Vivienne Rickman Poole, an artist and swimmer, talks about how her project ‘Swim Snowdonia’ brought about a revolution in the ways she views the landscape around her.
Swim Snowdonia came about as I am one of those people who embraces change a little too much, never wanting to swim in the same place twice. A friend of mine was doing 30 days of biking in April 2014, and I didn’t have a bike so I decided I’d swim it alongside her, and swim every day for 30 days. There were no other rules; I have little interest in distance, times or temperatures.
At the beginning I thought it’d be interesting to see how many lakes I could swim by the time the first snow fell later that year, but then I grew interested in exploring all the permanent bodies of wa-ter in the hills all the lakes.
I now have an OS map of Snowdonia wallpapered to my kitchen wall. I mark the ones I’ve swum with numbers, and the ones I want to swim next have a different kind of tag. With around 250 lakes alone, what started off as a small project in my spare time, has turned into researching, planning and attempting to dip my toes in more than 400 permanent bodies of water. Aside from the lakes, there are quarry pools, rivers to explore, not to mention water created by man. I realise it could take me years to complete and has become a bit of a life’s work.
I’m quite dedicated to it – I took up fell running to get to them quicker. Some are a few hours drive away, and several hours walk in, so it takes a whole day to get there and back. I was already swimming all year round when I started. It was pretty cold, and I’ve grown more used to it as the years go on. Sometimes I think ‘am I ever going to do this?’ then I get a spurt on and get 30 done in a month.
In deciding where to swim next, a place has to catch my eye in some way. Sometimes it will be the name that draws me there, sometimes looking at a photo someone local has put on social media. I went to Afon Ystumiau at the weekend. A little river, it’s name has several meanings; gestures, fa-cial expressions, distorted. On the map it cut a beautiful shape and clearly related to it’s meander-ing path.
With around 250 lakes alone, what started off as a small project in my spare time, has turned into researching, planning and attempting to dip my toes in more than 400 permanent bodies of water. I took up fell running to get to them quicker.
I have swim/dip/explored around 130. Not all lakes are lovely so I don’t always get in; I have no passion for swimming in 6 inches of stinking, stagnant swamp water. That said I may dip my feet, there is also something quite wonderful about feeling the silkiness of churned up mulch between your toes.
I don’t like to do too much research on a lake before I go, I like to feel the experience of the water and the landscape first hand. I do to heavily research it afterwards, researching books and local stories. I really really like deep water, and like to visualise the bathymetric contours of the lake when I’m there, based on the surrounding landscape.
I document every swim, taking lots of photos on the way in and out. I did pinhole photography mainly before and made my own cameras. The taking photos underwater has come about purely by being petrified by what is underwater – I started wearing a go pro and filming what was on the swims. Quite often the thing that makes you scared is you in the water – the flow of water around you from swimming. All I ever saw in the photos was other swimmers or my magnified body and then I became interested in what the camera could capture. The creativity overtook the swimming quite quickly.
In swimming terms I don’t have a favourite type of swim or season. I like winter more purely from a creative point of view – the clarity of water is that much better. In winter I go for short swims, I do it for feeling alive, the sheer joy it brings. In summer I like blissful zen-like long swims. Swimming alone and with other people are both nice, just totally different kinds of experiences.
I’m a qualified mountain leader, so I like to think I can look after myself in the mountains. I always ensure I know what’s happening with the weather, I can get myself in and out of the hills and can navigate myself around happily, making common sense decisions when I need to. The lakes are all quite different depending on the mountain area they are in. On Snowdon and Cadair Idris they’ll be that clear blue water because of the geology. Across the valley the Moelwynion mountain range has a more peaty soil therefore the lakes are brown and orange – I like the tones of that water and the rivers that flow from them.
In winter I go for short swims, I do it for feeling alive, the sheer joy it brings. In summer I like blissful zen-like long swims. Swimming alone and with other people are both nice, just totally different kinds of experiences.
One thing I enjoy is how being photographed underwater changes peoples relationship with their bodies. It doesn’t matter what size or shape we are, we are all confident, elegant, look graceful, beautiful underwater. It shows people as really comfortable and natural with who we are. Perhaps it’s just our faces we feel the need to edit.
As the journey has progressed I have found myself increasing fuelled by self-possession, longing, indulgence, and obsession. I crave the nervous anticipation of a new swim, enjoy the procrastination of entering unknown waters and have come to recognise my limitations. I started to see the mountains in a new light, no longer summits to climb and look down on the world, I wanted to be in their heart, at the centre of everything, kicking back looking out at the world around me. I could lose my focus easily… I realise it could take me years to complete and has become a bit of a life’s work.. But of course I’m going to do them all!