Updated: Oct 20, 2020
A group of wild swimmers at Blea Tarn, a lake in northwest England, in December, 2019. Enthusiasts for the sport claim that immersion in cold water is not only fun; it also improves their mental health. Photograph by Alice Zoo for The New Yorker
Britons are skipping the heated pool and rediscovering the pleasures of lakes, rivers, and seas—even in winter.
n 1973, Roger Deakin, a British writer and environmental activist, acquired a tumbledown sixteenth-century farmhouse outside the ancient village of Mellis, in Suffolk, and began a restoration, repairing stone walls and replacing roof tiles. Among the attributes of Walnut Tree Farm, as the house was called, was a deep, spring-fed moat. It didn’t surround the house, as with a fortified castle, but was excavated into the land, in roughly parallel lines, at the front and the back of the property. The moat had served its original, Elizabethan owner as a water supply, a cooler, and a status symbol. Over the centuries, it fell into disrepair, becoming silted up from falling leaves and rotting tree roots. Deakin had the moat dredged to a depth of ten feet; staked a wooden ladder by the bank, near the spreading roots of a willow tree; and began regularly swimming in the cold, greenish water. He gained what he called a frog’s-eye view of the changing seasons, and an intimate familiarity with the creatures sharing the moat, from dragonflies to newts.
In the mid-nineties, Deakin took inspiration from the protagonist of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”—who traverses his suburban neighborhood pool by pool—and made an aquatic journey around England, Wales, and Scotland, bathing in seas, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Deakin wrote a book about that adventure, “Waterlog” (1999), which has become a classic of British nature writing. His prose is sensuous—“At seaweedy Kimmeridge I mingled with mullet too lazy to move”—and his sense of humor is as dry as his theme is wet. A leech, he observes, keeps changing shape in the water, “looping and stretching out its black stocking of a body, as women do when they’re testing tights for quality in Marks & Spencer.” The book also displays a lively erudition: when Deakin describes a swim off the virtually unpopulated island of Jura, in the Scottish Hebrides, he notes that George Orwell retreated there to write “1984.”
“Waterlog” is subtly political. Deakin was intent on challenging the privatization of once public waters. “The right to walk freely along river banks or to bathe in rivers, should no more be bought and sold than the right to walk up mountains or to swim in the sea from our beaches,” he writes. In one rousing passage, he yells back at censorious river keepers who chastise him for swimming in the trout-filled Itchen, which runs through the grounds of an élite boarding school: “I already felt invigorated after a really first class swim, and now I felt even better after a terrific set-to.” For Deakin, swimming in open waters is a subversive act—a way to reclaim nature cordoned off by capitalism, and to “regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands.”
Deakin died, from a brain tumor, in 2006. A year later, Walnut Tree Farm was bought by a couple, Jasmin and Titus Rowlandson, who have maintained his commitment to ungentrified country living. There is still no central heating in the farmhouse; it is warmed by an Aga stove and an enormous open hearth, over which dinner is typically cooked. Last year, Titus, who restores classic automobiles in the barn, and Jasmin, a jeweller and a painter, began offering overnight stays in two renovated cabins on the property. In early November, I took the train from London to Suffolk, with the aim of swimming in Deakin’s moat. Heavy rain had fallen all morning, sluicing the windows of the train as it rolled through the port of Ipswich. Deakin’s book begins with an ecstatic moat swim in summer rain, amid “water sprites springing up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface.” A chilly, wet autumn day seemed considerably less enchanting.
By the time I reached Walnut Tree Farm, however, the rain had stopped, and low streaks of pinkish afternoon sun had emerged between torn clouds and the bare branches of sodden trees. After installing myself in the cabin I’d rented—delightfully kitted out with antique furniture, a wood-burning stove, and a well-chosen library—I put on my bathing suit, along with neoprene booties and gloves. Straightening my spine, I headed for the back-yard moat. Sixty feet in length, it had a gleaming black surface strewn with the golden disks of fallen leaves, like tarnished Anglo-Saxon jewelry inlaid with gems.
Descending the rickety ladder, I pushed off into the water and breast-stroked to the deepest part, at the center, to avoid entanglement with hidden weeds and roots. The cold was searing. I could feel the muscles of my upper back constricting; my clavicle and upper ribs seemed ready to shatter, and my toes and fingers started to numb, despite my high-tech gear. I swam a few lengths, trying to appreciate Deakin’s frog’s-eye view, though, to the extent that I could identify with a frog, it was with one placed—in the reverse of the fable—in a slowly chilling pot of water, to see if it notices when it starts to freeze to death.
