Why I swim in the river in winter

By Antonia Leckey

Foreword by AION: This post was first published by us back in March. Frankly, I was shocked and more than a little baffled by the need to swim in rivers. To be fair, I hold my nose near a fish tank to protect myself from that spore air dampness. I find it utterly gross. Such was my disbelief, that since publishing this post I have asked lots of women if it’s something that they would do, and unbelievably, two friends have ‘come out’ as river swimmers, and a load more have said that they loved the idea. So, I guess I’m in the minority here. With that said, here’s Antonia’s post again, and now that the weather is warmer, it might be all you need to finally take the plunge.

First, there’s the noise. You know it. Yours won’t be the same as mine, but it’ll be noise all the same. Mine’s the usual stuff. Children. Work. Family. House. Money. Health. A jumble of fragments – interrupted thoughts that never go anywhere – that keep me awake – that I always think I’ll go back to and sort properly – but never do.

But over the last year I have found a new power. I can silence the noise. I can pour cold water on it all. Literally. Freezing it. Cleaning it away. I can get rid of it all. A single immersion and its gone.

Swimming in the river in winter switches the noise off. How? Perhaps because it’s cold. And cold expands – it takes up so much room it’s the only thing my mind can accommodate – and all that noise is squeezed out.

Getting in is hardest. A sharp breath in. Then breathe out – swearing. I scoop cold water in gradually through the neck of my wetsuit as I’ve been shown. A single channel down my plexus. Then I lower myself in. Slowly. I let the water in. It touches my skin. It’s all I can think about. It’s not pleasure or pain. It’s pure sensation. I push away. I’m eye-level to the splash and churn, and droplets freckle my cheeks. Water washes smoothly down my whole body. It defines it – a white mint-cool light around me. There’s a crawling ache at the back of my neck – perhaps the noise shouting in defiance as it exits – and my hands and feet stiffen. I start swimming. Gasping. 

There’s the ritual too. Slow. Sunday morning. A meandering church. First I anoint my flask of tea. Milk and a spoonful of sugar. Then I pack the neoprene garb. Wetsuit, hat, gloves and socks. Finally I wrap up in ceremonial layers. Fleece. Scarf. Woolly hat. 

As I drive to the swim spot, it has already started. I’m already thinking about the water. In the car park there are other versions of me. Women my age. Bobble-hatted and dressed like jumble sales. But sharing secret looks – and in group chat – what’s the temperature? Are we mad? This tribe knows there’s no such thing as bad weather. We know swimming in the rain is glorious. We quietly love the mystery of early morning fog draping the water. We rebelliously clamber down frost-encrusted banks and pause for a moment to marvel at those tiny star particles of ice, glittering in the rising sun. We turn and blink and there’s a trace of warmth in the day ahead.

Numbers didn’t mean anything before. In summer it was 17 or 18. Then as autumn moved through to winter it went down through the teens. ‘You’ll feel it once you go below 10,’ someone said. December saw it go down further, 9, 8, 7… At 4.2, had I hit my limit? My hands and feet were numb. At 3 degrees they said maybe don’t swim – five short immersions are better. In and out. Five times. Which I did. Five baptisms. Five small victories. Five mint-cold baths and my body pumped each time with blood and fire and force. The stuff of life. By then it was too late. I was addicted.

There’s the connection thing too. Being in it – not looking at it. That thing that’s bigger than me. Than all of us. I’m no longer just looking at the water. No longer a viewer of the scene. I’m in it. And it’s beautiful. I swim down the gentle course of water as it winds secretly past back gardens and moored boats, beneath arching branches and beside moss-cushioned banks. There’s no room for all that noise. Not my noise anyway. Because here there’s other noise. Amorous ducks. Fighting swans. Foraging geese. And a lone fisherman heron – still and poised on the riverbank. If I stop and float and listen carefully I hear his feathers ruffle in the breeze. But he stands statue still. Unflinching. Unencumbered. 

This all started in a sensible way. I trained for the cold water and winter swims with a swim club. In the first session we talked about the dangers of spending too long in the cold. ‘One of the symptoms of hypothermia is a feeling of euphoria,’ they said. My problem is that I am euphoric just at the sight of the water. I’m a child again. A rule-breaker. A giggler. An adventurer. I’ve spent too many days as an adult and parent watching kids enviously – free in their neat little bodies and uninhibited – splashing and diving into whatever water opportunity presented itself, unrestrained by rules and worried feelings about dignity and mortality. I joined the ranks of regretful adults, dutifully holding out towels and passing sugary snacks for when they got out – feeling their joy – but weighed down by the lumpen grown-up I’d become.

Inside I’m still that child. I remember a family camping holiday in Brittany. Aged about ten, and hailing from land-locked Nottingham, I was determined to make the most of the water and wrote resolutely in my diary ‘I will swim every day’. And I did. Whatever the weather. Whatever my mood. Some days were calm and the water was friendly and clear. Other days were churned up and confused – brown scuzzy, fuzzy water and trails of seaweed that tangled around my feet. And some days were outright hostile – huge frothing waves that picked me up and spun me like a washing machine before whipping me with stones and tails of kelp and throwing me back on to the beach. But there would always be my Mum, wrapping that crisp towel around me, passing me that cup of warm sugary flask-tea. I’d flop on the beach, skin tight from salt-and-sand, and muscles battle-tired, looking out at the water – not sure whether it was mine, or whether it hated me – but feeling the chill, and the elemental thrill of it all. 

And because of that – because of all of that – and probably more, today I still swim outside, in the river, in winter.

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