This is a more personal blog post than many you will find on my website. I struggle to put into words exactly why that might be. The closest to an explanation I have come up with is that, while the hills are close to my heart, the water is close to my soul. In order to explain my relationship to wild swimming here in the UK, I think it is necessary to first have a quick look backwards to my childhood. Where I grew up in rural Finland, we just called it swimming. And people of all ages swim outdoors. There is a strong culture of public beaches on lakes, rivers and the sea, and a majority of the people have their own (or family owned) summer cottages, usually located by water. We would pack the family into the car almost every day throughout the summer and drive to one of the many lakes near my home. I have countless memories of playing in the sand and shallow water near the shore as a child, or swimming and diving in as a teenager.
Once the water turned cold in the autumn we would go less often, until it became too cold to stay in without shivering. Our lips would turn blue and yet we were reluctant to heed our parents’ calls to head home. In some winters my parents booked a weekly slot to a community sauna and took us ice swimming. We would drive through the dark forest in wintery evenings to a little cabin by the lake. After warming up in the wood-burning sauna (which always took too long in my opinion), we would dash naked out through the snow. Careful to not slip on the icy path, we would reach a set of wooden ladders disappearing down to the silent darkness of the water. We would dip or throw ourselves into the freezing water through a small hole in the thick cover of ice and snow on the lake. And I will forever remember the exhilarating embrace of the cold water which makes you gasp for your breath. Accompanied by the devastating shattering clarity of your mind in that moment. Since then I have yearned for the almost spiritual experience of cold water. Rushing back to the sauna to warm up again we would repeat this several times before it was time to head home. It has been years, but the memories from my childhood are strong. I will forever miss the sense of peace when curling up in my bed after those evenings. Utterly spent and content.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to swim and spending time in the water is an essential part of me. I love swimming in all its forms, from leisurely swims to cool down in the heat of the summer, to quick dips in the sharp freezing water. It is all very natural for me and a part of spending time in the outdoors. So, one of the biggest changes, and a source of shock and disappointment for me, in living and adventuring in the UK is the general attitude to swimming outdoors. Or wild swimming as it has become known in the recent years. While wild swimming is gaining popularity, along with other outdoor activities, in the UK. The general attitudes against swimming in the outdoors are still very negative with a lot of misinformation and urban myths about the dangers of wild swimming widely promoted by people and organisations. This makes very little sense to me when considering that the UK is an island and water (whether it is the sea or the rivers) has always played a major role in the everyday life here. Somehow is has become acceptable to dip into the sea on a beach holiday, but not to swim in the lakes, rivers and reservoirs all around us. Sadly, the general population in the UK seems to have lost their inner connection to nature, and especially water, which is so intrinsic to the cultures of our neighbours in northern Europe and Scandinavia especially.
While I have many thoughts of why this might be the case, they are not the topic of this blog. Although, do let me know if you would be interested to read more wild swimming related content! The aim I had in mind when starting to write this article was to describe why I personally choose to wild swim. The simple answers are things I have already touched upon above, such as: I love swimming, it brings me peace and relaxation, it is a great adventure, it enriches my life, it has great physical and mental health benefits, it brings me closer to nature, it is a great way to meet new friends… the list is endless.
But there are also more complicated reasons that go deeper into why I choose to keep swimming here when I know it is not always technically allowed, or when people confront me about how weird or dangerous it is. These reasons are deeper and more personal. Swimming is part of my identity and in the water, I am myself. Peeling off the layers of clothing and make-up also peel away the stresses and pretences of daily life – it is just me at my most bare and natural. I am confident and I am strong when I swim. I know what my body is capable of and I enjoy the feeling of strength when I glide through the water. There is nothing to be ashamed of when I swim. There are no pressures about how my body looks or if my skin has blemishes in the wild waters. The nature does not judge. But neither usually do the people who wild swim. I have found some of the most accepting, uncomplicated and supportive communities from wild swimmers. These are people who just want to share in the joy and exhilaration of swimming in all waters and in all weathers.
If you are a wild swimmer let me know where you usually swim, and maybe we will meet in the water one day. Or if you haven’t tried it yet, I cannot recommend it enough – look up a local swimming group on social media or through the Outdoor Swimming Society and give it a go! Their website is also an excellent source of information for beginners, so have a read though some of the excellent information on how to get started safely!