Sophie Clowes steps into the wild to give us a taste of swimming outdoors, whatever the weather, wherever you are
Everybody seems to be doing it. Finding spots outside in rivers, lakes, lidos and the sea to take part in a bit of wild swimming. Sophie Clowes tells us how she got the bug, and shares some incredibly useful advice on kit, books and Instagram accounts to follow before you dip your toe in the water.
It is a rainy lunchtime on a school day. It is also May 2020, and the country is in tight lockdown. Our children are trying their best with school at home, as are we. We are all tired and fractious and it’s difficult to know quite how to arrange our thoughts, how to focus, how to be. So, we say to hell with it and go for a family swim in a downpour. In the Thames. We laugh and splash and shiver with unalloyed delight, retuning our senses and resetting our focus so we are ready for another afternoon of lonely grind.
A year later, no more than a week has gone by without one or more of us easing ourselves into the swirling water of a high tide and being taken downstream by the swooshing current, braving the cold in just our swimmers. A punctuation mark in the sentence of lockdown, we’ve swum against the flow, we’ve squealed at the cold, had a quick dip, gone miles, swum at dawn and dusk and all the daylight hours between, double dipped, made friends both human and feathered, watched the seasons change and felt the water temperature dip to 2.2*C from the 20+*C of the hot summer months. We have delighted in this pulsing watery artery that helps keep the heart of our wondrous capital beating fast.
Swimming is many things to many people but more than anything else it is redemptive. There is a time and a place for every type of swim, from a squad session in a chlorinated indoor pool to a floaty holiday dip in a warm, salty ocean. I have tried them all, indeed searched for swims wherever I have been in the world. And yet, all this time one of the best pools has been right on my doorstep and I didn’t know I could go in, outside an official swim.
Getting in the river is a simple pleasure that is different every single time. The tide and current generously swoosh us along, faster than I could go at full-stroke crawl. It’s a clearing of the mind, it’s physiological experimenting, it’s discovering my body can adapt to withstand an ice swim (any water below 5*C, apparently), it’s soul food, it’s literally immersing ourselves in nature. It’s family time – we usually swim breaststroke and have had wonderful chats and laughs as we float along. It’s the slow familiarity of the tide times and the lunar cycle. It’s the unexpected and welcome increase in constant core warmth out of the water. It’s the temporary stinging cold, the visceral feel of the after-drop when it is as if icy water is slipping down your body’s core – a not unpleasant feeling and one that is as surprising as it is fascinating, in a geeky way. Swimming in the river is also contradictory: cleansing yet dirty-ish, cold-making yet glow-giving, exhausting yet energising. It reflects all the whirling variants of life. It is joy.
Is it allowed? Isn’t it too dangerous? Isn’t it too dirty? I have thought long and hard about all of this and tend to keep quiet about our swimming unless specifically asked. However, in this wonky year, when our health, emotions and finances have been buffeted like never before, I have come to the conclusion that the wonders and restorative powers of this beautiful stretch of water should be shared, leaving people to draw their own conclusions.
Who owns the Thames? The Crown Estate owns the river bed and leases most of it to the Port of London Authority (PLA) which is responsible for the foreshore right up to the high water mark. And yes, just as rowing boats, kayaks and SUPs can use it, so can swimmers, provided you do so at your own risk, taking every precaution to keep safe.
Of course swimming in the river is dangerous but, with a bit of knowledge, many of those dangers can be mitigated. We have come up with our own set of family swim rules, alongside those of the RNLI… We always walk into the water from a set of steps or slipway and we never go in without a swimming hat on and wearing a tow float. These both have personal practical benefits but, above all, they show you are in the water deliberately and are visible to other river users. We have discovered that the best time to swim is either side of high tide, in the direction of the tide. You must know your exact exit point before you get in, plus a second one in case you miss the first (we haven’t yet). Keep close to the bank, never attempt to swim across the river and remember it is your responsibility to ensure other river users know you are there. You should also know the significance of the red and green buoys, and, therefore, which side of the river boats will be on. Rowers go backwards and, however silly you think you sound shouting, “Look ahead, eight, swimmer!”, it’s going to be less awkward than being hit by an oar. I do swim alone but I always have someone on the bank for reassurance.
Tide times shift by about an hour each day and I find elemental comfort in following the waxing and waning of the moon and a slow accrual of tidal knowledge. Swimming in the river is a choice and with it you must choose to politely sidestep the naysayers and, in my case, the mansplainers. For that’s another joy of river swimming – it is there for everyone and is wonderfully equalizing. Which fits very neatly with a quote I found about equality itself, most notably used by JFK, “Equality is a rising tide that lifts all boats.” Oh, how I like that.
‘Ugh, it’s filthy!’ This is the one element that I waver on. Only once have I got in and thought that it wasn’t as clean as it should be. In reality, the water mostly feels cold and velvety and there is very little rubbish – it is fallen leaves or fishy tickles that make me jump.
