For many of us, swimming represents the gratifying muscle ache from 20 quick lengths in the pool after a hectic day at work. Or perhaps a playful splash in the sea under a baking hot sun during a much-needed getaway.
Few of us would consider inching into a local lake or river for a dose of endorphins. Fewer still would relish the idea when the wind is biting and the mornings are dark. But for ‘wild swimmers’ like Ella Foote, embracing the changing seasons is an important part of finding joy in the water.
Ella says: “No swim spot is ever the same, water constantly changes the landscape and surroundings. You can go to the same spot, same river one day and return the following day at the same time and have a completely different experience.”
An escape from the world
Like most people, it was in the local pool that Ella perfected her strokes before moving on to the more challenging climates she enjoys today. She says: “When I got into corporate life in my twenties, the pool became my escape.
“The act of swimming is something natural and easy for me, which means my brain has time to process and sort everything else. It can be meditative, relaxing and calming. If I have a big problem, worries or fears – I go for a swim. It is incredibly therapeutic for me.”
Swimming in the wild
Growing up, Ella cherished family holidays to the Dorset coast where she fell in love with the sea. She says: “Swimming was something that was a joyful experience. The sea was a healing place, it held mystery”.
The switch from the sea to rivers and lakes felt natural when Ella hit adulthood: “I started doing outdoor swimming events and then I wanted to find places to swim near my home, but I didn’t live near the sea.
“I started exploring rivers and lakes - they weren’t obvious places to swim. At first, I wasn’t thrilled about the mud and weeds. Now I take pleasure from those things”.
Hidden gems across the country
Some of Ella’s favourite swimming haunts can be found right here in the United Kingdom. She says: “The River Thames is a surprising and wonderful place to swim. Not the brown swirling Thames you see in central London. The Thames that has vibrant riverbanks, flush with foliage and wildlife in between Windsor and Lechlade is a wonder.
“The Lake District is a swimmers playground – rivers, lakes, waterfalls, ponds, tarns and meres. South Devon offers the wild Dartmoor rivers and pools, plus the varied coastline and lovely sea. Scotland is great for remote and more wild spots”.
The wild swimming community
Ella feels that being outside, in fresh air and natural light is a wonderful thing for both body and mind. And has discovered plenty of medical research along the way that suggests the same thing. But it isn’t just the health benefits that have her hooked - it’s the sense of community too.
She says: “Don’t swim alone, there are plenty of swimmers across the country who will join you for a swim or share a swimming spot. The Outdoor Swimming Society has lots of information on their website and a good community through their social media channels, so there is a lot of ways to meet and discover safe outdoor swimming”.
How to enjoy a fulfilling experience, safely
Ella’s advice for aspiring wild swimmers is to do as much research as possible before taking the (literal) plunge. She advises: “Listen to your body, be kind to it, learn from it and pay attention. Be prepared, research your swimming spot and don’t take unnecessary risk. Learn about water, weather, notice patterns and know your limits and ability.”
And for those whose swimming skills may be on the rusty side? Ella suggests that getting confident in a swimming pool first is the safest way to prepare for a swim on the wild side. Once you have your technique perfected, take things slowly by working up to longer distances.
Finding freedom in the water
Ella writes so passionately about her outdoor adventures (for publications such as The Guardian) that it’s impossible not to feel a little curious about what wild swimming is like. But many people get so caught up in the logistics and ‘what ifs’ that few will ever experience it. Ella’s advice for those on the fence is simple: “ Have fun - and do it for you.”