'Wild swimming' has become a very popular form of outdoor exercise for many, following the long, arduous lockdown in the UK. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
Here at Marloe, we're all about slow living. We like to take our time; to spend it well and to be present in the moment. However, we all have young children, and busy lives, and it can be easier said than done. We aren’t immune to the pressures and pace of modern day life, and it can be easy to become swept away in schedule planning and emails and traffic jams, all set to a constant background soundtrack of Hey Duggee. We will soon move to our custom-built office on the banks of Loch Leven; the Loch that Gordon and I are lucky enough to dwell beside with our families. We hope that having this peaceful space, surrounded by nature and the rugged, rolling backdrop of the Lomond Hills to work and create in will restore a little peace to our lives after a very strange year lived under the oppression of Covid.
Earlier this year, on a particularly bracing day in February, I scouted out our swiftly-developing new HQ and was surprised to see some wooly bobble hats bobbing around in the Loch. They were attached to human beings, and those people were swimming, in a small group, parallel to the shoreline. As I pulled my winter jacket more closely around myself, squinting into the icy wind, I marvelled at their bravery; I had no idea that you could swim in this Loch, especially in the winter. I returned home and had a wee Google; sure enough, there were groups of wild swimming enthusiasts all over Perthshire and Fife, utilising the many beautiful lochs, rivers and beaches to swim outside and singing its praises. Intrigued, and feeling a little burnt out after a long winter of baby-entertaining in lockdown, I decided that I would give it a go - but not yet. Once the temperatures were safely and steadily up in the double figures, maybe then, and only if I could get the right gear, and only if it was safe, and only if I didn’t look like an idiot; because, I’ll be honest, the prospect was incredibly daunting.
And so here I find myself, 7am, a loch in Perthshire. It is a positively balmy 11 degrees celsius. The morning sunshine is just touching the tips of the hills which encircle us, crowning them with an amber glow. A fine mist hangs above the still, mirror-calm surface of the loch and, on its sandy shores, swans, ducks and geese are stretching their wings and fluffing their feathers, ready for another day. Alongside them is a quaking, blue-tinged, seized-up wreck of a human being; it is I, the Wild Swimmer, attempting to wade into the ice-cold waters without hollering and shattering the serenity of the scene. I grew up in the North of Scotland. I was born in Norway. I have a suitable - perhaps surplus to requirement - layer of lockdown blubber. I should be able to do this, but as the searing cold water laps against my knees and I struggle to catch my breath, I wonder why on earth anyone would subject themselves to this on a regular basis. A shrill expletive forces its way out of my mouth despite my best efforts to contain it and, as my sweary soprano vibrato echoes around me and alarms the wildfowl, I take another step forwards into deeper water.
'Wild swimming' has become a very popular form of outdoor exercise for many, following the long, arduous lockdown in the UK which saw gyms and recreational sports facilities shut down. With a somewhat enforced renewed appreciation for our local surroundings, and a determination to use our permitted daily exercise outing wisely, swarms of people took to their local waterways for a dip. The term 'wild swimming' itself has only come into popular usage in very recent times; pre-Covid, swimming outdoors was generally just referred to as, well, 'swimming outdoors'. It has always been a popular form of exercise in many locations around the world; but here in the United Kingdom, where any temperature above 15 degrees celsius prompts the dusting off of rusty BBQs, the scorching of pale skin and the descent of the masses upon beer gardens, it's never been a particularly common thing to do. The average water temperature of the sea around the United Kingdom fluctuates between 5 and 15 degrees, whereas the average temperature of a swimming pool is around 27 degrees. In some places, such as my native Cairngorm region, one can emerge from the front door and spot actual icebergs floating down the river. In the summer, we are all too busy desperately soaking up the sun, shivering in our back gardens in trunks and bikinis while loudly proclaiming through gritted teeth how lovely it is and hoping that someone will put the kettle on so we can all warm up. The last thing that most of us want, here in the glorious UK, is to make ourselves colder.
My parents have always referred to me as a 'water baby'. I am a competent swimmer; I am pretty fast in a pool, and I adore being in and around water, especially the sea, but I have always lived in very cold places where outdoor swimming was not only unusual, but considered quite dangerous. My one proper experience of outdoor swimming in the UK, besides splashing around hooting and hollering in the frigid sea, was a charity swim in the Firth of Forth, sheathed in a thick wetsuit to keep me warm, which culminated in me accidentally consuming some floating gannet guano. As such, I was not enthralled with wild swimming, and vowed to stick to safe, chlorinated, poop-free pools from then on. And yet, here I am, waist deep in ice-cold water, minus the wetsuit this time, and gasping for breath.
