Anne – pink wetsuit, on the left at Crookes Valley Park
I’m swimming outdoors right through the winter.
I’ve always been a fan of walking around reservoirs and there’s always been a sign saying something like:
‘Don’t Swim Here.
It’s always twelve degrees or less -‘
That’s a lie, by the way, because it isn’t.
I’m 44 next month and my generation grew up with public information films. There was one called ‘Dark Water,’ all about why you shouldn’t go swimming outside. You can see it on YouTube.
I’d seen people open-water swimming in the wintertime and thought they were crazy – in a nice way. You see them jumping in the Serpentine or on Brighton beach and you think, ‘Oh God. I’d never do that.’
Then fast-forward to last summer when all the pools were shut.
I’m nothing special as a swimmer, just someone who liked to go to the pool about once a week. One of those ladies who does breast-stroke with their head sticking out of the water. I used to go with my mates, putting the world to rights. I really missed it when Covid started.
I’d been lurking on the Sheffield OUtdoor Plungers Facebook site – Soup – and I knew people in it, but it seemed too much of a step to turn up. Anyway, a friend was into it, so we went to the Rivelin Plunge-pool (on the River Rivelin, Sheffield). We walked there and back with her kids, who went in too. It was a real adventure.
Then, over the Summer, I was working for The Burton Street foundation and I was meeting some clients in Crookes Valley Park. It was so, so hot on this particular day, I just wanted to go in the pond. It was so full of people! Students, mostly. Everybody was just chilling out, keeping their distance, using it as their beach.
I didn’t go in – it was too busy – but I put a message on Soup and arranged to go one tranquil Sunday morning with a lady called Tracey who was new to it as well. We kept our distance and swam 4 lengths; it’s 100m across.
She’s stayed a really good swimming friend. We were really closely matched in our middle-aged-lady-heads-sticking-out-of-the-water style. We both know lots of people now.
It’s been a challenging time – one lockdown then another lockdown and I remember in the middle of this September, thinking ‘How long are we going to keep doing this?’
I thought ‘I don’t know if I can be one of those daft people who goes and breaks the ice – I’ll get through October and just see what happens.’ It was a lovely swim on Halloween. Just as it was getting dark; the moon was starting to rise. It was a full moon. I thought, ‘I’ll need better kit.’
I’d started wearing a woolly hat, some beach shoes, mostly neoprene, but they didn’t cut the mustard so I asked my parents for more outdoor swimming kit for Christmas. As very risk-averse people you’d think my parents might be more worried, but now I’ve got a tow-float and some neoprene socks.
I’ve been roughly once a week. I went on Boxing Day. We took Mince Pies and chocolate cake. It was very socially-distanced and responsible. Because I was faffing, getting my new equipment ready, I went in a few minutes behind everyone. I didn’t get in ’til they were getting out (they waited for me) but I had the water to myself which was amazing.
Mentally there’s a real feeling of disconnect. It’s quite a shock to the system. You can’t believe you’re in there doing it, because it seems quite outlandish to do. You start breathing fast at first with the shock, but then you stop that and start breathing normally. It’s so tranquil. Just you and the water.
There’s something about the feeling of being immersed: you can spread your arms , water through your fingers, almost like doing yoga. It’s amazing visually, too. You’re seeing the water from the coots’ point of view.
I’ve met some really inspiring people. Several swimmers I know have challenged themselves to swim throughout December or January to raise sponsorship money for charities close to their hearts. There are people still swimming with just a costume and woolly gloves. There’s no obvious machismo about the outdoor swimming scene: it’s all about what suits you and what helps you to get into the water. I feel I could go on for miles except for my hands which are in agony really, so I’ve ordered some neoprene gloves today. With gloves I should be unstoppable!
Every time I swim in my local pool, Crookes Valley Park, it’s different. Going into autumn and winter so far, every swim has been colder and colder and colder. I walk there and get warmed up – perspiring, gently, like a lady – and then swimming gives you a rush of endorphins and puts you in a really good mood. Sometimes, the only sounds are the cries of gulls, or the ducks quacking – and the rippling of water.
I’ve been able to build a social life with new friends, at a distance. It’s become a very loose support network. Most of the talking is on social media at the moment; we don’t go that close to each other. I could say almost anything to people I’ve met in the water and get good support and advice. Its an unspoken rule. I’ve got a Wats-app group and people will say: ‘I really, really need a swim now. Can anyone come?’
As a teenager I was always picked last for netball, but I did an outward bound thing for school. All the kids who’d spent all year saying I was terrible at sport were really surprised that I was good at swimming and had a go at outdoor pursuits. You didn’t have to score goals – there was no pressure to be any good. You just had to survive. Wild swimming’s put me back with that: you just have to get in and get out again; not even that, to be honest. If for any reason I turned up and then chickened out, that would be fine.
It’s like a different world opening within the world you already knew. I’ve known Crookes Valley Park since I was first a student but I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting in the lake. Now there’s always someone there – getting changed or jumping in or getting out…. we’ve discovered something all at once about places that are magical around our own doorsteps.
It replaces the endorphin hit I used to get from loud music at concerts. There’s a delicious tingling on your extremities and it really makes you feel alive. You scream when you jump in the water and it gives you a thrill.
Every time feels like an achievement. It’s good for your confidence as well; to keep swimming through the winter is awesome. I’m definitely going to make it through to Spring.