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Subversive Swimming

I’ve confessed here that I love swimming in cold water.

People shake their heads in disbelief or question my sanity when I talk about this.

Yet last week, the New Yorker published an article by Rebecca Mead entitled, “The Subversive Joy of Cold-Water Swimming,” and I found a community! I’m not the only crazy one!

Mead’s article focuses on the “wild swimming” culture in the U.K., where half a million people engage in regular outdoor swimming. Rather than swim laps in chlorinated pools these people prefer to venture out into the “blue spaces” — the rivers, ponds, lakes, and ocean locations. The body and mind, they say, far outweigh the closed spaces

Mead counts herself as a wild swimmer, at least for this New Yorker assignment.

The Waterlog chronicles

It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that appears to have been spearheaded by Roger Deakin, a British nature writer. His 2000 book, Waterlog, chronicles a journey he undertook around England, Scotland and Wales, swimming the rivers, lakes, ponds, and seas.

I’ve owned Waterlog for years but have never read it. When I learned of Mead’s praises, I picked it up immediately and was delighted by the layers of human experience he describes through his swimming adventures.

The book has the guise of a travelogue of Britain’s blue spaces, but it’s more deeply about our relationship to water, land and nature. It’s subtly political, humorous, and beautifully written.

At the River Itchen in Hampshire, he brazenly walks past a “Private Fishing” notice and plunges into the shallow water. He drifts luxuriously downstream a couple of kilometres past schools of trout and reed-beds. Walking back to where he entered the river, he is accosted by two angry men who charge that he’s been trespassing on the grounds and waters of the Old Wykehamist Fishing Club.

“Do you realize this is private property?”

The Wykehamists are members of an upper-crust club that only allows members to the grounds and waters around the river.

They tell Deakin the club owns sole fishing rights of the very stretch of river he was swimming in. But Deakin is ready to argue. There is nothing in the the law that mentions the rights of bathers, he charges, which scandalizes the two characters. What gives them the right, Deakin argues, to control access to the water and lands around the river when it should be common land? In Canada, by contrast, beaches and waterways are public access.

Deakin leaves peacefully, but not before giving them a piece of his mind.

“At the end of the day,” he writes, “I already felt invigorated after a really first-class swim, and now I felt even better after a terrific set-to.”

Swimming with eels

In the Fens region of Norfolk, Deakin learns about eel fishing near the the town of Ely. He later swims above a tide of eels making their way up the River Great Ouse. These creatures are mostly blind, but you don’t want to be bitten by them, he says.

Deakin owned a medieval farmhouse in Suffolk with a pair of moats, one each in the front and back of the property. He swam in them every day, except if they were frozen over. Deakin died in 2006 of brain cancer, but his Waterlog lives on — a kind of bible for the wild swimming movement.

The Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

Rebecca Mead finds hundreds of present-day cold-water devotees, even in her city of London. There are several large reservoirs in Hampstead Heath devoted to outdoor swimming. Two are secluded year-round for women-only and men-only.

The “Hampstead Ladies’ Pond” is the better known, due to the number of literary figures that frequent the pond, including Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud. The women use a vast nearby meadow for nude sunbathing, mostly in the summer. One of the club’s steadfast rules is no photography!

A collection of essays by these writers, At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, was published last summer.

Health benefits: anecdotal

Mead touches on some of the health benefits of cold water swimming, though she says most are anecdotal. There is a lack of scientific evidence. However, she cites a researcher at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals who says regular cold-water immersion decreases inflammation, which is associated with ailments from pain to depression.

Coldwater, defined for research purposes, is anything below 15º Celsius. In this range, a swimmer’s skin cools rapidly, giving the sensation of burning or prickling. Soon, the swimmer may experience “cold incapacitation,” where the limbs and arms are too weak to move. Hypothermia, brought on by compromised blood flow, neural function and cellular metabolism, eventually leads to a loss of consciousness.

I’ve not experienced hypothermia, but can certainly attest to the mood-elevating effects of cold-water swimming. After toughing through the first shock of harsh cold, I do experience deep relaxation and feeling of well-being. Worries or concerns quickly dissipate, are swept away. I feel entirely ushered into the here and now, the cold forces me there.

The Happy Baker’s “swimming hole”, near Craddock Beach.

Affinity with nature

I also sense a greater affinity with the creatures sharing the rocks and beachside where I swim. I once had a pair of oyster-catchers fly past me, not ten feet away, shrieking their way to their nesting rock. Another time, I stepped aside from a kelp crab facing me head-on with its outstretched claws. Seals and otters watch me at a safe distance. And I’ve been in the water when a pod of Orcas have swum past.

The rule of thumb is to spend only as many minutes in the water as the number of Celsius degrees of the water temperature. That only gives me 10 minutes or so. By that time, however, I’ve begun to feel so comfortable, euphoric, that I don’t want to get out. I do, anyway, perhaps sensing the danger of spending too long in the water. I climb the stairs from the beach to our hot tub and a soothing drink to warm me up.

In one passage, Mead describes what might be called “the smug reflex: the sense of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing, and even enjoying something that most people would find unfathomably off-putting.”

Pshaw! I say. Nothing of the sort, for me! I sometimes go swimming despite feeling wimpish about the cold. Invariably, I feel great when I emerge from the water … and the promise of a glass of wine waiting at the hot tub.

1 thought on “Subversive Swimming

  1. A committed aquaphobe, I wish you unsullied waters.

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