Despite the cold—and despite the two hours it took me to warm up afterward, stoking the wood-burning stove and drinking as much tea as I could handle—my brief swim in the moat was a starkly beautiful experience. I felt fantastic. Deakin swam in the moat nearly every day, except when it froze over, and it was easy to see how he’d got hooked.
I was not the only reader of Deakin to have been seduced in this way. “Waterlog” helped spur the rise of what has become known in Britain as “wild swimming”: wading briefly or churning doggedly in outdoor waters, rather than doing laps in indoor pools. According to the most recent figures collected by Sport England, a group that urges physical activity, half a million people in England are engaging regularly in wild swimming—nearly twice as many as reported doing so just three years ago. Many participants claim that the activity is not only fun but also improves their mental health.
The sport’s attractions can be hard to imagine if your vision of outdoor swimming revolves around sunshine, warm water, fine-grained sand, and a trashy novel to read afterward. Britain has an abundance of “blue space”—a term used to characterize rivers, ponds, lakes, and seas by people who argue for the health benefits of having access to them. There are about forty thousand lakes in Britain, and it’s estimated that nobody in the U.K. is ever more than seventy miles from a stretch of coastline. But British waters are incontrovertibly cold. Sea temperatures rarely creep above twenty degrees Celsius, or sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, and England’s freshwater bodies, which are often fed by underground springs, tend to be even chillier. Last year, by mid-October—generally regarded as the end of the outdoor-swimming season—the Serpentine Lido, the designated swimming spot in the Serpentine lake, in London’s Hyde Park, had dropped to the low fifties. The hardiest wild swimmers keep going even when water temperatures fall below freezing; they pack, along with a microfibre towel and a thermos of tea, an axe, for breaking a channel through the ice.
The vogue for outdoor swimming has been fuelled, in part, by the Internet. It’s easy to collect “likes” by posting a photograph of yourself waist-deep in a craggy loch. The British press provides travel advice about the most romantic swimming locales. The Guardian recently gushed about a spot at the foot of Mt. Snowdon, in Wales, noting, “Take a dip here and you are swimming with the Torgoch, a rare type of Arctic char fish that has survived since the ice age.”
In U.K. bookstores, shelves are devoted to the sport. One of the most popular guidebooks is the lushly illustrated “Wild Swim,” by Kate Rew, which offers a variety of suggestions for swimmers lacking a moat of their own. Why not sample England’s deepest lake, Wastwater, in the Lake District, which goes down nearly as far as Big Ben goes up? A telling photograph in “Wild Swim” shows a swimmer in the Blue Lagoon, in Abereiddy, Pembrokeshire; you’d think that the aquamarine water was in the Aegean, if not for the fact that the swimmer is in a wet suit.
Rew is the founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, which was launched in 2006 and now has close to eighty thousand members. “Swimming is like going on a condensed holiday,” she told me recently. “It has that way of transporting you out of your normal world, and everything else that happens after that is a bonus.” The society’s Web site touches on wild-swimming etiquette (“Be considerate of your effect on other water users such as fishermen/women, boaters, nesting birds”) and offers safety tips, such as what to do if you get caught in weeds (“Slow down, try a modified doggy paddle and gently extricate yourself without kicking or thrashing around”). Rew told me that, personally, she dislikes being cold, and considers British water temperatures an inconvenience, though not a crippling one. “It’s not ideal,” she said. “The water can take your breath away, and you can’t stay in as long as you want to. But you make your peace with it.” She joked about how outdoor-swimming enthusiasts use cheery synonyms for “cold”—“bracing,” “invigorating”—in order to make the activity “seem like something you want to embrace, rather than something you want to shy away from.”
Wild swimming accommodates different levels of engagement. For triathletes, a lake may be just another medium to get through, like a hilly bicycle path, in an orgy of punishing exertion. For more moderate swimmers, a brief autumnal dip in the sea offers an opportunity for a social gathering, with a slice of cake or a nip of whiskey afterward. Rew told me, “Lots of people who love wild swimming barely swim at all. They just get in and bob about a bit. I think it is fantastic to swim any which way you want to—except judgmentally of others.”
The earliest records of swimming in Britain appear in accounts of the invasion of the Romans, in the first century. Tacitus describes Roman soldiers swimming in full armor, and Julius Caesar was said to have been an excellent swimmer. According to Susie Parr, the author of an enlightening volume called “The Story of Swimming,” manuals on military training that were disseminated in the Middle Ages stressed the usefulness of the skill.
