In the decades preceding the Second World War, people loved to swim outdoors. They did it in the black waters of the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the glacial ponds on Hampstead Heath. They swam in Art Deco lidos, in brackish rivers and in ashen seas. And then war came and lidos fell into decline and people turned to indoor municipal pools. But not everyone likes to swim in cloying, chlorinated water. According to Swim England, 7.5 million people regularly swim outdoors – and that figure pre-dates the pandemic, when it’s pretty much the only lockdown exercise we can do that doesn’t involve dodging a zealous jogger’s vapour trail.
Cold water swimming, chilly swimming, wild swimming, outdoor swimming. Call it what you will, everyone is at it. Of course, you can’t just wake up in the middle of winter, lament the greyness and drizzle and leap into the nearest stretch of open water. Ideally, you start in the spring, luxuriate in the silent, still waters of summer, be brave as autumn turns to winter and keep going even when the days are so short that daylight is gone in the blink of an eye.
In Brighton, where I have lived for 20 years, there are always a few hardy types taking a dip during the winter months. This year, dozens and dozens of people are dashing in and out of the sea, some in swimsuits and bobble hats, others in wetsuits, neoprene gloves and socks. I regret not being one of those people; had I known we would be locked down for so long, with such little joy to be had, I wouldn’t have given up at the start of November, when the sea temperature starts to drop dramatically.
Kate Rew, who founded the Outdoor Swimming Society [OSS] in 2006 to ‘pioneer outdoor swimming in rivers, lakes, lidos and seas’, takes pleasure from the water almost every day of the year. ‘The freedoms of summer are glorious, from lazy hazy downstream river swimming to more adventurous swims around the coast, and training swims in my local lake. In autumn, I love the changes on the riverbank as the colour bleaches from the world. I like being on a beach when the wind is howling and the rain is slapping us around – it makes me feel stoic.’
I ask if the current ‘craze’ for outdoor swimming will continue once we return to the new normal; have people reconnected to nature in such a profound way that they can’t easily disconnect? ‘I think the upsurge in swimmers will continue. One of the joys of open water swimming is that anyone can do it and, for the most part, it’s free. It appeals to both sexes and all ages. I want everyone to see themselves as a potential outdoor swimmer.’
Rew says she fully expected outdoor swimming to grow – the OSS now has 136,000 members – partly because everyone who gets into it can’t stop talking about it. ‘Show me a new swimmer and I’ll show you a missionary. It’s like a cult, with no evil bits. Everyone wants to share the swim love.’
s Rew recounts stories of swimming in kelp forests on the Scottish coast and jumping into rivers warmed by the sun with her children, I make a promise to myself. I too will become a year-round swimming evangelist. I shall look forward to the beach emptying of crowds, the air taking on the first chill of winter and the water prickling my skin. This winter, I shall feel thankful to feel alive.