Cold Water Swimming,  Event reviews,  EXPLORE,  EXTRA,  FEATURES,  Features,  March 2023

A Highland fling at SwimWild’s WinterFest

Author and wild swimmer Emma Simpson persuaded her husband to join her for a long weekend in the Scottish Highlands with SwimWild’s WinterFest. He may have expected a weekend of whisky and getting frisky but instead, less than 24 hours after leaving their home in the south of England, he’d been in zero-degree water twice, in just his swim shorts – with fairy lights on his head.

Welcome to SwimWild’s first ever WinterFest! My husband’s experience, as somebody who doesn’t ‘do’ outdoor swimming, and who was vastly outnumbered in the female to male attendance ratio, epitomised everything that this inaugural winter celebration stood for: inclusivity, acceptance, connection, community and fun!

WinterFest took place at Loch Insh Outdoor Centre, just south of Aviemore. The centre itself has onsite accommodation, restaurant, bar and recreation facilities; and the weekend was hosted by Alice Goodridge, Becca Harvey and their incredible SwimWild support team.

As a newbie to the Cairngorms, the surroundings absolutely took my breath away – arriving to winter scenes complete with log cabins, a frozen loch and trees blanketed in snow. We were warmly welcomed with hot drinks and cake (obviously), while goody bags were handed out containing glow sticks and swim hats. A gorgeous pop-up shop sold handmade woolly hats and hot water bottle covers. With SwimWild it’s always safety first (which very much pleased my fire-fighter husband), as we were briefed on the delights of the weekend ahead.

First up that very evening: Light up the Loch! A chance to enter the zero-degree water, in the dark, festooned with fairy lights, torches, sparkly crowns and anything vaguely illuminated. Before hubby had time to even contemplate a wee dram (strictly NO alcohol before swimming – there is no messing about in these conditions), there he was in shorts and a woolly hat, with luminous green sprouts wrapped around his head, making his way to the snow-covered shore. 

The squeals could be heard a mile off as we made our way into the water, giggling, laughing, shrieking and glowing like a sea of coloured stars. The Loch was well and truly lit… for 30 seconds… and then we were out! I checked in on my husband, he had that magic smile, making immediate friends as we warmed up afterwards with delicious food, great conversation, and perhaps a whisky.

The Icy Insh Challenge

The next morning was the Icy Insh Challenge. A completely non-competitive event, with a focus on experiencing an ice swim and just giving it a go. The SwimWild team had been up since dawn carving out a swim hole as the loch was so frozen, as well as an ice channel for post-sauna dunks. Fancy dress was highly encouraged, and we certainly didn’t need to be asked twice. Yorkshire Puddings, Birds of a Feather, Ice Maidens, Pandas, a Pair of Old Crabs and even ABBA took to the water in small groups, allowing us to be closely monitored and to ensure there was space in the delightful wood-fired horsebox sauna that awaited us after the dip.

After lunch there was a winter swimming stories session. Brilliantly hosted by writer and performer Suzy Bashford, the creative juices flowed as we shared stories, drew pictures, played a new kind of bingo and wrote poetry inspired by what we say when we enter freezing water. After a hot chocolate break, poems were read out, with the most prolific word in all poems being the ‘f’ one – one of my favourites. I read out an excerpt from my forthcoming book and then we gathered after dinner for the evening’s highlight: the Scottish premiere of Becca Harvey’s The Ice Mile film presented by Gilly McArthur.

After a final dip and brunch on Sunday morning, we said our farewells, knowing that it was more ‘until next time’ than goodbye. The beauty of the WinterFest was in the experience – feeling safe, protected and supported, experiencing something primal and so deeply connecting. From the sunrise chat I had with a stranger who is now a friend, to the belly laughs in the sauna; from the incredible sensation of the ice to the warmth of the community – something truly special happened. As someone said to me at dinner; ‘anyone in a swim robe is a friend in waiting’. And so, it proved.

Read more from Emma and discover her books; follow Emma on Instagram. Fancy joining SwimWild’s WinterFest next year? Visit their website to learn more.

This article is from the subscribe to the magazine. Photos: Jonathan Doyle.

To see all the online content from the March 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Hemispheres' issue page.
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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.