How to cope with winter

Having serious withdrawal from long summer days along lush, winding rivers? You're not alone

@swimstaman in Snowy Zurich. #thestoics

OSS Swim Champ Lance Sagar loves every stage of point-to-point swimming adventures: the idea, the planning, and the execution over a long summer day. So what, exactly, is the point of winter? Here, he invites us to wallow in summer swims past and shares five of his favourite river journeys completed this year.

How could anyone fail to love winter swimming? The intense rush of endorphins as your skin adapts to the cold, the feeling of wellbeing, the camaraderie among fellow swimmers and the satisfaction gained from knowing that your body can tolerate the cold to a degree you may never have thought possible. Winter swimming is challenging and rejuvenating – and we even have our own virtual swim club for it! But despite all of this, I have a confession to make. It’s not an easy thing to admit and I know I’m going against the flow by saying it, but here it is…

I’m already missing summer. 

Because what I love more than anything is to swim through a lush green forest, dappled sunlight shining through the canopy and kingfishers flying overhead. I love bringing new friends along who may never have swam outside before and, perhaps most of all, I love adventure. All day long adventure. 

My own particular brand of adventure is a point-to-point swim, often from one town to another and almost always by river. Whilst normally the sort of journey that can be completed in less than a day, I don’t always know that the swim will be a success when I set off. These swims are planned for long sunny days when the trees seem to rise forever from the water’s edge and the forests are overflowing with life. It’s something I call accessible pioneering and it’s designed to give the maximum sense of adventure: experiencing the very best that nature has to offer, without taking a life-defining effort to achieve. I’ll talk about this more in the future but for now I’ll just say this: It isn’t exactly a winter pursuit. 

Lance on a river voyage

“For me, winter gives time for planning and reflection. There is a whole country and more full of rivers to explore – and I’ve barely started. But who has time to spend hours poring over maps, researching river depth and water quality, and looking for entry and exit points when the sun is shining and there’s swimming to be done?”

So, what is winter for? Or more specifically what can winter be for if you haven’t spent the summer pining for the colder temperatures? What is winter for if you long for multi-hour adventure swims, lush green forests and a soundtrack of birdsong? Well for me, winter gives time for planning and reflection. There is a whole country and more full of rivers to explore and I’ve barely started, but who has time to spend hours poring over maps, researching river depth and water quality and looking for entry and exit points when the sun is shining and there’s swimming to be done? We have more time now, and I know that by the time the leaves are back on the trees I’ll be armed with an extensive list of river journeys ready to attempt (and hopefully some willing volunteers to accompany me). 

Of course it’s for swimming too! It’d be a terrible shame to miss out on half a year of swimming simply because the trees don’t look as pretty and the swims don’t last as long. There are adventures to be had amongst the ice, and a real sense of satisfaction in seeing what your body is capable of. 

As well as swimming and planning for the summer, winter offers a time for reflection. It’s been a busy summer and it would be a shame if we never had the chance to sit down, take a break and reflect on the adventures we’ve had. So here are five of my best river journeys from last summer, for the sunshine swimmers that can’t wait for the start of spring. A nostalgic look back at some of the adventures that the fabulous summer of 2019 brought, submitted for interest, information or maybe even a little inspiration as we look forward to the next time we see the sun for more than a few precious minutes. 

Knaresborough Swimthough. Photo: Lance Sagar

The Knaresborough Swimthrough

Knaresborough is a beautiful North Yorkshire town, perhaps best known for its towering viaduct rising above the river Nidd. Which of course prompted the thought: I wonder if you could swim under that?

Answering that question led to one of the most diverse 2.3 miles of river I’ve ever swam. Starting in the shallows within a thick forest, the river soon deepened as we passed families attempting to catch fish with glass jars (seriously!). After swimming under a bridge we found ourselves in front of the magnificent viaduct. It was a Sunday morning and the rowing boat companies had just opened for business, with the first visitors setting out on the water. This gave me the opportunity I needed to use my hilarious joke “has anyone seen our boat?” It was funny all six times…

Swimming under the viaduct was a unique experience but we did have to get out and walk for a while after that. We saw dinosaurs, giant spiders and unicorns. On reflection, we may have accidentally entered a local tourist attraction. Rather than explaining ourselves as we exited through the gift shop, we re-entered the river and hobbled over the sharp rocks. 

As the water became deep enough for us to swim again we found ourselves in a section of river that must have barely, if ever, been swam before. The boulders were huge and covered in moss, a green vision of a prehistoric world. After a long forest straight we found ourselves at another weir, marking the start of the “Knaresborough Lido”, a popular local dipping spot (a wide section of the river, not a real Lido), where our journey came to an end. The sun was shining and the four of us lay on the grass reliving our adventure before going our separate ways, another classic added to the collection. 

