Several books have been published about outdoor swimming in recent years. One of these, Kate Rew’s Wild swim, accompanied me on holiday last week. It describes over 100 swims in seas, rivers, lakes and lidos across Britain. I skipped through it, stopping to read in detail about places I’ve swum before and about sites with intriguing photos, such as the stunning Fairy Pools of Skye.
Rew swam at every single one of the sites described, fully immersing herself in the experience. Her writing is descriptive and highly evocative – the sights, sounds, smells, sensations and pure exhilaration of swimming are all brought to life. Here she describes her 100th swim, off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Berneray:
Clothes are off and I streak down the beach – sand hard and good for running – taking in lungfuls of the clear pure air. It’s icy and gorgeous and I dive under to feel the cold water against my eyelids. Unimpeded by clothes the water spirals past armpits, chestbone and legs in a continual thread. It’s the whole sea and me.
Rew’s writing is perfectly complemented by Dominick Tyler’s stunning photos. There’s a whole smorgasbord of colours – the muted steely greys will be familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled to change out of a damp swimsuit behind a towel on a windy beach, but there are also gorgeous teal and turquoise waters, lush green riverbanks, golden sands and white clouds scudding across unblemished cobalt skies. It makes British seas, lakes and rivers look like paradise on earth. Looking at pictures of water was so relaxing that I kept drifting off into a meditative trance and coming round to find myself stroking the shiny pages.
The joys of wild swimming are clear from this book: the beautiful surroundings, the feeling of boundless freedom. Swimming in natural waters is free of charge, with no eye-watering chlorine, and no plasters floating past your face mid-crawl (for this reason, I personally wouldn’t have included lidos in this book, as they’re not exactly ‘wild’; they’re just swimming pools without a roof). So what are the disadvantages of wild swimming? Some people might be put off by the temperature of the water – Wild swim has a list of 34 different words for ‘cold’ in the appendix – but Rew puts up a valiant defence of cold water (which I wholeheartedly agree with), claiming that it is actually a positive thing:
After regular use of indoor pools, a dip outside can feel bracing but it doesn’t take long for indoor pools to feel unhealthily warm and only freshwater to feel invigorating or even pleasant. Live water has a soothing effect that you simply can’t get in indoor pools. Outdoor swimmers don’t deny that the water they swim in is cold, they just think it’s lovely.
Another potential problem is that some water is none too clean. I have some experience of this: I spent many sunny days as a child swimming in the North Sea off Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast, dodging the sewage that was pumped into the water (“Just keep your mouth closed”, my mother advised from the safety of the beach). Fortunately, most waterways have greatly improved in cleanliness over the last couple of decades. You can check out the Environment Agency’s website for water cleanliness ratings for England and Wales.
As well as the extended descriptions of individual sites, Wild swim has a useful resources section at the back, with a map of all the featured swims, a directory of lidos nationwide, some suggestions for festive swims, a glossary of wild swimming terminology, and tips on safety, cold water acclimatisation and technique.
I already loved wild swimming before I read this book, but I’m even more fired up with enthusiasm for it now. It inspired me to spend a day of my holiday swimming in Linhope Spout, a natural plunge pool formed by a waterfall in Northumberland which is said to be bottomless. I got Wild swim out of my local library, but I loved it so much I’m going to buy a copy for myself.