The joy of wild winter swimming

My toes sink into the mud at the edge of the river Mole at the bottom of Box Hill in Surrey. The water immediately cools my feet beyond feeling. I had hoped for a quirky swim here. Normally there are stepping stones that cross the river at this point, and I pictured myself skipping over them in my swimsuit. But the reality is quite different. After significant rain and snow melt, I should have known the river would be higher than usual. The spot – tranquil in all the photos I had looked at – was now a rushing, fast flowing river. And the colour of chocolate milkshake, rather than the clear water I’d pictured. Oh well, I have swum in worse.

I step gingerly into the unknown. I find the stepping stones under my feet and try to walk across them, but with the strong current against my legs it’s no use, so I just get in. I fumble into the water with zero grace. The water feels silty and leaves brush against my body rushing downstream.

But I barely notice the cold anymore. I have been doing a Dip a Day December –swimming every day this month, outside, in rivers, lakes, ponds and sea – and today is day 14. It isn’t uncommon for me to reach the edge of a river and question my sanity, but the delights of swimming in the darkest month of the year always wins me over. We are often encouraged to slow down, pay attention and appreciate the little things in life, but at this time of year it can be hard to take a moment. Swimming everyday outside, often in low light or darkness and in pretty cold weather, forces me to find the beauty in winter. It is much easier to catch the sunrise and sunsets at this time of year, and the glitter trail in water reflecting the sun is something worth pausing over.

Of course, not every day has the sparkle of frost on the ground and blue skies. Most of December in Britain is grey. When I wake up to the sound of rain, when the light never seems to appear, those are the hardest days. On most swims I am solo, balancing my camera on a river bank hoping to capture the magic I feel from the water. Swimming alone, especially is colder weather, isn’t advisable. But there is something special about a swim all by myself, nature reveals itself to you more frequently and I have taken the time to understand my limits and don’t take unnecessary risks. Swimming with like-minded cold-water fanatics has its charms too, yelping and whooping, gathering afterwards to share hot chocolate – there is much joy to that too, so it’s always worth finding a tribe if you want to give it a go yourself.

Living in Berkshire, I have a good selection of swim spots on the Thames and Jubilee rivers. There are plenty of lidos within reach too, but by mid-December I ache for the sea and I am more confident to try places I haven’t swum before. I plan my days around the weather forecast, working around the dry spells and sunshine. There is a lovely spot in Medmenham, near Marlow, that is perfect to catch the sun rising; the Jubilee river near Maidenhead offers boat free swimming and ice at the edge when it’s really cold; and a spot by the Flower Pot pub near Henley provides a great jetty to leap off of when you’re feeling bold!

Now I work freelance I can be more flexible but there are still days when only an early morning swim or evening dip will work, and that means scrabbling around in the dark on a cold riverbank, sinking into inky black water – which provides a whole different challenge. I will swim on Christmas Day and every day until New Year’s Day to complete the month – the nip of the water and the zing of a swim is quite addictive.
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