A hot tub, silent swims, festival swims and dogged enthusiasm: how a few outliers helped build a community, and a movement.
Sometimes it takes two weeks on holiday or a passing encounter with the sublime to liberate one’s thinking about life. Sometimes all it takes is a swim on a stormy night. On the night before Halloween in 2005, Kate Rew and Kari Furre drove eight hours from Somerset to the Lake District, accompanied for the entire journey by a wet concrete sky. ‘We could go for a swim when we get there,’ Kate suggested, with still an hour to go. The rationale was that while tedium, boredom and frustration can be taken with you on a trip, they can never outlast a swim. After standing in a puddle by the boot of the car to put on their wetsuits, the clouds throwing rain in their faces, they swam around a headland of Buttermere, the water black until dipping underneath revealed white pebbles, a sudden shelf; they cautiously stuck to the shore in the ominous conditions. Somewhere between this fifteen-minute adventure and the après- swim warmth of a peach dado rail and damask apricot curtains in a £25- per-night B&B came an epiphany: why not start an Outdoor Swimming Society?
In 2005 – seventeen years ago – people did swim outdoors in the UK, but they were largely old-timers who had swum outdoors since youth, or were considered somewhat eccentric outliers to ‘normal’ indoor pool swimmers. Outdoor swimming diminished in mainstream popularity sometime after the heyday of outdoor bathing during the Victorian era. Lidos had been filled in or sat empty, in gloomy states of disrepair. People still swam the Channel, of course, and took part in elite open-water swims. However, there was little in the way of a community of purely recreational and amateur outdoor swimmers: no events, few local groups, and little authoritative knowledge about where to swim, how to do it, and what to be aware of. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being an eccentric outlier: the Outdoor Swimming Society merely proposed that eccentric outliers could all get together and perhaps encourage other eccentric outliers to get in the water. And, in doing so, make outdoor swimming socially acceptable again.
…the Outdoor Swimming Society merely proposed that eccentric outliers could all get together and perhaps encourage other eccentric outliers to get in the water. And, in doing so, make outdoor swimming socially acceptable again
The first event was Breastrokes, a one-mile swim in Windermere and the Serpentine to raise money for breast cancer charities. As a starting point, Kate recalls, ‘It was perfect: practically every time we went swim- ming, people yelled, “Are you doing this for charity?” at us from the banks, particularly on the Thames.’ The Windermere mile was waymarked by a hot chocolate stop at Silver Holme Island, which acted both as a necessary refreshment and a statement of intent: swimming outdoors didn’t have to be about endurance, or speed, or time – it could be about just going for the experience. Feeling fresh or salt water on your skin. Looking around you. Noticing seasonal changes. Returning to the shore with the feeling that you’d been away for longer than you knew you had. Breastrokes attracted a lot of media coverage, purely on the basis of its novelty (and in spite of its deliberate misspelling). The momentum continued into the summer of 2006 with stealth swims at the Big Chill Festival, a Breastival swim at Bestival, full-moon swims on the Thames and an initiative to ‘take a friend river-swimming’. OSS membership soared to 300. People wrote us letters: ‘Thanks for giving me an identity. Before, I was just the odd bloke in the office who swam in rivers; now, I’m a “wild swimmer”.’
Few outdoor swimmers will have escaped being met with the comment ‘I remember when it was just called swimming.’ But does pool swimming require checking tide times, rips and currents, developing specific swimming techniques, understanding cold-water shock or knowledge of public access laws?
Each subsequent year saw new adventures, events and increasingly overt political statements. The Big Jump event saw swimmers across Europe leap into a river at the same time on the same day. The OSS held a weekend event with swims around Burgh Island and down the Avon estuary (the latter would become the Swoosh). There were stunt swims at the Innocent Village Fete in Regent’s Park and a protest at Rickmansworth Aquadrome, where swimming had been prohibited. In 2007, a core group of the OSS went on a swim tour around the UK to research spots for Kate Rew’s iconoclastic Wild Swim book, which would be published the following year. The Derwent 10k would follow, along with Facebook-organised ‘social swims’. From the OSS perspective, the group was developing a ‘secure reputation for doing it our own way or being hippies’. Yet sometimes it takes an outsider to put their finger on what’s really going on. The December Dip at Parliament Hill Lido saw participants swimming two widths of the pool in a water temperature of 4 °C. It was well attended by the press for its novelty value as well as the appearance of the Olympic open-water swimmer Cassie Patten, who would go on to run swim clinics with the OSS. Her father remarked to the camera as the swimmers dried off and compared goosebumps: ‘I don’t see a normal person here; they’ve all got mad glints in their eyes.’
