Wild swimming is a simple concept; take an outdoor body of water, add a swimmer, and you’re there.
Of course, there are pressing considerations such as weather, safety, and accessibility but at the heart of this popular pastime is freedom. Across Hampshire there are dozens of fabulous locations to try and clubs to join to help the inquisitive dip their toe. And dipping the toe they are... in their droves. The Outdoor Swimming Society has almost 28,000 members in the UK, and the Hampshire Open Water Swimmers has a thriving community of 500 constantly trading tips and support on Facebook.
But what is it that drives people towards the water? Washing away the stresses of modern life, keeping fit, and communing with nature are all popular reasons.
“I won’t do crawl when I am swimming outside, it’s always breaststroke,” beams Julia Hamilton.
“It would feel totally wrong to be in such beautiful areas and have my head down the whole time.
“It’s about being in nature,” she adds. “I dive under water, and do breaststroke and make sure that I take it all in - I just love the feeling of the water on my skin.”
Julia is different to many wild swimmers in that she isn’t a recent convert to the hobby. The 48-year-old from Southampton vividly remembers the joy of her childhood swims in a reservoir near her home in Cheshire.
Swimming has never been about ploughing up and down a swimming pool for Julia. She moved to Hampshire about six years ago and has built a thriving social life around Hampshire Open Water Swimmers and the Shack Sharks group, which meets in Leigh on Solent. She says: “It’s great to go out in groups because you can look out for each other and help each other all the time.”
Julia is a hardy soul who swims all year round for as long as she can – from 10 minutes in the depths of winter, to a couple of hours when the days are longer and the water is warmer.
The River Itchen is a particular favourite location for Julia as, she says, the chalk riverbed makes the water feel silky on her skin. But she also enjoys tidal swimming in the Hamble River from Burridge.
“We are lucky here,” she explains. “There are so many great rivers, so we’re not reliant on lakes; and it means the water is constantly changing so the swim is a bit of a journey.”
Julia is a public-sector worker with what she describes as a ‘challenging job’ and identifies open water swimming as giving her an enormous sense of wellbeing.
“You have to be careful when you get out of the water because it’s so cold you risk freezing your feet to the ground.”
Rory Fitzgerald is surprisingly laid-back when he describes the perils of his hobby. Ice swimming is not for the faint-hearted; indeed it is a sport that only the most robust should consider.
The 59-year-old adds: “I swam in one competition in Russia and volunteers had buckets of water to throw over you if you stuck to the ground. It’s always good to know that there is a strong safety ethos.”
At the age of 45, the finance manager from Winchester had not even dipped a toe in the world of winter swimming, and yet has risen to the top of the British rankings. Does he blame a mid-life crisis or has his conversion been more organic?
“Well,” he explains, “I’ve always loved swimming, but I started to get a little bit bored hanging around poolside.
“I began to enjoy open-water swimming, particularly in the sea, but it wasn’t until New Year’s Day 2005 that I first tried it in winter.”
The New Year’s Dip at Leigh-on-Solent started Rory on a path that has taken him to far-flung places like China and Norway in search of ever greater challenges, but he says the conversion from winter-swimmer to hardy ice swimmer was a near 10-year progression. That natural humility covers a strong competitive streak and some hard-fought miles in training, which have included a solo-crossing of the Channel in 2013.
The racing and competitive element is, Rory acknowledges, a huge motivator for him.
“Ice Swimming piqued my interest but when I found out that no British person had completed the 1km Ice Swim in Russia, so all I had to do was avoid being disqualified and I would set a British record, I was in.”
How does someone from the relatively comfortable climate of Hampshire train for such extreme events? The secret, Rory assures me, is at Andark Lake in Lower Swanwick near Southampton. It’s not that Andark is closer to a random cold front, but that it is so deep – at 70m it began its leisure life as a purpose built diving lake.
“Andark is cold because of the depth but it’s also well-equipped with a sauna and showers, so warming up afterwards isn’t a problem.”
Rory is also at the heart of making Hampshire at the centre of the international map. In February, the International Winter Swimming Association met in Winchester to decide plans for upcoming events.
Elaine Lucas’s love of open water was sparked when she bought a ticket for Bestival over on the Isle of Wight.
“I heard that some people swam across the Solent to get to the festival and something just clicked – I knew I had to do it,” she explains.
It was a quite a challenge for a first experience as the 1.3 mile stretch of the Solent can be choppy, but the 33-year-old Hampshire County Council employee loved the camaraderie and was hooked.
Elaine’s love for all things open water has only grown since that fateful day three years ago, and she swims with Hampshire Open Water Swimmers and other local groups.
In the summer Elaine swims up to four miles and as frequently as she can – three or four times a week - as she balances a busy job with the demands and joys of family life with her nine-year-old daughter Izzy.
This winter she has plunged even deeper into the world of wild swimming, braving the elements without a wetsuit for insulation.
She said: “What the body can do is incredible – it can handle far more than most people think it capable of. The biggest challenge is breathing, but once you acclimatise and build up a rhythm it is great.
“I can only manage about 300m and I usually head to the River Itchen and swim against the flow. It’s a bit like a treadmill at this time of year.
“The endorphin rush is amazing and I have met so many different people and been to so many new places across the south.”
5 top tips
• Acclimatise - Even if you’re getting in during summer months it will be colder than your local pool so make sure you take it steady and get used to it.
• Check your exits - Swimming along a river provides a great sense of freedom but avoid areas with steep banks so that you can be sure to get out safely.
• Warm up slowly - Don’t have a hot shower straight away as the pain and itching from your extremities may put you off. Wrap up well and have a hot drink before hitting the showers.
• Wear the right kit - Wetsuits provide buoyancy as well as warmth so can really help beginners and intermediates. Even if you want to go ‘skins’ you can wear two swimming hats and earplugs to keep your head from the worst of the chill.
• Never swim on your own - Whether you have a spotter on the bank or a buddy in the water, this is the most important principle of open water swimming.