Wild swimming has been growing as a movement over the last few years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a noticeable spike in its popularity. What is it about swimming in nature that makes it so timely?
The initial shock of the cold water takes my breath away, regardless of how much I’d anticipated it. But after a few sharp inhales, and a few frantic paddles, I can relax. Now, I can appreciate the dappled light on the constant ripple of the water’s surface, which refracts into myriad beams every time my hand breaks the threshold. With each increasingly confident stroke, I allow my hands to slip through the water, searching for the currents and eddies, waiting for the familiar catch and pull. It’s an automatic, almost hypnotic, movement. Out in the middle of the river, I’m surrounded at once by both nothing at all and the teeming, overlooked vitality of nature. It’s here I feel most alive.
Afterwards, I perch on the soggy bank and attempt to dry out in the faint sunlight, my toes squelching in river mud. The aftermath – hastily dressing before bemused dog-walkers, fumbling for my clothes as my hands grow numb, gulping down lukewarm tea – throws the utopic serenity of the earlier scene into sharp relief. What am I doing here, shivering on the bank of the Yare in the grey early morning?
Water for me is far more than an obsession – its pull is spiritual. It recalls me to life when I need it most, it is vital in every sense of the word. Swimming in open water feels to me like the most natural thing in the world.
And, it seems, increasingly more people are responding to this fluid fascination. The ‘Trends in Outdoor Swimming Report’, conducted by Outdoor Swimmer magazine, estimates the number of people swimming outdoors has increased threefold since 2019. In 2020, the year which saw the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and a subsequent series of lockdowns, 45% of swimmers reported increasing how much they swam outside. Membership of the Outdoor Swimming Society, established in 2006 to promote outdoor or ‘wild’ swimming, increased by 36% in the same year. Wild swimming is clearly having a moment.
Today, Facebook groups arranging meetups and sharing local swim spots proliferate. As I scroll through the groups, it becomes clear there is no such thing as the ‘average swimmer’. The authors of posts range from young to old, and every age in between. In the posted photos, some are dressed in brightly patterned swimsuits and novelty hats, others sport full wetsuits and tinted polaroid goggles. There are cold water adrenaline junkies, serious marathon swimmers, occasional summertime dippers. The popularity of wild swimming is boundless.
It’s not that swimming outdoors is anything new. It’s now 146 years since Matthew Webb completed the first Channel swim. In the literary world alone, swimmers abound. We know that Virginia Woolf swam naked in the River Cam. Lord Byron proved his physical prowess by swimming the Hellespont from Turkey to Greece and the length of the Venetian Grand Canal. Swimming, Byron said, gave ‘a buoyancy of spirits I never feel on any other occasion’.
Yet, while swimming’s rejuvenating effects may be timeless, the current explosion of popularity in wild swimming is undeniably unprecedented. It seems, as we bear the heavy weight of the pandemic, water’s promise of carefree buoyancy appeals like never before.
There are multiple, practical reasons for this. Indoor pools remained closed throughout most periods of lockdown, and, unable to travel, people were forced to seek out local wild swim spots. Yet, I think the attraction of water in these times runs deeper. When swimming in open water, one submits to the elements. It necessitates a total relinquishment of control in a time when many of us feel our control over our lives, over what we know as normal life, has been whisked away by the ravages of Covid-19.
For over a year, we have suffered uncertainty, grief, anxiety over our health and that of our loved ones, threats to job security, a growing housing crisis, and long bouts of loneliness.
We all owe it to ourselves to return to the water.