When I am in the sea I am a mystery to myself. I have no idea how I got here, or why or what I am doing. I am only swimming and I am amazed – Wendell Steavenson
Mothecombe beach, in Devon: I am with Wendy from Ivybridge and we are riding the waves. She is tethered to an orange float. She has come with her winter friends, who she meets to swim with three times a week. Everything I say, she replies, ‘ditto’.
Me: ‘This really helped me during lockdown, you know, mentally’. Wendy: Ditto. Me: ‘It’s completely changed the way I view winter’. Wendy: Ditto. Me: ‘I actually say it’s not cold enough now!’ Wendy: Ditto.
I need some winter friends to swim with. As it is, I go on my own and look out for fellow swimmers. Sometimes it is one word that gets exchanged, like ‘gorgeous’. When I get out of the sea at Mothecombe, there is a lady, 50s, slim, attractive, with a slim, sandy-haired lurcher. They both enter the water, she in a pretty swimming costume, the dog as is. They both swim, deal with the waves. Afterwards, the lurcher dries himself on the sand and the lady dries her face with something un-towel-like. They look very happy.
Sometimes, if I can’t get to the sea, I will cycle to the river, to Hampton Court, or to Teddington Lock near to where I live, and I will ease myself in. A shingle beach, the water sometimes surprisingly clear. Brown water, brown leaves, a strange silence out in the middle, a murmur of cars. I get out, get back on my bike and cycle home, enjoying the sensation of my body slowly warming through my clothes. Someone will take a photo of me and shout some encouragement. A woman the other day bowed, as if I was royal.
Brackish: river water that tastes of salt, water that runs to the sea. I sometimes swim in the Cuckmere Meanders in East Sussex if I go there and the sea is too rough but I need my fix.
The writer Tom Cox said that calling swimming outdoors ‘wild swimming’ is like saying mowing the lawn is ‘wild hoovering’. You are outside doing a thing, like walking, running, swimming. You are in the fresh air. Why is this wild? Perhaps it’s feral. Feral swimming doesn’t quite have the same ring, but it makes more sense: we have all been caged these past two years. Our behaviour has become unnatural to us, and the need for an outlet more urgent. I found swimming jolted me back into the now and the cold is helpful. Swimming outside under sky with so much space, it is freeing, and it is, mainly, free.
When I can’t get to the sea, I also go to a nearby lake. There it starts to feel a bit like sport, and I need to wear a wrist band and a brightly coloured swimming hat. It has a municipal feel, there are buoys which I am encouraged to follow, a course I am encouraged to finish. The water is viscous, cold like a texture, and because they use vegetable dye to control the algae, it is luminous blue, like swimming in a lagoon. I try not to feel pushed to achieve anything but it is harder here and the cold – the intensity of it – feels like the main draw. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea of cold as prestige. The fact I know, as if it’s helpful, that it is 5.1C.
My mum still swims in the sea, at 86, most of the year. I will always take the sea over every other body of water and will always take her stretch of sea, even though there are many other stretches of sea to be had round her way. I don’t want to know the temperature of it, I know it will be cold and that’s enough. I love the moment of being out of my depth, suddenly, when the shelf gives way and I have to fend for myself. I love the salt, the view.
Why do I swim? Because, to paraphrase Linda Ronstadt, I can’t stand not to.
This is purely subjective, but I think women tend to be hardier swimmers, doing it year-round and not in wetsuits. Women who are slightly older, autumnal. They write about it differently too. Wendell Steavenson wrote about cold water swimming here in the Guardian, to help with heartbreak (‘The next day I did it again. And again. I swam every day for three weeks. For some reason, it is almost impossible to cry in the sea’). Samantha Harvey wrote about swimming and insomnia in The Shapeless Unease. (See below). There is no competition, just wonder. It’s all sensation and ritual. Susannah Constantine another outdoor swimmer, suggests a beverage of Yorkshire tea, hot milk and tons of honey to warm up after.
I would keep it minimal, it’s like making marmalade – you don’t need special kit, but neoprene socks and gloves are very handy in the winter. A float, perhaps. I do get my kit off once I’m in, by the way. Just a thought. Not in the Thames though. Too many plastic bags and bicycles.
Update 7/7/22: If you are near a lido, they are often art deco buildings, have a lovely community atmosphere, the water is unheated, and if you’re lucky there is a sauna and a cafe. I go to Parliament Hill Lido which has a beautiful silver bottom and is gently raked. The cafe is run by slightly mardy French people, which makes you feel like you are in Paris, and the cake is amazing. I have heard good things about Brockwell Lido too. And there is one in Cambridge (Jesus Green Lido) which is 90 metres long.