Taking back the water.
Not to drink, but to swim in.
Read on about the UK’s Outdoor Swimming Society, and leave a comment about the group’s move to get people out of indoor pools and back to the great outdoors. And if you have a favorite swimming spot, you may want to write about that too.
Kate Rew doesn’t seem the evangelical type, but she does believe in the transformative power of water.
“I’ve tried lots of different things in my life, like meditation,” Rew tells G4S on the phone from her home in London. “I’ve also always played regular sports. But there’s something about swimming that puts you on a completely different plane. As long as you’ve taken that moment when you get in the water to absorb where you are.”
It seems she’s not alone in feeling that way. Seven thousand people have joined the Outdoor Swimming Society, a group she founded in 2006. And the numbers are climbing.
“People keep creating new experiences that they want to give other people,” Rew, 40, explains to me.
Some of them are casual swimmers who swear by the sensory pleasures of the outdoor swim, and others are more driven athletes looking for unique endurance swims. Together, they promote the idea that people need to get outside to swim, no matter what the time of the year. They’re also actively putting pressure on governments in England and Wales to reduce the restrictions on accessing waterways.
Most impressively, however, is their project to “map” the UK. On their website, a map indicates each distinct swim journey completed by members. One route connects two lakes in the Lake District by a river, another crosses a whirlpool in Scotland. The swims vary in degree of difficulty.
“Our members are pioneering routes all over the country. They look at a map, or drive in an area, and they say I want to try this swim from A to B. And then they create it, and you have a swim route in the same way you have walking and cycling routes. It’s becoming part of common knowledge again. I love the idea that we’re mapping out England, but via its water rather than its land.”
The mapping is part of what the Society sees as its fundamental mandate.
“We’re here to share knowledge by mapping and by giving technical tips,” says Rew. “We’re also here to inspire, and to create a social network.”
That social network (they have a Facebook page) is what’s permitted the Society to sidestep some potentially difficult legal/liability issues. When group swims are organized, they’re done by members who simply post a message on Facebook. The Society isn’t officially the organizer of the events, so the message is clearly swim at your own risk.
Managing a reasonable risk is something Rew remembers from her childhood on a farm in Devon. She believes that part of her life taught her that “people are entirely capable of moderating their own risk. We grew up taking our own chances, working out how things (including rivers) worked. During our childhood we fell through roofs, jumped into grain silos, slipped into frozen rivers, got lost in dark woods and cascaded down rapids… but when things went wrong we always knew how to save each other. Give even a young child time and space to take risks and they’ll develop a strong common sense. My brother went on his first rescue mission before he had mastered sentences. I inherited a great passion for running around outside.”
Rew, now a writer living in London, still remembers one of her first swims. “Swimming down the river Culm that ran through my parents farm with my brother. We mapped out a mile or so of river – under bridges, over waterfalls, around Eel corner, sprinting down red willow straight.”
Those childhood memories might have influenced her thinking in the late fall of 2005, when she decided to take a “swimming trip” in the Lake District for the weekend. After seven long hours in the car coming from London, she and a friend arrived at their destination on a cold and windy night. It was nearing midnight, but she insisted on getting out for a swim.
“I always find that swimming wipes away everything that’s gone before. And just puts you into a completely different mindset. And I knew that as soon as we got into the water, the weekend would have begun.”
“This friend and I walked down to the shore through the wood covering our heads, because twigs were coming down in this gale. We weren’t out for long, and when we came back in, we were so transformed and happy, that everything seemed happy. When we went to bed in that very grim B+B that night, we lay there and said ‘we should get more people to do this. We should create a Society.”
But why a Society?
“Initially I did it because I thought it would be fantastic to have more people to swim with…In England, it’s been decades of people doing less and less swimming, with worries about health and safety, and dirt in the water and all that sort of thing. If swimming was totally accepted in this country and people were doing it all the time, we wouldn’t necessarily have felt the need. This is a great thing, and it’s right there on our doorstep. It just seems so obvious…the Society is growing in ways that I couldn’t predicted, in ways that didn’t reflect my initial ambition.”
Last weekend’s Plum Pudding Challenge is an example of that. It’s an annual event where swimmers gather at the Parliament Hill Lido outdoor swimming pool in north London. This one’s a party more than anything else, where the mince pies and the post-swim hot tub might be as important as the swim. Rew sees it as the unofficial kick-off to the festive swimming season in the UK (polar bear swims around Christmas day have long been popular). It’s also a good a chance for the Society to increase its visibility.
While Rew was a smiling participant at the PPC, her favorite swimming experiences are further removed from the public space of a pool deck.
“That experience of floating down stream in a river, in the dark is what I love. I tend to go to the Thames, which is a river that I know really well.”
(If you ever find yourself in London and are interested in having a dip, you can read Rew’s suggested places here.)
“I like getting into the water as it gets dark – that whole kind of sensory deprivation. Having some of the light taken away from you gives you much more awareness of the feeling of the water against your skin, and the sounds of night birds flying into the trees, and bats coming over head.”
“You’re floating in this gorgeous place. That becomes your reality, and all the kinds of worries that you’ve had before about being stuck in the car in traffic jams, that general kind of discontent with life. That’s the transformation – you leave your little discontents behind, and you’re left kind of shiny and new, happy and content.”
A kind of rebirth, indeed.
(Anyone interested in joining, or creating a similar group should contact Rew through the Society’s website. Rew is the author of Wild Swim – from Guardian Books.)