I was told winter swimming was addictive. It is the potency of the icy water which gives us our dopamine fix and keeps us coming back for more. And with the same strange intensity it yields an intoxication that is all consuming, like a teenage infatuation. Yet most of my family and friends view cold water swimming as a kind of perverse ritual, reserved only for madmen or eccentrics. You get yourself up (when every other sane person is under the warm duvet) and strip off in any weather - be it biting wind or torrential rain. You are exposed. There’s little barrier between you and the water, bar a costume, neoprene gloves, booties and a fleecy hat. Then you proceed to put your body to the ultimate test, triggering a sensory overload which draws close crowds of onlookers to the riverbank in sheer admiration and awe. From that first, painfully sharp intake of breath (the gasp reflex) to the wild shrieks and outrageous swearing which puncture the air, the exquisite pins and needles on your skin and the release that follows…. On a grey January day your soul is soaring in the river. I cannot believe I am saying this. Winter swimming is fun!
I have to remind myself just how lucky I am to have stumbled across this brave, open-minded group of souls, known as the Surrey Open Water Swimmers (S.O.S). Back in 2019, just as the temperatures were climbing, I was spiralling into a deep depression. I had just separated from my husband of 17 years and my life was unravelling fast. It was a chance recommendation from the GP to try out cold water swimming that catalysed me into action. The irony wasn’t lost on me, since I hate the cold (my Mum will vouch for it). And I wasn’t a swimmer. I’d never swum anywhere outside of a heated pool, certainly not a lake or a river (and as a Londoner, we are talking about the mighty Thames!). The idea terrified me. But I was even more frightened of losing a grip. The one advantage was that if I started in July, I could acclimatise over several months, in preparation for winter. I turned to Facebook in my hour of need. There was a local swimming group who spontaneously organised regular group swims nearby. I signed up.
I remember that day so well because the swim spot was teeming with people. It was hot. Stupidly in my fear of the water being cold, I’d arrived ‘vacuum-packed’ in a wetsuit. I was sweating and lurking strangely on the riverbank. Panicking and losing my nerve, I decided to make a swift exit. Only I’d left it too late. I was met head-on by a group of serious swim enthusiasts chattering in the glare of the sun, armed with picnic blankets and tow floats coming in the opposite direction. They quickly sussed who I was (the wetsuit was a giveaway) and gently ushered me back to the water’s edge. There was no going back.
That was the life changer for me. That first swim. A kind of magical alchemy which left me craving water. And it made me realise that if resilience is defined as the ability to keep going when you are vulnerable, it’s no surprise that most people are brought to the water by something. Whether they’re recovering from a debilitating illness, suffering emotional trauma or simply seeking space to recover from a life change, there’s nearly always a backstory. I think that’s why there is such a deep, deep connection with these people around you. So whilst there’s a lot of cursing on winter swims, there’s plenty of joy too. No matter how dark a place you come from.
Even now, as the temperatures fall away, each week I think it’ll be my last! But as mad as this sounds I think I prefer winter swimming to summer swimming. And here’s why you should try it. If only once.
You can’t escape the cold, so you have to deal with it. But experiencing intense cold brings us closer to the pain barrier and releases endorphins! There’s lots of neuroscience that shows cold water swimming increases the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. And that stimulus keeps us smiling and laughing. And behaving badly. The thrill can last for hours, sometimes days! There’s a dizzy excitement that quickly infects the group and it brings out the child in you. With a new-found confidence you may decide to turn up rocking the sparkliest of silver hats, wear a squid costume or proudly tow a giant duck behind you. And you will count the days and hours until you can do it again. You feel incredible and you look incredible!
Swim pal Deidre and her duck!
In summer, the thronging crowds can be a bit much, even more so if you’re feeling nervous or unwell. In winter, there’s a peace and playfulness to be found. Scenic stretches of the river are empty. This is your chance to connect with nature and swap your deskchair for the rhythms of the natural world. What better place than in full view of Hampton Court Palace? And for free! Glorious. N.B. don’t be tempted to launch yourself with wild abandon into any stretch of the river. It takes months to acclimatise. Be cautious. Always go with experienced swimmers, (the current is much faster in winter).
The Swim Tribe
You will be embraced by THE most extraordinary, inspirational group of people from all walks of life, all ages. These strangers will, very quickly, become much more to you. Your warrior tribe. The reason? They’ll see you at your most vulnerable. And in winter it’s even more important to stay together. They’ll accompany you if you need to get out of the water quickly. Protect your modesty when you flash your bum to passers-by. Dress you when your fingers are too numb to follow simple instructions. Drive you to and from your swim destinations at ridiculous hours of morning or night, lend you heated socks, hot water bottles, or even ply you with shots of brandy on Christmas Day! Nothing is too much trouble. And the ‘penguin huddle’ is an absolute must. You can literally feel the love.
The Hot Chocolate. And Cake
In my opinion one of the best reasons to join a swim group. The larger the gathering the better. And winter seems to bring out a greater selection. I have never, ever seen a spread like it - these people can bake! I’m talking clementine cake (still warm from the oven), chocolate chip brownies, peanut butter cookies, mincemeat tart, honey cake, banana loaf, handmade truffles and marmalade cake. The list goes on. I’m in heaven. Whilst I very rarely bring anything, I take as much as I can away with me. In a large, red sandwich tin, much to the amusement of SOS gang!
So with the dawn of a new decade, why not challenge yourself and make 2020 your year to try wild swimming? Even better, winter swimming. Tell yourself it’ll ‘just be the once’. Live fearlessly. I promise you, you won’t regret it.