Kate Rew checks her stats on the Symonds Yat Circuit. Photo: Lance Sagar

The OSS Symonds Yat Circuit

How could I omit this one?

Having swam part of the route previously, it seemed like a simple enough task to take some of the OSS team on a 2.5 mile meander swim in the River Wye. It wasn’t. The journey to the start involved the use of a hand-pulled ferry to cross the river (irony noted). We then had to climb over the deceptively high Yat Rock whilst carrying two paddleboards. We lost a paddleboard, got lost ourselves and then when we finally arrived at the start point I realised what the map hadn’t shown me, that we were still about 8ft above the river, with a steep drop to navigate before we could get in. 

Still, a little challenge just adds to the sense of adventure and the team pulled together to overcome each obstacle. Once we were in the water these troubles were long forgotten… I hoped. The flow was very strong due to recent rainfall and we were swept around the route with very little effort. As with many such journeys, the real reward is the people you meet.

Deep in the Wadenhoe to Tansor route. Photo: Lance Sagar

Wadenhoe to Tansor

I first met Lee on a freediving adventure in the Red Sea, where she introduced me to the Outdoor Swimming Society. Five years later she invited me to swim 15km in the river Nene with her swim tribe The Wadenhoe And Tansor Swimmers, a brilliant group for fans of wild swimming and acronyms alike. Not pausing to think how far 15km actually is, I took her up on her offer.

We set off early, entering dark waters in the morning fog, over seven hours of swimming ahead of us (including numerous picnic stops). I’d chosen to go with the slower “we mainly swim breaststroke” group, but it didn’t take me long to realise that their breaststroke was faster than many people swim front crawl! 

It’s hard to condense 15km of river swimming into a few words but there were dew-strewn cobwebs, locks, lillypads, forest sections, endless reeds, churches and a poor lady enjoying a quiet moment by the riverside who never could have expected to be joined by a group of soaking wet swimmers. 

This was a real epic, with quite a few swimmers attempting the journey, some starting from even further upstream. Picnic stops were often accompanied by updates on the progress of the other groups. The swim finished when we reached the jetty at Tansor and retired to a local café to relive the adventure, the foggy morning start a distant memory.    

Vatnajokull. Photo: Lance Sagar

Waters of Vatnajökull

OK, so I may have understated how much I do enjoy cold water swimming. It certainly doesn’t get much colder than swimming in the runoff from the largest icecaps in Europe, where air temperatures were around –10C.

The river itself doesn’t have a name as it is just one of a huge patchwork emanating from the Vatnajökull icecap. The water was inky black and the flow was fast. This kind of environment shouldn’t be taken lightly (especially without a wetsuit) and I’d smashed numerous exit points into the ice, surveyed the route and planned for multiple scenarios before getting in.

And the swim? Well it was a mixture… the breathless cold, the joy of swimming in such a special place in front of two of my favourite mountains (also unnamed as far as I know) in the golden winter sun… and hitting every single rock on the way because I couldn‘t see any of them! This was obviously a much shorter swim, more swimming a short section than setting out on a long journey, but it gave me a visceral sense of the power and scale of this environment. There was no doubting the force of the flow or, given the temperature, from where it had originated.

It took me a full hour to regain feeling in my toes but it was well worth it for the experience of swimming such a unique river section. I’m going back again soon and if conditions allow, I’ll swim another part of the route. 

Lance during the Wetherby to Boston Spa journey

Wetherby to Boston Spa

This was the route that started it all and in 2019 I had the chance to swim it again.

It’s a very special route to me, and one I hope to revisit each summer. I should mention that it isn’t a straightforward swim and there is a weir to cross that sits on private land that is difficult to navigate.

It’s worth it though, as this route has it all. It starts by passing under three road bridges, as if to signify that you are parting with human civilisation for the rest of the journey. The further you go, the more dense the forest. There is a stunning forest bend as the river passes through the estate built by the late inventor of the Segway, a weir and then a shallow rapid section which is full of life. More deep forest is followed by towering cliffs as the Wharfe turns towards Boston Spa. On the final straight the forest sets back from the river‘s edge and green fields open up. The journey finishes at Boston Spa Weir, itself a popular swim spot (you can swim upstream from here to experience some of the route without needing to cross the tricky mid-section).    

What next?

For now, winter conditions offer a different sort of adventure. Shorter, exhilarating and best enjoyed with others. But winter also offers a little more down-time and I’m using that time to put together a collection of routes for the Summer of 2020, ready to go as soon as the trees have leaves.   

So, what is winter for? I’d say it’s for enjoying in your own way. I’d thoroughly recommend joining #thestoics in our virtual winter swim club as we swim our way through the season, but time to reflect, plan or even just relax a little is valuable too. And if the dark nights and cold winter mornings get a little too much, perhaps it’s time to make some plans for a summer adventure. 

Lance Sagar