Ella Foote meets Zen seeker Tessa Wardley, who says wild swimming is the perfect medium through which to practise mindfulness
"The water that opens out in front of you is like a blank sheet of paper – open for influence,” is just one of the brilliant and beautiful lines written by swimmer and author Tessa Wardley in her new book, The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming. It is also something that all swimmers can relate to, whether you are starting a session in the pool or about to leap into a lake.
Tessa and I are standing on the banks of the River Wey just outside Guildford, Surrey. It is an overcast warm spring day. Wild yellow flowers sprout from the river edge, birdsong twitters around us and our nostrils are filled with that fond earthy water scent, mixed with the sweetness of wild garlic blooms.
Mindfulness is just a new way of asking us to pay attention. It is so easy to get caught up with training plans, fighting for time to swim or concerned with distance and temperatures, and to forget why we even enjoy swimming. How many times have you heard a swimming soul exclaim they have lost their mojo?
“I enjoy entering events and setting myself a challenge,” says Tessa. “In a pool I can set my watch, plough up and down, time myself and do training exercises. But it is lovely to get to the river, get in and think I am swimming just because I enjoy swimming. Just for the feel of it, for the fun of it and for the experience. To remind myself, I love swimming and that is why I am doing it. Not for the amount of strokes I can do a length!”
Swimming came first for Tessa and it was only later that she recognised her mindful approach. “Growing up, my family were very much into the outdoors,” says Tessa. “We used to go to Scotland every summer, Exmoor every spring and we lived in Norfolk, which is surrounded by the sea and partially submerged by the Broads. So we were always in and out of water from a young age. I have a photo of my mother dangling me in the water at just two years old.”
Tessa’s previous books explored natural environments, drawing upon her love of rivers, woodlands and countryside. “I discovered my style was quite mindful in the way I carry out activities and the way I do things,” she says. “My approach to swimming and life in general is to be quite mindful and while I haven’t done any formal mindfulness training, I have explored the practice of it.”
The book is quite different to Tessa’s other work. She didn’t want it to be a swim guide, but was aware that it should be responsible – reminding readers about how the natural environment can have unpredictable conditions. “I want it to be a book for all swimmers. So many people love swimming and are thinking of taking their swimming outside,” says Tessa. “I had those people in mind, as well as those who already swim outside and could bring more to their outdoor swimming. They might go out and have great adventures, but don’t think about their mindfulness while exploring. It is about how being mindful can enhance their experience.”
The book transports you to the waterside. “When we connect with wild waters, we learn how great they can make us feel and how they benefit our lives in so many ways,” Tessa writes.
The book begins with taking the plunge and ends with water wisdom, taking you through the seasons as your mind swims along with Tessa. It isn’t a book for the train; you will want to get off. It is a book that can reconnect you with your passion, the water, nature and yourself.
“Often it feels like things are a real problem when you get into the water. Then you start swimming, get into a rhythm and it starts to flow and you start thinking, actually that isn’t such a problem any more, I can do this,” says Tessa. “I don’t think I have ever come out of the water in a bad state of mind. There are many times when I arrive at the river undecided and not really feeling like it, but I never come out of the water feeling that way.”
Tessa has travelled all around the world as an environmental consultant, exploring rivers and waters as part of her work and passion. However, one of her favourite spots to swim is in this country. “The Langstrath Valley in the Lake District is absolutely stunning,” she says. “Massive boulders, beautiful clear green water that you can see right down to the bottom of pools and runs where you can swim and dip, with rock shoots you can slide down!”
As well as enjoying trips like this with her family, she also appreciates local spots near her Surrey home. “The beauty of the rivers in Surrey is less obvious. But to come across somewhere like the River Wey, slow enough flow to get in and swim without being swept away – it is beautiful,” says Tessa. “These places are almost more precious in a way. In the Lake District you are surrounded by beauty and it is kind of expected. It becomes more of a surprise to find a retreat like this.
“My book is a success if it inspires people to get out there. So often it is hard to get going and life gets in the way of life,” says Tessa. “The mindfulness trend is really interesting and the amount of people that include it in their life is amazing. The health benefits are great, so I encourage people to get out and enjoy our waters.”
Tessa will be swimming at the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Bantham Swoosh this June and has challenged herself to a swimming holiday covering 22km along part of the coastline in Crete this October. Her book, The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming, published by Leaping Hare Press, is out now priced £8.99.