Wild swimming: Where have you been all my life!?

Ben DolphinI always enjoyed messing about in water when I was younger but I’m not sure I ever truly enjoyed swimming in it. I certainly wasn’t a bad swimmer, in fact I took part in inter-school competitions, but I think it was more something that I HAD to do because it might save my life one day. And as I got older and completed the various levels of swimming proficiency awards, culminating in swimming up and down a large pool fully clothed and then treading water for what seemed like hours whilst simultaneously self-inflating my pyjamas (seriously!)… the interest waned. I no longer HAD to go into the water, so I generally didn’t.

Having long hair that reached half way down my back was one reason. I hated it being wet. Being a ginger was another, because I loathed the 15 minute ritual of applying gloopy suncream to every square inch only to have to continually reapply as it got washed off. I think embarrassment even featured a bit too. I was so pale and white as to be almost translucent whereas everyone else I knew was tanned and looked at least vaguely healthy. I was more like those shrimp you see in rockpools where you can see their internal organs. But it wasn’t that I thought swimming couldn’t be fun or enjoyable, rather my cost/benefit analysis told me that anything involving immersion in water was all a bit of a faff, so I just didn’t see the point.

A stranded dolphin finally returns to the water!

My final swim in the sea was in 2000, in Malaysia, when a pal and I were swimming back to shore and he started to race me. I took up the challenge, won and then collapsed exhausted on the beach. The problem with taking a long break of years from a physically demanding activity is your muscles gleefully forget what to do, and so for the first time in my life I realised just how impossibly knackering swimming was. It left me with no desire to do it again.

My absolute final dip in anything other than a bath came a year later, at the age of 26, when I was walking the three-day Milford Track in New Zealand. Far from getting the standard torrential rain it was unusually hot and sunny and I was a bit stinky, so I felt obliged to clean myself by skinny-dipping in a snowmelt-fed, freezing cold, sandfly-infested pool. It left me with no desire to do it again.

Since then I haven’t gone near water save for dipping my legs into highland burns during long hillwalks. And yet last week, after 17 years, in the space of five days I went wild swimming four times!

There’s no one single thing that has changed this year but I suspect it’s a combination of a few factors. Firstly, lots of other people seem to do it. A pal of mine has started open water swimming in lochs in recent years, and my sisters down south dabble with wild swimming from time to time. Social media has undoubtedly helped too, not least Calum Maclean’s superbly down-to-earth musings on the matter, and more recently I’ve been inspired reading Fiona Stalker’s (of BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Out for the Weekend’) enthusiastic tweets on the subject.

But I think the most decisive factor has been working and living at Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms over the summer, and consciously choosing to make the absolute most of it while I’m here. The one thing that most of my new colleagues do on these toasty summer evenings is take a dip in one of the many pools along the estate’s rivers, and hearing them talk about wild swimming with such enthusiasm started to entice me. I dare say I wouldn’t have taken the plunge had it been a typical Scottish summer, but with the sweltering heat of the past few weeks everything just seemed to come together. So it was that on yet another sultry Cairngorms evening I found myself cycling to a pool after work with a sense of both trepidation and excitement.

Having heeded local advice on where the best spots were and which pools were likely to be warmer, I ended up choosing a small shallow pool on the Lui. It wasn’t huge, perhaps 5ft at its deepest point and with a pretty waterfall at its head. It had convenient slabby rocks encircling it, which had warmed up in the sun.

Warming up after swim No.2

After 17 yrs of abstinence I really wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of temperature or experience so I walked in slowly, up to my thighs. It was cold, which prompted sharp intakes of breath that momentarily made me think again. I paused and told myself to relax, got my breathing under control, and when I felt comfortable I edged further and immersed myself up to my waist, before splashing water up my arms and down my back. After a few hushed expletives I bent my knees and let my shoulders go under before rising up again. Yep, still cold, but I was okay and my breathing was fine, so I quickly bobbed my head underneath to complete the process.

In that one single instant it was as though someone had turned up the thermostat and, to my considerable surprise, I actually felt warm. I pushed myself around the pool, feet on the bottom, spinning around to take it all in. I don’t know whether it was relief or happiness at having overcome an age-old mental barrier, or because what I was doing felt so free and liberating, but I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. I felt genuinely euphoric!

I in no way claim to be anything other than a total novice at this so can’t offer you any profound insights into the source of my euphoria, but certainly a cursory glance online reveals no end of articles about the physiological and mental benefits of wild swimming, such as: the release of so-called ‘happy chemicals’ (endorphins, dopamine and serotonin); improved circulation; reducing inflammation; and boosting your immune system. Most exercise can bring about such benefits but the rush I experienced was something else.

Once I’d got over that initial rush I swam to and fro across the pool for ten minutes before climbing out, drying off and then sitting relaxing on the warm slabs. I was buzzing when I got home and instantly wanted to do it again, and before I knew it I’d swam in three more pools over the next four days. It’s weirdly addictive but I’ve tried to be sensible and not get ahead of myself. I’ve kept well clear of waterfalls, fast flowing water or pools I can’t see to the bottom of. I climb out before I get cold, and once I’ve dried off I immediately put a warm fleece on. I then sit on the rocky slabs with a flask of hot coffee, and maybe a cinnamon & raisin bagel or some chocolate. And then I just sit, feeling warm inside and out, sometimes thinking back on what I’ve just done, but more often thinking about nothing in particular. It’s unbelievably peaceful.

