I have thrown myself from the window of a mill house into the River Avon. Negotiated my way down a series of icy pools into the hidden depths of Cumbria. Done heads-out breast stroke along a Yorkshire Dales canal. And snorkelled over swaying kelp forests off the Isles of Scilly. All in the name of an abiding love for wild swimming.
The UK has some of the finest swimming in the world. Yes, the water can be cold. Yes, the weather can put a dampener on things. But for sheer breadth of experience, it’s hard to beat these islands we call home when it comes to taking a soothing soak.
My own obsession grew out of a daily trip across London to the Hampstead Heath mixed bathing pond. I would swim the 80m from the jetty to the rope, tacking along that far line as coots broke free from the undergrowth and dogs barked loudly at me from the nearby causeway.
This everyday dip led me to the writing of Roger Deakin. A naturalist and true English eccentric, Deakin published his cult classic Waterlog in 1999. The book charts his own 'swimmer’s journey through Britain', a celebration of the then subversive activity of wild swimming. In it Deakin spends six months trailing across the UK, stealing swims in trout streams and powering out countless lengths in the moat around his Elizabethan farmhouse in Suffolk.
I was taken with Deakin’s anti-authoritarian spirit and joie de vivre. Deciding I needed to break out from the mixed pond, I vowed to try and swim in every lake, river, lido and bay that he had visited. He passed away in 2006, and in my own self-inflated way I very much saw this as my own tribute to him.
There was another big reason for my undertaking this long journey. The series of dips at Hampstead had become a salve for my anxiety, which at the time had become particularly acute. I discovered that the more I sought out cold, wild water, the calmer, more present I felt.
I set up a blog, Waterlog Reswum, and began ticking off Roger’s swims, one by one. I started with London’s lidos and ponds, from Tooting to Brockwell via Highgate, before branching out further afield. Without the ability to drive, I began relying on friends to get me to far off places, from the beaches at Holkham in north Norfolk to the bays of Cornwall. I took long train rides and rode local buses, yomping to riverbanks and pools for a short paddle. Anything to sate my appetite for a swim.
Along the way, my anxiety began to dissipate, my love of the water and how it flowed around showing me how to look after and improve my mental health. Writing about every swim was also a form of therapy, another obsession which turned from a blog into a book.
By the time I swam my last Waterlog dip, in Roger’s Suffolk moat, I had visited over 70 swimming holes around the UK. I’ve been lucky to swim all over the world, from plunge pools in a Costa Rican cloud forest to fast-moving tributaries in the Mekong Delta. But nothing compares to the dreamy, bucolic swims that I discovered on Deakin’s trail around the UK…
The best UK wild swims
Floating: A Life Regained is out now (Duckworth Overlook), priced at £14.99. ducknet.co.uk