To enter wild water is to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink – and you break the surface of the water itself. In doing so, you move from one realm into another: a realm of freedom, adventure, magic, and occasionally of danger.
The Outdoor Swimming Society is there to give people a passport to a different world, or worlds. Once you see open water as something to be entered, rather than driven around, flown over or stopped at the brink of, then even familiar landscapes become rife with adventure. Britain seems newly permeable, excitingly deepened. Every lake or loch or lough or llyn is a bathing pool, every river a journey, every tide or wave a free ride. As a wild swimmer, you become an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby, passing through great geological portals (Durdle Door in Dorset), floating over drowned cities (Dunwich) and kelp jungles (The Scillies), spelunking into sea-caves (The Llyn Peninsula), or stroking out into the centre of cold Loch Ness, where the water – as OSS founder Kate Rew beautifully puts it in her book Wild Swim – is ‘black as space’.
There’s nothing faintly class-based about all of this. What could be more democratic than swimming? What more equalising than near-nakedness? You need even less equipment to swim than you do to play football. A bathing costume, if you insist. Then just enough common sense to avoid drowning, and just enough lunacy to dive in.
A century ago, Britain had hundreds of outdoor swimming clubs: The New Town Water Rats, The Tadpoles, The Serpentine, The Sheep’s Green Swimmers, The High Gate Diving Club…names that now seem to shimmer in a sepia haze. Back then, it didn’t seem remotely eccentric to wallow in a tidal pool, or crawl down a flashy river. But after the Second World War came the decline of lido culture, the rise of the municipal pool, the pollution of the river systems, and the understandable prizing of what we oddly call creature-comforts: air-conditioning, thermostats, the sofa…
Over the past decade or so, however, a desire for what might be termed ‘reconnection’ has emerged. A yearning to recover a sense of how the natural world smells, tastes and sounds. More and more people are being drawn back to the woods, hills and waters of Britain and Ireland. More and more would agree with Gary Snyder (forester, poet, tool-maker, Buddhist) when he writes: ‘That’s the way to see the world, in our own bodies’. As though our skin has eyes. Which, in a way, it does.
For when you are swimming outdoors, your sensorium is transformed. You see the world in All-New Glorious Full-Body Technicolour! Everything alters, including the colour of your skin: coin-bronze in peaty water, soft green near chalk, blue over sand. You gain a stealth and discretion quite unachievable on land – you can creep past chub and roach, or over trout and pike, finning subtly to keep themselves straight in the current. You can swim with seals or eels (take your pick; I know which I prefer). You acquire what my friend Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog – a powerful inspiration for Wild Swim – once called ‘a frog’s eye view’ of things.
And the smells! The green scent of the riverbank. The estuary’s Limpopo-gunge whiff. The mineral smell of high mountain lakes. Virginia Woolf, who used to bathe in the River Cam, near Granchester, brilliantly described its odour as one of ‘mint and mud’. When I first came across this phrase, I misread it as ‘mind and mud’, which also seemed right for that university river.
‘You can never step into the same stream’, noted Heraclitus, philosopher of flux, back in the fifth century BC, ‘for new waters are always flowing onto you’. Just so. A version of the truth that you can never go for the same wild swim twice. Weather, tide, current, temperature, company – all of these shift between swims. And different types of water actually feel different. Wild water comes in flavours. Not just salt and fresh, but different kinds of fresh. Next time you’re on chalkland, for instance, find a spring or a river, and take up a handful of water as you might do a handful of earth. It feels silky between the fingers. Smooth, almost rounded. Quite different to granite water, or slate water.
Let’s be clear, though, wild swimming is about beauty and strangeness and transformation – but it’s also about companionship, fun, and a hot cup of tea or nip of whisky afterwards. Nor do all wild swims have to take place in what we might conventionally call a wild place. It’s among the many merits of this society and it’s mission to encourage people back to wild swimming that it doesn’t shy away from the agricultural-industrial aspect to outdoor swimming in Britain. Some of the most memorable plunges described in Wild Swim and on the OSS Swim Map occur in sight of a nuclear power station, or a farm building or pig-ark, or off a sea-beach thick with marine debris (those two-stroke oil bottles, those Tetrapak cartons, those ubiquitous chunks of sofa foam).
There’s also the question of the cold. I used to be something of a cold-water fetishist. I dipped into part-frozen Himalayan rivers, bathed at midwinter in an imperial lake in Beijing, and once cracked the ice on a Cumbrian tarn and plunged in. But a dive into a Devon lake on New Year’s Day, which left me green and nauseous with shock, has now put me off really cold-water swimming. Still, even in summer, there’s no avoiding what James Joyce unforgettably called ‘the scrotumtightening’ moment of entry – which is usually accompanied by noisy intakes and expulsions of breath, raucous hooo-s, and haaa-s. Kate has coined a great new verb to describe the first few strokes of swimming in chilly water: ‘to fwaw’ (as in ‘I fwaw fwaw fwawed into the middle of the lake’). I hope it makes it into the OED.
Roger Deakin spoke to me several times about his wariness of any commercialisation of wild swimming. He was concerned that the improvisation of it all would be lost. But I know that he would have approved of the Outdoor Swimming Society. It’s a society that, like Waterlog, will launch a thousand swimmers. So go on. Jump in and join them.
Robert Macfarlane, May 2008
Dr Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of English at the University of Cambridge. His publications include The Wild Places and Landmarks.