short dip; lowering yourself in, getting control of your racing heart, quick swim, get out, get warm and enjoy the endorphin rush that comes afterwards. In the summer it can be long and lazy. The warm water is like a comforting robe, the glimmering reflections of the riverbank always just out of reach, your skin drying in the air as you sit next to the water planning your next swim.
Swimming in the wild is gaining popularity during these weird times. For some it is about experiencing freedom. For others it means they can continue to exercise while indoor pools remain closed. For me, outdoor swimming helped to calm my brain when I worked in a high stress environment and let me gain perspective as the lockdown in England started to ease. Being in the water is the one time that I never hear my tinnitus. And the calming effect can last for many hours afterwards. Whatever your reason, once you’ve dipped a toe in, you’ll find the call of the wild water is never far away.
Outdoor swimming carries risks. Please read this article from Outdoor Swimmer before attempting any swim. If you are new to swimming outdoors there are hundreds of local groups around the UK that can offer support, advice and group swims. Find a local group here.