Every winter, people who have enjoyed outdoor summer swimming challenge themselves to continue through the colder, darker months. For those who manage to keep going through that first season, cold-water swimming often becomes a lifelong passion. If you have already taken the plunge, or are considering whether to embark on a winter season, three new short films, all showing at this month’s Kendal Mountain Festival, will inspire you. We spoke to the three women who feature in the films.
Just watching the first few minutes of Afterglow sends a chill through you; the camera pans over snow-dusted hills in Snowdonia, the light is a cold blue-grey, the lake dark and forbidding. Vivienne stands at the water’s edge, rubbing her red hands together before undressing. You almost hold your breath when she walks into the freezing mountain lake. Afterglow follows Vivienne as she sets off alone across the snowy landscape of Snowdonia to an isolated mountain lake. It’s certainly at the more extreme end of winter swimming, but Rickman-Poole has been swimming outside since she was a child – and in Snowdonia’s lakes for years – and is passionate about cold water. She might be standing in the snow shivering but inside she’s glowing.
“It’s that feeling of being enveloped in freshness – it’s almost a craving – and that’s what you do it for.”
There’s no shortage of fresh water where Rickman-Poole lives in Snowdonia but she does have a favourite spot. “There is one particular lake – Llyn Du’r Arddu – it’s a 90-minute walk from my house; the cliffs around it are very dark and imposing (arddu means dark), but the water is the most incredible blue. It almost feels bottomless.”
In the film Rickman-Poole talks about the allure of deep water. “I’m always searching for that abyss. It gives you a real clarity of thought.” It sounds alarming, but watching her floating in a huge dark body of water surrounded by mountains you start to see the appeal of being so immersed in nature.
As a photographer, she is as interested in the way the female body moves in water as she is the mental experience of it. She has photographed herself underwater but her current project is less intimate, more epic. Two years ago she embarked on Swim Snowdonia, a project to explore every body of water in Snowdonia and record her experience of each one photographically, whether it’s dipping her toes in or a full swim.
She puts the surge in popularity of outdoor swimming down, in part, to austerity: “We want freedom but also to do things for free and anyone can get into water – we don’t have to pay a huge amount of money.” Her advice for people starting out is to listen to your body: “Start off in a wetsuit to get used to it and then just do everything very slowly until you feel right. Get out when you start to feel cold, get to know your own body and its limitations.”
“I started swimming outdoors when it was called ‘going for a swim’,” says Kari Furre, an artist who is profiled in a new short film that is part of the Mountain Journal Short series from outdoor brand Alpkit.
“I was having an annual mid-life crisis and I did one of the early Swimtrek holidays in the Greek islands. Then it suddenly occurred to me that you could swim outside in England. It was crazy. All through the 1970s and 80s the water quality wasn’t good. You were advised not to swim in rivers or reservoirs and you didn’t question it. But I started to swim outside, and I met Kate Rew on a Thames swim and together we set up the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS).”
The film shows Furre swimming the length of Windermere, a 10.5-mile challenge that took her just over six hours. “Not bad for a grandma,” as she puts it (Furre is 67). In fact it’s a pretty good time for anyone. It can take up to eight hours.
But Furre is no stranger to long distance swimming, which she describes as “like a yoga practise”. “I don’t do it as a sports practise with gadgets and watches. There’s a meditative quality to it.” As well as being a founding member the OSS, she also established the hugely popular Dart 10k, which this year attracted 1,600 participants over two days (a significant increase from 200 in 2009). The Dart is still one of her favourite places to swim.
“I live in near Totnes in south Devon and am lucky to have some great swimming places nearby. There’s Dartmoor with rivers falling off it all over the place and we’ve got a really nice coastline. Thurlestone Rock is a lovely reef – you can see kelp and spider crabs – it’s like swimming over a garden. At the estuary on the river Avon you get a fantastic current and there are lovely pools in the upper parts of the Dart.”
As for cold-water swimming, she’s not as keen on it as others, and wears a wetsuit in winter (a no-no for more militant swimmers). But she certainly makes it look easy in the film, standing on the Sugary Cove beach, near Dartmouth Castle, in a wetsuit and woolly hat, before calmly walking into the chilly water and setting off around the cliffs.
“My advice for anyone getting started is to just keep swimming [when the summer ends]. When you get into very cold water it takes 60-90 seconds for your body to give in so you have to go through that barrier: so it’s horrible for 90 seconds then you feel fine. Afterwards, you’ve got about five or 10 minutes and then the cool blood whooshes into your core and you get something called the ‘after drop’, so you need to get dressed warmly and have a hot drink before that.”
Furre will be introducing the Alpkit film at the festival’s Outdoor Swimming session on 20 November. Furre offers private swimming lessons (to book, email her at kari at furre.co.uk)
For her latest film, Brooks left her home territory of Snowdonia and travelled to the Highlands. The Bothy Project follows three artists – as well as Natasha, a filmmaker, there was poet and writer Claire-Jane Carter and painter Tessa Lyons – as they escape to a remote bothy and explore their surroundings.
As with Rickman-Poole, Brooks usually goes for solitary swims in the lakes of Snowdonia (as documented in her film Bluehue) but swimming in the Highlands felt very different. “I know Snowdonia well; it’s a lot more visited. In Scotland, there’s a massive expanse of wilderness. The loch I swam in is large and there are mountains on each side, and when I came up for breath I could see those huge peaks on either side. It felt bigger and wilder.”
For Brooks swimming outside is something she’s always done and always will. “I don’t come here to train,” she says in Bluehue. “I come to experience the water and all that goes with it. I like to feel the elements on my skin and be connected to the seasonal changes. It’s nourishing.”
Cold water, she says, “cuts through everything, it’s so physical. You don’t necessarily have to swim far. You need mental strength to make yourself get in that situation, then there’s the physical rush of being so cold; you can go in for a short time and you feel like you’ve done something quite big. Going for a jog for a few minutes doesn’t have the same effect. You get out of cold water and feel so alive, your skin is zinging from the cold.”
For those starting out she advises caution: “If you keep going regularly, you are going to acclimatise, but if you haven’t been swimming over the summer, go with someone. Don’t just jump into a deep body of water. The temperatures are dropping now and it’s a real shock, so walk in and know where you can get out.”
The Bothy Project directed by Jen Randall will be screened from 6pm on Friday 18 November at the Lowe Alpine Bothy event space as part of the festival. There is no trailer available yet