Wild swimming - it's not for everyone, but I love it
Cicerone's Louise Dickie never thought she'd be a fan of wild swimming, but now she takes a cold water dip nearly every week. Here's how she got started and caught on to the wild swimming revival.
The first rush of bone-aching cold bites me at my ankles – if I linger too long at this stage, I know I’ll lose my nerve. I keep wading as quickly as I can over the slippery stones and the cold reaches my shins, then my thighs and before I can question why I’ve chosen to subject myself to this again, I plunge deep into the water up to my neck.
Now the trick is to keep as still as possible but breathe deeply. The adrenalin has kicked in and I need to make sure I’ve calmed down before moving off safely. This is my favourite part of the experience; it makes me feel my most alive. My senses sharpen and everything around me – the lake, the woodland I can see on the opposite bank, the hills in the distance and the sounds of my friends around me as they each gasp at the breath-knocking-out chill of it – seems to come into focus in a way that I’ve never noticed before.
In that moment, I think, yes, this is amazing, this is the best feeling, I could do this every day for ever and ever.
A ridiculous idea
If you’d told me a year ago that I would voluntarily venture into Lake Windermere in nothing but a swimsuit, I would have laughed and said ‘What a ridiculous idea!’ Wild swimming has never been something that particularly appealed to me, I’d far rather go for a brisk walk or a bike ride – much better to warm the blood rather than chill it.
Back in London, a friend of mine had taken up the hobby – driving out to Kent and Surrey to magical, hidden spots - and spoke often about the health benefits that she felt were gained from a weekly dip. It didn’t make me want to join in, but it did get me pondering whether there was anything in what she said.
Wild swimming has seen a surge in popularity over recent years, particularly over the Covid-19 pandemic when public swimming pools closed, and people looked for swimming opportunities closer to home in breaks between lockdowns.
The physical and mental health benefits of cold-water dips are debated, but some argue that it can be an effective treatment for depression. The idea being that when your body is placed under stress, for example, the experience the shock of cold water - it replaces other forms of stress in the body such as anxiety or depression.
After moving to Kendal, my boyfriend Jon’s work colleagues told him about a local wild swimming group that met every Sunday morning and ‘Were either of us interested in going along and trying it out?’ Jon was keen but I wasn’t convinced. Still, we had made a promise to one another to say yes to new opportunities in the area and so both decided to give it a go. If we hated it, there was no need to go back.
Arriving that first overcast April morning, bleary-eyed with sleep and clinging to flasks of hot tea, I was regretting my decision. It was cold, damp, and things got even worse when I had to peel off my warm clothes and feel the rush of air around me. I stood shivering on the beach, trying to look warmer than I felt and making small talk with the others in the group who all seemed much chirpier and more cheerful than I felt. One of the regulars in the group kindly offered to show Jon and I how to enter the water safely, and so before I could change my mind, we started to walk down into the water.
That first swim, I’d been unprepared for just how cold the lake would be and subsequently only stayed in for a few minutes. Someone had mentioned that staying still helped to create a kind of warm current around the body and so I remained frozen in one spot – counting down the seconds until I could get out and wondering if I would ever feel my hands and feet again.
Nowadays I have a pair of neoprene gloves and socks and with my extremities protected, my core stays a lot warmer, and I can swim around. The socks are a particular saviour as they give me grip when walking over the slimy rocks and I can get into the water and start adjusting more quickly. I also have an attractive neon pink float that I strap around my waist, this not only keeps me safe by making me visible to passing boats, canoeists or paddle boarders, but it means that – if I’m feeling contemplative – I can simply lie on my back in the water, holding my float and thinking my thoughts.
Another of my favourite things to do is to try and be the first one in the water now because, while the rest of the group is still getting ready, it means have a few moments where it feels like I’m the only person in the world. In the past few months, I have been swimming in the rain, on windy days and sunny days, during holidays when the lake is full of people, in the early morning and in the evenings.
Swimming is the highlight of my week and while I might not always be thrilled to wake up at the crack of dawn, I feel incredible afterwards. If it's the only thing I do that day, I’ve still achieved something. My worries always seem to melt away and it makes my head feels cool and clear and sharp.
My hope now is that I can continue to swim over the winter and build up my strength to allow me to swim a little bit further out in the future. These cold-water dips have not only, in my view, improved my mood and lessened my anxieties but have enabled me to meet lots of different people. The swimming group I meet with is incredibly supportive and friendly, with holiday-goers and Lakeland visitors also joining us for one-off swims from time to time.
The shared experience of being in the icy water connects us all, whether we’re laughing at Jon’s whacky swimming goggles (sorry, Jon) or commiserating with each other over the temperature of the water – the wild swimming community has been a welcoming one and I can’t recommend enough joining a local group yourself if you’re interested in trying it out.
So, on Sunday morning, at around 8.30am, while you’re in your cosy bed or eating your tasty breakfast, spare a thought for me as I take my freezing cold dip.
If you ever fancy taking up wild swimming yourself, here are some resources you can check out:
* Please remember, when you are cold water swimming, that it’s important to enter and exit the water safely, and always make sure that you swim with a group and with the proper safety equipment. Bring warm clothes to change into afterwards (flasks of hot drinks and hot water bottles are useful as well) and avoid contaminating bodies of water by ensuring that you thoroughly wash swimsuits, wetsuits, and other gear in between swims in different locations.
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