Winter wild swimmers talk of an exhilarating, other-worldly experience. Slipping into water just a few degrees above zero - whether it is a dark winter river flowing so smoothly it reflects the bare branches above, or wind-rippled, pierced by a path of sunrise light or even glazed with ice - becomes both skin-chilling and heart-warming.

Friends Barbara Bryant and Jenny Reed began winter wild swimming five years ago after wondering how long into the autumn they could keep swimming outdoors. “It developed into a passion, so beware!” said Barbara.

%image(14398881, type="article-full", alt="Horstead Cut")

%image(14398882, type="article-full", alt="Barbara Bryant and Jenny Reed set up the Crazy Ladies")

“The sensation of subjecting your body to cold water has been increasingly proven to give all sorts of physical and mental health benefits, but for me it’s mostly about the sheer joy of swimming outdoors, whatever the weather.

“I’ve always enjoyed swimming – and used to faithfully plough up and down the lengths of the UEA Sportspark pool, counting to ensure I achieved my weekly mile. That all seems like a lifetime ago now, as the only pool I would still choose to swim in would be a lido.

“Swimming outdoors heightens the senses. As I enter the water, I have to breathe slowly as my body adjusts to the shock of the cold. This act of slowing down increases awareness of my surroundings – attunes me to the awesomeness of the creation around me. For me, an unexpected impact has been a spiritual one. Released from the gravity of being on land, I literally feel the everyday stresses and strains wash away. It elicits an ability to simply ‘be’ in my surroundings.”

Barbara and Jenny set up a Facebook group to share the joy and Crazy Ladies now has almost 2,000 members, with swimmers meeting in small groups to enjoy dips all year round. “Although we’re all responsible for our own safety, it’s great fun to swim together and the companionship and joint experience of the sheer joy of enjoying cold water is infectious!” said Barbara.

“Our first forays were at Sheringham and Cromer – where we’d been summer swimmers. Then we discovered river and mill pond sites and love places like Horstead, Bawburgh and many other spots on the Yare, the Bure and the Waveney.”

She said little equipment is needed. “A swimsuit and hat (often with a woolly hat on top!) and some neoprene gloves and socks have seen me through each winter,” said Barbara. “The coldest swim I did last winter was around 2C and we had to break the ice to get to clear water to swim at Ebridge on the Dilham Canal. The fishermen whipped out their mobile phones in disbelief!”

%image(14398883, type="article-full", alt="Dawn swim at Horstead")

%image(14398884, type="article-full", alt="Kate Devlin's "swan-do"")

Kate Devlin even held her pre-wedding swan-do (think hen do, but in the water) in the Wensum - with real swans. “My partner is a born and raised Norfolk man and we recently got married here in the city. Swimming has been a wonderful way for me to meet people, make friends, and fulfil my love of the water,” said Kate. “I grew up swimming in the sea in Northern Ireland, but river swimming was new to me. I love Norwich and feel so at home here – especially when I'm floating along the Wensum, under the Jarrold bridge, and back to Cow Tower to the sound of the cathedral bells. Cold water swimming resets my brain. No matter how bad my mood, 10 minutes in the water makes me happy.”

Nicola Langham swims with the Crazy Ladies at Horstead Cut. “What a brilliant group of women they are!” said 61-year-old Nicola. “The river is beautiful, clear, no current and the joy of being in nature and seeing kingfishers, cormorants and hawks is wonderful. It makes the skin tingle and prickle when you’re in and takes your breath away when you first enter. I find it empowering and it certainly helps my mental health. I am a nurse and the last two years obviously been a bit testing.

“The secret is to have your clothes in order to put back on and I have them in a hot water bottle so they are warm!”

Another wild-swimming nurse is Karen Snook who swam daily from December 2020 to December 2021 and said: "The challenge became the logistics of where and when I would swim each day, not the cold water. I’ve swam in the sea and Broads around Norfolk, Shotesham Ford, Bawburgh Mill...It clears my head if I’m feeling stressed or upset, it’s just a joy to swim under the sky."

Rosalind Wright, who swims at Marston Marshes, near Norwich, said: “I started wild-swimming soon after lockdown in March 2020 as I am a very keen swimmer and was missing the pool. It’s amazingly refreshing and sometimes other-worldly to swim outdoors, especially outside summer months.”

