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Come on in: Norfolk’s wild swimmers explain the appeal of taking a dip in the river

PUBLISHED: 20:57 09 July 2020 | UPDATED: 20:57 09 July 2020

Rowan Mantell enjoying a wild swim in the Waveney

Rowan Mantell enjoying a wild swim in the Waveney

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While swimming pools have remained closed across the region, swimmers have turned to East Anglia’s network of rivers for their fix of water-based exercise. Nick Richards meets some of our wild swimmers

Imogen Radford, wild swimmerImogen Radford, wild swimmer

Lockdown has limited our freedom and liberty so much that exercise addicts have had to think on their feet. Cyclists ditched the roads for sessions on their turbo trainers in front of apps on their TV screens, rowers dusted off their rowing machines and runners pounded the treadmill rather than hit the pavements.

It’s not so easy to replicate swimming on dry land, so March’s lockdown rules hit swimmers particularly hard. While East Anglia is fortunate to be surrounded by coastline the closure of swimming pools sent some brave breast-strokers searching for new locations to enjoy their hobby.

Although pools are due to reopen on Monday, our rivers are now being used more by swimmers who prefer a natural outdoor challenge to their favourite exercise.

Swimming blogger Imogen Radford, 61, said: “I love swimming outdoors and I want everyone to be able to do it, safely, respectfully, with accurate information and advice, and at the same time a sense of freedom.

“As a child I always played and swam in rivers, but rediscovered it eight years ago as an adult, inspired by reading Waterlog, especially by the sense of adventure, closeness to nature, freedom and a new way to enjoy rivers that I had always liked.

“Every swim is a mini adventure, a chance to be close to or perhaps even a part of nature. Sometimes pure joy, sometimes a challenge, always refreshing and interesting. I often swim alone, and the quiet is important to me. But sometimes my swims are sociable – one of the best things is that the swimming community is very friendly and supportive.

“Being cold is probably the most important risk. This and other risks are manageable, as long as you understand them. If you are new to swimming outdoors it’s best to get used to it gradually and learn how cold affects you. It is easy to avoided cold water shock by entering water gradually, only setting off to swim once your breathing has calmed down, and only jumping in after you have got used to the cold

“Swimming outdoors is healthy, it’s fun for all ages, it is free or very cheap, it has a low impact on the environment and it is low risk as long as people are aware and have factual information. Many speak of noticeable benefits to their mental health, lower stress levels, improved physical health and immunity to colds, and many say they are less likely to feel cold.

“My number one recommendation is to wear some kind of shoes with a hard sole that stay on your feet. You never know what might be underfoot and you should be prepared to get out if you need to. It makes it so much more comfortable.

Barbara Bryant after a dip in the River WensumBarbara Bryant after a dip in the River Wensum

“Wearing a wetsuit is a choice – it helps many people, like me, get started, but I now swim all year without one and find it is less of a fuss.”

Barbara Bryant, 54, is also a regular swimmer. She said: “I’ve been open water swimming all year round for around four-and-a-half years now. I swim often with a group called Crazy Ladies - a wide variety of women all bound together by a desire to experience the joy that wild swimming brings.

“When I’m in the water all my senses are heightened, I see things more vividly - the flash of a kingfisher’s wings, or the sunlight dancing off the sea waves like glittering diamonds.

“I hear sounds I wouldn’t normally notice the flutter of wings as a mallard darts away into the reeds or the “plop” as a nearby fish briefly sticks its head above the water line; the silky sensation of the water on my skin, the pin-prick tingling of the cold temperature or the warmth of the sun on my back; the smell of the briny sea water or riverbank dampness, the taste of salt water in mouth and on skin - and the sweetness of the compulsory cake after!”

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For Barbara, swimming in rivers gives her body a challenge that can’t be replicated in an indoor heated pool. She said: “I think it’s to do with vulnerability. We don’t often choose to put our bodies into spine-tinglingly cold water, not knowing what’s beneath you, having to respect tidal ebbs and flows. There’s something exhilarating about reconnecting with something that feels such an ancient practice. There’s a releasing of things that tie you down in the everyday mundanity of life. You have to be in the moment.”

EDP feature writer Rowan Mantell is also a fan. She said: “I love freshwater swimming. I love the sea too, but where the salt and waves are abrasive, restless and vast, river swims are gentle. The lazy curves of an East Anglian river, gliding almost silently through water meadows in great sweeps of silty water seem to still the soul. Slip into the stream and into a new dimension where everything floats – the sky overhead, tiny specks of blossom on the syrupy surface of the water, the reflections of trees.

“As a child I paddled and swam in peaty moorland rivers. When I moved to Norfolk it was all about the sea and I almost forgot the joy of freshwater swimming in a welter of bad news about agricultural and industrial run-off, human pollution, blue green algae and drownings. But on holidays in Europe I swam in lakes and rivers and began to wonder about our waterways.

“This summer, with pools closed and a heatwave making a refreshing dip ever more inviting, my husband and I celebrated a wedding anniversary by cycling to Outney Common, near Bungay, and wading into the Waveney where it loops gracefully through water meadows.

Aisla Richards, 23, who started swimming in rivers during the coronavirus lockdownAisla Richards, 23, who started swimming in rivers during the coronavirus lockdown

“I am a swimmer with little technique, except to enjoy being immersed in a force of nature, feeling its powerful pull whether I am going with its flow or wondering where to try next.”

One woman new to the sport is Aisla Richards, 23. She said: “I started swimming earlier this year and we started swimming in rivers because both my dad and I were looking to find something we could do together and enjoy. I’ve always loved being in the water, and being outdoors in the sunshine is a win-win situation.

“The best thing about wild swimming for me is the rush of endorphins you get when you first get in! The cold water really gets your circulation going and I love the feeling of being weightless and gliding through the water.”

“Wild swimming is very different to swimming in a pool - and being inland is different to being in the sea. There is a lot more weed in the water, and in rivers it’s quieter than in the sea. You do also have to be careful not to swallow the water, as it’s not chlorinated and although it is checked regularly by the council, it will never be perfectly clean.

“There are many risks associated with wild swimming. Every time you swim, you have to complete a mini risk assessment to check the temperature outside, access points for getting in and out, river flow speed and check as best you can for submerged obstacles.

“I swim in a normal costume with my phone and my key in protective cases on my arms. If you want to swim in certain areas, you have to wear a bright swimming cap and take a tow float with you so you’re visible.”

Getting involved:

The Outdoor Swimming Society has safety tips and advice about all things open water swimming-related and strongly recommends that people join groups advertised on there (local to us: Norfolk & Suffolk Open Water Swimming, Norfolk & Norwich Wild Swimmers, Outdoor Swimming in Breckland, and the group Barbara co-founded, The Crazy Ladies – all can be found via Facebook).

The Outdoor Swimming Society take great care not to currently publicise swim venues outside these closed groups for the time being, as so many areas are becoming inundated with people wanting to have a go at outdoor swimming without researching the safety factors at certain venues.If you want to get involved, please consider joining a group rather than just heading off into the water alone and unprepared.

See www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com for more information and check out Imogen’s blog for hints, tips and adventures at www.imogensriverswims.co.uk


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