O is for Outdoor Swimming

I hate April. Hate it. After months of darkness, and cold, and grey, and wet, March offers the promise of better things. Then, just as we’re getting excited about BBQs, flip flops, picnics, camping… April snatches that hope away. It is a malicious month – showing us a sunny day and then, when we’re halfway to the park in summer dress and sandals, it buckets down. With every raindrop I hear it taunting me ‘Not Summer Yet!’.

Yes, just like Tina Turner I can’t stand the rain. As a result, I have become an April hermit – not giving it the satisfaction of soaking me to the skin by (cunningly) staying inside and having no fun. ‘Take that April’ I think smugly as I watch yet another episode of CSI and crunch my way through my 2nd packet of biscuits – my waistline expanding, my muscle tone fading – ‘I may be bored, socially isolated and unable to fit into my jeans any more, but I am not wet! How d’you like them apples?.

The realisation that this was a situation I could alphabetter happened on Monday as I was sat (avoiding the weather) in my guest house. I was listening to episode 7 of Robin and Josie’s Utter Shambles (featuring the brilliant Jon Ronson, who is only slightly overshadowed by his very funny son Joel) when Josie Long started talking about her love for wild swimming. She described an occasion where she went swimming in a Scottish lake in the winter and found it so invigorating that she started shouting ‘I’m like an otter!’. She enthused about the ponds at Hampstead Heath – the water so cold it burned – sounding both excited and happy. I caught sight of myself in the mirror (which as you know is a practice I generally choose to avoid) and felt silly. My choice to avoid the weather was not making me feel invigorated at all – if anything I have been even more tired and grumpy in recent weeks than usual. I had been hibernating. It was time to wake up.

Hampstead ponds (sometimes called Highgate ponds) are three large freshwater ponds (2 single sex, one mixed) in North London. Originally dug in the 17th century as reservoirs, people have been swimming here since at least the 1920s. If you are so inclined the ponds are open year round and, for the paltry sum of 2, you can bathe to your hearts content and have a hot shower afterwards.

The afternoon I chose was grey and drizzly and, after over an hour of train hopping, I was feeling glum and tired. I rounded the corner, mournfully thinking about how my boots were letting in water, and got my first glimpse of the ponds. Even on such a miserable day they looked inviting – so fresh and green! With actual ducks! And fish! I started to get excited.

My enthusiasm was only slightly hampered by the safety talk I was given as I paid my monies. A very smiley lifeguard explained that as your body numbs in the freezing water (it was 9°C – above 12 is considered ‘fresh’) you stop noticing how cold you are and feel like you can swim normally. Then, as you get colder still, your body starts to conserve energy to run your internal organs and so tells your limbs to stop flapping. Then you sink and die. I must have looked concerned (death wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind on this adventure) because he followed this up with simple instructions ‘Wear a swimming cap, Jump straight in and take several deep breaths. Wait 90 seconds then swim to a point you know you can get to. You probably won’t die’. Suitably terrified, I headed off to the changing rooms.

As I took off my coat I felt the cold air through my jumper. ‘This is folly!’ I thought, as I took off my jumper and a shudder ran down my spine. I kept getting changed. I was determined to teach April a lesson – that it could make me cold and wet but I would keep smiling – Heck! I’d enjoy it!

Wrapped in a towel, I made my way out to the ponds. The air was cold and it had started to drizzle. I walked straight for the water, hung my towel on a branch at the edge, gasped at the shock of the cold air against my skin and then did as I was told – I jumped straight in. My lungs let out an involuntary shriek, my arms clamped to my sides, I started hopping about from foot to foot. My skin burned angrily in response to the lapping water. I looked at my towel, so welcoming and still warm from my body heat. Surely a minute in cold like this was achievement enough? And then I saw a rock about 3 minutes from where I stood and I started to swim.

If I have learnt anything from these alphabetterings it is the harder the challenge, the greater the sense of accomplishment. I battled on and, as my muscles warmed up, the whole experience changed. My skin stopped screaming, I started breathing normally and I felt good. The ladies pond is beautiful and I felt lucky to be able to be a part of such an idyllic place. Making it to the rock, I stopped briefly and headed back. My hands and feet throbbed but, as I staggered from the water towards my towel, I felt glorious. Adrenaline and endorphins flooding through my frozen veins I could not help but smile.

I stood for a couple of minutes wiggling my toes and fingers and then, when I was completely convinced that they weren’t going to fall off, I jumped back in – this time heading for the first buoy. ‘Yes, Josie Long,’ I said to myself ‘I do feel like an otter!’. It was only the fear of my muscles crapping out that stopped me swimming further. I climbed out, a pink shivery mess, and literally jumped for joy. Although I was cripplingly cold and shivering, I felt awake and enlivened: detoxed.And that was that, I showered, changed, got back on the tube for home and, despite a long commute and getting caught in a downpour, I kept smiling. ‘Good old April!’ I thought, it’s grey clouds and sudden showers forever linked in my brain to a wonderful afternoon. Getting back to the guest house I had a long hot shower, wrapped myself in a blanket and watched the rain out of the window. I didn’t feel fed up or tired – instead I felt invigorated, happy and so grateful that I was able to swim somewhere so beautiful. Wonderful.


I’m running the Race for Life in June. I hate running. Make it worth my while by sponsoring me here. Thanks!

Ps. If you want to read another take on the experience ‘Ditch the treadmill’ braved the icy waters earlier this year

6 thoughts on “O is for Outdoor Swimming

  1. I’m guessing you had clothes on for this swim? Sounds like an awesome idea though. Do you need to be a reasonably strong swimmer?

    • I was not naked, no. that’s just for special occasions. I only had a swimming costume and cap on though so hardly prepared for the elements!! And yes, fairly strong although I’m hardly Rebecca Adlington. xx

  2. Hi! First of all well done! Venturing out during the cold April showers is already an achievement in itself. Diving into an outdoor body of water where a lifeguard repeatedly tells you that you will die is, well, something to blog about. And insane. As always, it’s a great read and I thank you for that.

    • Thanks Christian, glad you enjoyed this one!! Insane, maybe, but definitely worth doing – I can’t stress how good I felt afterwards. Doing my ‘P’ activity tomorrow – it’s a doozy :) x

  3. Ooh, brilliant stuff! High Five! I have to say I am guilty of being in the hiding indoors and getting chubbier club. I have my final university assignments and exams looming though,,, maybe an excuse? If I would actually DO some work…

    Anyway, beautifully written and I really got the sense of the energy and achievement. Glad April isn’t so bad !

    • Thank you so much Lovely! Trying not to revert back to sitting inside feeling glum but it’s so easy to do in this miserable weather. April is testing the boundaries of our new found accord.
      Oh and good luck with your coursework, exams etc. Final year of Uni counts as an excuse not to do pretty much anything… except uni work of course :) x

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