When is a swim a wild swim?

October 4, 2012

To tell you the truth, I really don’t know…

Like so many, the summer of sport gave me an urge to try out new activities. I had already suffered a rained-off rowing attempt, so a friend’s suggestion that we go wild swimming immediately appealed. We were in Wiltshire; it was grey, drizzling and definitely not warm. Thinking back, I’m not sure exactly why it tempted… but it really did.

We had read up on our selected swimming spot online, but I almost wished I hadn’t, as all the reviews highlighted Steeple Langford – our chosen location – as ‘cold’. Still, we’d made up our minds, and we were going in…

Parking in a Wildlife Trust car park, the name ominous itself – I wasn’t too sure that I wanted to know exactly what ‘wildlife’ there was lurking in the water – we crossed the road, changed and stood on the edge of the riverside pool. Two resident swans gave us a discouraging hiss as we stepped down from the grassy bank and into the bracing water. Once our legs were numb, entering the pool became easier and it wasn’t too long before we were wholly submerged. The crystal-clear water – boasting the sort of transparency you might expect at a luxury retreat in the Indian Ocean, only a number of degrees lower – came as a pleasant surprise and, although we didn’t swim for all that long, the whole experience was invigorating and remarkably good fun.

It didn’t put me off either. On the contrary, I felt refreshed and excited about hunting down my next swimming spot.  But as I came away from the weekend feeling like a true wild swimming convert, with the heater on full blast, it dawned on me that I had no idea what it is that turns a swim into a wild swim. There I had been raving about my first ‘wild swim’, but what about numerous swims in the past. I’d always enjoyed swimming in the sea – in Suffolk, Cornwall and Kent, for example – so what about those? Had I always been a wild swimmer, just without knowing it?

My next encounter with wild swimming came a few weeks later and was a less-planned and altogether less appealing affair. I was fully clothed (although regrettably not in a wetsuit), in fact, when the dinghy I was in unfortunately capsized in the Thames as I competed in a local club race. The water wasn’t as cold as in Wiltshire, but nor was it anywhere near as clear and, although we scrambled out of the water and back into the boat as quickly as we could, it was not enough for us to regain our lead in the competition.

Nor was it enough to dampen my enthusiasm.  It did make me think, though, that I may now give the wild swimming a break – until the spring anyway. Fortunately, this gives me plenty of time to read up and, by then, I hope to have worked out what exactly it is that differentiates a wild swim from any other outdoor dip.

(Helena Hamlyn)