We estimate one million Brits now belong to one or more local outdoor swimming groups. The vast majority of these members – around 850k – are part of the informal outdoor swimming community that has grown extraordinarily over the past five years. The others are part of UK networks like Mental Health Swims, Bluetit Chill Swimmers and Blue Balls in Cornwall and Edinburgh.
Informal swim groups have been around for a very long time – where friends and locals gather to enjoy plunging into the sea on New Year’s Day or drifting down rivers during long lazy summers. Yet, during the past two decades something remarkable has happened. The advent of the UK’s wild swimming scene in the early 2000s coincided with the birth of social media and the founding of the Outdoor Swimming Society (2006).
Early adventurers, like the swim group admins of the Alnwick & Amble Sea Swimmers (2010) and Hebridean Sea Swimmers (2011), invited strangers from near and far to join them for a swim – away from the safety of open water venues and local authority indoor pools. These companionable swim groups, based on self-reliance and shared experiences, recognise the benefits of outdoors swimming and welcome all – swimmers and dippers, breast-strokers and crawlers.
Informal outdoor swimming groups are here to stay – but they are also developing in expertise, autonomy and ambition. They are now organic and hold a life of their own beyond those who set them up. Their members, under the swimming banner, are forming smaller groups of weekend explorers, community fundraisers, nature watchers, guidebook writers and volunteer fitness coaches. Here, we meet just two of these groups raising the bar.
Informal outdoor swimming groups are here to stay… Their members, under the swimming banner, are forming smaller groups of weekend explorers, community fundraisers, nature watchers, guidebook writers and volunteer fitness coaches.
Our love of swimming hasn’t just taken us out of the pool and into open water, it’s also taken us from the open water back into the pool!
Since the covid pandemic, not only have we taken to the sea, rivers and lidos for our outdoor fix but the rise in participation in open water events has also seen a surge. Many of us have taken on the challenge and entered, in some cases, our first significant swim events such as the Great North Swim, the Bantham Swoosh 6k and the River Adur 5k. Even for seasoned swimmers these events can be a little daunting so it’s important to make sure we’re fit enough to go the distance.
A few of us, from Solent Outdoor Swimmers, decided to use the winter months for some structured training, and went back to the pool.
We hired two lanes privately at our local indoor pool so that we could all swim together, and using the expertise within the group created a series of drills for each session to work on various techniques each week. Focussing on a specific aspect of our stroke whilst also adding in plenty of distance in the warm swimming pool helped us improve and build our stamina. Some drills didn’t go down as well as others; 100 metre legs only kicking and 50 metre sprints were particularly unpopular. But, truth be told, they improved us. We got fitter, faster, we had better technique from being in a controlled environment as opposed to the wintery and unpredictable, not to mention chilly winter sea, and this in turn has given us the confidence we need to get back in the open water and swim long distances this summer season.
Building our fitness was not the only benefit that came out of these sessions. Swimming with friends first thing on a Monday, even in a pool, encourages you to get out of bed early on those dark winter mornings and energises you for the week ahead. We motivated each other with tips and ideas, we raced each other to help improve our times and importantly we looked after each other.
Most of us have never swum at club level and we are not used to hours of ploughing up and down a pool working on various aspects of our stroke with multiple drills guided by a coach with a loud whistle. We didn’t just plough, as the sessions were really dynamic, and there was no one with a whistle(!) – everyone embraced it and enjoyed it immensely.
Winter training is over now and the chilly winter dips in the sea are turning into swims now that outdoor swim events are in sight. As we wait for the sea to warm up for these longer distances, we know we’ve got a good foundation of technique, fitness and stamina to take on the 1 to 10ks this year! Su Wills
Building our fitness was not the only benefit that came out of these sessions. Swimming with friends first thing on a Monday, even in a pool, encourages you to get out of bed early on those dark winter mornings and energises you for the week ahead.
We are the YaYas: 15 women whose hearts and souls are joined together by our love of swimming, by the laughter and tears through the glorious journey of life. Founder member, Danielle Ash, and I originally set-up the Social Swim Group, a Facebook based swim group aimed at bringing people in North Devon together as we started to come out of the Covid 19 pandemic in 2021. The YaYas grew organically from this as our local swims and dips at nearby Saunton Beach and Croyde Bay became more adventurous.
Inspired by the late Lynne Roper and her book, Wild Woman Swimming, one of our swim planners, Claire Peebles, arranged a day trip to the River Dart. Following the advice of the legendary wild swimmer we drove and hiked to the Sharrah Pools, taking tyre inner tubes with us to master the rapids. We walked to Spitchwick Common and swam in the clear river waters and joined the local teenagers jumping off the high river cliff. We finished the day by driving to Plymouth Hoe, where some of us swam at one of Europe’s top 10 outdoor pools, the historical Tinsdale Lido, and others went off to explore the caves along the coastline, before rendezvousing for dinner.
These trips away allow us all to take time out. Some of the group have definitely been pulled out of their comfort zones; being encouraged to swim deeper or further than before. I think our record in one day is seven swims and many miles of walking.
Since our first adventure, we’ve had weekend trips to the Isles of Scilly and North Wales, and countless day trips all over the South West. We make sure there’s something for everyone. Our three-day Cornwall excursion included jumping into Porthtowan’s mermaid pool, body surfing in the rolling waves at St Agnes Porthcurno, a scramble down to the breath-taking Pedn Vounder, a swim through the majestic cave at Nanjizal Cove, playing in the rock pools and stream at Trebarwith Strand, and a sandy dip at Crackington Haven.
Although none of us initially trained for the excursions, we all had a base level of physical fitness, which is needed for these combined walking and swimming adventures. Some of the YaYas have been inspired enough to take on challenges such as the Exmoor Swim, the Burgh Island swim and the St Michael’s Mount swim. We’ve incorporated training swims into our local dips and have even secured the use of a local private lake to train and increase our distances, as well as regularly swimming together out to buoys at an Ilfracombe beach.
As the YaYas have developed we’ve got involved with fundraising – including organising a relay Channel swim challenge to raise funds for Family Compass (a local charity which helps children and families improve their mental health), Surfers Against Sewage and Plastic Free North Devon. We’ve organised workshops, such as making our own bodyboards from scratch.
These trips away allow us all to take time out. Some of the group have definitely been pulled out of their comfort zones; being encouraged to swim deeper or further than before. I think our record in one day is seven swims and many miles of walking. We’re a bunch of supportive, caring women who take the time to boost each other up across every aspect of our lives, as well as improving our own confidence and body positivity. Some of us have younger children, who often join us for a swim, and it’s amazing for them to have such role models to be inspired by. Since getting together we’ve all found a deep connection and know that we have friends who will always have our corner and will help us through anything and everything life may throw at us. Louise Round