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Why do I wild swim?

Swimming outdoors is part of me, part of my childhood, my family. When I get into cold water, it brings me back to who I am.

Wild swimming 1 Bea Marshall
Bea Marshall

I have swum outdoors all my life – primarily in the West Coast of Scotland in the sea, lochs and lochans up there, but also in any rivers and lakes with easy access and a bit of privacy, regardless of season or temperature.

Swimming outdoors is part of me, part of my childhood, my family. When I get into cold water, it brings me back to who I am. I am connected to the environment as my whole body, fingertips to toes, fires up. I have swum in inky lochs and reservoirs, in rivers, ducklings skittering away, willow trees trailing and swallows dipping, and in the magnificent sea, waves and salty spray. All carry the same trepidations: entering along rocky, uneven ledges and beaches; checking how quickly the ground will fall away, the temperature as the water creeps up your legs; wondering if you should wade in slowly or take the plunge; and trying not to panic about what else is swimming with you, from feathery reeds and little fish to bigger creatures like jellyfish, seals and dolphins. Managing the mind is as important as any physical safety checks.

Groups have popped up all over the UK in the past 15 years. The Outdoor Swimming Society’s website and social media channels are full of places to swim, beautiful and inspiring photographs, all the advice you could possibly need and probably some that you don’t.

Swimming outdoors has gained in popularity over the past 15 years and even more so this year. The OSS has seen its membership swell to over 100,000. The Sheffield Outdoor Plungers community (SOUPer) has a beautifully-organised Facebook page, with swim spots, safety announcements and group swims.

Both groups skilfully hold a space for the most diverse group of people and if there is any steering done in either group it’s due to respect – for the environment, and for everyone’s right to access and enjoy water. During the lockdown period, the locations of swim spots that are sensitive to overuse have been protected, but that ethos of inclusivity, joy and acceptance prevails.

The OSS prides itself on originality, a kind heart and free spirit. Staying true to our renegade and maverick roots, we have chosen to remain a volunteer-run society that does not charge for membership […] OSS swimmers share a belief and an attitude, not a demographic.

The Outdoor Swimming Society

There is a long-running campaign currently being heard in government to grant England and Wales the same kind of access to waterways that Scotland has. Here water is mainly owned by the Crown and the vast majority of access is also via privately-owned land, so if you swim, fish or paddle without the right permissions you are breaking the law.

Owen Haeman, who runs the local SOUPer community page, offers a consistent and balanced perspective in terms of safety, impact on the environment and access rights.

He says the drive for improved access to water is currently focused on the lake at Crookes Valley Park, which groups of swimmers have visited daily for the past few years. Despite being provided with information regarding safe swimming and studies that show how other local councils manage wild swimming spots, Sheffield City Council will not change their position. Owen says that simply putting up ‘no swimming’ signs will not do anything to dissuade people from swimming and he has created signs that give good safety advice, which are more likely to prevent an accident.

Wild swimming 2 John Anderson

The lake at Crookes Valley Park.

John Anderson

People who swim outdoors report a wide range of benefits. Physical and mental health are improved and chronic pain, depression and anxiety can be eased when immersed in cold water. Owen says that organisations like The National Trust are embracing it, and Birmingham and Huddersfield are examples of councils finding ways to support swimming outdoors.

Swimming outdoors feeds the soul and as such it’s elusive to describe, but perhaps I can try to overcome some objections.

  • It’s not dirty. Any wild water will be full of life and chemistry, much of it is of no harm, and could be potentially beneficial to swimmers.
  • It’s not unsafe. You should undertake some common sense checks before you enter the water and you should go with at least one other person. You need to be in reasonably good health. Both the OSS and SOUP have some great guidelines for safety.
  • It’s not warm. The sea in the UK at the end of summer can be a balmy 20°C, but the River Derwent varies between 8 and 18°C throughout the year. Our bodies experience water temperature differently to air temperature, so what might feel OK in the air will feel much colder in the water.

Owen adds, “With the right knowledge and appreciation for safety, the risks of swimming in wild water can be far outweighed by the many benefits. Do some research, talk to experienced swimmers. One key thing to understand is the 'afterdrop'. Your core body temperature is at its lowest a few minutes after you get out, so get out before you're too cold.”

Why do I swim? I feel better for it. Stresses and strains fall away, every part of me is gently exercised, my busy mind quietens, and I am reminded that I am one tiny part of a magnificent universe that ticks along nicely – whether I am there or not.

Learn more

If you want to find out more about outdoor and wild swimming in Sheffield, visit the SOUPer Community group on Facebook. There are also other groups across Yorkshire and Derbyshire, who offer safety advice and groups swimming opportunities, both formal and informal.

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