The joy of swimming (in the wild and indoors)
Growing up by the coast, I’ve always loved a splash-around in the sea. Now a city-dweller, the repetitive, meditative nature of lane swimming was one of the things I really missed last year, during lockdown. No surprise, then, that open water swimming soared in popularity, particularly among women over-50. For months confined to our postcodes with indoor pools closed, many of us rediscovered the pleasure of wild swimming. One of my friends Maggie Alderson, already a sea swimmer, joined a Facebook group that went from six to 60 members during the pandemic. The Women Without Wetsuits (WOWs) enjoyed the social side of meeting up (at a safe distance) everyday, together with the health benefits of swimming and the calm that comes from being immersed in water, surrounded by nature. ‘By 9.30 in the morning I’ve done something epic,’ says Maggie, ‘It’s such a great way to start the day.’
There aren’t many opportunities for wild swimming where I live in London; as I discovered to my dismay during lockdown. And those that do exist across the capital became incredibly popular. Recent figures collected by Sport England, suggest half a million people in England are engaging regularly in wild swimming – nearly twice as many as reported three years ago. According to The Guardian, at one point demand was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of wild swimming spots in an attempt to prevent overcrowding.
Wild swimming is good for both mind and body. The low-impact exercise releases the hormone ocytocin and chemical endorphins, both of which boost positivity. My friend Maggie lives in Hastings and is evangelical about the power of a sea swim. The first thing she does every morning is reach for her phone and check WhatsApp to see if any of the WOWs are swimming. Then she’ll look at the tide and the wind direction to figure out which beach to go to. As well as being a great form of exercise, swimming outdoors provides the opportunity to take time out, to appreciate nature – and can offer a much-needed reprieve, ‘Sometimes on my walk to the beach, work will click into place,’ adds Maggie, ‘And, this is my theory…I believe beaches are important because you experience all four elements at once. Your feet are grounded on the earth, standing on the sand or the pebbles. There’s the water element, obviously. The fresh air on your skin. And the fire element is the sun. All of this is, and the social side – making new friends – is really good for you.’
Photographer Eva Watkins has captured the joy of outdoor swimming in her new photo series Synchronised Swimming. Taken at Henleaze Swimming Lake in Bristol, a popular members-only bathing pool, celebrating its 100th Birthday. The club has its own group of synchronised swimmers, aged between 11 and 76 who have bonded over a shared love of the water. ‘Being in the synchro team is deeply nourishing and life-affirming,’ swimmer Becky Thoburn tells It’s Nice That, ‘I value, and can giggle with, new friends. Am super fit and co-ordinated… I’m very happy!”
Someone who values the importance of swimming pools and their significance for the local community, perhaps more than most, is Edinburgh-based photographer Soo Burnell. Her photography series Poolside celebrates the beauty of these much-loved historic swimming pools and lidos (including Marshall Street, above, where I used to swim when I first moved to London). She started the project with pictures of Glenogle, the pool in Edinburgh where she learned to swim as a child. ‘When I was back in the space I couldn’t believe how beautiful the building was,’ Burnell says, ‘I fell in love with the architecture, which reminded me of the other beautiful pools we are so lucky to still have.’ Her images are at once glamorous and nostalgic-yet-modern looking – a bit like the stage set of a Wes Anderson film. And they’ve really struck a chord, ‘I get probably around 15 messages a day from people sending me photographs of pools from all over the world,’ says Soo, ‘I love that people want to share them with me.’
She, too has seen a surge in popularity in wild and sea swimming in Scotland, recently, ‘When you might have previously seen a couple of very brave swimmers, now you see whole crowds of people heading out into the water.’ When the pools were closed, Soo also headed to the beach at Tyninghame in East Lothian, ‘It was nice to take the components of the architectural pool shots – with the clean lines, pastel tones, the orderliness of the horizon, and the symmetry of the models – and use that for some images on the coast.’
Her next stop is Berlin, ‘There’s a couple of pools I really want to shoot there and also a beautiful pool in Stockholm.’ And of course, she’ll be stopping off in Paris, where she is hosting her next exhibition at Christmas. Perhaps, Soo will venture outside the local piscines to find new inspiration amongst the city’s renegade ‘Canal Club swimmers‘.
At a time when swimming pools face threat of closure (Swim England has estimated that almost 2,000 pools across the country could be closed by the end of the decade if action is not taken) Soo hopes her work will encourage people back into the pool. ‘We are so lucky to have these beautiful pools still in use in our cities,’ she tells me, ‘maybe the photographs will remind people how lovely they are.’
You can buy prints from Eva Watkins HERE.
You can buy prints from Soo Burnell HERE. Soo has just released a beautiful book of her Poolside series called To the Water. It includes a forward by Wally Koval, creator of Accidentally Wes Anderson. From £45.
Find out more about Soo’s Paris Exhibition by signing up to her newsletter HERE.