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Wild Swimming in England: A First-Timer’s Experience

Author: Emma Higgins  //  April 19th 2016


I never pictured myself walking down a towpath on the outskirts of Oxford on a Sunday morning in February wearing nothing but a swimming costume. Other walkers – donned in appropriate layers for the brisk weather – ambled by us; we were met with a mix of funny looks and commendations.

I did my best to act bold as brass, striding along like this was something I’d done umpteen times before. In reality, it was my first time wild swimming in England – or anywhere but the sea. I felt the goosebumps rising on my skin before I’d even dipped a toe in the Thames.


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When I emailed water baby Elsa Hammond to rope her into a project I was working on, I was thrilled when she replied inviting me on one of her weekly wild swims in Oxford. Elsa has dedicated much of her life to exploring the UK and other patches of the world on wheels and in water. She’s unicycled across England, spent 51 days alone at sea on a Pacific row, and when she’s not exploring the great outdoors Elsa has a penchant for poetry.

Seeing as I’d contacted Elsa specifically to talk about wild swimming, I knew there was no way I could turn down the offer to take a dip with her. That said, by the time I’d stepped off the river bank and the water level had reached my shins, I started to question the sanity of that decision. The water was a biting five degrees.

As I immersed myself further, the cold shoved the air up out of my lungs. I yipped, involuntarily, in short sharp gulps that increased in momentum as the water rose. Two words played on repeat in my mind: ‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic.’ I knew that if I panicked, I’d find myself turning around and bolting up the riverbank – a thought too embarrassing to entertain. So, as if it were a person behind me firmly willing me in, my pride drove me into the river.


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Presumably because she could detect the fear in my eyes, Elsa gently encouraged me as I continued. Upon her recommendation, I scooped up cold water and patted it around my neck to get my upper body used to the chilly temperature. I stayed towards the edges of the river, feeling secure where I could touch the tips of my toes on the floor.

Before long, I found myself up to my neck and my breathing had calmed. I began to make strokes through the icy Thames, feeling a vibration through my muscles and alive with energy. A numbing began to grip my extremities, but I let the conversation with Elsa and Jack, another Oxford wild swim regular, distract me from it.

Ten minutes later (a maximum amount of swimming time on such a cold day) we pulled ourselves up onto the bank. An awkward scramble followed while I changed from my soggy swimming costume to leggings, a thick head band, two pairs of socks, three layers on top, and just about anything else I could find.

Elsa handed me a thermas lid filled with tea, and it took severe concentration to restrain my shaking hands from spilling it all over the grass. My teeth chattered for fifteen minutes after leaving the river, and it took an hour for my toes to come back to life.


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It might sound like I would never consider wild swimming again, but I felt invigorated for the rest of the day. Okay, that might have something to do with the glow of pride I felt for simply having gone through with it, but I could understand the supposed the health benefits. Blood pumping and buzzing on a new frequency, the warming coffee and cake afterwards never tasted so good.


Where to go wild swimming in England


The simple answer to ‘Where should I go wild swimming in England?’ is this: anywhere that shows up as blue on a map. The more complex (and sensible) answer is upon the recommendations of others. Start by looking at maps of your local area, then head to sources such as this popular wild swimming website, or groups such as the Outdoor Swimming Society on Facebook to find out more. Here you’ll find plenty of advice from other people and tips for locations near you.


Have you ever been wild swimming in England?
Or elsewhere in the world?


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