I am experiencing a cold shock response, which comes part and parcel with wild swimming for most of us here in Great Britain - and it's the reason why it's of utmost importance to enter the water slowly and preferably with company, or someone on the shoreline looking out for you. Increased heart and respiration rates, gasping, and a rise in blood pressure are your body's natural responses to the sudden drop in its temperature; and if you are in deep water, it's all too easy to inhale a gulp of water and get into serious trouble. As torturous as it feels, the safe and proper way - so I am told, by actual wild-swimming regulars - is to wade out. And sure enough, as I fight the natural instinct to lumber my way back to land, my body does something remarkable. My ragged breathing begins to slow, the gasping stops, and the initial cold shock response passes. As soon as I feel able to breathe without swearing, I take a few more steps into the loch, and - while it remains uncomfortably cold - suddenly I feel, as cliche as it sounds, incredibly alive. I can feel my body adapting to being immersed, every lazy or dormant cell kicking into action to animate my limbs - which want to seize up - as I attempt a few strokes, pushing outwards into the seemingly vast expanse of water. I am seeing a familiar landscape from a whole new perspective; the hills towering around me, the sunlight bouncing off the water's surface, my nuclear white legs flapping among the inky water and vibrant emerald pondweed. I am truly 'at one with nature'; and though I am anything but graceful in this moment, I am ecstatic. I feel no aches or pains, with which I am normally riddled due to the genetic condition Ehlers Danlos Syndrome; just a blanket of only-just-tolerable cold. My mind is clear, free from its usual new-Mum anxious drone, and I am fully present in the moment. And this, I realise, is why so many people swim outside. This primal connection with nature, this physical shock which is akin to an awakening for body and mind.
I have taken care to stay in relatively shallow water and to swim parallel to the shoreline rather than heading out into the depths of the loch; partly because the shallower water is warmer, and I am a wimp, but primarily because I am not used to cold-water swimming, and my body is redirecting its blood flow to keep my core and essential organs warm. Also, who knows if the rumours about giant prehistoric monsters lurking in these lochs are true; I'm taking no chances. My hands and feet are numb and my arms and legs are steadily becoming heavy and cumbersome, which, if I was in deeper water or further away from aid, would be dangerous. It's time to get out.
'Afterdrop' is the phenomenon of your body temperature continuing to drop even after you get out of cold water and into a warmer environment – so that you often feel colder 10 or even 40 minutes after you exit than you did in the water. When you swim, your body shuts down circulation to your skin, pooling warm blood in your core. This process helps you stay in the water longer: with reduced circulation to your peripheries, skin and sub-cutaneous fat is turned into a thermal layer, similar to a natural wetsuit – hence the wild swimmers’ term bioprene for fat. But when you exit the water, the cooling process does not stop straight away. Even when dry on the banks, wrapped in blankets or dry robes or hunched in your car with the heating blowing - as I now find myself - this cold layer of skin and muscle often continues to cool your core. You can lose up to 4.5°C from your core temperature, bringing on shivering, feeling faint and unwell, and even hypothermia. Shivering is good, and shivering I am, while dutifully consuming the sugary snack and hot drink which I am told are a good recovery aid (and they're also good for building the bioprene layer).
Lanna, a 'dooker' from the North of Scotland, says "all I can describe it as is a weight literally being lifted from your head and shoulders. The skies seem to clear, even on an overcast day. The energy and power you need to walk yourself into the freezing water gives you so much pride, and weirdly, more energy!"
So that's it. I'm hooked. I want to do more. But where, and when, and how do I do it safely, and do I need a wetsuit, and if so, what should I buy? I spoke to a few members of a Wild Swimming in Scotland Facebook group; a varied collective of seasoned, experienced wild swimmers and total newbies, casual dippers and competitive racers. Their social media presence is one abundant in stunning underwater photography, tales of soul-cleansing swims and triumphs, beautiful secret locations uncovered and ailments cured. It's also one where people can ask, without shame or mockery, why they can't make it in past their knees, what to do when 'caught short' in the middle of nowhere, and whether one should be worried about swallowing this particular kind of pond scum. The glamour, the glory and the grimy is all there to see, and, among the questions about whether to swim in a wetsuit or 'in skins' (just a swimming costume) and the wonderful photos of Scotland's many beautiful swimming spots, I uncovered a rather sad side effect of our nation's newfound love for wild swimming.
