Aquatic adventures: wild swimming in Oxfordshire

Winter swimming in open water is an increasingly popular activity that gives you an endorphin rush when you step into the freezing water and leaves you with a lasting smile after you shake your way out.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 3 Apr 2019, 18:57 BST
Wild swimming in Oxfordshire
Wild water swimming in winter.
Photograph by Getty Images

“You’re going in there?!” Wrapped up in a hat and scarf, the woman regards Henley’s mud-brown Thames, which until a few days ago had snow-covered banks. “Good for you,” she beams.

“It’s as much about prep as getting in the water,” laughs my cohort, Calum Hudson pacing the bank, windmilling his arms. “I’m not sure why I do this,” he grins. “Warming up I guess, but it’s something I’ve always done. I met someone recently who meditates before she swims, repeating the mantra ‘fire belly’.”

One third of The Wild Swimming Brothers, Calum has swum open water in Norway and the Arctic, tales of which make up the book Wild Swim, written with his brothers.

It feels surreal to be standing on a riverside on a damp February morning, mud oozing through my toes, nattering with two strangers. “A big part of open-water swimming’s rising popularity is how sociable it is,” says my other companion, Katia Vastiau, a member of Team Selkie, the club offshoot of the sports brand. “You meet people you’d never encounter otherwise. My local club’s numbers have rocketed. We’ve had to cap membership for a while.”

As I heave myself into a wetsuit, I try to remember that I love open water... in summer. “You need to keep swimming into the winter months and your body will acclimatise,” says Calum, who, like Katia, will be going in ‘skins’ (without a wetsuit). As an increasing number of people, including ‘The Iceman’ Wim Hof, attest, the benefits of cold water exposure are myriad. “It definitely boosts your immune system,” says Katia. “I don’t get colds anymore. And it’s great for mental health. There’s the endorphin rush, sure, but it’s also about not letting winter stop you.”

And with that, we step off the bank and wade in. My neoprene booties and mitts delay the bite. I’m expecting to gasp, and fight to regulate my breath but perhaps my two weeks of preparatory cold showers have paid off. It’s only when we start swimming against the current I realise my breath is fast and shallow.

“Flip onto your back,” shouts Katia, treading water upriver. Backstroke seems ludicrously languid in this wintry setting; ice water rushes down my neck. I feel a bit panicky but a sound distracts me: a flock of red kites overhead. I’m mesmerised by the Wild West whistle of the raptors, the earthy smell of the water, the sound of my heart beating more regularly now.

It’s not long before Calum indicates we’ve been swimming almost 10 minutes: long enough. Back near our entry point, Katia urges me to shed the wetsuit to “feel the water’s tingle on the skin”. The pain on my hands and feet is instant: a branding, vice-like pressure. The water’s fire ant-like bites on my body is comparatively riveting. I almost feel compelled to stay put but I waddle out, accompanied by a flyover from a trio of swans.

Now comes the military operation: warming up before faculties desert me. I quickly don thick socks, walking boots and a down jacket; I also exchange my silicon hat for a woolly one. My clothes are warm courtesy of a hot water bottle Katia had given me earlier. She’s thought of everything; once I’m dressed, she offers me home-baked carrot cake and a Thermos of coffee. “It’s a swimmer’s thing — cake afterwards,” she smiles, shaking like she’s having a seizure. “Oh, it’s what my body does to get warm,” she adds. “There’s more risk of hypothermia when you’re acclimatised because you might not react immediately. But we know the drill. Anyway, what you really have to watch out for isn’t the cold,” laughs Katia. “It’s the Henley yachties.” Less than two hours later, I’m back in London’s rush hour with a secret smile on my face. 

Four top tips for wild swimming

1. Swim outdoors year-round at least once a week to acclimatise

2. Don’t swim alone in cold water

3. Don’t think or say ‘cold’ — mindset is everything

4. Rule of thumb: stay in the water one minute per temperature degree, for the uninitiated but… don’t be fixated on time spent in the water or temperature: just be in the moment

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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