In 1587, Sir Everard Digby, a scholar from Cambridge, wrote a treatise on swimming, “De Arte Natandi,” in which he shared techniques for keeping afloat and for getting in and out of water safely. The text, originally written in Latin but translated to English a few years later, was accompanied by woodcuts of nude swimmers performing a series of now unfamiliar strokes. One involved raising one arm and one leg out of the water simultaneously; in another, a swimmer is on his back, kicking his legs, froglike, while cupping his genitals. The strokes that we use today, from the crawl to the breaststroke, were not standardized until the nineteenth century, when England introduced competitive swimming as a sport.
Swimming in the sea became popular in the eighteenth century, and at resorts like Weymouth, in Dorset, bathers were wheeled across the beach in small wooden cabins, then descended down steps into the salty waters with the help of attendants, often women, known as “dippers.” In the Romantic era, swimming became an activity, like wandering across daffodil-covered hillsides, that was thought to offer a potential encounter with the sublime. The development of railways, in the Victorian era, spurred the growth of many seaside resorts, including Ramsgate, in Kent, where, a local reporter noted, “the men gambol about in a complete state of nature, and the ladies frolic in very questionable bathing garments within a few yards of them.”
Wild swimmers tend to enter water slowly, keeping their heads above the surface.Photograph by Alice Zoo for The New Yorker
In the twentieth century, many swimmers shifted to chlorinated pools. Affordable package holidays to resorts in Spain, where the water is warm and the sun reliable, further enticed Britons away from local waters. In any case, many British lakes and seashores had become horribly polluted. In “The Story of Swimming,” Parr reports that, in 1980, the U.K. had no inland waters that met the environmental standards of the European Economic Community’s Bathing Water Directive.
Since then, water quality has improved significantly, which has helped fuel the wild-swimming revival. A practitioner still needs to be choosy, though: a recent investigation by the London Times revealed that eighty-six per cent of the rivers in England contained pollution levels exceeding current E.U. standards. Another factor behind the popularity of wild swimming is its affordability: although you can spend more than a hundred dollars on a wet suit, the only essential equipment is a bathing suit. (Some purists insist, with a nod to historical precedent—and a touch of English-public-school masochism—that wild swimming is best done naked.)
Many enthusiasts join a club, such as the Brighton Swimming Club—the country’s oldest, founded in 1860. It offers swimmers company, which enhances safety, especially when the sea is choppy. It also offers changing rooms with hot showers, a welcome amenity for members after they have stumbled, goosefleshed and wind-whipped, up the shingled shore. Other swimmers assemble more informally. The Salty Seabirds, a loose, mostly female collective, also in Brighton, orchestrates daily meetups through Facebook. Its members descend on the beach in Ugg boots and flapping Dryrobe ponchos, looking like colorful seagulls. After hastily stripping down to their bathing suits, they wade in, and are soon up to their chins.
Others prefer to go it alone, feeling that swimming’s solitary, meditative quality is the best thing about it. Little focusses the mind so well as being in water so cold that, unless you are careful, your breath will literally be taken away. The gasp reflex, as the phenomenon is known, is the strongest argument against suddenly jumping or diving into frigid water, rather than entering it gradually while keeping your head above the surface.
When I moved, about a year ago, to a neighborhood of North London close to Hampstead Heath, new neighbors asked me if I was going to swim in the ponds, which were dug as reservoirs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Soon after the ponds were created, they became informal swimming holes; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dedicated ponds for men and women were established.
The single-sex ponds are fed by the waters of the River Fleet, which once flowed through London but since the nineteenth century has been channelled into an underground culvert. They are cherished, year-round institutions, and inspire an almost cult-like devotion in their users. (A third, mixed-sex pond, on the other side of the heath, is open only in the summer months.) A collection of essays about the Ladies’ Pond, “At the Pond,” was published last summer. It includes a contribution by the novelist Margaret Drabble, who spent time at the pond in the nineteen-seventies with an older lesbian friend who had once been a Cistercian nun. “I don’t think she liked swimming but she liked the ambience, with its strange mixture of permissiveness and purity,” Drabble notes. In another essay, the novelist Deborah Moggach writes, of the pond, that “slipping into its waters is slipping into bliss.” The Ladies’ Pond has been celebrated less reverently by a Twitter parody account, Bougie London Literary Woman: “Doing a recklessly vigorous breaststroke, I have lost my pendant to the Pond. It shall come to settle on the silt, next to my heart, perhaps, which I lost to those murky depths long ago.”
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This article was first published by https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/27/the-subversive-joy-of-cold-water-swimming