What was building here? It was a movement. Although serendipity and impulse had played an important role in the genesis of the OSS, it had always been underpinned by a social purpose and some key organising features and people. An early statement of these reads as follows:
We believe it’s time to get back to the joy of swimming under an open sky. Water needs no roof! Our manifesto:
While the initial aim of the OSS was to give people permission to swim outdoors, this was inevitably accompanied by a second, related goal: to share the swim love. To normalise outdoor swimming through social swimming events, connecting swimmers on social media platforms and, in so doing, democratise the use of the waterways of the UK and beyond. As the take-up of outdoor swimming accelerated, so did the ambition of OSS events and the organisation. We appointed regional representatives in 2010 to lead social swims, and local groups began to be established on Facebook (requiring a hardworking group of volunteers to administer). The iconic Dart 10k had its maiden event in the same year, joined by the Swoosh in 2015 and the Hurly Burly – eight years in the making – in 2017. Working with our charity partner Level Water, these events secured swimming tuition for children with disabilities. Membership increased to 25,000.
By this point, the OSS website had developed into a hub for authoritative advice and information about outdoor swimming, as well as tales of adventure. Few outdoor swimmers will have escaped being met with the comment ‘I remember when it was just called swimming.’ But does pool swimming require checking tide times, understanding rips and currents, developing specific swimming techniques, a basic understanding of the physiology of cold-water shock or a working knowledge of public access laws? The range of articles in the ‘Survive’ section of the website are collaborative and community-generated, but also verified by experts and experience. We are also committed to sharing that knowledge for free – we do not charge for the use of our website, our e-journal elsewhere is free, our Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram accounts are maintained by committed volunteers. It’s democratic but also encourages individual responsibility.
Then something happened in 2020. We knew that our membership had been increasing for a while, and particularly expanding into Europe, North America and Australia. But when the Covid pandemic took hold and lockdowns were instituted across the UK and beyond, this gentle acceleration tipped into something else. With indoor swimming pools closed and lockdown bringing about an acute desire for open spaces, swimming spots became overrun. We took the difficult decision to close the Wild Swim Map, in a bid to avoid honeypots and environmental degradation. Many of our local swimming groups had to close to new members. Outdoor swimming had truly gone mainstream. We now have 100,000 members across all channels, with over half a million visitors to the OSS website (and wildswim.com) in 2020.
Mainstream media attention was a given, no longer because swimming outdoors was novel, but because so many readers of certain publications did it that it became an essential topic to cover. Companies selling outdoor swimming-related products, including tow floats and wetsuits, started to sell out. Robes for changing after swims became so omnipresent in some areas that one brand became a byword for unwelcome groups of outdoor swimmers. Instagram accounts appeared featuring ‘swimfluencers’, sponsored to advertise branded products. There were moves to regulate and charge for swimming in venues that had always been free. Dippers, long-distance swimmers, Wim Hof devotees, fair weather dookers, cold-water aficionados, ice swimmers … it’s now more unusual to meet people who haven’t been outdoor swimming, or who don’t at least say they would like to try it. Or, to paraphrase Cassie Patten’s dad, outdoor swimmers no longer all have a mad glint in their eye.
For the OSS, this huge expansion in the number of people outdoor swimming and the attention of the media and commercial enterprises brought its own set of challenges. In one way, it felt like the original aims of the OSS had been achieved. In many others, it felt as if there was a risk of losing what it was all about. Faced with pressures to do otherwise, not expanding and not growing takes considerable effort. But as the self- declared ‘international anti-governing body of outdoor swimming’, we resist commercialisation, are naturally averse to bandwagons, and prioritise whatever maintains the soul of the modest pastime of taking your clothes off and stepping into a river, a lake or the sea. This means helping our inland access team to provide support, resources and a network to those interested in improving swimming access for inland waters. It means telling stories through our free monthly e-journal elsewhere and continuing to #sharetheswimlove on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. It means supporting the community through free access to authoritative articles in the Survive section of our website. It means continuing to provide a network for administrators of local outdoor-swimming groups, recognising that for many of us, a local and often creatively named group provided us with a warm welcome and an introduction to outdoor swimming.
…as the self- declared ‘international anti-governing body of outdoor swimming’, we resist commercialisation, are naturally averse to bandwagons, and prioritise whatever maintains the soul of the modest pastime of taking your clothes off and stepping into a river, a lake or the sea.
Now we have more than 200,000 members, to what extent can this be described as a community? Well, the OSS community has always been one of loose ties. For every semi-institutionalised local swimming group with a schedule and something like a hierarchical structure, there is a local swimming spot where individuals come and go, sometimes coinciding, sometimes not. There are still more who pop in and make a unique page impression on our website in ways that we will never understand, nor attempt to. Who is reading ‘Wild Swims in Wharfedale’, which was our most-read feature for ten years? Who knows. But we hope they all had a great time. Similarly, the passing years have seen many great, committed and enthusiastic outdoor swimmers pass through the OSS as volunteers and directors, each becoming part of the story and community of what outdoor swimming means today. As former director Kari Furre puts it: ‘On reflection, the swimming is just there, feeding into everything else. I am a time-served amateur, who didn’t know she was part of a movement.’