Wild swimming is increasingly popular. The latest swimwear, from high-tech trunks to whimsical costumes, makes it easier than ever to take the plunge
Nationwide, there is a boom in wild swimming. Even the fashion pack, rarely ones to embrace the great outdoors, have got involved. Anne-Marie Curtis, editor-in-chief of Elle, swims regularly at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath in London, as does designer Louise Gray.
Nearby, writer Eliot Haworth of Fantastic Man magazine can be found braving the often icy water at the men’s pond. “I wear a pair of quite skimpy ultramarine Adidas Lycra trunks and nothing else,” he says. “They are the same pair I bought when I was living in Finland and started going ice swimming. I find their utilitarian sportiness sets me in the right frame of mind for the task ahead. It might seem counterintuitive to bare more skin when it’s cold, but I prefer to have as little wet clothing on me as possible. They also dry quicker.”
Four years ago, printmaker Katherine Anteney entered a triathlon. While training, she remembered how good swimming felt – the peace and the adrenaline, the pleasure of spreading your fingers wide in cool water or kicking your legs in a firm breaststroke. She began visiting lakes regularly. “At first I wore a wetsuit, but ditched that pretty quickly as it felt like it kept me removed from the water.”
I’ve swum in the ladies’ pond every week, all year round, for three years. My swimming partner, Sarah Regh, whom I met in the pond during my first ever visit, is an expert in unusual swimwear. Her current costume is covered in a bold shark print. “It’s from Batoko and is made from recycled materials,” she says. Her top tip is flip-flops for the dash from changing hut to water’s edge. “I would pick flip-flops over hat, gloves and swimsuit, any day; they are key to warming up quickly. They provide vital insulation between the ground and my body and allow me to focus on getting dry.”
Today, Anteney’s favourite swimming spot is the river Test in Southampton. Even in the winter, she will swim a handful of times a month, and the local train now greets her and her swimming partner Pam with a hoot. “Where we get changed is called the Slab. It’s a concrete culvert right next to the tracks on the mainline to Salisbury. We always get a honk and a wave. Those poor fellas have seen our bare bums too many times.”
Anteney advises swimming with a companion for camaraderie and motivation. “We swim upstream heads up and chatting, and then back with head-down crawl. In the winter, we wear woolly hats and I keep my glasses on, because then I have an excuse not to put my face in.” Occasionally, they go in the dark with head torches. She would advise investing in neoprene shoes for warmth. “I hate getting mud on my feet,” she says. “Earplugs help keep you warmer but they mean you can’t do much chatting, so I’ve stopped wearing them. I have learned the importance of getting warm quickly afterwards and anticipating the afterdrop (where your core temp carries on dropping after you get out). I couldn’t live without my Dryrobe.” This combines a windproof outer shell with a synthetic lambswool lining.
“Swimming is the new yoga,” says the journalist and screenwriter Marion Hume. “I love that fashion has finally ‘got’ swimwear to swim in, from Stella McCartney’s whimsical pieces to Ashley Graham’s, which are so body-positive.” She prefers the comfort of a lido – just wild enough, without the risk of reeds or fish. “I swim at Parliament Hill Lido, which is lined in metal that sparkles in the sun – it’s like moving through a James Turrell art installation.” Like Anteney, she recommends neoprene boots – “I tell myself they are Margiela circa 1980s, when in fact they just look ridiculous.”
If the thought of plunging into the cold – and open water often is cold, even in the warmer weather – in just a swimming costume fills you with horror, a wetsuit is always an option. Consider the thickness carefully, says consultant Charlotte Goodhart, who swims in the West Reservoir at Manor House, north London. “My advice would be to wear a wetsuit of at least 2mm thickness – the water might not feel that cold but you’ll gradually get quite chilly – though gloves and socks aren’t as necessary.”
Ben Alden-Falcone is a sea man. He swims regularly along the Kent coast, in particular in the Walpole Bay Tidal Pool in Margate. Three years ago, he swam the Channel as part of a relay of three. “I definitely got the short straw starting first in the pitch black of a very cold early morning. Then, on my next hour stretch as the sun came up, plume upon plume of red jellyfish surfaced. You couldn’t swim round them – there were thousands. I got stung to bits – it looked like I had been whipped.”
Unlike Goodhart, he still wouldn’t recommend a wetsuit: “For me, a wetsuit kills a key joy of cold-water swimming – the freedom. I want to feel the water, even if a twig or bit of seaweed makes me jump occasionally.” He wears tight swimming shorts instead. And goose fat, for the Channel, surely? “I think the goose fat is a bit of a rumour; we had Vaseline to stop chafing.” He’s a fan of ear plugs, but says the best preparation is temperature-checking. “My No 1 tip is always acclimatise to the water temperature (especially if you don’t go regularly) by dipping your feet into the water for a couple of minutes first. This will cool your body temperature and reduce risk of a shock to the heart.”
Before you grab your goggles, consider your swimming aims, says Anteney. “The last thing it’s about is exercise,” she says. “It’s about being in the water and feeling it all around you. Being at eye level with nature. An early-morning swim before work makes the rest of the day manageable. It keeps me sane – even though everyone else thinks we are insane.”