Swimming in the time of Corona

These are strange, dry times for outdoor swimmers. Kate Rew, Calum Maclean and he OSS team share some of the hows and whens of returning to the water

Calum Maclean

For swimmers who have dutifully stayed out of the water during lockdown, the easing of restrictions brings a fresh set of dilemmas. Some of these are addressed with the new OSS guidance on swimming during lockdown, published this week. Here, OSS team members address their personal approach to returning to swimming, reflecting on how it has changed and raising questions about how lockdown has brought ongoing concerns with inland access into sharper focus.


Somerset: Kate Rew, OSS Founder

Lockdown began for me on March 18th, on a 16 hour drive home through France in post-apocalyptic quietness. The world tilted on it’s axis for me then, and the walls came in close: with my husband initially in the shielded category we stayed home completely, not even shopping.

For the first few months we did some walking, and biking, but the only ‘swimming’ was floating in a kids pool in our back garden, which seems to slake that thirst to be near water or in it more than you would imagine. When lockdown restrictions eased 10 weeks later I wanted to swim but was not ready to go back out. My boys (7 and 8) wanted to go to Farleigh & Hungerford Swimming Club that first Wednesday. I used the fact it was cold that day as an excuse not to, but actually, I didn’t feel ready – I didn’t want to be part of a rush and thought it might be horrible. And so, to a degree, it was: Farleigh announced it was closed within days, and soon after another local landmark, Warleigh Weir outside Bath, closed too, in a story that has now become familiar England over: people leaving excrement in the bushes, litter everywhere, no social distancing.

It’s hard while we’re still ‘in it’ to gauge how out of our normal selves we have become, but there are external indicators that my base level of anxiety is up: for one, I am on my seventh novel by the same author (so safe! So unthreatening!). For two, those little physical things that give it away: night sweats that collect in the webs of my fingers, episodes of proper crying, really liking drinking.

Last Thursday – 8 days after ‘stay alert!’ – I thought enough is enough: feel the fear and go scared. So Jack, Eddie and I took ourselves off to a different weir early in the day, and swam and swam in the heat. It was glorious. Flattened bays of tall grass and nettles socially distanced a growing number of families on the banks, and the water was green and bucolic. It wasn’t all water lilies and mayflies: I started a litter pick when we arrived, abandoned t shirts and beer boxes, and realised I didn’t have gloves on just as I came across a tube of Anusol.

We went back the next day, but we were later this time and suddenly, around 1ish, it went from being okay to really not okay at all – there is only one getting out spot and it was crowded both in an out of the water by a multitude of families, while on the other side of the river all hope of social distancing had gone on the weir. We climbed out over some weir machinery, and left as fast as we could. Then the real horror of it all started: two men died at another local weir that day. Over the weekend distressed emails started coming in to wildswim.com from local residents and parish councillors about problems in their areas. There were just too many people, heading to too few places. Then another tragedy: the seriously injured jumpers at Durdle Door.

So on Monday, we had an emergency ZOOM meeting, seven of us on the OSS core team talking about what to do. We took wildswim.com offline to help protect local communities, and manoeuvred ourselves into doing the opposite of what The OSS has done for 14 years: instead of sharing the swim love, muting the swim love, trying to keep some of the oxygen away from the fire.

On Tuesday I got up really early and cycled somewhere for a swim alone, somewhere I can’t tell you about, in case that too gets swamped. I have never liked swimming alone, preferring to swim with one quiet athletic other so I don’t fall pray to any thoughts of things grabbing my ankles. But I struck out into the green, the water so warm it didn’t even make me gasp, and thought: well, this is another learning from lockdown. This, I can learn to do.

When I got home I realised that a selfie I had taken is the mirror image of one from 2007  – same goggles, same camera, same colour costume, same me (solo swimming). And that’s the weird world we’re in: where everything and nothing is altered.


Inverness: Calum Maclean, OSS Ambassador

Calum Maclean made his tentative return to swimming in this loch

As we have entered phase 1 of lockdown easing in Scotland, outdoor swimming is back on the cards – although in reality, not much has changed. We have a small extension to freedom – but the majority of my time will still be spent at home.

I have taken the opportunity to start swimming again, whilst sticking to the guidance. All my swims are local, and I am avoiding any potentially risky or busy spots.

I am in the enviable position of having several lochs nearby that are suitable for swimming and being rural are generally quiet. These are locations I know very well and have swum at many times before. Being in the Scottish Highlands, many smaller communities still worry over an influx of visitors and staying local is vital at this time.

I think personal responsibility is key when swimming, especially so now. I’m sticking close to shorelines and won’t yet go to the sea for some time. The beaches I might visit are not patrolled or monitored by lifeguards at any time, and I always approach any swim with the knowledge that I need to be fully responsible for my own safety.

Scottish water is generally colder than much of the rest of the UK, so I’m keeping all swims short for the next few weeks. I see this period as re-visiting a skill I haven’t used in a while. Much as with any skill, if I haven’t practised it for a prolonged period, I’m not going to be as sharp as I was. My cold-water acclimatisation is not yet there and my swim fitness is some way off. I’m taking the chance to build slowly into it, to enjoy the slight extra freedom – but knowing this could all change again, should we not stick together?


Switzerland: Swimstaman, OSS Swiss Envoy

Swimstaman surveying empty lake during an early morning lockdown swim

It’s been strange to sit here relatively safely in Switzerland, and watch the world crumble – according to the media at least – around us. As a neighbour of both Italy and France, and as a travel hub in Europe, we got struck here with quite high numbers, quite quickly.

