There comes a time in every woman’s life where she needs to take her clothes off and get into the water. I’m not talking about taking a bath, I’m talking about the invigorating thrill of slipping into the cool, dark water of a pond, a river or even, in my case at the moment, the icy grey North Sea.
There’s nothing more freeing than swimming in a place that was meant for ducks, seagulls, fish and in the case of Hampstead ponds where I often swim, the odd Heron. It probably helps that I was brought up in the land of the broads (Norfolk) where I spent a lot of my childhood falling out of boats into the river or off horses into the sea. Both venues had one thing in common: they were bloody cold. They both also had the desired effect of waking me up and making me look at the world differently, more calmly and with a better perspective. Even aged ten I could see and feel the benefits – albeit that the dingy had sailed off without me or the horse had cantered back to the stable.
These days I know when I need to get into the water – even if, during the coldest months it’s into my local chlorinated local pool. You’ll be familiar with the warning signs – the creeping of the shoulders towards the ears, the aching back, the ragged temper and that most precious of human virtues – patience – disappearing down the plughole quicker than the dregs of last night’s wine bottle.
I’ll admit I’m not always in a position to down tools and pick up my swimmers, but sometimes just thinking about being in the water during the summer months, taking long, slow strokes in amongst the lily pads, the weeds and yes, the ducks, can begin to have the desired effect. There’s something almost primeval about returning to the water, especially the sea. To paraphrase John F Kennedy: ‘When we go back to the sea..we are going back from whence we came’.
There’s also something a bit daring about plunging into an environment you have previously considered off limits. When Roger Deakin the grandfather of Wild Swimming, who lived around the corner from where I currently reside in Suffolk, wrote his bestselling 1999 book Waterlog – an account of swimming the lakes and waterways the breadth of Britain, most people thought he was mad. Well, ok he was a bit mad – he lived in a house with no central heating, swam daily in his moat and allowed swallows to live in his chimneys, but he was also a genius. A man who underlined the human race’s need for space, freedom to roam and appreciation for the natural world, to the extent that he founded the arts and environmental charity, Common Ground.
Deakin talked about the need for freedom from virtual reality long before most of us even knew it existed. “Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”
Blame the soaring temperatures for this season’s Wild Water craze, but Swim England says that ‘outdoor swimming’ continues to increase year on year. Websites like Wildswimming.co.uk or Wildswim.com offer advice on your best local swim spots. Caveat: leaping into deep cold water is a bad idea. It can stop that thing called your heart. Approach with caution.