Some outdoor swimmers skinny dip to mark their birthdays. Some do it when they forget their costume and not swimming is not an option. Some do it for the sheer transgressive thrill of it.
But casting off your clothes and making for the water has a long-standing association with virtue and saintliness – of being a means through which to connect to the spiritual realm, whether it be religious or more earth-bound in nature.
Author and historian Nick Mayhew-Smith set out to explore this through re-enacting four ancient bathing rituals across the UK.
Naked, I approached a river sluggish with January chill, bare feet crunching on frosty reeds, and felt a timeless glow of peace descend on the ice-white water meadow. Unsure whether this was a spiritual blessing from creation itself, or a premonition of hypothermia, I uttered a few brief and not entirely holy imprecations, then braced myself to meet my maker. As religious rituals go, sacred bathing is nothing if not memorable.
On that morning last year, I was plunging into a ritual unchanged since the start of our recorded history: an authentic exercise in Celtic nature spirituality. Yet it has been entirely abandoned by mainstream religion, so I suspect my revival of such forgotten rituals might resonate more with the devoted souls in the Outdoor Swimming Society than any organised church.
Historical records of Britain and Ireland talk of devout monks and nuns slipping out of their monasteries to plunge into cold water, naked in all innocence before their Creator and quite often breaking the ice to demonstrate their resolve. In all, there are around 50 records of devout bathers across Christendom during the first millennium, of whom a remarkable 39 were from Britain and Ireland. Clearly something spiritual eddies in our lakes, lochs, springs, rivers and seas. After completing a PhD examining the scant documentary evidence, I wanted to find out what.
“Conventional wisdom says that early saints were merely trying to dampen their unruly libidos by plunging into the chill, a theory that sounds a little glib to anyone experienced in open-water swimming.“
This brought me to the icy bank of the River Wey in Surrey. I’m happy to report back that these primal rituals still work today, which is perhaps no surprise to those who find a spiritual dimension to their own wild water immersions. Conventional wisdom says that early saints were merely trying to dampen their unruly libidos by plunging into the chill, a theory that sounds a little glib to anyone experienced in open-water swimming. It also raises the question of why the people of these islands were so troubled by sexual desire compared to everyone else.
My own theory is that it was part of a missionary strategy, designed to capture the attention of the sceptical, Pagan folk of Britain and Ireland. In a landscape teeming with tales of hostile spirits lurking in the wild, the best way to respond was to strip off and wade in, demonstrating the power of one Creator God to restore harmony between humans and nature. Caves mountains, islands and wilderness played their part, but it was water that held particular fear, and so into the water the saints plunged.
It is this notion of harmony with the environment that stands the test of time, the elements irreducible in their simplicity: a bare body and a river or sea. So, baring body and soul alike, I splashed my way through the four ancient bathing rituals below.
Hemmed in by the rocky cliffs of St Abb’s Head, the tiny Horsecastle Bay echoes to the crashing waves. It was here that a 7th century monk tuned his worship to the rhythm of the cosmos in a bathing ritual like no other. Sneaking out of the Coldingham monastery before dawn, St Cuthbert made his way down to the shore. Stripping and wading into the surf up to his neck, writes the historian Bede, he sang psalms ‘to the sound of the waves’ before retreating to the continue his prayers on the shore. Puzzled how anyone could possibly concentrate on a hymn amidst breaking surf, it was only by entering this very bay myself some 1,400 years later that I worked out what was going on. Psalms at the time were antiphonal, which meant you sang a verse and then waited for a response: I think Cuthbert used the beat of the waves as his accompaniment, a duet with nature itself. Amid the miasma of noise, cold and motion, the elements of this impossible bathing ritual swirled into focus for me when I followed suit. Sing, speak, or simply breathe to the unchanging beat of the surf and the sense of connection is immediate and overwhelming. So in tune was Cuthbert to the cosmos, a pair of sea otters followed him out of the brine and proceeded to dry his feet with their fur. My singing skills lack such Pied Piper charm, but the experience lives with me to this day.