Many members of the group were posting photos of overcrowded beauty spots, with hordes of people where once there were only locals. Littering, human faeces, the destruction of sand dunes and grasses by cars being driven over them and fires being set; the evidence of our human invasion of these beautiful natural pools was everywhere. One member, who didn't wish to be named, told me "I almost wish that we'd kept outdoor swimming a secret - these places which are so special to so many of us, our little sanctuaries almost, are being invaded with people" while another said "the destruction which comes with wild swimming having become 'popular' is disgusting. Everyone wants to get involved, but only when they can park nearby and have a BBQ and bring the kids. For me, it's about solitude and nature, but others don't respect that". Some people, who had shared photos of their wild swimming spot for the day, were refusing to tell others where they had been, encouraged by some members to keep shtum, while others were - rather angrily - demanding to know where these beautiful, once secret spots are located.
There were, rather disappointingly, people chastising others for posting pictures of them in their swimsuits - namely some men criticising women for wearing bikinis or not 'covering up' while others posted emojis indicative of their appreciation for the female form, which, albeit less aggressively hostile, made for similarly uncomfortable reading. There were also warning tales; people who had swum too far out, had become too cold, had injured themselves on slippery rocks, or who had become lost searching for hidden pools and Instagrammable waterfalls. It became clear to me, as I scrolled through Facebook groups, Instagram hashtags and forums, that this was a proper community, and a divided one at that. It was a potent melting pot of cheerful support and camaraderie, people offering up wetsuit advice to beginners and congratulating those who had taken their first plunge, alongside an unhealthy dose of hostility, anger, and - perhaps justified - secrecy from many of the more seasoned swimmers. My daydreams of finding secret beauty spots, glimmering turquoise lagoons inviting me in and warm rocks upon which to bask, just me myself and I in tranquil bliss, were dissipating before my eyes; I wanted to ask my questions but I didn't want to seem like an idiot. I wanted to swim with others, but I was self-conscious of my wimpyness and substantial 'bioprene' layer. I was very late to the party, and the party, it seemed, was being broken up by riot police. Of course, this is social media we're talking about; the good, the bad and the ugly laid bare for all to see, with easy-to-misread written tone and brave 'keyboard warriors' going to battle of a slow evening. I needed to talk to a human being, one who knew their stuff and who could point me in the right direction.
Enter Jenny. A qualified open water coach and mentor, Jenny's first swim was a baptism of fire (or rather ice); in the Atlantic ocean, off the Northern Irish coast. Now, she much prefers swimming in lochs or, at least, a much calmer stretch of sea.
When she caught the wild swimming bug, at the age of 45, Jenny started a Facebook group called Wild Wimmin Swimmin in July 2020. It was, of course, the summer of Covid, and everyone was suffering in their own ways. The aim of Wild Wimmin Swimmin was to create socially distanced, Covid-compliant group swims, comprised entirely of wild swimming novices. They now, only one wild year later, have almost 1.3k members, and their members describe both the online and in-person community as being safe, motivating, encouraging and inclusive. The Wild Wimmin were Swimmin all through the winter, which often involved breaking through ice with a hammer - as Jenny laughed, "who knew that a hammer would form an essential part of our swimming kit?!"
When the Covid restrictions eased in March, Jenny increased the number of people coming along to social swim events. On one occasion, she had 6 newbies with her and within just that small group of women, she had someone in remission from cancer, one with Fibromyalgia, one with Multiple Sclerosis, one recovering from knee surgery, one who had been feeling socially isolated and wanted to meet new people, and one who messaged Jenny after the swim to say she almost hadn't come along due to social anxiety, but was so glad that she had.
