Cold water swimming

January 25, 2021

My first ever blog for this website was on sea swimming, back in 2016. I said this (I was much perkier then).

The feeling of swimming in the sea anywhere between Leigh and Thorpe Bay is always liberating. THIS IS FREE! I think to myself, trying not to swallow any water. I'M DOING AN OUTDOOR PURSUIT AND IT'S NOT COSTING ME A PENNY! Kent must see my smug little face beaming all the way from across the estuary.

My favourite high tide is when it's late afternoon - 5pm perhaps - in September or October, when the sun makes the sea full of bouncing diamonds. Seagulls bob with you, and boats sail past. You get out, a good kind of tired, and sit on the sand, warmed by the sun, and think: I cannot believe I can do this in my hometown.

Words like “warm” and “sun” appeared a lot didn’t they? I truly packed up my swimming things and put them away each October, ready for 6 months off, and then I’d be back in the water come (later) spring.

But 2020 was different in a lot of ways, wasn’t it? I mean, I’m cringing at myself even writing those words because it’s absurdly reductive to summarise the hell-year we’ve just survived in such a way. But it was. I had been off work for a long time - the longest ever in my career - on furlough. Summer had been a glimpse of freedom though, hadn’t it? Towards the end of lockdown 1 it was takeaway beers and the best tan of my life and “isn’t it good we’re not locked down in winter ha ha ha ha!”

Autumn hit and things got REAL. It wasn’t as easy to stay out later with it being dark, cold etc. It dawned on us that we might get locked down again. I saw a pal, Lisa, post a photo of her cold water swimming in late October and thought, hmm, that’s past my usual yearly cut-off. I saw her post again. And then again. It looked impossibly appealing. She mentioned she’d started a group of ‘Blue Tits Chill Swimmers’ and I was really intrigued. On 23 October I went down to Chalkwell Beach, knowing that a group of Blue Tits would be down there. I went on my own and gingerly asked “Are you the Blue Tits?” They were an amazingly friendly bunch, and I bravely got into my cossie on the cold sand.

The sea was bracing, but it is in summer! We larked about in the sea, shrieking with the rush of it. I was grateful for my neoprene shoes (good for dodging sharp cockleshells/broken Peroni bottles) but my hands were cold. The next few times I got smart and bought more gear: neoprene gloves, waterproof dry bag, and wouldn’t be without my towelling robe my sister bought me.

The health benefits of cold water swimming have been much talked about since the craze has hugely taken off. I get it for those guys who’ve been doing this for years, swimming all year round, yes yes we’re probably annoying with dry robes and KeepCups but at least we’re doing it! I’ve been learning a lot from the soon-to-be-open Lifeworks Project in Leigh-on-Sea about the cold water benefits. They’ll be opening as soon as they’re able to, but have been posting some fascinating insights on their Instagram about how good it is for you (at their contrast therapy site you can have a sauna and then jump into the 2 degree ice plunge bath, Scandi-style). Cold water can boost your immune system, improve circulation, reduce stress, improve mental health, burn calories, give you a rush of endorphins, and some studies have even shown that it can protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia. The benefits are too good to avoid...

In a time of my life when I’ve been feeling the effects of 2020 and beyond with some difficulty, cold water swimming has been the reset button that I never knew I needed. Some days, when it all feels too much, to walk down to Chalkwell Beach with my towel, swim shoes and gloves and a hot drink for after, and to slip into that 5-degree-water… it gives you a natural high that stays for hours. I've swum on the greyest of days in roaring waves with spray in my face, and I've swum on still, clear, glassy days when the sunset makes the water look like a purple pond. I swam on Boxing Day in absurdly cold wind. I swam on New Year’s Eve when it was 0 degrees in the air and there had been ice on the sand that morning. I swam in mid January when I was feeling low at home, and all I could hear was the ticking of my living room clock - and it really saved me that day.

The water heals. It gives you a rush of positivity in an otherwise negative world at the moment. If you’ve seen the swimmers down in Old Leigh, or Westcliff, or Chalkwell, or Thorpe Bay and thought “oooh… that looks good” then please go for it. I mean it is mad - it’s wild to be walking into the sea in a bikini, for example, when people are on the beach in thick coats, hats and scarves. But read up on how to prepare, what to take with you, and take the plunge. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

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