CHALLENGE,  Event reviews,  EXTRA,  January 2023

Portishead Popsicle

Open water synchro, an inflatable race and wacky costumes delight cold water swimmers at the bonkers but brilliant Portishead Popsicle.

“We will be pulling blue muff fluff out of the pool filters all week after this event!” exclaimed volunteer Tim Clouter at Portishead Lido. “There is also a blue nipple-tassel at the bottom of the pool!” Not normal conversation at a swimming gala, but this is standard conversation at the bonkers, but brilliant Portishead Popsicle. It is at this point I realise my handmade snowflake hair pieces made from old Outdoor Swimmer magazines are not going to stand a chance in the fancy dress competition. 

Winter season is a chance to push boundaries and challenge yourself in icy conditions, snow and single-digit water temperatures. While the Winter Swimming World Cup took place in Burghausen, Germany and the LobstersquadUK Team Cold Water Championships took place in Lincolnshire, swimmers gathered at the edge of the Bristol Channel to take part in the Portishead Popsicle cold water swimming gala. 

The event, which sells-out annually, has been a popular competition for cold water swimmers since 2015. Held at the visually impressive Portishead Lido, the event raises money to secure the future of the pool and is only possible by the hard work and passion of volunteers at the pool.

“The day was a huge success – 160 or so swimmers covering a mix of distances as well as ever-popular light- hearted events like the relay,” says event organiser Emma Pusill. “The creativity, enthusiasm and spirit of the swimmers was matched only by the creativity of the fancy dress outfits – which have never been a requirement for the relay race, but we love the fact that the cold-water swimming community has decided for itself that this event should be a good excuse go wild with the costumes!”

A synchronised opening ceremony

Like many winter swim galas there are several different events to enter throughout the day. From the more serious Individual Medley to the hilarious Grand National (inflatable race), there is something for all to enjoy. Even if you don’t want to dip a toe, there is enough entertainment to keep you smiling all day. It was my first time at the event and my first cold water gala since 2018. I had foolishly entered the butterfly event; it seemed like a good idea when the UK was experiencing an unseasonably warm November. I thought it would be a great way to finish the year I finally learnt fly, but when temperatures plummeted in the week leading up to the event, I started having second thoughts.

The event was opened by Almost Synchro, the open water synchro team that featured on the cover of the July issue in 2022. In festive red swimsuits and matching lipstick, the women barely winced upon entering the cool water to perform to festive music. They made beautiful shapes and frothing water against the backdrop of the colourful pool walls. The event had officially started, and the first swim was the ice fly. The water was 7ºC, warmer than expected and warmer in the water than outside in the frosty air. I wasn’t planning on winning any prizes; I took the opportunity to wear neoprene boots and gloves.

“There are no FINA rules here,” said Emma. “It isn’t school PE lessons, you won’t get in trouble; this is all supposed to be fun.” I struggled with my second length but after finishing I was able to sink into one of the hot tubs that had been installed especially. I found that the hot tub was an excellent place to watch other swimming races and catch-up with old friends, make new ones and meet readers of the magazine.

When someone asked if I had even swum an event, I knew it was time to get out of the tub. With an afternoon relay event to swim, it was into a dry costume and time to enjoy hot barbecued sausages while watching more gruelling events such as the 333m event, 10 lengths of freestyle. The most entertaining part of the day was still to come, as the more competitive events came to an end it was time for the Grand National – an inflatable race where swimmers had to complete two lengths on an inflatable. All sorts from unicorns to crocodiles were jumped onto and paddled to glory.

Muff fluff and nipple tassels

As the sun started to fall towards the horizon it was time for the relay races and creative, yet challenging outfits immersed from the changing rooms. A team of jellyfish made from umbrellas managed to swim four lengths regardless of their bubble wrap tentacles, but it was Marge’s Naked Ambition team that brought on waves of laughter. The team were head to toe in yellow Lycra, adorned with giant blue Marge Simpson style wigs on their heads (and between their legs!). Sewn on yellow saggy boobs were decorated with blue tassels and each swimmer had on a pair of high heels. It was a sight to see and impressive to witness them swimming in the outfits.

“The yellow suits were surprisingly buoyant and easy to swim in,” said team member Rowan Clarke. While the naked Marge swimmers were a favourite, it was the Sic Pops of Popsicle who were crowned winners of the fancy-dress competition, despite a slow swim, but that was the point. These swimmers were dressed as old men, complete with grey trousers, big bellies, bomber jackets, crutches and even a Zimmer frame. It was quite a spectacle to see a swimmer on their back, crutch in the air, while trying to swim a length of the pool.

It has been a while since I immersed myself in the swimming community like this and I am sad to say, I had forgotten how funny, creative, kind and brilliant swimmers are. The event was such a tonic. I hadn’t laughed like that in a long time and it was wonderful to see people I hadn’t seen for years and engage with swimmers in person again. I left feeling warm and festive, despite spending the day outside in freezing temperatures. It is already in my calendar for December 2023; it should be in yours too!

The Portishead Popsicle will be held on Saturday 9 December 2023. This article is from the January 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer. Click here to subscribe to the magazine. Read more event reviews.

Photos: Fabian and Ella Foote

To see all the online content from the January 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Rest & Reflection' page.
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Ella is renowned outdoor swimmer and journalist. As well as leading the editorial, digital and experiential outputs for Outdoor Swimmer she is also Director of Dip Advisor, a swim guiding business helping people enjoy wild water. Ella also teaches swimming to children and adults, is an Open Water Coach and RLSS Open Water Lifeguard.