I'm a big fan of wild swimming. There's something about it that takes me right back to my childhood. I was lucky to grow up right by the beach, so wild swimming and jumping off rocks into the sea wasn't something we ever thought twice about; it wasn't called wild swimming or coasteering then though, it was just well, swimming in the sea and jumping off the rocks...
In recent years there has been a huge growth in the popularity of wild swimming, and the lockdowns of the last 18 months have only encouraged the need for escapism into wide blue waters. And the reasons people enjoy it so much are as varied as the places they go.
For me, it began as a way of recapturing something; jumping into the sea as a child used to be as natural as eating or speaking or playing, but as an adult, I'd lost the spark of adventure; I was missing the spontaneity and had misplaced the joy of such a simple thing. I'm lucky to still live pretty close to the coast, so I would go to the beach all the time - take the dog for a walk, go and build sand castles with the children or just sit and have a picnic. But I'd forgotten all about the sea and I'd never think to take a swimming costume with me, least of all in November..... But after a year of lockdown and home-schooling, business worries following the restrictions, parents with ill health and a marriage breakdown, I needed something to soothe my worn out soul. My best friend took me for a picnic on the beach to cheer me up one sunny September evening last year, and told me to bring my swimming costume for a swim. We did just that, and I was hooked. It was everything I needed, and so much more.
I carried on swimming whenever I could, through the autumn and winter, and back into spring. Some swims lasted 2 minutes, some 2 hours, depending on sea conditions, the weather and my mood. But even the shortest swims (and I use the word "swimming" loosely - most of the time I just bob about in the water) give me something that is difficult to describe. In the winter when the water is cold, it's almost impossible to think of much else so it gives my over-active mind a rest. And when the water is warmer, it lifts my spirits to just be in the sea.
For me there's something magical about the water - being in it or on it in some way. The smell of the salt; witnessing the changing seasons, the beach being quiet, busy and back to quiet again; seeing the land from a different perspective; a sunrise swim one morning was absolutely magical, with a day full of promise ahead, and a sunset swim as a way to end a day. The water takes my weight, and so, even if temporarily, takes my worries. I find it hard to be angry or stressed when I'm in the sea. Maybe I was a mermaid in a past life. Maybe my ancestors were sea adventurers and so the salt water and seaweed runs so deeply in my DNA and my soul that I can't escape it.
Or maybe it's just science. There have been hundreds of studies into the benefits of cold water swimming, and it's been put forward as an anti-dote to stress, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. It's not a new thing by any means - the Romans knew the importance of spa towns, and the Victorians understood the benefits of a seaside holiday as an escape from polluted and urban cities.
So, if you're tempted to give it a go, then here's what you need to know:
1: Do your research and choose a well-known and safe local swimming spot - be that a beach, lake or river. There is loads of information online, or ask people who already go.
2: Be sure that the conditions are safe, and don't go alone for the first time. At the very least tell someone where you've gone and how long you expect to be. Consider a water safety course, there are plenty available locally.
3: Buy a waterproof phone case so you can take your phone with you and call for help if you need it.
4: As for kit, all you really need is yourself and a swimming costume (or not, if you prefer to be totally natural....). Some people use a wetsuit in the winter months, but others don't. There are some safety pieces you can use, such as a flotation device. And a bright hat is a good idea so you can be seen. You'll need a towel to dry yourself afterwards, or you could try a changing robe for privacy and you can get warm ones for colder days. Try different things and see what suits you best.
5: For your first swim, get there warm. Choose a warm day or have a brisk walk before you get there, or even just wear lots and lots of layers so that your body temperature is already warm and you're ready to cool down.
6: Join a club! There are lots of local clubs who welcome new members. The Bluetits network have branches all over the country and advertise group swims on their Facebook pages.
7: Take a flask of tea and a biscuit for afterwards. That is part of the joy!
Where to go:
Locally to Dolbryn there are loads of good wild swimming spots here in West and South Wales. I usually head for the coast - Aberporth is my favourite. But Llangrannog and New Quay are brilliant swim spots too. Most Pembrokeshire beaches are safe for swimming - Barafundle and Cwm yr Eglwys are good ones to try. If you prefer a river swim then the Teifi has some safe places for a dip.
The Wild Swimming website has loads of lovely suggestions and you can search by area too www.wildswimming.co.uk
Wild swimming isn't for everyone, especially during the colder months. But if there's one thing that the lockdowns and the pandemic have taught me, is that it's so important to find your wild swim, whatever that might be. It might be walking or surfing or playing the ukulele or knitting or pole dancing or growing roses. Because it's not just the swimming itself, it might not even be the sea itself, as wild and as free and as inspiring as I find it....It's the simple act of doing something I love. Of taking a few hours out of my week for me. To lighten my body and soothe my soul. And for me, the sea works every time.