When I started this ‘project’ to swim throughout winter in water ten degrees or less, for at least ten minutes, a friend had a quiet word with me.
‘Just hope this is not a cold winter. Five degrees is very different to ten degrees.’
Of course I thought, but then cold is cold is cold. I’ve already written about it I thought, and we live next to the sea at the head of Morecambe Bay on the border between Lancashire and Cumbria. It’s wet, grey, can be extremely miserable in low pressure gloom, but it’s comparatively mild. The weather comes from the west, across the Irish Sea from the Atlantic, it drops huge amounts of rain on the wettest county in the Country, but it hasn’t been seriously cold over a sustained period since 2010.
So I imagined the prospect of knowing what five degrees feels like in water was likely to be unlikely.
I was always going to try and swim on Christmas Day. We eat our ‘traditional’ meal on Christmas Eve and so the day itself has previously been left to opening presents, walking and being outdoors, inevitably this year swimming was going to be my option to be outside. After a brisk walk up Orrest Head to take in the almost complete view of Windermere, we dropped down as dusk was falling to enter the Lake late in the day. I didn’t have a thermometer, but the one permanently dangling at the end of the jetty said six degrees. Ten minutes later having swam reasonably briskly between jetties, my fingers were turning steadily towards a familiar numbness and my toes were somewhere beneath my ankles but locating them had become more difficult than normal.
Gwyn as ever takes the timings very seriously as she thinks I’m enjoying this too much.
Roll on New Year’s day, another target in my diary, that has considerably less things in it than might have been the case in the past. This was the one I was both looking forward to and the one I was most anxious about. I wanted to take part in the un-organised swim that had previously been organised by M.A.L.L.O.W.S – Morecambe and Lancaster Lancashire Open Water Swimmers Group prior to the advent of Tier 4 and further regulations. Traditionally January 1st has seen people swim and dip in the Bay to raise funds for St John’s Hospice in Lancaster, another very worthy cause for support and inevitably the inability to organise this had caused many people a good deal of sadness.
Morecambe Bay however, and MALLOWS Bay in particular is a large space and inevitably people wanted to swim, albeit without it being formally organised.
MALLOWS has many serious swimmers, hence my anxiety, it’s one thing to faff around in a pair of shorts in the cold and to ‘swim’ a couple of hundred metres at maximum, but entirely another to swim distance in open water and to do so year around. Thankfully, they’re also a very engaged and welcoming group that while unable to organise group swims at present are wonderful as a source of information and knowledge, tide times and tide heights, and cake recipes. Obviously everyone is swimming at their own risk, but knowing that you have a source of good information certainly helps in terms of confidence, and shouted greetings and waves help you feel like part of something, despite the physical distance.
The sea temperature on New Year’s Day hovered between 4.8 – 5 degrees. I lost feeling in my toes after about six minutes and though I could feel my fingers at ten minutes it was evidently time to get out.
In every direction there were people swimming. To my left a Bart Simpson loomed from the waves, and as I came out I passed a couple running in to the sea quickly, submerging and getting out as fast, still others were swimming distance further in to the Bay, their familiar tow-floats bobbing at pace as they moved through a flattish incoming tide.
As it turns out cold is cold is cold, however the slow inevitability of the after-drop in core temperature saw me throwing coffee over myself for the first time. Fortunately I already had on a few dozen layers, so it made little difference to my sense of well-being and happiness, at being part of something, even if that something was people doing their own thing on a cold and otherwise unremarkable day.
My last swim of this holiday period was soon afterwards in an equally cold but familiarly embracing and silky blackness that increasingly feels like a sanctuary from thoughts otherwise racing to frustrations with politicians and the powerful, and concern and anxiety for those impacted by events here and elsewhere.
Ten minutes in the cold and quiet with a view of the snow and the last light on a short day was a reprieve from the internal dialogue and mental noise. I am starting, slowly, to understand why people do this for their mental health as well as the physical benefits. Maybe a cold winter is something to be welcomed.
I am completing this project to swim in water under 10C for ten minutes throughout the winter, donating £10 every time to Cancercare, a wonderful local charity that has supported thousands of people in North Lancashire and Cumbria, including my own family.
Should you have the means and feel able to donate to Cancercare, you can do so here:
Huge thanks to those of you who have already donated. Please feel free to claim cake soon!
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I wish I could try it. I can manage on the beach in Larnaca next winter. We are lockdown now. So sad😵