All I Want For Christmas Is Hot Chocolate By The Fire – After A Spot Of Winter Solstice Wild Swimming

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Wild Swimming is becoming ever more popular. Below we dip a toe into the Winter Solstice swims in the Lake District of England. Some take the plunge into the cold, open waters in search of inner calm, a natural high and health (mental, blood circulation, muscular strength and even pain management), others for all of that and charity.

Whatever their reasons for braving freezing temperatures to swim in freshwater lakes, icy mountain pools, the swell of big sea, wild winter swimming is moving upstream from a test for military units and thrill-seekers to mainstream.

Some swims require soaring levels of fitness, competence, physical, and mental strengths beyond those required for the average 20-minute swim in a 10C lake. Lewis’s Pugh’s East Antarctica Ice Sheet Swim and Outer Hebrides prep camp are examples of swimmers living life on the edge for the ultimate cause: our planet’s survival – and our’s with it.

In Britain, the Outdoor Swimming Society, which issues advice on “Festive Swim Do’s & Don’ts – Are you safe to do a one-off winter swim?”, saw membership soar to more than 70,000 over the past two years, compared with only a couple of hundred a decade ago.

There are about 200 mass swims a year, each with an entry fee of £50 to £150, but that number and the wide range of locations from Devon in southern England to the Scottish Highlands is unlikely to satisfy demand, Ella Foote, the group’s spokesperson told The Guardian newspaper at the end of the winter season a year ago:

  • “They sell out like Glastonbury – we could fill these events twice over.”

The Winter Solstice Swims in The English Lake District

Wild swimming meets the Winter Solstice in the English Lake District this weekend and Laura Clarke wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Clarke, whose outdoor adventures include trekking to Everest Base Camp, loves nothing more than an early morning dip in the tranquil waters of the Lake District.

“There’s just you and the water surrounded by amazing scenery at the first light of day,” said Clarke.

“It takes your mind off anything that you are concerned about or worried about, anything that is in your head. When you’ve done that first thing in the morning you end up going on to have a really productive day.”

The day job that Clarke heads off to after her weekday wild swims is the reason she is able to live in the Lake District, and why this weekend’s Winter Solstice swim is only a stone’s throw from her work and home.

After landing a dream job as a private client executive with Cartmell Shepherd Solicitors, Clarke made the move north from Teddington in south-west London with her fiancé Dan earlier this year. It hasn’t been all work no play. Says Clarke:

“As a family-orientated business, Cartmell Shepherd encourages a good work life balance and is supportive of me pursuing my activities, including wild swimming.”

The lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere have come to be like a home from home not far away from Clarke’s new base:

“For the last seven years, the Lake District has always been the place where Dan and I have wanted to live. I am so lucky to live and work here. I’ve still got to pinch myself that this is all on our doorstep. Wild swimming wakes you up. At first light is when the Lake District looks its best. No-one else is around. It is really beautiful. I find it really refreshing.”

This weekend Clarke will join wild swimming expert Suzanna Cruickshank for a special Winter Solstice Wild Swim in Derwentwater, near Keswick. Cruickshank has her own guiding business and she runs events for wild swimming enthusiasts all year round.

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Suzanna Cruickshank – author of Wild Swimming, out in April 2020 – Photo Courtesy: Suzanna Cruickshank

The Winter Solstice swims are aimed at regular outdoor swimmers. Those taking part may only be in the water for up to 20 minutes due to the low temperatures at this time of year: around 8-10C. One woman’s pleasant view is another one’s sporty thrill. Says Clarke:

“It will be incredible. That moment when you get out after a wild swim in winter, get dressed into your dry, warm clothes as quickly as you can, and enjoy a hot chocolate sitting by a fire, is a fantastic feeling. I have never felt so alive as I do at that moment. It’s invigorating. It gives you a lot of energy. I would highly recommend it.  Suzanna gives you all the advice on what to do and what not to do which is great. It gives you a lot of reassurance and confidence.”

As the interest in wild swimming goes from strength to strength across the UK, Suzanna Cruickshank warns those who are less experienced to take their time adjusting to the activity and not to plunge straight in. Says Cruickshank:

“People who are considering wild swimming in winter need to know that it is a real challenge, mentally and physically due to the low temperatures and often inclement conditions. It is not easy. You might find yourself a long way out from your comfort zone. It’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t recommend winter as the ideal time to take up wild swimming.”

Instead beginners would be best advised to make it their New Year’s resolution to take up the sport in the spring.

Cruickshank runs beginner classes from April to September and for first-timers favours the quiet, clear waters of Crummock Water where there will be no risk from any passing boats. Swimmers don’;t have to arrive race fit for the Olympics or anything like it to give wild swimming a go. Says Cruickshank:

“It’s an activity where if you’re very slim it’s actually a disadvantage. It helps if you have a bit of meat on your bones, to help insulate you from the cold. It’s also good to eat something nourishing and comforting afterwards – a slice of cake or soup. I favour a meat pie! Any food which will warm you up and reward you after a wild swim.”

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Laura Clarke 

Cruickshank’s Top Tips

  • “Do take food, drink, and plenty of warm clothes. There’s no changing room to get changed in, so it is really important to change into your warm clothes quickly afterwards.
  • “Ideally you should wear a down jacket, waterproofs on top to protect you from the wind, thermal base layers, and gloves and a hat.
  • “I’ve seen people turn up with just a thin waterproof and think that will do the job. They might as well pull on a paper bag for all the protection it will give them.”
  • Wetsuits, swim caps or woolly hats are recommended for beginners. Over time people will graduate to just wear their swimsuits if they want.
  • “It’s really important that you enter the water slowly and get acclimatised. If you jump in, there is a risk your body will go into shock.”
  • “Don’t go on your own. Always take someone with you. Go with a trusted friend.
  • “Don’t ignore the weather. When there’s rain hitting the windows and wind whipping across the water, it’s going to be extremely challenging. Don’t go that day. Leave it for another day.
  • “Don’t bow to peer pressure and ‘do it for the gram’ (Instagram photo). It’s easy to get suckered in by an inspirational photo on social media but you don’t know how much time went into setting up the photo and how long they ultimately spent in the water. Put your safety first.”

The Benefits

“I see wild swimming as good for everything and I see the mental health benefits as a by-product of all those things that you are doing,” says Cruickshank.

“You are spending time with friends, in a beautiful place, doing an activity that pushes you mentally and physically, and when you get out and you have achieved something, there’s that wonderful rush. Also swimming is something that everyone can do. It’s very accessible and isn’t dependent on your fitness or size, or lots of specialist equipment.”

In April 2020, Sheffield-based Vertebrate, which specialises in rock climbing, walking and cycling publications, will publish Suzanna’s guide – Swimming Wild In The Lake District.

It will be Vertebrate’s first swimming book and has been five years in the making for Cruickshank, who has researched “all the best places for wild swimming” in 13 of the Lake District’s lakes. She says:

“When I first came to Cumbria from Coventry where I am from, I was interested in hill-walking. I walked, I ran and I cycled. I could not bear to be apart from the landscape. Ever since I started wild swimming that’s become the thing I can’t do without. It’s the freedom, space, somewhere to escape to. You can just step in and swim.”

And this weekend that will be celebrated in style when Cruickshank takes small groups, including Laura Clarke and her fiancee Dan, for Winter Solstice swims in Derwentwater.

“It’s the chance to celebrate something a little bit different. It’s celebrating the days getting lighter from here. And what better place to do that than surrounded by nature in the Lake District?”