Ever had that feeling of being reborn as you emerge fresh from a dip? A natural template for baptism if ever there were one, the early church took full advantage of both the symbolism and practice of bathing. Many of our ancient churches are sited next to natural springs, holy wells embraced without inhibition by a faith that had no embarrassment about engaging happily with nature. And no embarrassment about the human body either: baptism in early Christianity was a literal as well as a metaphorical rebirth, and had a strict requirement for full immersion and birthday suits accordingly. Today the baptismal ceremony usually involves a few drops of warm water on an infant’s head, but early British ritual talked in terms of emerging from the very womb of the waters. Though birth and baptism are one-off events, that did not stop some saints from re-enacting it with a daily dip. My own favourite well is dedicated to St Mary, Fynnon Fair in Denbighshire, the ruins of a medieval chapel lost in vegetation; a place where nature reclaims everything as its own. Alas access has been banned in recent years by a new owner, but holy wells abound across Britain, many as suitable for bathing as they were in medieval times. Numerous colourful rituals attach themselves to our holy wells, but a triple immersion in one of these natural fonts is as good a ceremony as any.
“Ever had that feeling of being reborn as you emerge fresh from a dip? A natural template for baptism if ever there were one, the early church took full advantage of both the symbolism and practice of bathing. Though birth and baptism are one-off events, that did not stop some saints from re-enacting it with a daily dip.”
Celtic hermits were not the only bodies found in the water courses of Britain. Numerous tales tell of monstrous sea creatures and deadly beasts that left the tribal folk nervous of the power of this most unruly of elements. Indeed, the Loch Ness Monster first pops her head above the water in a 7th century story of a monk going for a swim. The founder of Iona’s famous abbey, St Columba, raised up his hand when Nessie appeared and made the sign of the cross over her, allowing his friend to swim safely to the opposite bank. Scotland’s waterways and their various inhabitants have been safe ever since. Committing my own vulnerable figure to the crystal blue waters off the Orkney Islands one summer, after visiting the ruined shrine church of a martyred saint, I nearly leapt out of my skin when I noticed a black shape shadowing me along the white sandy bottom. Looking up with a splash, I came face to face with a seal, swimming alongside me for what seemed like the pure fun of it. One of us at least emerged feeling thoroughly blessed.
All of which brings me to my final bathing devotion mentioned at the start of this article – an experience both exhilarating and soulful as I took a dip in the same stretch of river at least once a month for a year. Far more memorable than the simple rush of ice swimming was the extraordinary connection I developed to this wild stretch of the River Wey, meandering through water meadows. In mid-March the trees were as bare as I was under a leaden sky. A month later the banks bloomed with wildflowers and wildlife, with birds joyfully flitting under lime green trees. In June, I winced my way through chest-high nettles, and in October slipped down the riverbank on brown wet leaves. The cycles of the seasons and the flow of the river, the inexorable patterns of life, death and rebirth, always changing and always the same. It was actually a Saxon nun, St Ethelflaeda of Romsey Abbey, who first drew my attention to this practice of year-round bathing, standing naked in the River Test each night to sing her psalms and put the world to rights. A patron saint for me personally, she lived long into old age and is remembered fondly to this day in the town’s abbey church.
Casting aside all trappings of modern civilisation made me realise how vital and how vulnerable this connection to nature is. The closer I got to know my sacred bathing spots, the more I began to spot bits of rubbish woven into the landscape, plastic contaminating and disrupting the cycle of growth and decay, and would sometimes emerge on to the riverbank with both hands full of bottles, string, bags and bits of fabric. Even a small swimming costume will shed an invisible cloud plastic microfibres into the ecosystem, a desecration perhaps too small for anyone much to worry about but a point of principle too. One thing I will say confidently above all else: a truly spiritual interaction with water can not just benefit us, it has to be good for the environment too.