I was recently talking to my Granny and she said that as a child on the coast, her father used to bring a bucket of salt water up from the sea every morning for her and her mother to bathe their feet before they started their day. An affirmation perhaps that this belief in the powers of the salty sea isn't just a common, contemporary tribal phase. Even the upright Victorians had their bathing machines and a whole Victoriana celebration of taking the waters.
Everyone is doing it now, having a go, and other than the previous odd run in and out of lochs and the summer sea swimming: I joined in and last winter I swam all the way through and haven't stopped since. I joined this tribe.
Swimming through that first winter was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It sounds a bit frivolous to say looking back at it, comparatively, but I had to learn or reintuit a whole new level of mind to body relationship.
When a storm is brewing and the the sand and stones crunch under foot from frost and ice, you simply cannot allow yourself to question why you would be doing this. It's a similar feeling to painting out in the biting cold, finding that resilience, that inner grit, and knowing how capable we really are as humans. Over and over and over again.
The tide is turning, and we are learning, but culturally we are enticed into our sealed, clean, warm lives, where we jump from one cocoon to another, where our food arrives following our whims and the surrounds give only distant glimpses of even a glimmer of nature at work, our hyper social, hyper urban existence...when all these are our 'new' presets, why on earth would we be swimming in our cold seas in the winter? (Or for that matter....why on earth would I be kneeling over a 2 metre canvas on a rising shore line in the shade in January with a blue nose and tingly toes?)
Cold water swimmers and sea swimmers can always recognise it in the other. They hold a secret throughout the day, an inner kernel of wild, of human potential, the knowing that we are capable or extraordinary things. The wild swimmer, perhaps is better placed into its own cultural context, of how it really feels to swim amongst the embrace of cold, cold water. On its own as a label perhaps its starting to feel a little categorised. It's turn of phrase has however summed up kernels of truth.
Swimming and painting amongst the naturalised landscape or 'wildscapes' I find my connection, I've found ways to rewild myself. To find a true and a 'feeling' connection to the natural environment.
There comes a stage in the swimming, where you are thirsty for water, when you haven't swum. That thick and silky embrace of velvety layers, the moment the water covers your bare shoulders, when your face licks the water and your eyes open to see the turquoise fog, the signs of the sirens begin to swill around your body.
That moment when you dive underwater and present your feet to the sky and your fingers to the underworld, when you come up and the surface breaks with your face to the air and your ears muffle in a delightful pause and a bridge of senses. When the sun rises over the water and you can swim towards its light. When your eyes sit on the horizon line and you know what it means to be in two halves. When your stroke lines up with your swimming partner and on your other side the shore line. When it is just you in the water and the light dances with the birds and a freedom is found so very readily. All of these are just some of the jewels that glint at me as a reminder to get back in the water.
'You are very brave' is often a phrase thrown my way now on the way into the water but it is of course something that comes to me much more casually now than when I first began. I can remember trying and desperately failing to swim in March a few years ago whilst my friends were frolicking in the water like it was a bath. I couldn't go in beyond my ankles, even that was too much, I felt more than physically incapable, I felt sick, it was too much, too overwhelming.
Other than the practical ways of accustoming to cold water, and gradually gaining my own trust, there are some perhaps more ephemeral ways I've found to keep me calm and guided in. If it's very, very chilly outside, I'll begin this as I arrive at the beach, but now I think this has become an unthought process, and I can arrive at this state much faster.
Essentially the tip here is to flatten your mind to the horizon. This will help in many ways, but it will help you to get in and move towards rather than away from the water and to keep swimming rather than retreating, secondly and perhaps most importantly it will quieten down your mind. We are culturally led to believe that the water is too cold for us to swim in and our minds at this point would like to save us from the danger. It is impossible it says. It is too cold. This is mad.
It is possible. Calm that heart rate down, breathe deeply, calmly take longer breaths out than in, and flatten those thoughts to that horizon in front of you.
Of course this is not to say that swimming isn't dangerous, it is. Especially if it is not something that you are practised to doing. You'll develop a routine and some rituals that work for you. You'll learn your own depths, you'll work up to it, get to know your water, tides and woolly layers for afterwards, importantly though you'll push your stroke and learn.
Although I am very proudly and very carefully and quietly a cold water swimmer, I am still very much learning really to swim. I have always been more comfortable with breast stroke, it is my default stroke, and it is strong. My crawl however has until a few years ago idled entirely neglected, repelled, ignored and completely languishing. Crawling helps when there are swells and when you want to twist that body for release. I have re-trained myself to breathe on alternate sides, which feels more balanced and useful to keep your eyes out for waves and other flotsam. Perhaps a part of my difficulty with crawl, is a moment of doubt, of fear that seeps in and pulls me to a breaststroke halt. I'm working on it. In the meantime, the colder it gets the more it really is about the experience of being in the water. Exploring the glassy surface and drinking in the green headlands with my eyes becomes the thing.
What are the benefits cold water swimming and to being a wild swimmer? Other than all my jewelled glints above... they say that it is anti-inflammatory, so can help alleviate the symptoms of all sorts of things our bodies store up. It brings a sense of peace and achievement into the day, so wonderful for boosting confidence and for bringing us into the mindful present. Great for skin and helps to kernel life's zest, and to rightfully put our human selves in our place where the natural environment gets to lead.
No wetsuits allowed. The less kit, the better. Do swim safe and I am no expert or instructor but if this inspires you to take it it up that is brilliant, and welcome to the twinkly eyed up club.
There are many more swims to consider and many more photographs already taken and meditations written. If it isn't recorded, it is still real. In the meantime do follow my photos and stories on Instagram (@rewildingchloe) you'll find many, many photos and vids of the sea just after I've been in, sometimes there are pauses just to make sure that this social sharing medium doesn't frame life, it's mine to frame.
In the meantime, I encourage you to be courageous and find your horizon, and as all the women in my family say when looking to get out into the inclement weather from my great grandmother to my mother...
'You'll never regret it'
*This painting links through with the location of the top photo: ‘Shelter Bay...’