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FIVE hidden wonders of wild swimming

Wild swimming

Wild swimming has taken off in a big way across the UK, but how did it evolve? And why is it so healing – for the mind, the soul, and community at large? We take a closer look at the little-known background of our favourite summer past-time.

Photos by Tor Harrison for Pico Goods

Wild swimming used to be a gentlemanly ritual 

The concept of wild swimming as a leisure activity has been around since Tudor times, when – as Times writer Ben Macintyre explains – paddling al fresco was seen as “ a gentlemanly pursuit for the aspiring classes”. Cambridge professor Everard Digby was one such convert, writing the world’s first book on wild swimming, which advised entering the water backwards and slowly (wise), using inflated pigs’ bladders as armbands (less palatable).

Fast forward to the turn of the 20th Century, and literary greats such as Rupert Brooks and E. M. Forster joined the throng. According to the blog Wild Swimming, this new cohort of river swimmers spent their days in a dreamy blend of belly flopping, picnicking with fruit and honey, and skinny dipping in the moonlight. Still, though, wild swimming – whether for healing or pleasure – existed largely as a male-dominated sphere.

… But then the suffragist swimmers arrived

Wild swimming

Women, however, weren’t about to let their menfolk have all the fun. By the early 1910s, women’s wild swimming began to emerge in parallel with the suffragettes movement. “The physical freedom of women’s bodies in swimming went together with the political freedom of seeking the vote for women,” notes Linda Borish, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University (as reported by Atlas Obscura).

In part, this was a sartorial battle. Hemmed in by what was deemed “acceptable” fashion of the time – including heavy woollen skirts – women were held back from competing in swimming events. Film star and swimming champion Annette Kellerman fought back, becoming one of the first women to wear a one-piece bathing costume that revealed her legs. 

As an article from Swimming World Magazine recalls, this daring play from Annette, the so-called “Australian Mermaid”, inspired hundreds of women to follow suit. One memorable protest came about when dozens of women dressed only in swimsuits dived into the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, challenging the usual sedate clutch of weekend rowers to sail around them. 

Wild swimming sparks the release of calming endorphins

wild swimming

In more recent years, wild swimming’s political capacity has evolved from female emancipation to a more general kind of freedom. Choosing a meandering river or hidden reservoir to swim in today is a bid to switch off and escape a world which is forever “on” and frantically noisy. It’s a chance to down tools and revert to a slower way of being. 

A large part of the allure is not only the solitude that goes hand-in-hand with many natural landscapes; but also the therapeutic power of water itself. As extreme athlete Wim Hof, aka “The Iceman”, notes, cold water exposure has long been shown to lower the heart rate, making you feel calmer and less on edge.

But it’s not just about the science: this effect has a deep-rooted emotional pull, too. Rachel Ashe, founder and director of Mental Health Swims, began her organisation after experiencing “a life-changing moment” during a New Year’s Day swim in Edinburgh one year.

“I ran into the sea with 100 others and afterwards felt this incredible calm I hadn't felt in years," she tells BBC Travel. "I now know that the calm I was feeling was my natural pain killers kicking in because getting into cold water is incredibly stressful for your body."

It also helps build the body’s stress response

Wild swimming

The soothing effect of wild swimming is likely twofold. Not only does it spark a surge of endorphins, leading to a sense of euphoria or “swimmer’s high”. Researchers have found that, as a prequel to this natural form of pain relief, it also delivers a cold water shock. And, amazingly, your body’s ability to adapt to this shock over time helps you to become less reactive to stress in general.

“This is what researchers call ‘cross-adaptation’: adapt to one stressor, and you can partially adapt to others,” explains an article from Science Focus. Think of it like this: we’re all born with the fight-or-flight response, but that powerful mechanism that once protected us hasn’t evolved well over time. In an age where we’re no longer surrounded by sabre-toothed tigers at every turn, we have a glut of unused adrenalin in our systems – a surplus that often surfaces as generalised anxiety. 

Give this reaction an actual physiological “threat” like cold water exposure to respond to, however, and we learn to deal with stress more effectively; both coping and calming down faster. “Our modern worlds are geared to make us physically comfortable—comfortably warm, dry, well-fed,” writes psychologist Sarah Gingell in Psychology Today. “We are rarely out of our comfort zones unless we choose to be.” By contrast, cold water swimming “requires us to learn to relax in the presence of extreme stressors”, she says. 

Wild swimming creates space for community inclusion

Ever since Romans gathered together at public baths, the act of swimming – or merely wallowing in water – has been a deeply social activity. As National Geographic reports, the Brighton Swimming Club dates back to 1858, when, for a two-penny weekly fee, members could enjoy the camaraderie of events such as group bathing and floating tea parties. 

To this day, wild swimming brings people together in the real world. It allows rare time to down phones, take the plunge and connect with one another. In wild swimming clubs up and down the land, people bathe in pairs or groups, bonding over the quiet majesty of the Great Outdoors, and a warm cup of tea to follow. And this in an age of soaring loneliness is perhaps its greatest magic of all.

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