The mysterious power of wild swimming

The mysterious power of wild swimming

In the deep — Taking a dip in the UK’s lakes, rivers and seas can have incredible benefits for both your mental and physical health, as writer Nell Frizzell discovered. Here, she spills the details on a life-long love affair.

I’ve been wild swimming since before I was born.

Even as I slopped around the amniotic waters of my mother’s uterus I got my first taste of the great cold shock, the wide horizon and the weightlessness of an outdoors swim. It was the summer of 1984 and as my poor, baby-thickened mum waded out into the waves of a chill, crashing Cornish sea I, apparently, started turning flips beneath her ribs. I was hooked, before I was even out.

Of course, for the first 20 years of my life I didn’t ‘wild swim’ at all; back then we just called it swimming. Growing up on the duck shit, rat wee and wine-sodden banks of The Thames in Oxford, we all swam, for pleasure, outdoors. Before I’d learned my times tables or the most basic spellings, I understood about covering your orifices as you jumped into the river. Leptospirosis was at the back of all our minds (not to mention under our waterproof plasters) as we swam past the meadows and weeping windy willows that characterised our outdoors life.

Saying that, rivers are not necessarily my favourite body of water in which to wet my body. They are wonderful, freshwater channels on which civilisation depends, of course; a line of communication, transport, sex and pleasure for the natural world and human society together. But my favourite? Give me a rock-edged pool beneath a rushing waterfall on the side of a mountain and I will be happy until the last droplet rolls off my shoulders.

Aged two, cream-faced and chubby-kneed, I once spent an entire Easter being dangled and dunked into the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Lake District and its many streams. I can remember still the rock surround looking like marble, the tufts of heather and bog myrtle above my head, the screaming pleasure as water like liquid ice rose up above my armpits and sent my heart into high-speed ecstasy.

This was true joy – for decades after I would return to those same pools, lower myself into the freezing, moving stream until just my eyes were dry; a sentry half submerged, looking out at the world above, while wallowing in the wet, my mouth, ears, nose and all the way down to my toes existing in another, submarine world. If ever I am in a state of stress or sadness, grinding up against the dry and fractious life of cities, jobs, failure, fear, I imagine myself a rock at the bottom of that stream. Not dead, not gone, but shrunk down to total stillness, implacability, the rush of water whipping along above me, harmless and ever new.

The truth, the embarrassing, weedy truth of the thing, is that I am actually scared of deep water. This summer, I house sat for my cousin on the South coast. Every morning, as my partner bounced and padded my baby around the beach or back in the carpeted quiet of the house, I would swim between groynes, in the brown and salty English Channel.

The first day, I was terrified. The waves slapping at my face and pushing me into pebbles felt personal. I couldn’t silence the gnawing memory that fish lived in here. Big fish. As a mother, I can tell you now that one of my few maternal certainties is that I will never let my child watch Jaws. That film ruined me and the sea, utterly.

Of course, I still do it. A few years ago, just metres down the coast I swam all around the old West Pier. It was magical – seeing the old iron struts and domed roof from an angle I knew hardly anyone had ever seen. Piers are for standing on and looking down at the sea – how many of us have pulled through the sea and looked up? So, of course, I can do it – I can even love it – but whenever I slap across the surface of a salty, churning sea, I will never be more than a minute away from an uneasy thought of teeth, kicking out at weeds in panic, hardly daring to look down at the ground as it shelves away to unknown depths. This, I suppose, is what they call “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” 

I’m not much better in lakes, either. Two years ago I spent a summer in Berlin, swimming almost every day in the clear, clean, tree-lined lakes of Brandenberg. Krumme Lanke, Sacrower See, Schlachtensee, Teufelssee, Weißer See; the names even now are like poetry, creating immediately the taste of beer and bread and the rattle of an old East German bike. When I couldn’t get out that far, I’d cycle down to a tiny little lake behind the old Soviet War Memorial and slip about beside dogs and tattooed men and naked sunbathers.

But the first time I swam the length of Krumme Lanke? Actually forced myself to pull on a pair of goggles, head out into the watery green depths and look down? I was terrified. The thought of all that water below me, the currents, the weeds, nearly turned me rigid. But not quite. The enforced breathing of a good swimming stroke, the patter of rain on my back, the high swishing trees and the elderly German women swimming naked at the shore all contributed to my growing calm. I could do this. There was nothing sinister or frightening to fight off here. I was an astronaut, literally a star sailor, floating high above the ground, hung suspended by the lake beneath me.

And so I swam, from end to end. While my partner – our baby still then just a twinkle in his eye and a wrinkle in my ovaries – walked along the path beside the lake, carrying my towel. A year later I was back, swimming pregnant in that same lake – the water tickling around my rounded belly and flattened navel. I had become my mother – dousing my bump in the cool wild waters.

One day I’ll go back again, and this time I’ll take my son. I’ll wade out with him through the sand and sticks and watch him swim. Let’s just hope he likes it.

Follow Nell Frizzell on Twitter.

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