Neoprene gloves and a hot water bottle down your jumper: the unexpected joys of year-round swimming
We caught up with Flora Jamieson, Bridport-based wild swimming enthusiast and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Wild Swimming.
Have you always been a swimmer?
I’ve always been very keen to jump into cold water but I’m not a distance swimmer by any means; it’s not like a sport thing for me. When I was a kid, my parents had a pub in Berkshire and the garden backed onto a little river. Like so many kids in the 1970s, my sister and I were left to our own devices while our parents were working in the pub, so we spent all summer long in the river. There were various sections which had been dug out – they were trout pools, I think – and occasionally you wouldn’t realise there was one in front of you. We’d fall in, going from knee deep to neck deep within seconds; it was quite terrifying but quite a laugh too. Then we moved to a house with a long garden which backed on to the Kennet and Avon canal, so we spent subsequent summers mucking around in a terrible inflatable dinghy. It was always going down and we always ended up in the canal.
So did you simply continue swimming into adulthood?
Apart from a few years in London, I’ve always lived by the sea as an adult – in Brighton, Whitstable and here – so swimming has always been something I’ve done. When I had kids I stopped swimming as much because I was so busy looking after them, but once they got old enough to enjoy paddling, I was really keen to recreate my childhood experience with them. So then I got back into swimming and would stay in longer and longer as they paddled around with their fishing nets.
At the same time, just before I turned 40, I took up running and would enjoy running down to West Bay. On a hot day the sea would look so amazing that I just wanted to get in. So I started to swim more regularly: a couple of us would go for a run and then a swim, and then run back home again. We were swimming from April to September and then extended it to March to October but I thought it would be really nice to go the whole year through and join those two ends up. I just happened to chat about it to a friend of mine who had been thinking the same; she’d been swimming all through the summer and wanted to carry on through the winter, so we made a pact that we’d start swimming every morning before the school run. That was about three years ago. Now we have a morning group and more and more people have joined us.
When you and your friend made that pact, what did you do to extend your swimming into the winter months?
We just kept going regularly to keep up the acclimatisation as the water temperature dropped,
and invested in little bits of kit to help us.
I’m interested to know what’s in your kit. Are you a wetsuit person?
No, no: bikini all year round! I have neoprene gloves, and I invested in a neoprene beanie last year. I also have some amphibious shoes which you can run in; they’re like neoprene trainers and they keep the chill off your feet on the cold sand afterwards. That’s it really, and then just loads of layers and a bobble hat for afterwards. Oh, and a hot water bottle for deep winter – for those mornings when you’re scraping the ice off the windscreen before you can drive down to the beach. When I’m driving back, I stuff it down my jumper because that’s when you get cold. It’s not immediately afterwards.
What’s the coldest water you’ve ever swum in?
Two years ago we went up to the far north of Scotland at October half term, near Skye but on the mainland; a place called Glenelg. It wasn’t that cold while we were there – around 10 degrees – although on the last day it did start snowing. We found an amazing waterfall, which we hiked to and then got in. It was really magical although bitterly cold. The waterfall was so powerful that you couldn’t really get too close to it but the pool was about thigh deep so you could just about swim in it. Standing there was like being in a car wash with lots of tiny droplets completely covering you. It was amazing.
Was that your most memorable swim?
Yes, I think so. But sometimes even the most mundane swims at your local swimming spot can be memorable. Sometimes it depends on who you’re swimming with: you can have a really great chat with a friend, or there might be an amazing sunrise. I think that’s what you keep coming back for. You never know when it’s going to be a really epic one.
This morning was amazing because I’d arranged to go with a friend at 7.15am and at 6am I was wide awake waiting for the alarm to go off. The next thing I knew it was nearly 7.30am and I’d completely overslept. I woke up bleary eyed and rang my friend to apologise. She was fine about it but then another friend texted and offered to come with me. It was pouring with rain when we got there and really wild and windy. The conditions didn’t look good but because I was half asleep, and the rain was quite heavy and forming tiny droplets on the surface of the sea, it was unexpectedly good.
