Open water swimming has become very popular over recent years, even chill winter swims, and a lot has been written about it, so my intention is not to recover that ground, but to share my experience of it in case it resonates with you and opens up new possibilities for your health and wellbeing.
I have always been drawn to water - apparently I spent hours playing with it at the kitchen sink as a very young child. I am eternally grateful to my mother for taking me to swimming lessons from the age of six and for introducing me to a sport that has been a lifelong love of mine. Most of my swimming was in pools, until recent years when it shifted more to open water, in fact I haven’t been in a pool for two years now, but I have swum regularly. I do miss the clarity and warmth of a pool, but not the pacing up and down like a caged animal.
I enjoy the community of shared swims outdoors with others: introducing friends to open water swimming or to my favourite swimming spots, and the adventure of exploring new places with experienced swimming buddies.
I also enjoy the quiet contemplation of swimming alone. I find it difficult to meditate anywhere other than in or by the water. It draws my attention; holds my gaze; keeps me in the present; brings a sense of peace and wonder, of being, not doing. Swimming enables me to enter a flow state, during or after.
I have had some of my most spiritual and magical experiences swimming outdoors, including one winter solstice seeing an otter emerge from beneath the water just where I had been swimming moments before - my favourite animal in my favourite element on my favourite day of the year, and just as I had wished on the journey there, as if I had conjured it.
Swimming regularly in open water all year round literally immerses me in nature: I feel the water warming in March and cooling in September; I see the vegetation greening and fading with the seasons; I hear the bird calls changing; I notice how the smell and taste of the water change too.
The water is also a muse to my creativity and has inspired many a poem, if only to help me capture the moment, the feeling, the experience, like this one:
as the flow and soft breeze make
fish scales of water.
I stand mesmerised
as if I have never seen
anything like it.
As if I have just
come up with a new word for
a new thing: shimmer.
Swimming outdoors can be many things: community, challenge, solitude, meditation, spirituality, inspiration… It is far from just being a means to keep fit, and in winter it isn’t about that at all. If this has inspired you to give it a try, our local West Berkshire Open Water Swimmers group is very friendly and welcoming, or there is the aptly named Blue Tits Chill Swimmers group. Many of the commercially run local swimming lakes such as Caversham Lakes and Reading Lake offer open water swim coaching for beginners and the more experienced. I started my outdoor swimming adventure with Swim Trek, who run trips in this country and abroad, including introductory ones. Or if getting in doesn't appeal to you, just walk by water and allow it to mesmerise you…