My earliest memories of family weekends and holidays involve water; swimming and playing in rivers, lakes and the sea. I didn't learn to swim until I was 7 and it was a nerve racking process for me. Subsequently I have never been a confident swimmer, I am scared of deep water and being out of my depth (not just in water!) and have pretty much avoided swimming all my life...
Ironically I love water, I love being near it. I find it calming, restful and relaxing. It is almost soporific in its effect on me. We had a Mirror Dinghy when I was a child, she was called Miss Piggy (after my Mum...snigger) and we used to sail it round Bristol Docks every weekend. As soon as I had a life jacket on I was happy to plunge in to the water and swim, loving every minute of it. It wasn't long that my Boy Scout older brother got his first kayak. It was bright green, fibreglass (who remembers fibreglass rash? Ouch!) and we called it Kermit. Obviously. I was hooked. Firstly because I wanted to do everything my big brother did but also because I was able to be close to the water without actually being in it. Perfect. It also meant I always had a life jacket, or should I say buoyancy aid now I was a paddler, and that afforded me confidence if I fell in. So soon our family holidays to France where we would camp for 3-4 weeks every summer became water based. My Dad is a very competent swimmer, even now in is early 70's swimming miles every week at his local pool. So every day we would go in search of a local river, lake, pool or beach where we could swim. In France this was a common family activity so our days were spent playing with the local kids swinging off ropes, sinking the kayak and playing silly water games with my Dad. In those days it wasn't called 'wild' swimming, it was just swimming. We didn't feel the need to give it a special title. We just went and had a great time.
My last holiday with my parents was the age of 15 and since then the swimming stopped. I would occasionally go to a pool but it was never the same so I gave up pretty much as soon as starting. Lane swimming I found mind numbingly dull and I could never quite find the right lane for me; I was either too slow, too fast or just plain rubbish. The joy in swimming had gone so I stopped.
Until now. Nearly 30 years later and I have rediscovered outdoor swimming. My inspiration is a new friend of mine, Gillie Hammersley who swims outside all year round. Her photographs are a complete and utter joy to behold. The smile on her face whether she has been swimming in 70 degree heat or in ice which she has had to break with an ice axe is infectious. I just kept seeing these photographs and thinking 'I want some of that'. Gillie too has suffered from, and has mental health issues and has spoken openly about how 'wild' swimming helps her. Cold water immersion is scientifically proven to soothe muscles, to aid depression and boost the immune system. You get an endorphin high which raises your mood and just makes you keep wanting to go back for more. You know what, if I am going to be addicted to something outdoor swimming is a pretty good thing to get hooked on.
I am so fortunate to live right next to the River Wye. The river is so fortunate to have an Act of Parliament which protects the right for us all to navigate and swim. A short stroll from my front door and I am able to dip in to the river just below Wilton Bridge. A slightly longer walk and we have access to a wide range of sections of the Wye. It almost seems criminal that we have been living here for 8 years and yet only just started to take advantage of this natural wonder on our doorstep. Yes we paddle it regularly but swimming it is a different beast.
This weekend we went back to Suffolk, to the Waveney Valley where we lived for 7 years. We were spitting distance from the beach and a short amble to the River Waveney yet once again, we didn't fully appreciate the wonders on our doorstep. Having purchased Wild Swimming by Daniel Start I decided that we would visit one of the places he extols in the book; Outney Meadow, Bungay. The weather was perfect. A balmy 23 degrees, sunny with a gentle warm breeze. We packed our swimmers, and wetsuits (we are newbies to the practice after all!) and headed off. As we arrived we soon realised we were not along. Being a Bank Holiday Monday it was reasonably busy; a group of lads with their music playing, a group of girls on their SUP and a couple of families. This stretch of the river is also popular with canoeists who hire from Bungay for a leisurely paddle down stream. We found a spot, stripped down to our swimmers (we left the wetsuits) and headed in. Expecting it to be cold we were pleasantly surprised at how inviting the water was. We were soon swimming in the deep waters, dodging the lads as they swung off the rope swing from high up in the trees. It was blissful. Everyone was soon chatting, joining in together with jumping, swimming. Age meant nothing, my 11 year old son was mixing with 22 year olds, young children were swimming with grandparents and everyone was having a ball. The water was the one thing that was bringing us all together. Soon the girls leant the SUP to some kids from another family, the lads starting helping the young boys on the swing and I found myself swimming further and further along the deep river that I would ever have imagined. I never thought about the depth underneath me as I was transfixed my the damsel flies landing in front of my nose, their iridescent blue shimmering like a hypnotic watch ticking. Being at that level in the water, the peace and tranquillity was magical.
Wild Swimming, Outdoor Swimming or just swimming. Call it what you like I don't care, all I know is that I am hooked and despite doing more plunging than swimming I am going to keep going...and going.. As Dory says 'Just Keep Swimming'.