The physical benefits of wild swimming, especially in cooler water, are numerous. Cold water has long been used in a medicinal capacity; and many of us Brits have natural ice baths right on our doorstep. Cold water reduces inflammation and increases circulation, both of which aid in muscle recovery, after exercise or injury. Through regular and repeated cold water swimming, cold water adaptation is possible; the body adapts to regularly lowering its core temperature and proceeds to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and fat disposition as well as increasing libido and reducing the risk of blood clots. It's all good stuff, providing it's done safely; but the organ which perhaps benefits the most is the brain. For a long time, many swimmers have used outdoor swimming in their fight against anxiety and depression; so much so that some healthcare professionals now encourage patients to try it, and wild swimming wellbeing retreats are becoming more and more popular. Cold-shock proteins have been found in the blood of regular cold-water swimmers; proteins which slow the onset of dementia and could potentially repair some of the damage done, as has been seen in studies with mice. Research is in the early stages, but it's a hugely promising sign. Cold water, and exercise itself, helps the body to release endorphins and the sense of accomplishment, of entering and staying in a body of cold water, despite the swearing, can be restorative and invigorating. Many people have found a real sense of community in wild swimming, meeting others who are fighting their own battles or seeking a kindred spirit to enjoy a swim with.
All of this was extremely apparent to Jenny, who soon realised that she was really onto something. "I couldn't shake the feeling that I needed to do more, to reach more women - how many others were sitting at home feeling unwell, anxious, isolated or depressed?" Unbeknown to Jenny, her friend Heather had had a similar positive experience with some rookie swimmers, and both women had been made redundant in 2020; something sadly common due to Covid. A chat was had, and things happened; and they happened on a grand scale. Fast forward to the present day, and both ladies are STA Level 2 Open Water Swimming Coaches and qualified in Aquatic Safety Management; a world away from their former lives. Just this week, Wild Wimmin Ltd has launched, aiming to transform the health and wellbeing of women in Scotland through swimming and sisterhood, as well as offering retreats set in stunning locations across the country. Alongside this, Jenny and Heather will be establishing the Wild Wimmin Foundation, a registered charity with the aim of ensuring that women and 'Wee Wimmin' in Scotland face no barriers in participating in outdoor activities. It's incredibly impressive stuff, and it warms the cockles - even the frozen cockles of a wild swimmer - to know that such a wonderful thing has been born of such a challenging year.
I asked Jenny what she thought of the huge surge of people wild swimming as a consequence of Covid. "Personally, I think it's fantastic" she said, "I'm just sad that it took me until the age of 45 to give it a bash because it really has been life changing. Lockdown has been hard on many people and I'm so happy to have found something I enjoy so much and also to have introduced so many others too. My only hope is that everyone who tries wild swimming follows the Outdoor Access Code and leaves nothing behind but footprints. Scotland is beautiful, and we all have a responsibility to help it stay that way."
In our world of constant communications, smart phones and smart watches (it's OK, we know many members of our Marloe family have such things; this is a safe and honest space) streaming platforms offering every movie and TV series under the sun, it's easy to lose touch with nature and the great outdoors. I am a keen nature enthusiast, often spending hours watching an ants nest or a swan or identifying wild flowers, so I would consider my relationship with the natural world to be pretty solid. But wild swimming has unlocked another level for me; a new world, where I don't belong and yet feel totally at one with nature. A world of kelp, tadpoles, river-polished stones and alarmed wildfowl. A world where my body feels some sort of primal belonging, as I float, cradled by aggressively cold yet welcoming water, and take in the beauty of all that is going on in this underwater world along whose banks I used to contentedly stroll, oblivious to what I was missing. And now, with the help of wonderful humans like Jenny, there's the huge and much-needed bonus of knowing that I'm not alone - that there is a ready-made community of people just like me, waiting in the wings to support me on my next adventure.
Jenny's top tips for safe, enjoyable wild swimming;
1. Find a local group, like Wild Wimmin Swimmin. Wild swimmers are passionate about their hobby and are very generous in helping newcomers to have a safe and enjoyable experience.
2. Never swim alone, and always use a tow float. Whether to wear a wetsuit or not is down to individual choice, but it is advisable in the colder months, particularly to enable you to stay in the water a bit longer. Neoprene gloves and socks, a wooly hat or swimming cap are useful too.
3. Cold water immersion carries real risks, and I would advise newbies to take their time in acclimatising to the water to prevent cold water shock and hypothermia. Don't stay in too long, breathe deeply, and pay attention to what your body is telling you.
4. When you're out of the water, don't hang about. Get changed into dry, loose, warm layers immediately and have a hot drink ready.