A Sisterhood of Wild Swimmers
By Rachel Hare
2 October 2023
Why do we swim? And why are increasing numbers of us diving into really rather chilly rivers, lakes and oceans, when we could opt for the relative luxury of heated pools?
Wild swimming is riding on a tidal wave of popularity. When lockdown closed leisure centres, people flooded to try a dip in natural waters – and many never looked back. The 2021 Trends in Outdoor Swimming report found an upsurge in the number of women taking the plunge, estimating that they now make up around 65% of the people who swim outdoors regularly. Swimming in cold water overflows with health benefits for men and women, from supporting our immune systems, cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone and brain function to boosting endorphin and serotonin levels to improve mood and reduce stress. It can also connect us to a wonderful community of water-lovers. Earlier this year, Weston jumped in at the deep end and launched its very own outdoor synchronised swimming squad, Super Synchro, who not only brave the cold waters of our beautiful Marine Lake, they do it to music.
‘Why Women Swim’ at Weston Lit Fest will bring together four writers who are hooked on wild swimming. Ella Foote is the editor of the Outdoor Swimmer magazine and the author of the must-have guidebook How to Wild Swim: What to Know Before Taking the Plunge. She also runs The Dip Adviser, which offers guided swimming experiences to novices who are keen to try wild swimming and regulars who are ready to dive into some of her favourite swim routes.
Ella will be joined by Cat White and Freya Bromley who both took up wild swimming during grief. Talking to Mick Coyle on his Mental Health Monday podcast, Cat explains that swimming in natural waters ‘enabled her not to make sense, but to make peace’ with her turbulent emotions following the successive suicides of an uncle and a close friend: ‘it clears your mind and whatever you’re holding’. A UN advisor and advocate for access to swimming, she drew on her experiences to create the short film Fifty-Four Days. Freya’s book The Tidal Year narrates her journey to swim every tidal pool in Britain with her friend Miri, four years after her teenage brother Tom died from a rare form of cancer. Writing in a National Geographic article, she observes that tidal pools allowed her ‘to dip my toes into a grief that felt overwhelming, all-consuming and unbounded’. For both Cat and Freya, the combination of ice-cold water and warm friendships enabled them to face the pain of grief and process what had happened to them.
But it wasn’t always possible for women to access wild swimming. Jenny Landreth, who completes the Lit Fest line up, will reflect on the upstream struggles of the ‘swimming suffragettes’ who fought social prejudices and restrictions to claim our right to swim. Her brilliantly named Swell: A Waterbiography tells the history of women in the water, touching on the ‘bathing machines’ which took swimmers to and from the shore’s edge without anyone glimpsing their bathing suits; the woman who was arrested for daring to dive into the Serpentine in 1881 while nearly 200 men happily splashed nearby; and the shift in the 1930s which finally granted women equal access to swimming pools. Intertwining social history with her own personal experiences, Jenny is an enthusiastic advocate of the power of taking a dip outdoors.
Join Ella, Cat, Freya and Jenny at The Grand Pier, Weston, at 11am on Sunday 8th October to hear more about what makes wild swimming wonderful. Tickets are ‘pay-what-you-decide’ and can be booked here: https://superculture.org.uk/listings/weston-lit-fest-why-women-swim
Artwork by Shruti Bhoyar
Weston Lit Fest is produced by Super Culture in partnership with Weston-super-Mare Town Council and The Write Box.