Staycation. The word on everyone’s lips since coming out of lockdown. An opportunity to reconnect with the wonders of the world on our own doorstep and rediscover life’s simple pleasures. And outdoor swimming, whether at sunrise or sunset, is a chance to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and see the world through fresh eyes and a hopeful heart.
In these febrile times, it’s about embracing mystery rather than predictability. None of us really knows what the future looks like. Re-reading Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, I still dream of the journeys I want to make, the oceans I want to swim (the Aegean) and the places I want to see (Ithaca). But I don’t know when – or even if - I will ever get there. How many of us know what we want and where we are going? Where we will end up? In this brave new world, it feels impossible to predict.
When our lives are in flux, the rivers and oceans continue to be here for us. Life on the river continues regardless of lockdown rules and regulations. The moorhens busily ferry reeds and build their floating castles. The bees hum on scented wildflowers. And in the open water, out of hours, the absence of human activity is a blessing. And with less noise and space in the sky, we can finally hear the birds sing. Our skies are an expansive and bottomless blue. And the wildlife that was once hidden on our doorstep, becomes gloriously visible, as if for the very first time, in magnificent technicolour.
So with more and more people now trying wild swimming, why not simply make a date with the dawn and just sit and watch the sky lighten? Swim without walls. Right now being in the stillness of nature is the place where I am most at peace with myself.
Sunrise is a precious experience. One which is worth getting up at insane o’ clock (4.30am) for. You will never regret it. You feel subversive. Bold. You become your own hero. Because an early morning swim will make you feel like you are crossing a boundary into another world. And the experience is starkly beautiful. There’s a thrilling in your veins which leaves you with tingling skin, a new-found optimism and a clear mind. You are fizzing with excitement for the rest of the day. There is simply no better way to wake up (add in a hot flask of coffee for good measure).
Early morning swims are strangely sensual. Moving within a deep virginal body of water is an intimate experience, one where your body acts as a rod, connecting the earth and the sky. The lobster-pink glow becomes visible on the horizon and signals this sense of waking up from within. You are literally smiling from the inside out. This pause for self-reflection makes you happy, because at last you are finally switching off the part of your brain that needs to know what is happening when - instead replacing it with the simplicity of being exactly where you are.
People on the move inhabit a different world. The silent dogwalkers on the towpath, the rowers who slip keenly through the water, the key workers walking to their place of work. But don’t be concerned. You don’t need to occupy their headspace. Simply sink into the silent gorgeousness.
Swimming at different times of day also has its own rewards. At dawn is the painterly, Turner-esque light. What a privilege to see, untouched. Vapour rising off the mercurial river steeps her with a potent sense of power. And whilst the water is bracing, unlike the depths of January, it’s not brutal or fast. You witness a gentler, more benign nature. One where the sunrise is heralded by hopeful expectation. And as a cockerel crows, the light which reflects off bare skin reminds me of warmer, foreign shores. A distant memory of being woken up too early, years ago, on a Greek island. Today, these quiet morning dips have changed the colour and texture of my life. Giving me the strength to face whatever the day throws at me, head on.
· Do not go alone. If it is your first sunrise swim, you will need an experienced swim buddy who can guide you - and who knows the (river) entrance and exit points.
· Be safely equipped. Always wear an orange tow float essential for visibility – for boats and those early morning rowers. Carry a torch inside your float.
· Wear a wetsuit or rash vest if nervous about the cold. Or better still, try borrowing one from a friend until you are ready to embrace your new-found hobby.
· Pack your bag the night before. Make it easy on yourself when your alarm goes off.
· Protect your extremities. Wear boots, gloves and a hat will prevent ‘ice cream head’.
If sunrise swimming is like travelling into a new sphere, then sunset swimming is like peeking over the edge of the world. One where you notice nature’s colours against the sound of lapping water. The lush, jungle green of the reeds. The magic, midnight blue of the water, gleaming and awash with precious metals. The lights glinting off the houseboats. Garrick’s Temple (built by Shakespearean actor David Garrick) now floodlit on the sloping lawn. No wonder the romantic poets - Byron, Keats, Coleridge - loved to swim in open water.
Then, there are those rare glimpses of wildlife that make you feel like you are part of a live, immersive Springwatch. A majestic heron is our talisman and guards our river ‘get-in’ with the vigilance of a sentry guard. A trio of fuzzy, black tufted ducklings venture out for an evening dip. Sid the Swan cruises the waters. Nicknamed Sid Vicious, (you already know why), he has earned mythical status in Hampton’s waters and is even starting to attract a celebrity following. So, if you have the good fortune to meet him (he is fiercely impressive) do not dare to cross him. It will not end well. River etiquette tells me that when his wings flare up phoenix-like to form a crest moon above his head, I need to move quickly. And Sid is the main reason that I’ve learned to swim breaststroke faster, so I have to thank him for that.
Late evening, you also get to know residents, both in and out of the water. You learn fun facts about wildlife from the wise river folk. On Taggs island, Peter enthuses about his favourite Egyptian Geese. Who knew their namesake is due to their exotic orange eye patches, which are reminiscent of the ancient Pharaohs? Wow. And on our return route, we are flanked by a battalion of over twenty Canada Geese. A shrill reminder that we humans are a humble part of nature - not outside of it. When the swallows skim the cooler water and the sun is sinking, I feel the weight of my tired limbs. Sunset swims are all about the slackening of jaw and of pace. It is all I need to hit the pillow and sleep soundly.
· In low light, stay visible to river traffic. Carry your torch within your towfloat and it will provide a buoyancy aid, as well as being your floating lantern,
· Wrap up warm quickly – putting top layers on first to insulate your extremities. Invest in a cheapish changing robe to make changing in the dark easier.
· Bring a flask of hot tea, a wedge of cake for energy - or a nip of something stronger if need.
· Check the weather to ensure you the sunset will be one to remember, for all the right reasons.
I have carved a daily ritual of ‘out of hours’ swimming. Learning to swim at these times has given me the quiet confidence to live my life on my own terms. And whilst it is my dream to continue my journey, perhaps next with SwimTrek, (I do have a yearning and calling to swim in Greece) I hope you’ll be inspired to follow your own swim odyssey.
The water is waiting for you.
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