Hats off to charity swimmer

Dr Jule Harries, a former research scientist, is undertaking 100 open water swims wearing a different hat each time to raise vital funds for Surrey Young Carers and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The science technician, who only began open water swimming in May 2021, began her One Hundred Hats Challenge on Remembrance Sunday, swimming in the Surrey Hills Adventure Company lagoon at Buckland Park wearing a vintage tin helmet. She marked the half-way point with a metre-high floral creation, complete with cherry blossom and daffodils, to celebrate May Day and to herald the start of summer.

Jule, who has collected hats since she was a teenager, started with conventional hats – such as vintage fireman and police hats – but her attention quickly moved to more elaborate inventions. She now revels in the challenge of making each flamboyant hat, which can take up to eight hours to make. Her masterpieces include a Carmen Miranda-style mountain-of-fruit headpiece, a giant lunchbox, an anatomical heart with wings to mark the death of Meatloaf, a Dali-style lobster phone weighing over 2kg and a genuine frying pan with a flying pancake for Shrove Tuesday.

Each hat presents a different challenge in terms of weight, discomfort, breathing and balance. “The Dali lobster hat was a top hat with a genuine 1930s bakelite telephone,” says Jule. “I took the insides out, but it still weighed a ton. And then it had a rubber lobster on top!”

The Carmen Miranda

The hats aren’t always comfortable, either. Jule sometimes puts foam inside to wedge them on, or adds a Velcro chin-strap. Nevertheless, they’re often heavy and awkward to swim in. Keep an eye out for a particularly cumbersome creation coming soon – a Soviet cosmonaut helmet to mark the anniversary of the moon landings.

Safety is always a priority; Jule swims in a supervised lake and doesn’t go out of her depth. Unsurprisingly, she has also had to adapt her swimming style. “When I started, I was swimming front crawl: face in, goggles on,” she says. “But, of course, that’s impossible with a hat. I now do a serene breast stroke, while desperately trying to balance a hat.”

Aside from the challenge of making and swimming in these magnificent (and unwieldy) hats, Jule gets so much more from the experience. “Yesterday, it was the most glorious morning,” she says. “At one point, I was the only swimmer at the far end of the lake and the water was like a mirror. It’s at times like these that you become completely aware of your surroundings: how the lake smells different throughout the year; the flowers coming into bloom; the waterfowl, herons, buzzards. You just concentrate on the environment and it frees your mind up. For me, that’s invaluable.”

All for a worthy cause

The two charities Jule has chosen to support are both close to her heart. The first, Surrey Young Carers (part of Action for Carers), provides support for carers under 18 with drop-ins, activities and groups to give young carers time out from caring. “I work in a school where a number of pupils are registered as young carers,” she says. “The charity provides support and gives them opportunities to meet others in similar situations, share their experiences and take time out from their caring role.”

Her second chosen charity, Alzheimer’s Research UK, is the UK’s leading charity specialising in finding preventions, treatments and a cure for dementia. “I have seen firsthand the devastating impact of dementia and have also worked as a research scientist, so I know how important their work is in finding a cure for this horrible disease.”

An invitation to join the fun

Jule says she will miss the challenge once it’s over, and is looking forward to swimming front crawl once again. She plans to finish at Halloween 2022, and has something spectacular lined up. “I’m hoping in the lead up, I can encourage other swimmers to join me in a hat’s off swim,” she says.

Follow Jule’s progress via her Instagram or read more (and donate) at her One Hundred Hats Challenge Just Giving page.

Ukrainian Flower Headdress