Read if… you want to fall in love with wild swimming
... you enjoyed Roger Deakin's Waterlog and want an update on his swimming locations
Don’t read if… you are looking for a definitive guide to wild swimming in the UK. You will get some great tips, but this is the documenting of a personal experience
Review score 7/10
Wild swimming and me
I swam in a river for the first time last year. I was on the B Corp Retreat at West Lexham, Norfolk, and it was a morning activity option that it just seemed silly to miss. Quite frankly, I don’t get as many offers to go swimming in rivers as I’d like. Squishing down the muddy banks in my ill-advised bikini and swim shorts, I started to second guess my decision – it was a pretty cold May morning after all… and it was 7am – but it was too late. I had committed in front of a room full of people choosing activities (wearing a Finisterre towelling gown so there was no doubt of the activity I had chosen) and the small group I was stood on the bank with were watching expectantly.
So I confidently waded right in through the reeds barely flinching at the temperature of the water. I even remember claiming to those on the bank that it wasn’t that cold. The water lapping at my back as I thrust myself forward into the only swim stroke I know – breaststroke obviously – was like being continually stabbed by knives, so I’m pretty sure I was lying. I pushed out to the centre where I could just about touch the muddy bottom, bobbed a couple of times just enjoying the weightlessness the water gave me, and then headed upstream following the strongest swimmer in our group. Then something happened, I started to feel warm (the start of hypothermia?) and my eyes opened a bit wider and I realised I was enjoying it, as opposed to pretending I was… There really is something a little bit magical about swimming in a wild place.
Weeds wrapped around my legs at one end of the stretch where we were swimming back and forth, tugging and becoming more dense, and I knew then it was time to turn to swim with the lazy flow of the river. Up and down, up and down – I spent a glorious 20 minutes or so literally immersed in nature before the pleasant warmth I was feeling began to feel like a warning. I emerged from the river with a new love of wild swimming and a shiver that took a shower, three layers of clothing, two cups of tea and about three hours to leave me.
Getting inspired: reading about wild swimming
The popularity of wild swimming has exploded in the last few years, but my participation has been tempered by the wild swimming near me. The only waterways I live comfortably close to are canals clogged with litter or lakes plagued with blue algae outbreaks. With my mind-bending river experience in mind, I downloaded the Kindle version of Floating. I needed to find more than the memory of one idyllic river in Norfolk to persuade me to take to the water again.
Floating is Joe’s personal story of returning to the wild swimming spots made famous by Roger Deakin in his guide to wild swimming in the UK, Waterlog. At least that’s the hook, but the book is much more than that – it is also a story about tackling anxiety, and he has done a great job of making it about both without one eclipsing the other. I’ve never read Waterlog so I was slightly apprehensive, but my lack of prior knowledge was irrelevant – you do not have to read the reference to enjoy the review.
As a wild swimming novice, I enjoyed learning more about some of the ‘hidden’ swimming spots all over the UK, and the pros and cons of each. I was with Joe on the journey and felt the highs of an unexpected wonderful plunge and the lows of traipsing for miles without finding the right spot. I particularly liked the different aspect that his friends brought to the trips and their reactions to the different locations too. I honestly believe that adventures can be far better when shared and Joe’s journey reflects that. The experiences, thoughts and opinions of others weaved well into the narrative.
An honest review of wild swimming locations
Importantly, it felt like a fair and honest review of the locations – with some being closed to the public or now requiring payment. In fact, one of the nicest things about Joe’s journey is that he does not shy away from the less-than-ideal aspects of wild swimming. I was gagging as he lowered himself into a gross-sounding canal and incensed with him at the increased fee for some freshwater London baths.
The role of nature in improving mental health is something I am passionate about, but it is also important to put this in context. To create long-term personal change, it is important to tackle the causes behind your mental health challenges. It was refreshing to read Joe’s journey from using wild swimming as a distraction and release, to appreciating it was a salve on a larger issue and sourcing professional help.
Overall, I enjoyed the rhythm of the book and I wanted to keep reading. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what this ‘wild swimming thing’ is all about. I imagine it would also be of interest to fans of Waterlog, as an update on some of the originally documented wild swimming spots.
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