The healing power of wild swimming


Posted by in December's Magazine

Vicky Allan tells us about the Edinburgh and Portobello Wild Ones and others featured in her new book with Anna Deacon

‘If you’re having a moment when you’ve lost your faith in humanity,” Edinburgh swimmer Anne Altringham once said to me, “go and get in the sea with a lot of people who want to be there. It doesn’t matter if your politics don’t agree, or if you’re having a bad time, everyone is doing the same thing and enjoying it and you can reset some of your cynicism a bit.”

They look like pods of sea mammals, those figures out there, diving and splashing in the waters not far off the shore at Porty beach or Wardie bay. I have thought that, now and again, when I have looked back on some crowd that I have just taken a dip with. Those could be seals or porpoises, it’s only the daft hats and the shrieks and squeals that give them away. 

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Vicky Allan enters stage right.

Over the past year photographer Anna Deacon and I have swum with and documented swim communities across Scotland for our book, Taking The Plunge: The Healing Power of Wild Swimming for Mind, Body and Soul. We asked countless swimmers what brought them into the bracing, often shocking, cold water. The reasons were many and varied: pain relief, mental wellbeing, mindfulness, solace during grief. One thing often mentioned was the company, what Cairngorms swimmer Alice Goodridge, once described to me as “the pod”.

I’m convinced that there are real physiological benefits to be gained from simply taking a dip in cold water and we cover some of the research into that in our book. But, as important as these, is the pod. Many people have told us that what they have loved about wild swimming is the friendships formed, the support networks nurtured. 

It’s a fact that at times when you’re lonely, anxious, depressed or struggling, these groups are there, and they aren’t socially demanding in the way a visit to a pub might be. In the sea you don’t have to indulge in a lot of small talk – though, of course, you can if you want. 

“We all come to the water with our different reasons,” Jacky Morrison-Hart, a swimmer based in Callander, told me. “None of us have to have anything in common but the water. It’s all different backgrounds, all different ages, all different sizes. You’ve got the full range of genders, disabilities and abilities, but all that goes once you’re here. And the banter and the faffing is a huge part of it.” 

Photogragh: Anna Deacon

Jacky has only two percent vision and has been terrified of deep, dark water. “Sometimes,” she said, “we can be here for an hour afterwards and we’re all shivering trying to drink our drinks, shaking like mad. You’ve got that commonality that with some activities you don’t get. We say what’s said in the loch, stays in the loch. It’s cathartic.”

We humans are social beings, wired to connect. Many studies show that exercising in a social group is better for us, in general, than lone exercise. One, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 2017, found that those working out in a group experience more improvements in lowered stress and quality of life than those working out individually. Its lead researcher, Dayna Yorks, observed, “The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone.” 

Of course, group swimming isn’t the only way to do this. You can go on a ParkRun, join a regular yoga class or cycling club. All these provide many of the same benefits. But many cite that slight element of danger involved in getting in the water as creating an extra sense of mutual support. As Stacey Holloway, a swimmer from Oban said to me. “Swimming is a vulnerable thing to do. It’s risky. We’ve always got to be looking out for each other.” 

Many cite that slight element of danger involved in getting in the water as creating an extra sense of mutual support

It’s perhaps not surprising that tight bonds form. Something special happens when you get in the water with someone. You go on a small journey with them, from cold shock to finding yourself, on the other side, seeing the world a little differently, possibly even a little elated. People frequently talk about being able to offload, too. “You can have a good heart-to-heart with someone out in the sea,” Anne Altringham told me, “in the way that you can do in the car when you’re both facing forward and there’s no one else around.”

I’ve swum with many different pods across Scotland now and all of them are special, but I have a particular affection for the swimmers around Portobello and Wardie, and the culture that has built up around Edinburgh’s, The Wild Ones. Laughter ripples out on the water down there. Most gatherings seem to revolve around some kind of daft mucking about – mass handstands, skinny dips, Easter bonnet swims, the so-called Fife salute (a baring of breasts while facing the paps of Fife), silly hats, spontaneous post-swim conga dances.  

This daft, irreverent approach has been there, by all accounts, since the beginnings of this group. One of its earliest members told me, “At the Wild Ones, we have always been about the fun – about doing handstands and silly synchronised swimming routines. The fact that we’ve kept that is really important to me, that it doesn’t get too serious. I’m really against the commodification and commercialisation of swimming. It’s always been really important to me that we are open to all kinds of swimmers, the ones that want to pootle around and the ones that get their heads down – that we don’t turn into a serious swimming group.”

Now that’s my kind of pod.

Taking The Plunge: The Healing Power of Wild Swimming for Mind, Body and Soul, Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan is published by Black and White £20

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