Just when you thought things were getting better… Boom. A virulent new strain of coronavirus coupled with Brexit. But we have all read enough doom-and-gloom opinion pieces, so here’s a bit of outdoor swimming cheer and the chance for me to put on a head scarf and gaze into my crystal ball.
Good things have happened this year. They may not be what you expected, but things have enriched our lives often in surprising ways. My first swim post Lockdown 1 was horrendous. As editor of the world’s only outdoor swimming magazine, I probably shouldn’t say this – but I hated it! Those months of being trapped indoors had left me depressed, unfit and out of sorts. But while I struggled to regain my love of the water (it thankfully only took a few swims before I felt right back at home again) hundreds, nay thousands, of frustrated pool swimmers were throwing off the shackles of lockdown and revelling in the open water. Safety considerations aside, it was a joy to behold. It seems we have become a nation of outdoor swimmers.
Will this continue when we return to some kind of normal? Our Attitudes to Outdoor Swimming survey results suggest so, and from what I see at my local swimming spots, there is no sign of this being a flash in the pan. Lidos and outdoor swimming venues are fully booked every day. In winter. With water temperatures resolutely sub-10 degrees. To swim in water that cold requires a level of commitment, it isn’t something you just do on a whim. And as all cold water swimmers know, it isn’t a passing fad – winter swimming fast becomes part of the rhythm of your life.
Why are people swimming in the cold and spending their mornings shivering in dryrobes? Another good thing to come out of lockdown: a wider recognition of the mental health benefits of exercising outdoors and swimming in cold water. Around the UK, groups such as Mental Health Swims have formed with the express aim of using cold water swimming to help people with their mental health. For me personally, that brief reprieve between lockdowns 1 and 2 was a reminder how important being outdoors is to how I look after my own mental health.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency have seen a 52% increase in incidents involving swimmers over the past four months and the RNLI has noted an increase in people participating in swimming all year round. This is a reminder of how important it is to follow safety advice when swimming, but could we see long-term changes in how we use our waterways and open spaces and how we connect with nature? Last week we saw a stretch of river in Yorkshire granted bathing status. Could we see more beaches lifeguarded all year round? As coronavirus restrictions force more people outside in colder temperatures, could we see a more Scandinavian way of living take hold in the UK? Not just nice knitwear, but winter swimming, saunas and a generally outdoorsy way of life with our water and open spaces becoming more accessible to all.
Finally, I would like to quote the Golden Girls: “Thank you for being a friend.” If one thing has got us through this year, it has been the support of our friends. Wild swimming in the Peak District, Devon, the Lake District and the river Thames with people I am very lucky to have in my life has been the utmost highlight of the year. When we are allowed, 2021 will contain a lot more adventures like that. I would also like to thank you, our readers, for your support and friendship this year. 2021 adventures await!