At 7am on a bright, sunny and slightly bitter May morning, The Swimmers gather on Walberswick beach in Suffolk, as they do every morning throughout the year (yes, even in January and February, the lunatics). They don’t wear wet suits, just normal swimming costumes, plus gloves and hats in the cold weather, and special beach shoes: the pain of the cold is bad enough, you don’t want to add the agony of having the soles of your feet stabbed by tiny pebbles. This is supposed to be fun… right?
One of The Swimmers is my mother, who in her early 70s, has been joining this feckless band of thrill-seekers since she moved to Suffolk five years ago. She goes every day, unless she is away, and becomes quite tetchy if she can’t make it. She is amazingly healthy, whether because of the sea or genes or luck, I have no idea. But this morning, I decide to join her to see what the fuss is about.
In the UK spa culture, we tend to focus on warmth and heat, while around the world, sauna is invariably juxtaposed with a shockingly icy plunge pool or lake. The 'fire and ice' treatment is said to improve immune function by stimulating a feverish state of high functioning. It sounds crazy and counter-intuitive, but after a few post-sauna cold plunges I can understand why people find it addictive: it produces an amazing buzzy feeling of super-awakeness and exhilaration.
There are few studies into the health benefits of wild swimming, although one case study published in the British Medical Journal tracked the progress of a woman weaning herself off anti-depressants with outdoor swimming. It worked and she remained drug-free for a year (so far) after. Anecdotally, many will tell you wild swimming healed various ailments, helped with recovery from addictions or illness or bereavement, or simply gave them a reason to get up every morning. You can ‘wild swim’ in lakes, rivers, seas – anywhere not man-made, basically, ideally safe (check the tides, talk to locals). Swim with a group in case anything should go wrong.
I spend a sleepless night worrying that the shock will kill me, that I’ll be swept off to Great Yarmouth, or I will screech so loudly everyone will laugh. My mother assures me the water is 11 degrees Celsius that morning; most wild swimmers recommend you begin in double figures, allowing yourself to acclimatize over the year. Bear in mind most swimming pools are at least 21 degrees Celsius, so it will still be a shock.
The first hurdle is removing the snuggly borrowed Dryrobe – think large windcheater lined with a towel – exposing my pale, Speedo-clad bod to the rudely sharp morning air. Still numb with sleep, I walk determinedly down to the murky sea and take a deep breath. It’s like removing a plaster. I walk in, keep going, give myself a mental pat on the back for not screaming, take another deep breath, plunge in and swim like a maniac, desperately trying to outswim the cold. Not possible. The cold is all over me, slapping me red raw and piercing me with icy needles. It hurts and some part of me thinks I might die.
Then, after a while, I become so exhausted by frantic swimming that I slow down. I do more leisurely breast strokes, making myself look at the sunrise as it tips poetically onto the gently undulating waves. I am still gripped by the chill, but more gently. I find that I don’t mind it so much. I decide to dive under, and the shock nearly makes me inhale a pint of seawater. I do it twice more until it doesn’t feel so bad again and open my eyes to look at … nothing, swirls of mud. The North Sea is not The Maldives, although The Swimmers do quite often spot a few seals.
Emerging this time, I start to feel the euphoric buzz. Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim, ingeniously describes wild swimming as a “hangover in reverse”: pain first, buzz after.
I only come out fifteen minutes later because of the promise of a flat white and croissant. I assumed I’d run up the beach and dive shivering into my giant towel, but instead I feel warm and glowing and full of bonhomie - sea drunk. I stroll nonchalantly towards my stuff, stopping to chat and share experiences with The Swimmers, who are always delighted to meet another convert.
After, I reward myself with a hot steamy shower, the reverse of the Scandis, who like the heat of the sauna before leaping into cold lakes. What Walberswick needs is a barrel sauna tucked in between the beach huts: then you’d get me down here every morning for sure.
If you want to try wild swimming, read up about it beforehand here.
My intention for this month: To make time for a yoga class, at least two runs and a wild swim weekly.
New favourite book: Is an audiobook, The Wych Elm by Tana French - everyone is comparing it to The Secret History, my fave book as a student. I listen while running, which makes me keener to get my trainers on and head out.