This second year of wild swimming has been different to my first year in a myriad of surprising ways. My first year (which you can read about here) was a journey into the unknown, it was an adventure into discovering the wonder of cold water, of what it felt like and what it did to my body and mind. It helped me reconnect with nature in the most profound way and discovering my inner strength and fortitude reaped untold benefits on my mental health and well being.
This second year, in contrast, has been more about discovering the UK and deepening bonds of friendship. In my first year I swam almost exclusively in the famous ponds on Hampstead Heath. But this year I’ve swum all over the place, in rivers, ponds and from beaches all over the UK. I’ve become more confident swimming without the reassuring presence of a lifeguard and have begun to crave the salt water of the sea on my lips.
This year has also been about friendship and connection. Last year I mostly swum alone – it’s easy in the summer to persuade friends and family to accompany you but in the winter it’s no mean feat. But this year something amazing happened – after following my journey consistently over the previous twelve months, more and more people have asked to come swimming with me. I’ve taken many people for their first winter swims in the ponds and in the sea and sharing this incredibly beneficial activity has been just wonderful and the new and deepening friendships that have formed from sharing my swims has been an utter joy.
In my first year I swam 85 times but this year I swam an incredible, to me, 139 times which represents more than once in every three days. My goal was 120 and by October I knew I was going to exceed it. It’s a lot of swims. My sore neck and aching back remember every swim but so does my heart and all of my being.
I don’t know what the next year holds, I’ve made no goals as yet, but I am safe in the knowledge that whatever it brings it will be one of the most enriching, exciting and surprising journeys in my life.
Here is my diary from this last year and little video of the highlights.
July (19 swims)
Edward and I take a trip to Devon. On arrival I head straight to the river Teign and swim alone at Fingle Bridge. It’s a strange feeling, both unsettling and liberating. I feel vulnerable and exposed and notice the curious looks from the dog walkers who pass me on the bank. The water is very cold, clear and the colour of iron. Edward yaps at me the whole time I’m swimming and I’m tickled pink when a frog swims past me. His breast stroke is far more accomplished than mine.
This is the summer of the heatwave, every day is glorious and swimming is a joy. On a particularly hot Friday, Arthur, Richard and I head to the mixed pond at the end of our working days. As we walk across the Heath dark and threatening storm clouds begin to gather above our heads. As we near the pond there is an enormously clap of thunder and a huge sheet of lightening lights up the heavy sky. Lightening is the only weather pattern that closes the pond and we are turned away at the gate. In all the years I’ve been swimming it’s the only time I’ve arrived at the pond and not entered the water.
I take my first ever swim at Camber Sands with Richard. We’ve been coming to this long, sandy beach regularly since we got Edward but have never swum in the sea there. That’s the thing with swimming, you begin to eye up every body of water for its potential for a quick dunk.
August (21 swims)
There are ducklings everywhere at the pond, swimming in circles, bumping into me and careering off in wrong directions only to be called back into line by their mothers. Being at eye level with them I can see the adorably serious looks of concentration on their fluffy faces as they try to master the complimentary arts of navigation and swimming in straight line.
We take a family holiday to our beloved Pembrokeshire. We head straight to Druidstone for our first swim which has become something of a ritual. After a long, hot car journey it feels incredible to throw ourselves to the mercy of the choppy, vital waters and it signifies the start of our holiday. I expect the kids to resist swimming but they run into the sea enthusiastically and I couldn’t be happier to see them begin to embrace this family activity.
We have the most wonderful weather all week and spend our days swimming at Broad Haven South and Barafundle. Edward takes his first ever voluntary swim and it’s brilliant to watch him swim out after his favourite pink ball and retrieve it, his little woolly legs peddling furiously under the surface and his tail bolt upright like a furry rudder.
Back in London, Evan takes his first proper pond swim. He makes the most enormous fuss about entering the cold water but after half an hour of cajoling he finally gets in and swims and I think he’s cracked it. But the next time we go he refuses point blank to get in and doesn’t swim again for the rest of the summer.
Richard swims for the first time in the rain and I can see he is beginning to get the bug. He vehemently denies this but he decides to swim to the end of September whatever the weather. I now recognise this as the first sign of someone beginning to feel the draw of the water.
September (17 swims)
I’ve been acutely aware since starting swimming at the pond of quite how early autumn starts. By the end of August leaves are beginning to brown and they start to settle on the surface of the pond. I feel the familiar chill between my shoulder blades again and the decking is cold under my feet. For the first time in months I question why on earth I’m doing this.
Richard and I spend a weekend in Devon doing the recce for my upcoming Devon Experience. We swim each day at North Sands and fall in love with it. Together we are slowly forming a ritual that wherever we are we will take a swim at the end of each day to transition between day and evening. By the third day we strip half naked in the car park, not caring who sees. He is beginning to understand a little of how swimming relieves you of the unnecessary armour of self-consciousness and modesty.
