Wild swimming is enjoying a renaissance thanks to writers such as Daniel Start whose mission through Wild Things Publishing is to create inspiring books and apps that get people out experiencing and enjoying nature, and our wonderful, often local, world... and to inspire us to make our lives a little more wild. I first met Daniel when he was writing the book Wild Swimming Coast (now called Hidden Beaches)and he chose a few of my photographs to feature in it. I caught up with him for a short Q & A session where he shares some great tips and advice if you want to go wild swimming. Q. When did you start wild swimming and why? A. I grew up on the River Wye in Herefordshire and had a Huckleberry Finn childhood of river swings and raft making. I learnt to swim in the river there! I also spent several years living on a hill farm in Snowdonia where there were wonderful lakes and waterfalls for swimming.
Q. What are the benefits of wild swimming? A. George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Britten, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were all advocates of regular cold baths to strengthen the mental constitution and physical state. Cold immersion soothes muscle aches, relieves depression and boosts the immune system. All wild-dippers know the natural endorphin high that raises mood, elates the senses and creates an addictive urge to dive back in. However the world seemed before a swim, it looks fantastic afterwards. The long-term impacts are also well researched: NASA studies have shown that, over a 12-week period, repeated cold swimming leads to substantial bodily changes known as ‘cold adaptation’. These bring down blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce fat disposition, inhibit blood clotting and increase fertility and libido in both men and women. Far from quelling passion, a cold shower will boost vitality and desire. Q. Where can you go wild swimming? A. Britain is bubbling with glorious little river and lake swmiming holes. You can explore our wild swimmimg map or wild swimming app or just ask around: some older folks may remember when a local river or lake was used for swimming in hot summers of the past. Younger people too often know a good place to jump in, go for a plunge or find that ubiquitous blue rope swing tied to a tree. Fishermen and kayakers are also good sources, as our keen walkers. Look for clues on a map: why not follow a river along its length? Many have footpaths that follow the bankside. Buy an Ordnance Survey map of your area (Purple Landrager 1:50,000 or Orange Explore 1:25,000). They will identify all the water features in your area. Weirs are marked and swimming is often popular in the pools above or below. Bridges sometimes cross sections where the river naturally narrows and deepens, so examine these. Bends are always good, as the river shallows to a beach on the inside, but deepens to a pool on the outside. Legal access is important so also examine footbridges, riverside footpaths, road fords and other places where a right of way comes into contact with the water. In highland areas look for any mountain lake and examine waterfalls, where marked.
Q. What inspired you to write the first Wild Swimming book? A. It was the really hot summer of 2006 and I was working in London, dreaming of my childhood swimming. I had read Waterlog and wanted to travel the country photographing the best traditional swimming holes. I thought it would make a lovely book. Q. Where are your favourite wild swims and why? A. I love Dartmoor, the Norfolk Broads and River Thames. Best for skinny dipping Sharrah Pool, R Dart, Dartmoor Sharrah is the largest and best pool on this wild and wonderful river stretch in the forested Dart Valley nature reserve. It’s also the birth place of Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, so not better place to return to your natural state. You might also explore Bellpool Island just downstream, and upstream are the Mel Pools, a range of smaller pools, including a few good chutes if you have an inner tube. Descend to river from Holne and bear L along a good path for 40 mins to find this long narrow pool. 40 mins, 50.5301, -3.8396 Best for a long swim The River Waveney was the favourite river of Roger Deakin, forefather of the wild swimming movement. I love the 2 miles loop around Outney Common, starting and returning from Bungay. This town is one of Suffolk’s most independent little places, with quirky cafes, food stores and craft shops, so it’s the perfect place to stock on picnic supplies. It even has its own river meadows at the bottom of Bridge Street, perfect for a picnic and quick dip if you don’t fancy the walk. There’s also a riverside campsite with canoe hire (www.outneymeadow.co.uk, 01986 892338). 52.4572, 1.4413 Best for leaving the car at home Port Meadow, River Thames, Oxford This 2 mile stretch of river has beaches and grassy meadow on both banks with cows and cattle roaming around. The dreaming Oxford spires behind were the inspiration for Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Yet the city and Oxford mainline station are only 15 mins walk away. From the station turn right onto the main road and after 300m drop down to Thames footpath on right and follow it for ¾ mile upstream. The first footbridge leads to west bank with open meadow, the next leads to the east bank with path and access to The Perch inn (OX2 0NG, 01865 728891). 51.7698, -1.2881
Q. What advice/tips would you give to a complete wild swimming beginner? A. Water temperatures can vary. Shallow lakes can get up to a balmy 25C in summer but mountain rivers may struggle to reach 20C. Much of the year outdoor waters are around 12C – 17C so the key is to arrive at the swimming hole so hot and sweaty you can’t wait to strip off and plunge in. Plan a good hearty walk to get there, and put on lots of warm clothes before you arrive. Once you’re in the water it takes a few minutes before the cold feeling goes away, so persevere. In general, the more you swim in cold water the less you feel the cold and the greater the health benefits of what is called ‘cold adaptation’. Don’t stay in too long without a wetsuit, though, and definitely get out and warm up after 20 minutes or if you start to shiver. Put on warm clothes immediately after a swim and combine this with something active: walk up a hill or do some star jumps. You’ll have more confidence, and be better able to explore, if you have footwear (e.g. old trainers, jelly beans etc) and goggles. A normal surfing wetsuit, a sleeveless wetsuit top or a specialist triathlon wetsuit will all help you stay warm longer. Q. What interesting or unusual wildlife have you experienced at river level? A. We see kingfishers and herons regularly on the river Avon, and I once swam with a turtle - it must have been an escaped terrapin Q. Wild Things Publishing have now published an amazing 13 books, what next? A. We have new Wild Guides and Wild Swimming books planned for Scotland, Dartmoor, Scandinavia and Spain. These will all be out some time through 2016! Find out more by visiting www.wildswimming.co.uk
Photographs (c) Daniel Start/Wild Swimming