Eight things I learnt from winter swimmers

Lucy Harper meets swimmers at Hathersage Lido during their first winter season

© Martin Sattler @ Unsplash

Writer and swimmer Lucy Harper spent the winter swimming at Hathersage Lido. The lido sits in the heart of Derbyshire and for the first time, opened unheated for the winter season. The heaters are now back on for spring, however, Lucy discovered winter swimmers have interesting stories to tell and has collected tales from the poolside.

I was at Hathersage Swimming Pool, a stunning, 1930s open-air lido at the foot of a gritstone edge, for the New Year’s Day swim. I got talking to a woman in her 70s in the shower, the way you do. I thought I’d been intrepid cycling a few miles from Sheffield in the sleet to reach the pool, however she’d travelled two hours from Whitby on the east coast for a quick dip in Derbyshire. She said she always liked to do doing something special at New Year as a statement of intent to make the most of the year ahead. I was impressed.

This was my first inkling that the people who use an outdoor swimming pool during its first unheated, winter season might have an interesting story to tell – not just about why they swim, but about what they get out of life, their passions, challenges and achievements.

I spent January and February interviewing twenty-two winter swimmers on the poolside and typing till my fingers froze. A collection of pen portraits has started to take shape with beautiful photography by colleague, Mark Howe. We intend to turn them into a coffee table book and an exhibition, which we hope to launch next winter, when you’re average person finds it far too cold to swim outdoors.

outdoor-swimming-society-eight-types-winter-swimmer-2 © Mark Howe

I took a punt that I’d meet ordinary people doing extraordinary things, it turns out I was right. It’s been breath-taking to hear their winter swimmer stories and other life adventures. I can’t wait to share their stories with you. In the meantime, here are few observations from our wonderful, water-based discussions:

Eight things I learnt from winter swimmers: 

  1. This diverse shoal of swimmers have one thing in common – a passion for what they do – swimmers have travelled from Kidderminster, Nottingham, Sale, Scunthorpe and Manchester to swim during the winter season.
  2. There’s often strong camaraderie in slightly challenging conditions and in doing something everyone else thinks is unhinged – interesting when swimming is otherwise considered to be quite an individualistic sport.
  3. There seem to be two distinct groups: a. sport swimmers measuring performance and using computers b. romantic swimmers who do this for nothing but the love of swimming outdoors, devices firmly left at home.
  4. Some people have had a turning point, such as a serious illness, injury or a loss of a loved one, that’s spurred them on to make the most of life.
  5. A number of winter swimmers enjoy other adventurous activities such as wild swimming, mountaineering, kayaking, skiing and mountain biking.
  6. Other winter swimmers are not strong swimmers at all and have just taken up the challenge to swim a length or two, improve their stroke… in the snow, rain and wind of an outdoor lido.
  7. Winter swimming challenges perceptions, or at least my assumptions. As one woman shouted from her cubicle – it’s the one time that overweight, menopausal women have the upper hand on society!
  8. You don’t need to be an elite athlete to winter swim, it’s about an attitude to life as much as ability – life really is short, make the most of it – did I already mention that…

Visit Hathersage Lido, see our map for details.

Words : Lucy Harper
Images : Mark Howe