Book Review: Taking the Plunge

OSS Book Editor: A unique collection of stories from swimmers (mostly) in Scotland

Taking the Plunge is a wondrous collection of wild swimming experiences from Scotland. It brings together sage outdoor swimming advice alongside the personal stories of swimmers from all over Scotland, who swim in the sea, in lochs, and in rivers. Peppered throughout with beautiful photographs, this book is a joyful celebration of the community of swimming. As Vicky Allan writes in the introduction, “I wanted to know more about the swimming experiences of others”.

The book is divided into different chapters, each with a specific theme. For example, Chapter Two ‘Calming the Mind’s Storms: Swimming for flow and mindfulness’ brings together stories from swimmers who swim as a way to slow down, connect, focus on breathing, and find flow. The chapter includes an interview with Cameron Norsworthy, founder of the Flow Centre, to discuss the concept of flow, how it differs from mindfulness, and how you can achieve it. Chapter Four ‘Swimming Up for Air: The mental wellbeing effect’ focuses on the wellbeing effect of swimming whereas Chapter Five, ‘Out of our Depths: Getting in touch with discomfort’, talks about the uneasiness of cold water swimming. This chapter contains some of the most wonderful photographs of swimmers moving ice to get into the water, standing proudly half-submerged while surrounded by snow, joyfully running towards the water in swimming costumes, bobble hats, gloves and booties. Importantly, it also contains advice and hypothermia and how to recognise the signs, and what to do if you find you’ve developed symptoms.

Many come to the water for some spiritual comfort – or at least arrive with a kind of magical thinking.

The stories in Taking the Plunge are not only about pleasure and joy though, they are also about facing grief, and life, through swimming. “[…] many come to the water for some spiritual comfort – or at least arrive with a kind of magical thinking. The sea or lochs, like the sky, seem to be a space in which we see connections, particularly while we are in the full onslaught of grief. Shapes in the clouds seem to speak to us. Birds seem to carry messages (pp134-135).” Grief, body confidence, and chronic pain are all dealt with through cold water swimming and each is discussed in Taking the Plunge – mostly through the personal stories and anecdotes of different swimmers. Deacon and Allan talk to researchers at the University of Portsmouth, specifically Dr Mark Harper, who are investigating the benefits of cold water swimming. Helping to reduce chronic inflammation (seen in diseases like arthritis, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and inflammatory bowel disease), it seems, is one of the key benefits of swimming in the cold. At present, evidence for this reduction in inflammation is anecdotal, as is the research on the connections between swimming and improved mental health, but researchers like Dr Harper are hoping to change that.

Taking the Plunge is a fantastic introduction to why people choose to swim in the wild, in cold water. The use of personal stories gives the reader insight into the lives of ordinary people – as opposed to rich adventurers with endless leisure time – showing us why people swim, and also how they fit it into their lives, between work and school runs, personal commitments and obstacles like grief, illness, or injury. It is also filled with useful advice, links to further reading and places to swim in Scotland.

Beyond the wild watery landscapes, almost nothing else out there makes us feel so alive.

As Deacon and Allan write, “[…] at a time when our human relationship with the planet is so troubled, it’s [swimming is] such a nurturing and liberating way of connecting with the environment. Because it is exhilarating. Because, beyond the wild watery landscapes, almost nothing else out there makes us feel so alive” (p.8). If that isn’t a manifesto to go swimming, we don’t know what is.

Lexi Earl