By the end of September I am turning lobster again and my skin is burning. It’s exhilarating and I feel alive. My swimming has now definitely moved from enjoyable summer pootles to hardy autumn endurances. Neither better than the other, just entirely different experiences with entirely different benefits.
Richard takes his last swim until the mixed pond reopens until next May. Or what he thinks is going to be his last swim anyway.
October (13 swims)
There is steam on the surface of the pond. My goal for this winter is to ‘hang out’ in the pond and enjoy the water, rather than last year’s approach of motoring round as quickly as I possibly can to reach the ladder and exit the water in relief. I resolve to stay in for at least five minutes and try to do one full lap of the pond, which tells me quite how short my swims were last year.
A heron and a cormorant face each other down from opposing buoys. The heatwave has continued and we are in a full blown Indian Summer. It’s muggy and hot but the pond is only 13C and the contrast is harsh.
I take my first ever cold shower at the pond. I never take a hot shower after swimming in the winter because I know it’s easier and safer to warm up by getting dressed immediately on leaving the water and that hot water can trick your body into thinking it’s warm when it isn’t. The cold water feels like a hot shower after the pond which is strangely topsy turvy. I quite enjoy it and think I will make this a habit.
At the end of the month I head back to Devon to run my first ever Bleak House Experience. Swimming is a big part of the experience and we swim at North Sands and then again at South Milton Sands. Bobbing around in the waves chatting with friends is one of my favourite memories of the trip. South Milton Sands is a wonderful swimming beach, not least because of the fabulous Beachhouse at the end of the dunes where we head for warming hot chocolate after our swim.
Back in London the pond closes in half for the winter. The water temperature has dropped to 8C which for me is the point I cross over into winter swimming, when I will have to start cajoling myself into going to the ponds. I take swims with Nat and with Lauren and we head to Kenwood House for hot chocolate afterwards, the perfect ritual to end a winter swim. It’s something I only do in the colder months but it allows us to make the most of being outside in the beautiful surroundings of the Heath.
November (8 swims)
I begin wearing neoprene boots and socks regularly. It’s still 8C but sunny and blustery and glorious. I swim again with Nat who is Breton and rather hardy. Her fortitude and resilience puts me to shame and I endeavour to ‘be more Nat’ on swims future and it seems to work.
By the end of the month the water temperature has dipped to just one degree above freezing and I buy a neoprene cap to replace my bobble hat so that I can try to put at least some of my face in the water. I swim backstroke and have the intoxicating feeling that it’s like lying in a warm bed looking at up at the stars above through an open skylight.
December (12 swims)
I see a cormorant catch a fish right in front of me. It’s 5C and blindingly sunny and bright. I forget my gloves and my hands throb. I now call these mid-winter swims the ‘Five Degree Standard’ as the temperature barely moves until the Spring, save for the odd icy arctic dip to 1C.
By the end of the month my feet are really hurting despite my boots.
For New Year we travel to Glen Dye, in Scotland, a trip I booked mainly because of the temptations of swimming in the magical iron brown river Dye and the lure of the Swedish hot tub afterwards. I swim each of the remaining days of the year and it’s a wonderful way to say goodbye to 2018.
January (10 swims)
I begin 2019 with a swim in the Dye but the atmosphere isn’t the same as New Year at the Pond as I am swimming alone. Later in the day the air temperature drops to -3.5C and I decide perhaps I won’t swim anymore on this trip.
Back home in London the pond is stuck at 5C. I lose a boot and find my lost glove. I try to be philosophical about my lost boot and see it as a chance to shed the armour of routine. It was an interesting experience to find I could in fact swim without my boots and accept my painful toes as a barometer of the experience rather than something to be frightened of. But I am still glad when my boot reappears a week later.
At the end of the month I almost don’t go for a swim. I don’t swim everyday at this time of year, far from it, but once my bikini is on, I’m going. This is the first time I nearly resist going and the only thing that gets me there is the sure knowledge that it would certainly be the ‘thin end of the wedge’, the start of the end of my winter swimming journey. I arrive at the pond to find it is 2C and half iced over and I take my swim, glad that I didn’t miss the excitement of swimming in an ice hole.
February (3 swims)
In this second year a pattern is forming – February sucks. I only manage three swims in the whole month and go a full ten days without one. It’s a hard month and there is little to hold on to. It’s gloomy and brown. Nature is stood still, frozen, earth as cold as iron, water like a stone. The Heath is trying to summon the energy to get going again, as am I. A cormorant flies across the pond like a bullet, the only sign of life.
March (7 swims)
In stark contrast to February, March turns out to be a rather fabulous month for swimming.
Richard and I head to West Wales to do the recce for my upcoming Pembrokeshire Experience. On the Saturday I take a sunny swim in the gentle waters at Barafundle. Richard to decides he will swim with me the next day and we head to Marloes Sands.
