“When you enter the water, something, like a metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” (
The last day of March marked the end of the winter swimming season and in typical British fashion, just as we turned our clocks to British Summer Time, the weather decided to remind us that winter had not finished with us yet. After a week of promising warm Spring sunshine, the 31st March was cold and misty with a brisk easterly wind, an air temperature of 8 degrees celsius and a water temperature of 9 degrees.
Nevertheless, I, and lots of other swimmers, congregated at Clevedon Marine Lake to complete our final Polar Bear Challenge swim – and to collect our badges! And I celebrated the occasion with an 800 metre swim.
I now have a certificate recording my total of 34.1 kilometres clocked up since October, in water temperatures ranging from 0.5 degrees to 9 degrees celsius and I feel very proud to have completed my first winter in ‘skins’ (no wetsuit, no gloves or neoprene socks). As I said in my previous blog – next year, I will be aiming to achieve ‘Gold’ Polar Bear status!
Feeling proud. Yay me! Bring on summer!
The weather has been just as fickle for the first half of April, enticing us with spells of promising warm sunshine for a few days and then throwing us back into ‘unseasonably low’ temperatures with biting winds. Nevertheless, I am determined to believe in and to embrace Spring and I have gradually been increasing the distance of my swims and staying in the water for longer – in both the sea and the lake (both of which, I have to say are taking an age to warm up!). I have enjoyed the freedom of ‘skins’ swimming and the feeling of the water on my skin so much, that I have decided I will only be reverting to wearing a wetsuit again for any events I have entered where such attire is compulsory – (of which, I will write more, though out the summer).
The Coast (Paul Simon, 1990)
It is at this time of year, while looking forward to longer swims, that I have not only been booking myself on to a variety of open water swimming events, but I have also begun planning the continuation of my ‘south coast swim journey’. You may recall, that in my first blog post It Started There I committed myself to ‘swimming the South Coast of Britain – by the time I am 70′ and that, in October, in An Indian Summer I recorded my progress, so far, along the Jurassic Coast. I wrote in that first blog that I was not in a particular rush to complete this challenge and, at that time, it felt reasonably achievable. However, as the seasons have sped by, I am beginning to realise that I need to get a move on if I am, indeed, to complete it by 2023 (my 70th birthday).
It was never my intention to swim the length of the English Channel in the way that Lewis Pugh did (see Don’t Stop Me Now). In 2018, Lewis Pugh became the first person to ever swim the 560 km length of the Channel (from Lands End to Dover) in one go. My plan, in contrast, has always been to complete this swim in, more of what I call, a Roger Deakin way! – not in a systematic way from West to East, but in an ‘as and when an opportunity arises’ sort of way – my aim being to make my slow and ‘bit-by-bit’ journey as I visit and discover the wonderful coast line and seaside towns and villages that England has to offer – just as Roger Deakin did in his swim through Britain.
It was gaspingly, shockingly, ridiculously cold. This was water straight from the mountain that sends your blood surging and crams every capillary with a belt of adrenalin, despatching endorphins to seep into the seats of pleasure in body and brain, so that your soul goes soaring, and never quite settles all day. (Deakin, 1999)
It is twenty years, this year, since the first publication of Roger Deakin’s inspiring and beautifully written book and it opens with Roger’s first swim on April 23rd. This therefore, feels an appropriate time to reflect once again on the impact his book had on me – and on others. In Waterlog, Deakin charts his progress as he ‘swam through Britain’ exploring, not only wild swimming locations but also discussing cultural history, literature, geography and natural history. When I first read it, two years ago, it opened my eyes to the opportunities writing about a swimming journey could offer – and I am not alone in this.
Emily Hogan (2018) also claims Waterlog to be her inspiration to taking up cold water swimming and believes that it was because of Deakin and his descriptions of wild swimming that interest in the activity has become so popular.
“Waterlog’s compulsive journey did for wild-water swimming what Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” did for football … in the practitioner, it evoked a sense of being understood; in the outsider, fascination” (Hogan, 2018)
In 2010, Alice Roberts, made a delightful film for BBC 4 in which she also sought to ‘follow in the wake of Waterlog’, to try to discover what lies behind the passion for wild swimming ‘that is sweeping Britain’ – and in so doing, she also became hooked herself.
In 2017, Joe Minihane published his book Floating: A Return to Waterlog in which he attempts to retrace the swims of Roger Deakin and to explore his own personal journey through wild swimming. Minihane has also made a short documentary which summarises some of the main themes in his book.
Where, Deakin’s book is noted for it’s beautifully observant passages that evoke in the reader a love of the countryside and our natural surroundings – as well as a love of swimming, Minihane’s book is much more focussed on his personal journey as he seeks to come to terms with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy in relation to his career and his personal life and a sense that he has ‘lost his way’. In quite a lot of the book I got the sense that he didn’t really enjoy the swims as much as the journey:
“I had no protection for my hands and feet, which whitened into numbness the minute I worked my way down the steep bank into the river”. (p.42)
“I took two steps in and leapt back out in agony, the cold screaming up my legs and into my lower back. There was simply no way I could get in and enjoy the water.” (p.128)
However, he does complete his journey – and his goal – and by the end of the book, it seemed to me me, that three themes had emerged that also held resonance for me.
Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac, 1977)
“I felt confused. Roger had depicted this place as a swimming idyll, which it no longer was and may never have been” (p.184)
One of the recurring themes in Minihane’s book is his disappointment that, when he finds Deakin’s swimming locations, many of them have changed or are not as Deakin had described them.
“.. it would be fair to say that over two years of trailing Roger had left me sometimes cynical and frustrated” (p.248)
Some of this can be explained by the passage of time: landscape changes, footpaths and other access points closed, buildings remodelled. But I have also, often been struck by how no two people experience a place or a time in the same way – and, furthermore, our own experience can be wholly different if we try to return to somewhere where we have had an especially good experience or memory.
The way in which each of us experiences places or events will depend on a range of circumstances such as who we are with, how we are feeling that day, the weather and so on. Trying to re-visit, or re-experience, the past can lead to disappointment. We need to keep moving forward, to ‘go with the flow’ and not try to ‘fight the tide’ of time.
I found his watering holes … offered wholly different experiences to those he had encountered. No water was ever the same in any one place; everywhere was being renewed and reborn all the time” (Minihane, 2017:261)
It is also important – especially in cold water swimming – to know your own limits and not to be bothered about trying to copy, compare or compete with what someone else can achieve. As the air temperature warms up it is tempting to stay in a bit longer and to swim a bit further – and this is often how people get into difficulties. ‘Know Your Limits’ is one of the key tips from the Outdoor Swimming Society and we all need to remember it. Despite the warmer air temperatures, the sea is still relatively cold.
Friendship (Ethel Merman, 1954)
Another theme to emerge from Minihane’s journey is his discovery of the added joy that company of friends and family brought to his travels and to his experience of swimming. On learning of his quest to follow Roger Deakin there was no shortage of friends, some of whom he had lost regular contact with, eagerly volunteering to accompany him. These friends feature as a joyful and energetic support group and their adventures often have a Famous Five feel about them.
“After a lunch of cheese and onion pasties and overpriced lemonade on the harbour wall” (p.211)
The friends become a regular, supportive group around Minihane, enthusiastically embracing his new found enchantment with wild swimming. He finds that, through going swimming with friends and family, he is able to begin to be open and honest about his mental health and to feel supported by them.
“Just being around friends … was every bit as good as being in the water itself. They made me feel happy by showing willingness to join me on my escapades” (p.100)
This is a very common theme to emerge from accounts of people who take up open water swimming. Many swimmers attest to having found a new community, a new ‘tribe’, a new group of friends, all of whom share the love of outdoor swimming. Groups of open water swimmers meet, around the country, at regular times to not only swim together but to encourage each other, chat and make social and community connections. This sense of belonging and reduction in social isolation has often been put forward as a factor in the improved well being outcomes that are increasingly attributed to cold water swimming.
In The Happy Club I wrote about research (van Tulleken et al, 2018) that has found “that potential benefits (to mental health) of open water swimming include a sense of achievement and community” in undertaking “an activity … that is stimulating, challenging, possibly outdoor and takes place in a social group”. And I wrote about how social prescribing is drawing on such findings to try to find a way forward for people who are lonely or isolated and people with mild mental health issues who may be anxious or depressed.
This month I was drawn to a new report (Key, 2019) of recent research investigating the association between the outdoor activity and mental wellbeing in women. This study found that swimmers reported “above average scores for happiness, life satisfaction and how worthwhile they perceived their activities to be”. Their reported anxiety levels were also lower than the average.
I have found that the ‘social contact’ aspect of open water swimming does not have to mean being part of a ‘tight-knit’, regular group of friends. Knowing that ‘someone else’ will be there, or having informal swim ‘meet up’ times is often enough. Even if we all do different swim distances, it is the turning up and connecting with others, and the chatting about the swim afterwards that so often cheers me up. On some days this feels like a life line.
Don’t Give Up (Willie Nelson & Sinead O’Connor, 1993)
Minihane’s progress with his swimming journey is interrupted by a physical injury, his recurring mental ill health and by pressure of work which all serve to compound his sense of failure. The pressure to complete Deakin’s swims starts to become a burden.
“the one thing I had found could help with my anxiety was becoming the cause of it – I had lost sight of the reason for doing it in the first place”.
Eventually, he stopped “trying to ape Roger” and started to “do things at my own pace and in my own way” (p.160) and enjoyed his trips all the more for it.
In N’er Cast a Clout til May Be Out I also reflected on how I had started to experience my self-imposed goals of swimming the south coast as a bit of a burden. I came to the conclusion, in that post, that all that really mattered was that I was swimming somewhere that gave me enjoyment and pleasure.
” it doesn’t matter if I don’t achieve a goal I may have set myself last year, last week … yesterday. I would never have discovered so many different beautiful places to swim if I hadn’t started on this Open Water Swimming journey. It has taken me to places I would never have been to – and certainly wouldn’t have swum in”
I have recently needed to remind myself of this and to remind myself that there is so much lovely coastline to explore – in the South and elsewhere!. I really don’t want to go about this ‘swimming the south coast’ mission in a ‘tick-box’/ ‘got to get it finished’ fashion. I want to enjoy the swims and enjoy my surroundings. I still have the goal to swim at as many lovely – and swimmable – bits of the coast as I can and to explore our coastal heritage along the way. But I don’t want it to become a burden or something that makes me feel I ‘need’ to swim in less than inviting environments.
