Kate Rew on discovering the pleasures of swimming in the wild.
It’s past dawn in the English mountains. Past the time the birds woke up and sang in the thin air, past the time we rolled over in our tent and heard the hiss and static of mizzle against canvas. We are on the top of a Glaramara, next to a tarn and camped in a cloud. I yellow slug my boyfriend in my down sleeping bag and say ‘shall we go for a swim?’
I am always like this: a missionary, a believer in the pagan redemption of a wild swim. We unzip and feel colder. The ground is soaking wet from it’s shroud; water squelches between our bare toes as we hop-scotch to High House tarn. We can talk freely and stand naked because there is no one else up here: not yesterday, not tomorrow.
This is not an obvious wild swim. There is no siren living on the round grey rocks in the middle of the peaty brown water, fringed by wet grass. There are no natural Jacuzzis, no clear waterfalls, no sun-baked rocks. But there’s an essential celebration to swimming outdoors. Holidays are started and arrivals marked by the sheer act of stripping off and plunging in. In the water new worlds unfold.
Like many people, I used to be aware of the transformative powers of water when I travelled. In Mexico one Christmas a friend and I skipped through the bush on the Yucatán, high on youth and freedom, days spent drinking tequila and nights sleeping in hammocks. He had been living in Mérida since university, and heard about swimming holes in his pigeon Spanish from a guy in the carwash.
A border of high brush marked the edge of Tulum town, and we picked our way past the exhaust, dried pee and dust that had blown against the scrub. Out the other side in the bush we weaved along an unknown path amidst lower prickles, follow my leader one after the other, improbably looking for a hole in the ground.
‘Jump!’ said Beau, as we arrived. I stripped off to my bikini and leapt after him into my first cenote: a world I had not previously known even existed. And there, just below the dry earth and windblown detritus was a perfect clean freshwater underworld, a clear azure universe of stalactites and freshwater caves. We swam freely in the areas lit by sunshine, and nervously under the stalactites. We got out feeling new.
Then I discovered the same revelations happen at home. The transformative powers lie in natural water, not it’s location. In the Outer Hebrides, once past the smack and slap of purple cold in the sea, I find seals swimming with me. In the Oxfordshire countryside moonlit night swims in the silky river water are accompanied by the twinkling of drowned branches and the distant crunches of combine harvesters. It’s the swimming that taps you into renewal, reveals the magic of the undiscovered nearby.
The swimming – and the action. The vocabulary of wild swimming belays a philosophy: we ‘jump in’, we ‘take the plunge’, we are buoyant, immersed in the experience, we go with the flow. In all of this there is an embracing of life and a surrendering to it’s uncontrollable elements.
Up in the lakes, I stand on the sidelines with goosebumps and dither my toes. I am always like this too: prone to hesitation. To a doubtful incredulous ‘do I really want to?’ just before I get in. The water is shallow, peaty brown, cold yet surprisingly warm, it’s black bottom having soaked up all the heat of previous days.
‘The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty,’ said John Cheever in his short story The Swimmer. And it’s always a beautiful day when you go for a swim, I’ve discovered, so then I’m in. Head down, chest gasping, knees knocking against rock and water washing the sleep and yesterday’s salt sweat from my eyes.
Floating on my back with the cloud parting and then obscuring the mountains.
‘I am sure no adventurer nor discoverer ever lived who could not swim. Swimming cultivates imagination. This love of the unknown is the greatest of all the joys which swimming has for me’ said long distance swimmer Annette Kellerman. We feel like that, as we float, in this wild little tarn. The water renews us. Redefines us. Makes us sturdy with cold.
And when we get out we feel more of ourselves. We have knocked against the element of the world. We are alive. We have swum.
Kate Rew is author of Wild Swim and founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society. For more on wild swimming visit www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com We have a few signed, hardback copies of Kate’s book available to buy. Click Here