Is there anything better than an ice-cold dip at dawn with a group of strangers? Yes, literally anything else, Antonia LeVay would have told you not too long ago. Now? Not so much. Here’s how she warmed up to the fast-growing exercise movement.
Wild swimming – or just, erm, swimming – has been around for yonks. And unless you’re in the arctic being chased by an orca or find yourself lost in the middle of the ocean, it’s not really wild. Going to your local beach isn’t what I would call ‘wild,’ anyway.
In recent times, the term ‘swimming’ has become acquired by modern man and renamed ‘wild swimming.’ According to social media and wellbeing publications, everyone and their dog is embracing it in an attempt to gain that feeling of inner peace, calm and tranquillity that we all crave. Our nation’s beaches, ponds, lakes and streams are being overrun by giddy, snack-bearing gangs of middle-aged women in a variety of dry robes – de-stressing, solving problems and getting fit in the process.
The sheer number of willing dippers keen to plunge into the (let’s be honest: usually cold and a little bit murky) water is eye-popping. The meteoric increase since lockdown has only gone up a hundredfold, resulting in ordinary folk not being able to have a peaceful walk along a stretch of water without tripping over a paddleboard or a half-naked swimmer. It’s a phenomenon described by the converted as “euphoric,” “life-affirming” and “joyous,” to name some of the most quoted.
Keen to experience this natural high, I tentatively joined a local swimming group, persuaded by ‘Spanna,’ a friend, who was a recent dipper. I joined in March. It was early morning; it was dark and cold. I cannot express the joy (not) of undressing in the open-air and fumbling with gloves and booties – which are essential between September and June. I’m not gonna lie, it was a battle, not only getting ready for the dip but the actual journey from my clothes pile to the shore and across pebbles and boulders. It was unappealing, to say the least. This unforeseen precursor to the proceedings was made equally unsettling by the amount of genuine glee and animated chatter from fellow bathers as I waddled into the depths.
I was totally convinced that I would not be transformed by the expectant euphoric aftermath, as explained by Spanna. “You’ll love it, it’s brilliant, you’ll be at one with nature,” etc., etc.. Hmm, we’ll see.
Ankles in – hells bells, it’s cold – knees in, belly in, and before I could say splash, I took a deep breath and shoulders went under (yes, that is the most difficult bit). Once your shoulders are in you’re laughing, inside obviously. As the cold water enveloped my then numb torso, it generated an involuntary response. “Mmm, this isn’t too bad.” Followed very quickly by, “wow, I’m starting to feel alive.” Endorphins were accelerating around my bloodstream faster than Lewis Hamilton on track day, clearly resulting in a momentary loss of lucid thinking and reason. Too late: before the brakes went on, I was hooked.
Despite my best efforts to resist, I was splashing around, regaling my newfound religion to the seagulls, fellow bathers and the sea itself. The joy of being up and swimming at some ungodly hour… and loving it! Swimmers chatted away about anything and everything: what they are having for breakfast, the next high tide (always a topic of conversation) picking up kids from football, and the best value dry robes available.
I was now willingly swimming the width of the bay with the Watchtower Waders, a swimming group that started with just a couple of friends enjoying a swim but now has a membership of over 300. They are a wonderful, warm and welcoming bunch of ladies who embrace the joy of leaping into the water at every opportunity.
The subsequent months have been filled with daily dips, weekend trips to lochs, inland waterfalls, beach BBQs, sunrise and full moon bathing and surfing lessons. Not to mention a bonkers camping trip organised by the Waders’ fearless founder.
Swimming, wild or otherwise, is all the things you have read about. At one with nature, reawakening your senses, lowering your heart rate, increasing endorphins, blah, blah, blah. We’ve all seen the legend that is Wim Hof waxing lyrical about the benefits. But ultimately it’s about connection: to your environment, nature, your fellow bathers, walkers and water enthusiasts. Most importantly, it’s about connecting with yourself and the genuine joy it brings to your wellbeing and soul. You’ll meet like-minded people who will become friends in the process.
I’m a convert and I’m cynical. It’s magical, and that is a word I do not use lightly. FYI: I am proud to be a giddy, middle-aged, snack bearing, dry robe touting swimmer.
Get outdoors and find your tribe.
Wild Swimming Groups In Wales
WATCHTOWER WADERS, BARRY
Barry’s Waders are for anyone who wants to share a dip with other equally devoted dippers. Whether it’s Watchtower Bay or any of the other beautiful beaches, lakes or streams that we are lucky to be able to access, you are only one swim away from a good mood.
The Bluetits Chill Swimmers Ltd. is a social enterprise committed to empowering an inclusive community of dippers. The Bluetit mission is to create a confident, capable community through cold water swimming and adventures.
TAFFY DIPPER, CARDIFF
There wasn’t a dedicated group for Cardiff residents who enjoy wild swimming… until the Taffy Dippers came along. They like a dip, a chat and a hot chocolate afterwards. Join them to explore the wild rivers, seas, lakes and ponds of Cardiff and South Wales.
DAWN RAIDERS, PENARTH
Part of the Dawnstalkers Sea Swim Club, Matt Pritchard and crew can be seen regularly at Penarth Pier. They swim daily, they swim at dawn. Sea you at the shore, stalkers.
WALES WILD SWIMMERS, WALES
Designed to get people swimming Wales’ beautiful upland lakes and salty coasts, join and support the Wales Wild Swimmers. You can also make suggestions for places to add to the list. And if you want to lead a swim, you would be very welcome!
words ANTONIA LEVAY
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The Ultimate Guide to What’s on in Wales!