The rise of wild swim groups across the UK

12th February, 2019

There are now 50+ wild swim groups around the UK. To mark the launch of a new OSS listing guide of them around the country, Rowan Clarke, a member of Wiltshire Wild Swim, reports on their joys and problems.

When Wiltshire Wild Swimmers began in May 2018, it was just a group of ten friends arranging swims on WhatsApp. As people began finding them on Instagram, the group grew to 30, prompting its founders to move the group from WhatsApp to Facebook. It then grew to 150 members in just four weeks.

This is not an isolated case – outdoor swimming groups from Brighton to Portobello are growing in size and number. Some are expanding so quickly they are having to close to new members; and as they do, new ones sprout up to cater for the demand. While many swimmers relish the solitude of swimming in the open, the attraction of clubs for those who prefer a more social approach is clear.

Wiltshire Wild Swim meets at various river locations on the Wiltshire-Somerset border. One swim spot is Tellisford Weir, with its grassy banks, restored micro hydroelectric run-of-the-river power station and World War II pillbox filled with litter, which the group plans on cleaning up. Here, the group took a freezing morning dip before sharing brunch; swimmers, partners, children and dogs huddled around fire pits on the river bank. As well as swimming, the group organises community events like litter picks and fundraising.

We’re like a family – a swim family

The group offers mutual support that goes well beyond swimming, as co-founder, Kristy Field explained. “The other side to swimming is that we’re a communal support group,” she says. “Lots of us joined at difficult times, struggling with different areas of our lives. We’re like family – a swim family.”

Eight hundred miles north, another informal community group has found that Facebook connects wild swimmers and also gives crucial flexibility. “We don’t have any set days or times for swims as weather and sea conditions can vary so much up here,” says Andrew Hutton, who co-founded the Selkies on Shetland.

“One side of the island can be like a mill pond, with the other side having six foot waves. People post on our Facebook page saying they’re planning a swim with a rough time and location in mind, asking if anyone else wants to join in.”

Variable conditions put the wild into wild swimming, meaning that the attraction of groups – particularly new outdoor swimmers – can be their perceived safety. Groups also allow people to access wild swimming who might not otherwise have the ability or confidence.

We’ve had beginners to full-time triathletes join us on swims

“Our group has a huge range of swimming abilities and fitness levels,” says Andrew. “We’ve had pure beginners to full-time triathletes join us on swims. The youngest person has been of primary school age, and the oldest has been taking out their pension.”

However, most community groups operate by the legal framework set out in the OSS Swim Responsibility Statement. This essentially means that swimmers are individually responsible for their own safety when swimming with groups and cannot rely on information or advice given by members.

Owen Hayman swims with the Sheffield Outdoor Plungers. “Swimming in a group can give a false sense of security,” he says. “It’s a rare occurrence, but occasionally people can turn up to swim in winter, fairly unprepared, without a warm drink or enough clothes, and then stay in the water far longer than they would if they were alone.

“With an informal group, an individual’s safety is nobody’s responsibility but their own. There are probably no lifeguards in the group and the other swimmers are fairly occupied looking after themselves, so it’s vital that individuals understand that they are solely responsible for their own well-being and safety.”

Kristy agrees that growth brings with it new problems – not only liability, meaning that they have to be absolutely clear that people swim at their own risk, but also issues like parking at swimming spots and the potential damage to the environment caused by honeypots.

Further growth in the spring and summer appears inevitable, and she’s not sure how they’ll manage it while remaining inclusive and welcoming. “I want it and I don’t want it at the same time,” she says.

Some admins can be very picky about the kind of person they want in the group

Owen indicates that one response to growth has been gatekeeping by clubs, which he argues is not in the spirit of outdoor swimming.

Some admins can be very picky and secretive about who they let in and what kind of person they want in the group,” he says. “If the group has a location-specific name that suggests anyone in that area is welcome to join the group, then I think that should be upheld.

“If a community swimming group is set up on Facebook, it should really be open for all, helping break down barriers to outdoor swimming and enabling swimmers to share information and experiences.”

That is, for all their potential issues, swim clubs are a vital way to #sharetheswimlove.

  • You can find the club list and information on how to add your club here.