Catherine Simonds of Norwich said: “I grew up in Norfolk and have always swum in rivers and the sea but had been living in London for 20 years before moving back here with my family in the middle of the pandemic. It’s meant that I can revisit a love for swimming outdoors, often with wonderful, supportive women from the group. It has a hugely positive effect on mind and body and is immensely enjoyable. I find I can think and focus better at work if I swim. It reduces stress too.” The 45-year-old local government officer, swims in places she can reach by public transport including Cromer, Yarmouth, Sheringham, Wroxham and Norwich.

“In terms of tips - there is only one: run your own risk assessment in your head, assess how you feel, and how the water is, on the day," said Catherine. "Listen to your own instinct, tolerance for the cold, and good sense. Oh… And leave no impact on the environment, wildlife and water when you swim! I personally don’t think you need a load of kit (I don’t have a dry robe, I have a coat, which is more multi-use) and if you buy anything new try to make it ethical, recycled, locally made, second hand or with the least impact on the planet we get to enjoy.”

Norwich teaching assistant and reflexologist Louise Roberts said: “I absolutely love wild swimming, for the mental health, physical and social benefits.” The 42-year-old began wild swimming in June and said: “The real fun came as it got colder, there's a real sense of achievement and adventure. Every time I'm in the water I can't quite believe I'm doing it; it's so calming and peaceful. For afterwards I've borrowed a friend's dry robe which really helps when changing in the rain, a hot water bottle, warm layers, a dry hat, gloves and thick socks! A hot drink is also a must!”

%image(14398885, type="article-full", alt="Louise Roberts")

%image(14398886, type="article-full", alt="Pai Masendu swims with a friend")

%image(14398887, type="article-full", alt="Swanton Morley waterfalls")

Alex Slade began river swimming last June. “Until now I'd only ever been swimming in the sea. I don't know why it never occurred to me to swim in the rivers!” she said. “The winter swims have been described as daggers and likened to being thrown into a bed of nettles, then three to five minutes later, ‘Oh, it's quite pleasant.’

“I find the whole experience exhilarating. A combination of the bracing cold water, being immersed in nature and, of course, the after-swim cake is what keeps me going and, more importantly, meeting fabulous people who have become firm friends and regular swimming pals.”

%image(14398888, type="article-full", alt="Rachel Hawley ready for an icy swim")

Rachel Hawley also began wild swimming during the pandemic - and now has an Etsy store selling equipment. “I found the Crazy Ladies and have never looked back,” she said. “I have discovered so many beautiful swim spots and places to visit, many of which I never knew existed. I have met so many lovely ladies and formed many new friendships. I have had so many new adventures. Sea swims, lakes, rivers. Swims in the moon light, swims with inflatables and even a skinny dip or two!

“My favourite time of year to swim is winter when the frost is on the ground and there is the possibility of an ‘ice’ swim.”

Lizzie Wallis and Paul Richards, of West Runton began regular sea swims in August 2020 and decided to carry on until they stopped enjoying it. “I thought we'd maybe make it until October, but we just carried on all through last winter, all of 2021 and here we are on our second winter.” Both retired, they wear swimsuits and, in winter, brightly coloured hats and neoprene gloves and boots.

“We have never been for a swim and felt worse afterwards. It is exhilarating, a complete mental and physical reset,” said Lizzie.

%image(14398889, type="article-full", alt="Sea swim at Cley")

And Andrea Rippon, who began cold water swimming last summer, said: “Why? Because I can do something epic before the day has even begun! A dose of va-va voom. Norfolk is beautiful, especially when your only company is the sun rising, a flask of tea, a group of like-minded women and a heron.”

Safety first

Joining a group will give you vital local knowledge and people to swim with.

The Crazy Ladies can be found on Facebook when they are not in Norfolk’s rivers, broads and sea.

Norfolk and Norwich Wild Swimmers is another friendly Facebook group of sea and river swimmers with more than 2,500 members. They share lots of information - and swim across the county all year round.

Barbara Bryant's tips for year-round outdoor swimming include:

1. Learn about cold water swimming at the Outdoor Swimming Society website before you start swimming.

2. Be prepared. Eat well and hydrate beforehand. Check the weather forecast. Bring warm clothes and hat, waterproofs if needed, towel, swimming costume or wetsuit, warm drink, some food, and a bag to put your wet stuff in afterwards.

3. Build up confidence slowly, through experience. Get to know your body over many swims and dips, and through the seasons. Every swim is different.

4. Be flexible and have a back-up plan, that enables you to end the swim at any point. For example, tow a dry-bag with your stuff in, know where to get out, stay near the shore. Only push your limits by small amounts each time.

5. Be prepared to walk away. When you turn up to a swim spot, even a familiar one, assess the risks each time and if anything gives you cause to doubt, don’t swim.