For someone who has never been camping as an adult and squeals like a child when tentatively lowering myself into the unheated villa pool on holiday, finding myself excitedly agreeing to wild swimming in a river surprised no-one more than me. In fact, initially I wasn’t even invited, I invited myself – clearly I was hellbent on getting out there for reasons unbeknown to even myself. My friend was going back up to Yorkshire to swim with her old mates in a spot they knew and before she’d even finished saying it, half of my brain made my mouth form the sounds ‘Can I come?’, to which the other half of my brain responded internally with ‘U wot mate?’.
But I was in. For various reasons we failed to make it to Yorkshire, but still intent on lunacy we decided to find somewhere within reach of London. Roping in another adventurous friend who was already familiar with outdoor swimming, off we set, Famous Five-like towards Guildford, bound for the River Wey. Half an hour after departing Clapham Junction we wandered through the edge of town until the river led us to quieter surroundings. Still feeling too exposed, we continued until we spotted a section on the other side which was slightly secluded with a perfect opening down to the water. There was no way anyone was going to watch me get in. By the time we managed to cross over and work our way back I was beginning to feel sick with nerves. The day before I’d taken myself to the local lido as some kind of prep. Hahaha. There was no disappearing silt there, no tiny fish brushing past your leg which you irrationally envisage to be a giant flesh-eating eel. And even then I couldn’t really picture how cold the river would be, but I was pretty sure that after a certain point, degrees become kind of meaningless; it’s all just fucking freezing.
There’s no point in dipping your toe in, you’ve come all this way, you are going in. I steadied my nerves, held my breath and literally took the plunge. Sure enough, it was fucking freezing. An all-consuming cold. An image flashed before me of having gone overboard in the North Sea, my brain was unable to think of anything other than how cold I was but I just kept moving my legs, I had to, I couldn’t touch the bottom, plus I needed to create warmth. I needed to survive.
1 min in…
I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok… IS THAT CRAMP?
2 mins in…
It isn’t. My muscles are stabilising, this numbness feels deceptively warm. I’m becoming more aware of my surroundings. A dog is peering eagerly at us from the path, tempted to join in. Look, there’s a butterfly skimming the water. I think I might be…enjoying this?
3 mins in…
LOOK MUM, NO HANDS!
And for a good while I continued to feel this way, with a slight giggling hysteria developing at still being alive and a good measure of self-mocking about my acute attack of drama upon entering. This was it, this was what I was here for; that kind of glorious feeling of doing something completely unexpected and outside of your daily life. I sit in an office for five days out of seven, this was definitely the opposite of an office. I couldn’t be any more in nature. Every one of my senses was on holiday. I was also on the other side in that this is what Other People do, not me. Now I was one of those thrill-seeking lunatics who I’d always secretly admired. If only I could be that brave. More than the the swim itself, it’s that achievement which was making the whole thing so joyful.
After around 15 minutes’ gentle wallowing in the sunny spots, and some stunning damselfly spotting, we could feel the reality of the cold setting in deep. Towels and hip flasks at the ready, we dug our feet into the squishy silt and emerged inelegantly onto the bank into the relatively warm atmosphere. There was some shivering and tingling as (fully numbed) toes recovered with pins and needles, and claw-like blue hands struggled hilariously with bra hooks. Then the rush. The high, as the blood made it back round the body and up to the brain. And the lasting high of knowing we’d done it.