Especially gratifying has been the unique sense of intimacy you get with the natural world. Had it been 30 years ago I’d no doubt have been splashing about, shouting, being generally loud and making my presence felt to both human and fish alike, but now the joy of the water is in its stillness, or in the liquid smoothness of motion – both of the water itself as it passes through the pool and of my own passage through it.

Taking time to notice

But I’ve also enjoyed the veil of invisibility that immersing yourself in water appears to create. On my second swim, when most of me was submerged below the surface, an oystercatcher came flying up the burn so low as to almost skewer my head! I could actually feel the wind from its wings as it passed. A dipper then landed on a rock not two metres from me, bobbed up and down a few times before flying on. I wondered if these encounters were flukes and had occurred only because I was utterly still and hadn’t been noticed, so when a grey wagtail landed on a ledge on the other side of the pool I put my veil to the test. With only my nose and eyes above water I silently moved through the pool towards the bird, to see how close I could get. I swear, had the final metre not been barred by a shallower section I honestly believe I would have ended up eyeball to eyeball with the wagtail.

But perhaps most curiously of all, what I’ve found during that relaxing pool-side time after a swim is I am much more content to sit still at the water’s edge than I would otherwise be, and that I see more of what is around me. On one such swim I sat for over two hours afterwards, something I would never usually manage without having a specific objective, such as watching nesting birds. Small pearl bordered fritillaries fluttered past and I imagined them drawing lines in the air. Out the corner of my eye I spotted an emperor moth caterpillar crawling along a slab, and I got up to follow its journey through the heather. I even felt oddly generous towards marauding clegs as they occasionally landed on my legs, and seized the opportunity to study and film them close up. They’ve got incredible eyes, you know!

Between the boulders I spied collections of twigs all bent in the same direction, where spates had wedged them all together. At the base of the pool I saw circular, bowl-like depressions, each containing a single pebble. And on rocky ledges overhanging the pool I was hypnotised by the dancing reflections of sun-kissed ripples.

Cycling to swim No.3

I see all these things and more elsewhere of course, and I’ve written before about how I can sit still for hours if need be, watching wildlife. But this pool-side post-swim time feels different, and I’m not entirely sure why. Swimming certainly has that similar sense of freedom about it that walking (or any other activity granted by our progressive access rights) has, but I’ve felt closer to the natural world in those Cairngorms pools than I have in any wildlife hide. I’ve felt more alive than I have on any summit wild camp on a munro. And I’ve felt more content and calm afterwards than I have after any walk I can recall. Which is why I’ve found myself almost glued to the pool-side afterwards, reluctant to leave.

I was struggling to articulate exactly what it was I was feeling, but when I posted a photo of my first wild swim on my blog, someone added a comment that instantly rang true, She said:

‘Just been in the North Sea at St Andrews and can’t get the grin off my face! Getting in the water connects you even more with the environment I think. You could say it’s immersive…’

That it’s immersive probably sounds glaringly obvious but that’s exactly the word I was looking for. It really might be as simple as feeling more a part of an environment for having swum in it, but that realisation still surprises me because I’ve always regarded walking or camping as immersive experiences in themselves.

I know there will be folk reading this who are rolling their eyes and saying to themselves… “well, obviously! I could have told you that!”. But like I say, I’m new to this and am very excited, not least because I’ve yet to use my new goggles (yes, I’ve got some already) to see this exquisite underwater world and all its wildlife with clear vision. I’ve even borrowed a waterproof camera!

None of this means I’ll view my terrestrial experiences and wildlife encounters any differently. I have had, and will no doubt continue to have, fantastic and uplifting encounters with the natural world away from cold waters. But certainly I’ve discovered an extra way of feeling connected to the natural world that will no doubt become part of a greater outdoorsy whole when I’m out and about, and I’m excited about where that will lead me.

I suspect it will lead me back to those exquisite pools along the Allt Mheuran that you pass when descending from Glas Bheinn Mhor into Glen Etive. Or to the countless others I’ve walked past on scorching hot days in the highlands that could have cooled me down, enriched my day and generally soothed my soul. But perhaps most surprisingly of all, it’s leading me to find something about summer that I can actually look forward to. And believe me when I say that this particular snowman is as surprised at that as anyone!

Warming up after swim No.4

A wee note of caution

Please don’t read this as a ‘how to’ for wild swimming. I’m certainly no expert, rather I’m a complete novice who is learning himself via advice from pals and from organisations like the Outdoor Swimming Society, who sensibly advise the following:

‘As an outdoor swimmer – is it safe? This should be the first question you ask yourself. But before you look for a swimming hole, it’s important to be aware of your own capabilities as a swimmer. Bear in mind that while you might be a strong swimmer in a heated pool, you could easily find yourself in trouble outdoors unless you understand the water, how it behaves, its temperature, and the effects that these factors might have on you. So take it gently, and if possible find local swimmers to introduce you to their favourite spots while you gain experience.‘

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.