What’s the worst that has happened? Well, I got out one day and felt a wriggling in my cleavage. I pulled my cossie away from my chest and found that I had actually caught a teeny tiny fish! Did I squeal? Of course I did! Did my children exit the river faster than ever? Yup! I flipped it out and it swam away…
We try not to put our heads under but on a hot sunny day we do. At a time of fear and uncertainty the ebb and flow of the river is a comforting salve, for nature continues on her merry way, changing her clothing with the seasons and the certainty that the blossom and green shoots will come again and that the ducklings and goslings will hatch is of great comfort.
Every swim is a little adventure that is full of beauty. Some days it’s choppy and feels like a sea swim, other days it’s like glass and you swim into the reflection. Often it feels like we slough off the day’s woes and come out of the river reborn in some way. There is something spiritual about being held by the water and there is thinking time on a swim. It is a physical and meditative practice with therapeutic qualities; less so with our children, of course, with whom it is a noisier, funnier affair. No two swims are ever the same, which in times of drudgery and monotony is an opportunistic pleasure that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. You never regret a swim, especially a lunchtime one in the pouring rain.
London swim spots
Please respect and protect your swim environment and know that you enter at your own risk. Please also be aware that lidos, lakes and pools might have number and time restrictions due to Covid.
The Thames. We have never swum further east than Dove Pier or further west than Strand-on-the-Green. Please be aware that there are sewage dumps in the Thames. Information is available online and rivers users are advised to wait at least three tides for the pollution to clear.
The Serpentine – membership to swim year round in the early morning, including the famous Christmas Day swim; pay as you go in the summer months. This is the oldest outdoor swimming club in Britain (royalparks.org.uk).
Hampstead Ponds (cityoflondon.gov.uk)
Hillingdon Lido (better.org.co.uk)
Brockwell Lido (brockwelllido.com)
Park Road Lido, Crouch End (fusion-lifestyle.com)
Shepperton –specific days only (sheppertonopenwaterswim.co.uk)
Hampton outdoor pool (hamptonpool.co.uk)
Tow float – a 20lt one is perfect for your own kit, 28lt if you’ve got to take your children’s stuff, too, or if your mission involves snacks! Swim Secure is a great brand.
Phone cover – Swim Secure again. I’ve never tested it outside of my tow float.
Shoes – for river swimming I can’t recommend Hot Tuna shoes from Sports Direct highly enough. You can’t feel you’re wearing them but you can put your feet down without suffering a case of the scaries and you can walk quite far in them too. All for a tenner. They won’t keep your feet warm – for that you need neoprene booties.
Gloves – 3ml neoprene gloves will save you from frostnip in the colder months and help you stay in longer.
Swim hat – for visibility above all else. Silicone ones will keep you warmer and are less hairpullingly sticky. Zogs, Arena or Speedo are the regular makes. Or, for some floral frippery, try a retro one such as FineSaratoga on Etsy.
Hammam towel – lightweight, pretty, and wearable, too, they also make an excellent rug or changing mat and dry superfast in the sun. Try Dar Leone (dar-leone.com) or Bohemia (bohemiadesign.co.uk).
Body glide – excellent for preventing wetsuit chafing.
Wetsuit – Fit is everything with a wetsuit. Go to a real-life specialist shop: try Sigma Sports in Hampton Wick or Ocean Leisure at the bottom of Northumberland Avenue. Good brands are Zone 3, Huub or Orca. (They are not cheap. They are cheap next to the price of a road bike.) It will feel like it is sucking the life out of you but once in the water your fears of having bought a too-small one will evaporate. Wetsuit technology is hugely advanced but these are for crawl only – you will damage your knees if you try to swim breaststroke in a hi-tech tri wetsuit.
For growing kids, ask friends for hand-me-downs. Otherwise, C-skins is an excellent make and will keep little bodies warm and buoyant.
Costumes – My 14-year-old utilitarian Speedo costume is still going strong! It goes in the river, the sea, a chlorinated pool and in the washing machine, it dries in the sun or on the radiator, hasn’t bagged, shrunk or thinned. It doesn’t give me a hungry bottom, is long enough in the torso, high enough on the legs and fits under a wetsuit with ease. But, frankly, I’d love something a little more whimsy without forfeiting the performance element. The hunt is on. You can spend anything from £20 to £220, neither guaranteeing a suit that will last more than a summer but here’s where to look…
Louise Mischa on en.smallable.com (bet you get distracted…)
Books and films
Leap in by Alexandra Heminsley. Her description of learning to breathe correctly in the water by watching her young nephew blowing raspberries with his food is technically spot on!
I am an island by Tamsin Calidas. This is extremely raw but beautiful writing.
My Octopus Teacher – this Oscar-winning documentary touches yet again on the redemptive power of cold water. And has an underwater chase scene to rival Bond.