Open water swimming, or wild swimming, is the practise of swimming outside in an open body of water. The activity has trickled back into the mainstream in recent years, with an increasing number of people revelling in the pleasure of a dip in the great outdoors. Search #wildswimming on Instagram and witness a consistent aesthetic; what once was a jump in a lake or ocean has been curated into a bourgeois social media trend.
The pursuit of swimming in nature has long been romanticised. Byron, Keats, Coleridge: the great romantic poets loved to swim. Many believe that Keats was referring to Hampstead Heath when he wrote in 1804 “The Ponds where boys to bathe delight”. Indeed, plunging oneself into the cold-water ponds of the Heath is a meditative endeavour. For many, the ambient wildlife and spectacular scenery serve as a welcome shield from the pressure cooker that is London life.
While open water evangelists have always touted the psychological advantages of outdoor swimming, it is clear that all exercise is beneficial for our mental state. Is wild swimming really more effective? Certainly, there is evidence that ‘green exercise’ can be a powerful treatment for mental illness. Notably, a study published in the ‘British Medical Journal’ in 2018 followed a 24-year-old woman with symptoms of major depressive disorder. The researchers found that weekly cold-water swimming led to an immediate improvement in mood following each swim, and a sustained and gradual reduction in symptoms of depression. In this case, open water swimming led to a reduction in, and then cessation of, medication.
By requiring repetitive motions, swimming itself is a meditative act. Couple this with the benefits of immersing oneself in nature regularly: it makes sense that open water swimming is rather good for us.
Evidence also points to a plethora of physical health benefits that can be associated with regular open water swimming. A study by Czech scientists demonstrated that the shock of submerging oneself in cold water forces the body to produce more white blood cells, thus boosting the immune system. According to the charity ‘Allergy UK’, people who live close to and regularly swim in the sea tend to have better respiratory systems; a dip in the ocean can also relieve symptoms of hay fever and help sufferers of skin conditions including psoriasis and eczema.
In a world seemingly led by social media trends, it is easy to query wild swimming’s resurgence in popularity. It is a modern preoccupation; the search for tranquillity of mind, for experiences that transcend the ordinary, that propels a global wellness industry worth $4.5 trillion. But the attraction isn’t just another Goop style fad. Empirical research is increasingly demonstrating what anecdotal evidence has always suggested: that wild swimming is one of life’s great joys.
Our favourite wild swimming spots close to London:
River Colne, Rickmansworth
Zone 7, but still reachable by tube. River Colne is a beautiful, rather shallow spot, ideal for cooling off and paddling about on a warm summer’s day.
Frensham Great Pond, Surrey
While the majority of the pond is an angling lake, there are also some dedicated swimming spots, indicated by buoys. The sandy beach stretch is an ideal picnic spot, and the place is great for kids with depths never exceeding 1.4 metres. Do ensure children are equipped with flotation devices and are closely supervised at all times.
Hurley Lock and Marlow Lock, Henley on Thames
While Henley is best known for rowing, there are some fabulous wild swimming spots, near Hurley Lock and Marlow Lock. For the serious and strongest swimmers, the Henley to Marlow stretch forms the 14km Thames Marathon.
This one is a little further out, but too pretty not to mention. Get lost in the meadows of the River Cam, which winds through lush greenery and is host to an abundance of wildlife.
A River Thames gem, the swimming stretch at Shillingford encourages people to float as well as swim. Lie back, close your eyes and relax as you drift downstream. Hop in at Wharf Road.
Anybody considering trying wild swimming must be aware of the risks and ensure that they are strong enough swimmers to handle a current. Research the area and ensure you are properly informed and prepared. If with children, ensure that they are closely supervised at all times. Check for COVID-19 restrictions or changes too. Most areas are not lifeguard supervised.