I’m sitting on the edge of the river, a couple of hundred metres from the house I grew up in, the cold water of the River Thames lapping at my feet.
On this incredibly hot August day, jumping in the water to go for a swim and cool off is, for many people who grew up in the countryside, nothing out of the ordinary. The difference this time is that in my usually quiet, riverside spot, I’m joined by a few more people forgoing an indoor pool to take a dip in the outside than usual.
The popularity of ‘wild swimming’ has soared over the last couple of years with 7.5 million people taking to open water and outdoor pools last year in the UK alone. In the last few months with indoor facilities closed and people seeking outdoor experiences after the confinement of lockdown, it has received a whole new level of attention.
Recent heat waves drove thousands of people to popular beaches and rivers. The Outdoor Swimming Society took down its interactive location map, after a record number of people visited the site, in an effort to help communities overrun with visitors. Stories of the rubbish they left behind swiftly followed with local people, distraught at the damage being done to their favourite natural spots.
Worries about waste and the dangers of diving into the unknown depths of a lake, river or ocean are not unfounded. But I am cautiously optimistic. If we can learn to love swimming in spots close to home and rid ourselves of the idea that nature is somehow dirty or dangerous, there is a chance to reconnect even more people with the outdoors.
Instead of an environmental disaster, rejecting this decidedly modern detachment from nature could actually be good for our relationship with the planet in the long run.
Birds wheel overhead, fish jump all around you and more than once I have found myself in the middle of a bloom of jellyfish whilst floating in the sea. Spending time in open water almost certainly fostered my own love of nature and I’m not alone.
“You become part of the scenery”
When I talk to others who swim in wild settings for pleasure and for work, a love for nature is a constant theme.
“Going for a swim outside, especially in the winter is such a visceral experience that it is pretty hard to think about anything else which in its own way is like a form of mindfulness,” photographer Anna Deacon tells me. “It feels like a mini adventure every single time and is such a wonderful way to connect to nature and the outdoors and really immerse yourself in it.”
Deacon is the author of a book called Taking the Plunge which tells the stories of ordinary people who swim in Scotland’s waters. It was inspired by her discovery of wild swimming a few years ago when her cousin introduced her to the sport and the amazing people she met as part of a club that swims every day at her local beach.
“My favourite swims are the ones that involve a degree of adventure and exploration, usually a hike and then coming across a wonderfully remote waterfall, loch or little beach, the walk so often will give amazing views and chances to spot birds and wildlife which is also something I have always enjoyed.”
She explains that the need to be aware of your surroundings in order to stay safe means you can never miss what is around you. “When you are actually in the water it is almost like you become part of the scenery and I have had seals swim up pretty close.
“You feel a part of the natural surroundings when you start to swim, watching the shore from the water and seeing things from a different perspective. To be utterly immersed in a beautiful landscape is even more exciting than to stand and watch from the shore.”
"The experience washes everything else away - you feel fully alive"
At the other end of the UK, wild swimmer Pippa Best lives in one of my favourite places in the world, Cornwall. She tells me that when she took up the sport, she was feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The sea off the south west coast of the UK helped to calm her, giving her a chance to “practice breathing into fear - coming into the immediate moment - and trusting.”
Best says her favourite time to go for a swim is in the peaceful early morning when the golden light of the rising sun reflects off the water and nature is uninterrupted by the bustle of human activity.
“At the moment, my biggest pleasure is swimming in the bay over the little kelp forests in a hundred shades of green on a sunny day, watching lines of sunlight throw shapes over silver shoals of fish darting beneath me, compass jellyfish dancing slowly past, and cormorants and oystercatchers flying overhead."
“The experience washes everything else away - you feel fully alive, and you can’t help but be mindful and fully present,” she tells me, adding that it helped boost her confidence and courage. “There’s something about getting into cold water every day that helps you to see your own bravery, and your capacity to make a difference, step by step - which I’m sure contributes to that desire to take more environmental action too.”