Early on, I remember seeing reports from Spain and Italy and wondering why we, in Switzerland, were not reacting. Thankfully, over a couple of days, wheels started turning and restrictions/protections were put in place very quickly. Signs appeared on doors. Leaflets everywhere. Tape on the floor. People being unusually polite. The Sunday evening before school was due to resume, parcels appeared in our letter box containing homework covering the next six weeks. After this quick turnaround I would then wince every time I heard news from the UK. “Business as usual” I saw on the website of my former home town. At the point we were already two weeks ‘locked down’ over here.

As for swimming, the sport council very quickly made their position clear and that was that sport was allowed in groups of up to three, keeping social distance but it was still better to workout at home, if possible. (this was early to mid-March) At the start people were a bit casual about it. The office workers still at work could be seen in packs at lunch, sweating and puffing their way along the pavements. Distance was not being respected very well in leisure spaces and, with an early heatwave, people flocked to the lake. Consequently, most open areas were fenced off, including most access to the lake.

Swimstaman during a lockdown swim

Initially, when group sport was forbidden, the rowing clubs were closed. There was zero traffic on the lake! Beautifully calm and still and much more enticing.

As Easter approached, the sport council announced the importance of sport and how being outdoors and getting fresh air was important. Jogging, cycling and walking were named specifically. At that point I took the decision to start swimming again, but very early in the day, usually on my own. Jumping in in front of four coffee-drinking police officers confirmed that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. With just a towel, shorts and a jacket, they could tell I hadn’t come far.

The lockdown has almost resulted in a coming together of all types of swimmers. With the usual ‘badis’ closed (public lidos, usually by the lake in Zurich), indoor pools shut and metres of promenade closed off, there were limited places to access the water. As it was, people ended up finding the same spots and those would become casual meeting places to go for a swim, often alone, but sort of together. We were just ending the winter swim season. Braver triathletes were training with layers of neoprene, hardened winter swimmers were still taking their bracing dips. It’s almost like people were desperate for something. Many looked like it was a new thing for them.

Animals were much more confident during this period and some of my swims were simply beautiful with the variety of wildlife flying above or swimming below. Chicks nested at the side, the lack of waves and traffic making their lives that bit more peaceful.

Initially, when group sport was forbidden, the rowing clubs were closed. There was zero traffic on the lake! Beautifully calm and still and much more enticing.

The super early starts have turned into a good habit for me, with most of my swims at the moment occurring before the sun is even up. When the badis do open again I think I’ll continue this routine and just get up, find the nearest spot, and jump in.


London: Simon Kerslake, OSS Club Secretary

Simon Kerslake

Hampstead Bathing Ponds, Parliament Hill Lido, The Serpentine, London Fields Lido – all steeped in swimming heritage, all within central London, and all favourite outdoor swimming spots of Swim Champ Coordinator Karen and mine. And all closed due to Covid 19. 

But as lockdown eases and swimming is allowed once more, the new normal dictates we have to venture further afield to get our watery fix. Not for us the immersion in  languid rivers of Devon and Somerset available to Kate, the cool, endless Lochs of the Scottish Highlands on Calum’s doorstep or the vast stretches of mirror-surfaced Swiss water that Swimstaman frolics in  – all with the carefree abandon of shedding one’s clothes by the water’s edge and diving in…we now have to fight to book an online slot (they sell out faster than a place in The Dart 10k), drive up the M1 (getting busier every week),  get changed in a car park, register our presence, and then queue like we’re going on our weekly shop (please use the markers for distancing and leave quickly). So far, only Denham Waterski Club in Middlesex and Merchant Taylors School in Hertfordshire have opened their private lakes to outdoor swimmers (The Serpentine Swimming Club opened and then closed in the same week due to 2000 new membership applications) and both only offer a one-hour, pre-paid slot to 50 swimmers. It’s all vaguely dystopian and possibly the opposite of what outdoor swimming is about. But for now, it’s amazing, we’re thankful and we’ll take what we can get.


East Anglia: Imogen Radford, Inland Access Officer

Like most outdoor swimmers I’m keen to share the joy with everyone. But at the moment many beautiful swim spots appear overwhelmed with visitors and negative impacts.

Every summer the surge in swimming is met by authorities urging people to “stay out of the water”, saying it is dangerous and associated with antisocial behaviour. Concerns of parents, land managers and authorities are often based on misunderstandings of landowner liability and risks of swimming. This year demand is higher than usual and alternative places and activities unavailable. Heightened concerns about people spreading the virus are adding to the usual fears. 

This situation highlights the desperate need for more suitable places that people can swim inland. The only available places can be unsuitable for the numbers, located in rural communities with insufficient parking and no facilities. Meanwhile waters that seems very suitable – many river stretches and masses of lakes and reservoirs with space, clean water and fewer hazards – are officially forbidden, with tensions when people inevitably swim there.

Some summer swimmers lack knowledge, as generations have been driven out of the water by negative messages so have not been able to learn and teach their children safe and responsible behaviour. A disconnect from nature and other factors can lead to people not having a value set that sees littering as unacceptable.

We need to step up our campaigns for access to more free swimming places, by tackling concerns about liability and countering safety concerns. We can influence the behaviour of people going to swim spots through our local and national swim groups, by working with communities, authorities and others, helping to deal with and to reduce impacts. And we can spread simple messages about safety and responsibility and the positive benefits of swimming – for health, connection with nature, respect for place and community.