Is cold water swimming the key to happiness?
I spent my childhood summers in the sea. The Irish Sea, to be precise, in a swimming costume and occasionally a t-shirt – a short wetsuit when my lips turned blue.
We holidayed in Cardigan Bay and I, worshipful, followed my Grandpa’s lead as he launched himself into the water daily, irrespective of the weather. We children could achieve no greater thrill that sailing, weightless, on the crest of a wave, propelled perfectly by a few well-timed strokes to tumble screeching onto the shore.
I grew up and things changed.
I became firmly warm-blooded, revelling in raspingly hot summer holidays; comfy rugs on which to stretch before the fire. All of which makes it more than surprising that my two experiences this year of swimming in truly fucking freezing water have wetted my appetite for more.
2017 has overwhelming seemed to be the year that the mainstream has rediscovered the joy of hurling yourself into the nearest body of water. For me, it’s a reiteration of a basic truth – that water is solace, rejuvenation, and evidence of exactly what our bodies are capable of.
In June, I pitched over the side of the boat in the Lofoten Isles – into deceptively turquoise water. I know that when my OH, (hardened cold water swimmer), says that it’s chilly, it’s liable to be bone-rattlingly cold. I lasted for approximately six minutes, turning that sort of blushed-angry-orange colour I always associate with cooked lobsters.
The blistering shower I took afterwards was one of the best I’ve ever had.
I couldn’t quite understand at that point what I had so enjoyed about the experience. According to my OH, I just needed to do it again – and to be fair to him, he was right.
Understanding blossomed as I waded into the River Walkham at the tail end of a baking August afternoon. The water runs straight off Dartmoor and is deep and clear and mind-alteringly cold. I took it at my own pace, edging in an inch at a time – ostensibly foolish, but actually meditative. Something about the creeping, heart stopping cold, the way it catches the breath in your chest – I had to breathe more deeply, focus on my body and the sensations overcoming it to keep moving. It recaptured the intense focus of my childhood, body surfing, diving under the curl of the waves.
We swam in the current of our private pool, the OH diving around me to inspect the fish. I dried myself in the sun next to a coop of curious chickens.
These summer swims – and the handful in the Lake District, on Dartmoor itself, in London’s various lidos – have convinced me to agree to swim outdoors in the Serpentine throughout the winter months. I hope I can stick to it – not least because I rarely find the peace of mind I experienced this morning, swimming past idling geese into the milky Autumn sunshine.