At Brakeburn we are lovers of all things outdoors, and a few of us have recently started cold water swimming. We chatted to Bethany Allen, co-writer of 'A Guide to Wild Swimming in Cornwall' about how to stay safe and enjoy getting in the sea all year round.
How did you get into wild swimming?
I’m pretty sure I learned to swim before I could walk! I feel very fortunate to have grown up next to a little cove on the south coast of Cornwall with my brother and two sisters. It was only 20 steps from the bottom of our drive to the beach, and that’s where we spent the majority of our free time. We clambered over rocks in search of strange sea life captured within the natural pools, and grew up swimming in the cold Atlantic water.
As an adult, I swim in wild places to seek freedom in nature. It is an escape, and a reminder to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. Whenever I get out of the sea I feel like a new person. I believe it has the power to help heal us, both physically and emotionally. It’s like pressing a big reset button and it never fails to make me smile. In terms of the physical benefits, it helps us to regulate our body temperature and the cold is an antidote to sore muscles, that’s why so many athletes take ice baths! Ultimately, I swim because it helps remind me that there is always an adventure on my doorstep, and the ocean holds the greatest adventures for me.
Where’s your favourite place to take a dip?
Cornwall has so many incredible places to swim, whilst co-authoring A Guide to Wild Swimming in Cornwall, I was lucky to visit over 50 locations. But even though I swam in places that took my breath away, my all time favourite is my local - the earthy shores of the Helford River. Made even more tantalising after reading one of my favourite novels by Daphne Du Maurier - Frenchman’s Creek. The way the oak trees crowd towards the edge of the river, like sentinels signalling the end of the land. The sailing boats venturing into its calm waters to seek refuge for a night, and the mill pond surface of the water combine to make it a magical and suitable wild swimming location. In my eyes, it is perfect. You rarely have to worry about riptides or big waves thanks to the shelter of the river, and it is hidden from all strong winds apart from easterlies. The only caution to have when swimming at the Helford, is to stick to the shoreline with a bright tow float due to the regular passage of boats.
As the co-author of A Guide to Wild Swimming in Cornwall, what inspired you to create this?
A Guide to Wild Swimming in Cornwall was created to help make swimming in wild places more accessible. Our goal was to promote the mental and physical benefits that swimming in cold water has, and make it easier for people to access the best locations in Cornwall to swim. It has so many incredible benefits, and our mission in writing the book was to share these benefits. We also incorporated information on how important it is for people to be well-equipped for a cold water swim, not just in terms of where to go but how to do it safely. (To find out more head to wildswimmingcornwall.co.uk)
What benefits do you find cold water swimming has for you?
Cold water swimming helps keep me grounded, it washes away the everyday stresses of the modern world and brings me back to reality - to nature. It reminds me to be conscious of my impact on the environment, to protect the blue spaces that we love so much and give back by choosing not to buy disposable plastics and to shop responsibly. I also make sure to take any litter I see off the beach and either find a bin or take it home to dispose of properly. Because it doesn’t fall on anyone else's shoulders to protect and look after these places, it’s down to everyone. We are an island nation, and as such our connection to the natural world should be even more profound. The natural world is here for us, we gain so much from it, and we should be here for it too.
Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about getting into cold water swimming?
For beginners, your first port of call should be to find a local swimming group. These don’t only appear by the coast, there are inland locations such as lakes as well. Even London has a thriving outdoor swimming community thanks to its lidos and Hampstead Heath bathing ponds. It’s important to begin with other people and continue to go with a swimming buddy. Both for safety, and for the fun of socialising around such a proactive and positive activity.
If you tend to feel the cold there is absolutely no harm in beginning with a good quality wetsuit. Alternatively, if you are warm blooded and want to brave a costume or trunks then make sure to take a warm drink and cold weather clothes with you: a hat, gloves, warm socks and a big cosy towel are a must! March is not a great time to start as the water temperature is at its lowest. So I would recommend starting your wild swimming journey in the warmer months. The ocean begins to warm from April onwards and a sunny day will help make it a more enjoyable experience for beginners - it also makes it easier to maintain if you keep going consistently as the seasons turn.
Make sure to check the conditions for the location where you are thinking of swimming. It’s easy to do by referring to apps and websites such as magicseaweed and Windy. magicseaweed is most commonly used by surfers, but all the information on there is applicable to swimmers too: swell, wind direction, tide times and the strength of the wind. Ideal swimming conditions would be below 1ft of swell, low wind and mid-high tide in most places but this varies depending on what you’re looking for. For example, tidal pools are only exposed at low tide so if you are heading to a tidal pool to swim then low tide is preferable, and you won’t be affected by the swell as these are contained spaces of water.
Above all, if you are considering it, do it! It is a brave, wholesome and character-building activity that will test your mental and physical resilience and quite simply make you feel like a superhero. 2-minutes in cold water is enough to start feeling the many benefits attributed to it. You are likely to walk away with the same kind of feeling as if you had completed a 10K run on a clifftop coastal path, or cycled through forests, countryside and hills. Our hearts are supposed to race, our bodies are supposed to push their limits and cold water swimming provides all of this within a matter of minutes.
So please, if you’re thinking about it, gather your friends and family and head to the water’s edge this summer. trust me, it’s worth it for the joy of being by our lakes, rivers and oceans alone. We all feel a natural pull to the water, (Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols explains why) and it’s time to listen to that instinctual pull and dive in, together.