She shares these benefits with people through her business, Sea Soul Blessings, which provides tools for mindfulness to help people connect more deeply with nature. “My hope is that as people use Sea Soul Blessings to tend to themselves and explore different aspects of their own inner world, that they will also be inspired to tend the natural world around them, just as I have been.”
“It was the first time in a long time I'd felt free, happy, limitless”
Seren Kiremiticioglu has multiple disabilities and has also found relief in the cold ocean waters. “Wild swimming really helped - my bones and muscles ached less, and I built stamina and muscle.”
For her, it started when one day, waves washing over her feet, she decided to face her fears. “I'd just moved city and remember dipping my toes in the sea, thinking, ‘how amazing would it be to just go for it, for once - to just do something that's a bit scary?’” Kiremiticioglu, a mental health and disability writer, found wild swimming in one of the hardest periods of depression, anxiety and paranoia she has ever had.
“After years of saying I would never step foot in British waters, I did just that. It felt genuinely euphoric, and it was the first time in a long time I'd felt free, happy, limitless.” She tells me that this euphoric feeling is, for her, directly linked to being immersed in the natural world and disconnected from the pressures we create for ourselves in our daily lives. “The euphoria that comes with wild swimming is knowing that you're in your primal element.
“Even thinking about it makes me feel tingly,” she laughs. “My boyfriend has to end up dragging me out of the sea each time. When I'm wild swimming, it really is just me and the ocean and nothing else matters”.
“It can feel impossible to escape humanity and our awful behaviour”
“But sometimes, that feels like an illusion in and of itself,” says Kiremiticioglu. “I'm so easily tugged out of it when a piece of litter bobs past me, or I wade through a bunch of rubbish on the way back to the beach. Even in the sea, it can feel impossible to escape humanity and our awful behaviour.”
A sad reality of swimming in the wild is the constant presence of plastic pollution. Often I leave the beach or riverside with a bag stuffed full of other people’s bottles, food containers, and wrappers. Connecting with nature means facing this ever-growing threat to the wildlife that lives in our waters is unavoidable.
A moment from when she lived in Spain particularly sticks in Kiremiticioglu’s memory. “I remember watching someone purposefully walk into the sea, chuck his cigarette in the water, and walk back out.”
“I stomped past him, picked it up, and put it into the bin, which was barely 10 metres from the shore. It was infuriating.” One of her first pieces of writing was about this incident and she always picks up rubbish when she sees it on the beach.
Deacon’s wild swimming experiences have also driven her to try and do something about the problem. She recounts the story of a friend’s child who found a seal dead on the beach with plastic around its neck. “This little boy was raging and just couldn’t understand how humans could allow this to happen.”
She takes her own children on organised beach cleans, “It is so sad for our kids to witness the devastation we humans have brought on the natural world.” Sad, yes, but necessary to educate them on the enormity of the problem perhaps. At home, her family has massively cut down on the waste they produce, changing their habits to avoid single-use plastic as much as possible. “There is more plastic on the shore every time the tide goes out, we will always have plastic to remove and that breaks my heart.”
“When you’re in the sea and on the beach so often, it’s impossible to avoid,” echoes Best.
Her regular local swimming spot is near a busy working harbour and she is constantly finding plastic fishing debris tangled up in the seaweed. It isn’t just plastic though and she tells me that she once dug through the sand to remove over 50 nails from a wooden pallet that had been burnt on the beach.
Inspired by her experiences and local community, Best regularly gets involved with beach cleans. “There are a lot of individuals and businesses who care about going plastic-free here.”
Penzance, where she lives, was one of the first places to be awarded Plastic-free status by marine protection charity, Surfers Against Sewage and it has driven her to reduce the plastic she uses in her own business. “It feels like such an honour to be sharing nature with all of these beautiful creatures,” she concludes.
“The more connected I feel to all of that, the more energy I have to try and protect it - for all of us.”
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