Outside swimming enjoys a revival in Suffolk but where is the best place to take a dip this autumn?
- Credit: Gregg Brown
As Suffolk and Essex’s rivers and lakes return to full health, it’s not just wildlife that is heading back to the water. Matt Gaw looks at the rise of wild swimming and the best places to take a dip this autumn.
It takes your breath away. First the ice-cold water reaching your stomach and then the shimmering beauty.
Within moments of stepping into a decidedly autumnal Little Ouse, I feel like I have acquired what Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog and modern godfather of wild swimming, once called ‘a frog’s eye view’ of things.
Submerged in my surroundings in a way simply not possible on land, I have a unique perspective of the steep banks and fields above me; viewed through the copper brown lens of the water and the soft green of weeds, it is a world transformed.
I can also see a couple staring at me from a nearby bridge.
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With their collars turned up against the breeze, even their dog looks bemused.
This was not the sight they expected to see on their autumnal afternoon stroll.
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Of course, more than a hundred years ago, it would have been a different story.
In the 19th Century there were hundreds of outdoor swimming clubs across Britain, with the likes of Stowmarket Swimming Club making use of sections of the River Rat until 1937 and Norwich Swimming Club using the River Wensum from the 18th Century until the 20th.
Then, following the post-war decline of lido culture, the almost universal pollution of river systems and the rise of the uniform and regulated municipal pool, the habit of swimming outdoors in wild spaces simply ebbed away.
But according to Kate Rew, author of Wild Swim and founder of The Outside Swimming Society (OSS), the will to get back into the water is definitely still there and growing.
“I think what the OSS has done has brought wild swimming back out in to the open,” she explains.
“When I was working in a freelance office and I started taking about the swimming I was doing, I found a third of the people in the office swam in rivers and lakes but we had never had that conversation. People were secret swimmers.
“One of the things that happened when I set up the OSS and wrote my book was that people would write me letters saying, ‘Thanks very much for legitimising what I do, before I was just a weird guy in the office who liked swimming in lakes and now I’m a wild swimmer.
“‘I’ve got an identity’.”
There is a sense, says Kate, that somehow people in the UK have lost their way as adults after swimming in lakes and rivers as children.
“I think lots of people have always spontaneously jumped into rivers and lakes because they are hot.
“What the OSS has done is bring that idea back to the forefront of people’s minds and that it is lovely.”
But perhaps one of the most important things the more concerted drive to educate and inform people about swimming outside has done over the last decade, is to break down some of the boundaries that had left a generation land-locked.
“When we set up the OSS in 2006, lots of people didn’t swim outside because they thought it was dirty, dangerous and cold, or even illegal.
These are the main barriers, and we came along and said, ‘Guys you are actually allowed to do it and it’s wonderful, a bit chilly when you get in maybe, but fantastic when you’re in there’.
She adds: “I think there was a general belief that swimming was illegal and you can’t do it without express permission and I think the OSS has pushed back on that.
“You do have a right to get into a lot of water and by a lot of people doing it, those rights are going to stay enshrined in our general knowledge.
“There has been a temptation in order to prevent accidents for people to put up signs saying ‘danger no swimming’, ‘danger deep water’. But actually they don’t have the right to stop you getting into water in a lot of places.”
The determination for people to swim outside is clear as soon as you look online.
Networks are springing up across the UK as people push to keep swim spots open or lobby councils to open new ones.
An interactive map on the OSS website offers a guide to where and when not to swim in the country, including advice on where to park, which spots to avoid and how far you can swim. If swimmers like Kate and writer/OSS patron Robert Macfarlane are providing the inspiration, it is the swimmers themselves who are now putting in the leg work.
Kate is not surprised.
“People are actually pretty evangelical about wild swimming.
““When you get into water it does change your perspective of the landscape at a very straightforward level, but also it reunites you with a feeling of joy and adventure and gives people an openness and makes them think about environments in a different way.”
This is an important point. After swimming against the current of the Little Ouse, I flip onto my back and let the water carry me downstream.
Under overhanging trees and through creeping weeds, I feel utterly calm, relaxed and trouble-free.
Other swimmers clearly feel the same way.
A recent survey of OSS’s 19,000 members revealed that about 90% of those who took part swam because it made them happier and put problems into perspective.
About 80% of people ticked a box saying it gives them a spiritual connection to the landscape.
“That’s quite a big word to use and one which people don’t generally like using”, says Kate.
“But I think psychologically you do change a lot when you swim, and you also feel that connection to the landscape and other people in a way that’s different from going for a run or going for a cycle.
“It transforms you in a different way and I think that’s why we have such passionate supporters.”