I envy you being able to swim every day.
It was partly one of the reasons why we moved near the sea, being able to make the most of it because the weather in this country is so unpredictable. Once you get used to going in all weathers, you realise you don’t have to wait for it to be sunny and queue in the traffic with everyone else; you can go when the weather is a bit rubbish and it’s still great to go in. It’s quite liberating.
Do you find that you miss the cold in the summer?
I was talking to someone about this today on Instagram. At this time of year your energy levels naturally dip. You’re entering hibernation mode and you’re naturally feeling sluggish and tired. Because the water is getting colder, the two sort of meet and you’re more aware of the energy that swimming gives you, whereas in the summer you’re feeling a bit more energetic anyway, so the difference isn’t that noticeable. I think it’s nice on those days when you’re feeling foggy and then you have a swim and you’re as high as a kite for the rest of the day.
How did The Beginner’s Guide to Wild Swimming come about? How did you meet the illustrator, Gemma Koomen?
It was an Instagram connection. I had just discovered Gemma’s work and I really loved her illustrations. There was one of two children riding on a swan’s back which was like a dream I used to have as a kid. If I couldn’t sleep I often used to imagine that I was sitting on a swan’s back going down a river. You know what it’s like when something really speaks to you.
At the same time, I had been asked to do a talk on wild swimming by my friend, Lou Archell, who ran a series of women’s retreats called Sisterhood Camp at Fforest in Wales, next to the river Teifi. Lou asked if I would give my talk and then we would all go for a swim in the river afterwards. I agreed to do it but thought I should give some safety advice; I’m not a trained swim leader and I suddenly felt a bit responsible so I thought I should draw up a fact sheet of the dos and don'ts. That seemed a bit dry though, so I wondered if I could turn it into a little illustrated guide. I was picturing a leaflet with some quotes to motivate and inspire people because sometimes it is quite daunting thinking ‘am I really going to go from being warm and cosy in my nice clothes to jumping in that cold water?’
So I did some research and found some nice quotes that captured the joy of swimming. Gemma does these beautiful illustrations of, for example, an autumn day, which will include things like a steaming kettle and a pair of woollen socks and other sweet little things in a grid, and I thought how I would love her to do a wild swimming one with a towel and some goggles and a flask of tea etc. So I thought I would email her to see what she thought of the idea. As I pressed send I thought ‘she’s not going to reply; she doesn’t even know me’. However, amazingly, she got back to me – she’s a keen wild swimmer too and loved the idea. In the end she produced several beautiful illustrations for the book, including the front cover, which I still adore. She also turned some of them into cards and prints that she sells via her website.
Gemma was so helpful and it ended up being a really lovely collaboration. She did the illustrations, I wrote the text and it just came together. She knew a lot more about the print process than me, and found a printing company that uses recycled paper. There were a few late nights trying to get it ready in time because I had this very real deadline of the talk at Fforest.
We planned to print enough books so that I could give some out at the talk and we would sell the remainder with the aim to cover our costs. It did get a bit stressful towards the end but then there was this fully formed booklet, which was amazing.
I put the book on my Instagram and soon sold all the copies I had, then a couple of independent lifestyle stores got in touch to ask if they could stock it so I had to get some more printed. Then this year I decided to create a separate Instagram account for the book (https://www.instagram.com/thelittlewildswimmingbook/) because I felt it deserved a wider audience, especially as a lot more people are getting into swimming as a result of lockdown and pools being closed etc, and just as a nice gift to give. Because of its size, it’s postable and a really nice thing to send to friends or family if you wanted to encourage them to get into swimming too. So this year it’s had another lease of life.
To conclude, what is your top swimming tip for a beginner?
The best advice that I have heard is to give yourself 90 seconds to acclimatise to the cold water. When you first go in, your instinct is to think ‘oh my god, it’s too cold’. Stay with it and count to 90 and you’ll find that the panic subsides, your body acclimatises and then you can stay in a bit longer.
The Beginner’s Guide to Wild Swimming is available in the FOLDE online shop.