So what if it takes me longer to complete than I had at first envisaged? As I wrote in Forever Young , given what we now know to be the health and anti-ageing benefits of swimming, I am anticipating 30 more years of living still ahead of me!
So – for as long as there is still somewhere interesting and beautiful and new to explore – I will just keep swimming!
It’s looking like a beautiful day (Elbow (2008)
And STOP PRESS! As I write, our sea temperature at Clevedon has tipped over into double figures! The water is now 10 degrees celsius! We have a sunny and warm Easter weekend of weather, big Spring Tides, flat calm sea, a full moon and beautiful sunsets! What’s not to love about that?
I looked back towards the shore. A crimson mist lay over the sea as a red-hot sun dropped behind the sand dunes… The beach shone in the gathering dusk as the tide fell and the sea grew less perturbed. I turned and swam on into the quiet waves (Deakin, 1999:332)
The Coast of Mallorca: In early April, most of my swimming was in Mallorca! I had the opportunity to follow a group of family and friends who were cycling round the island and so I tagged along, staying with them at their overnight locations and taking the opportunity to explore the coast during the day, for some breath-taking swims. Doing these swims and exploring this coastline re-inforced the feelings I write about above – there truly are too many beautiful places to discover to worry that they are not ‘part of the plan’.
April 4th at El Rentador de la Señora in the South: Translates as ‘Ladies Bathing Place’. It is said La Señora de Son Veri (a nearby rustic finca) used to bathe here. The surname of Veri is one of the oldest and most historic on the island of Mallorca, appearing since 1230.
April 5th at Caló de sa Barca Trencada in the South East: This beach is part of the Mondragò National Park – ‘an area of natural beauty and a conservation area’ and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Water temp 14 degrees celsius! Air temp 13 degrees celsius. Distance swum 600 metres. Time in the water 17 minutes
April 6th at Cala Rotja in the East: Close to the Torre de Canyamel a historic 13th century defence tower. The coast here is very mountainous. There are many caves along the coastline. Water temp 13 degrees celsius! Air temp 14 degrees celsius. Distance swum 700 metres. Time in the water 18 minutes
April 6th at Cala d´es Camps in the North East: Close to the village of Betlem and the 19th century ‘Ermita’. The beach is very quiet and surrounded by mountains. Water temp 14 degrees celsius! Air temp 15 degrees celsius. Distance swum 550 metres. Time in the water 15 minutes
April 7th at Cala Carbó in the North West: A small secluded cove near Cala Sant Vicenç. The landscape is surrounded by high mountains with footpaths that offer spectacular views. This bit of the coast was known for the violent pirate attacks that took place in the 1550s. Water temp 13 degrees celsius! Air temp 14 degrees celsius. Distance swum 700 metres. Time in the water 16 minutes
April 8th at Port D’es Canonge in the West close to Banyalbufar and Esporles: Not easy to get to (down a six kilometre winding mountain road) this beautiful old fishing port is still unspoilt with small fishing huts occupying the rear of the beach. You can also reach this beach on foot via the footpath trail from Banyalbufar. Water temp 14 degrees celsius! Air temp 15 degrees celsius. Distance swum 600 metres. Time in the water 14 minutes
Longest UK Swim so far this month: April 12th at Clevedon Lake. Water temp 9.5 degrees celsius. Air temp 8 degrees celsius. Distance swum 1,250 metres. Time in the water 24 minutes.
Blyton, E. (1953) Five Go Down To The Sea, Hodder & Stoughton
Byrds, The (1965 ) There is a Season: Turn Turn Turn from the album Turn, Turn, Turn, Columbia Records
Cowie, J. (2016) 6 Tips for Cold Water Swimming, Outdoor Swimming Society
Deakin, R. (1999) Waterlog, Chatto & Windus
Elbow (2008) One Day Like This from the album The Take Off and Landing of Everything, Concord Records
Fleetwood Mac (1977) Go Your Own Way from the album Rumours, Warner Brothers
Hogan, E. (2018) Finding yourself in the rivers, lakes and ponds of England, The Economist, 22nd December 2018
Key, H. (2019) Women In Adventure Mental Wellbeing Survey, womeninadventure.com
Merman, E. (1954) Friendship written by Cole Porter performed on the 1954 Colgate Comedy Hour live TV broadcast
Minihane, J. (2018) Floating: A Return To Waterlog, Duckworth Overlook
Nelson, W. & O’Connor,S. (1993) Don’t Give Up from the album Across The Borderline, Columbia Nashville
Roberts, A. (2010) Wild Swimming With Alice Roberts, BBC FOUR
Simon, P. (1990) The Coast from the album The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon Studio Album
van Tulleken, C., (2018) Can Cold Water Swimming Treat Depression, bbc.co.uk 13th September 2018