The weather is atrocious. We change on the beach, trying to hide our clothes from the elements in cracks in the rocks. We take a very short, tempestuous swim with the horizontal hail stringing our faces and the wind whipping our cold bodies. We wade into the crashing, loud waves, shrieking at the tops of our voices. It’s my shortest swim all year but it’s one of the craziest and most magnificent swims I’ve ever taken.
I adore this beach for all its insanity and otherworldliness. I can’t help thinking of Charles Arrowby, the protagonist in Iris Murdoch’s book The Sea, The Sea on this austere, brutal beach with its black jagged rocks and raw, foamy waves.
We make our way back to the car and sit for a while giggling uncontrollably as shock turns to euphoria. It’s a little while before we are calm enough to begin the long journey back to London.
At the pond the mandarin ducks have returned but there is little else to report.
I head to Devon with Lauren for my second Devon Experience and we head immediately to North Sands for an evening swim. There are ten of us in Devon and seven of us take swims in the sea, at Slapton Sands and Blackpool Sands, and this makes me incredibly happy. To be able to inspire and encourage a lifelong love of wild swimming is hugely rewarding for me and I can spot the signs immediately of someone who is going to turn to the cold side from being a fair weather swimmer. On this trip it is Helen who goes on to become a regular swimming partner at the ponds with me.
We take a trip to Burgh Island and I eye up the famous Mermaid Pool and add it to my list of places I absolutely must swim in some day.
April (4 swims)
Lauren is staying in London for the whole month and, given she’s my most kindred swimming partner, it’s a great surprise to both of us that we only swim once in London during the whole time she is here. It’s a clement 10C at the pond but I am finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy the pond after the energy of the sea. It feels flat and dull somehow and it takes me a while to get used to it again.
Easter brings with it a heatwave and I swim again at Camber Sands. By the end of the month Spring has finally arrived and the pond is fully opened for the summer season. That’s it, the point I can breathe a sigh of relief and know that the hard months are over and that I can pack my fortitude and resilience away with my neoprene boots and gloves for the summer season.
At the end of the month I return to Pembrokeshire for my next Bleak House Experience. Lauren is with me and we drive straight to Druidstone. We succumb to the waves after the long journey and let them batter us and throw us back out onto the sand. We both enjoy the liberating feeling of giving responsibility for ourselves up the sea.
May (8 swims)
On the second day of the Experience we swim at Marloes Sands. It’s a beautiful, sunny spring evening, far removed from the insanity of my March swim. The sun is shining on the undulating waves and it feels such a privilege to be able to take this swim on a Tuesday in May. After our swim we climb up the path to the wonderful Runwayskiln for a fantastic dinner. We are absolutely ravenous.
Back in London Richard has begun swimming again now that the mixed pond has opened for the season. He sets a goal to take one swim for each year of his life.
June (17 swims)
By now I am swimming regularly with Helen, who caught the bug on my Devon Experience. She lives nowhere near the pond but loves it so much she makes a pilgrimage each week.
We say goodbye to our car this month which makes getting to the pond more difficult. It’s hard to justify the two hour round trip by bus in my working day. Once Richard and I get our bicycles serviced it becomes much easier. Cycling to the pond means we get nice and warm on the way, in preparation for climbing into the refreshing cold water. An added bonus is that we discover an excellent bagel bakery in Belsize Park on the way home at this becomes our post-swim treat on the weekends.
June is a month of double swims at the pond. The weather is glorious and Richard and I swim together each morning and evening, avoiding the afternoon crowds. I can see that the cool water is beginning to lure Richard like a siren. He even delays his birthday trip to St Mawes so that he can get one last swim in at the pond before we leave.
We arrive in Cornwall to find our accommodation is right opposite a brilliant swimming beach. We take a swim there each morning and evening and find it to be the absolute best way to build up an appetite for delicious food we eat at Hotel Tresanton.
My stepson Arthur turns sixteen and we take him for a morning swim on his birthday, followed by breakfast at Dishoom. It feels like a rite of passage and I hope that he will remember it for his whole life.
It’s hot in London now and everything seems to centre around swimming. Our bookclub meets at the end of the month and even that ends with a dunk at the mixed pond. The cold water seems to be drawing everyone around me into its orbit and I’m thrilled to be sharing this intoxicating, addictive journey of discovery with so many people close to me.
I don’t have a goal yet for year three, for now I’m just content swimming at the weekends, cycling to the pond and eating bagels on the way home. I haven’t swum in the Ladies’ Pond in weeks because the mixed pond is easier for me to get to without a car. I haven’t taken a swim alone in a long time either and am curious about how that will be.
I do know however that I am setting my sights future afield than the pond. I am craving the sea, I find myself thinking about it daily. Sitting here in London on a Monday morning in July I’m not even sure where my next swim will be. But I do know that each swim I take is an investment in my health and wellbeing, and the most magical journey I’ve ever undertaken.
Here is a little video of some of the swims I took during this wonderful year.
Thank you so much for reading this (long!) post about my journey and THANK YOU to all of you, too numerous to mention, who swam with me this year. You can read about my first year of cold water swimming here.