'Why wild swimming has become so popular in Sheffield'
“Wild swimming isn’t new”, said enthusiast Rachel Heley. It’s just got a new name.”
“There are plenty of people who say ‘wild swimming? It just used to be called swimming.’ My mum is one of those.”
What does feel relatively new is the revival in people willing to swim outdoors, even in the depths of winter, in the UK.
Rachel believes that the last year of lockdowns is partly behind the rise, and she should know.
The 51-year-old only discovered the pursuit after watching a film, My Big White Thighs and Me, about wild swimming as did her friends when they were unable to go to the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival last year.
They decided to give it a go, despite it being October, and were hooked instantly.
“We just got that real buzz from it”, said Rachel, of Ecclesall.
"I now swim two or three days a week minimum and up to seven days a week in winter. Because we were in lockdown it was really good way to socialise, we could meet up to six people outside.
"In a way it has kind of replaced the pub for us. It has changed our social lives quite a bit as well. It is healthier and cheaper than going to the pub.
“I have introduced a few people to wild swimming since I started and they say ‘I’m not doing that, are you off your head?’ and every single person who tries it comes out with a big smile on their face. There is a real sense of euphoria.
“Tackling the cold makes you focus on what you are doing, then as your body adapts you relax. You just come out absolutely buzzing.
"I think people like the fact it is a bit of an adventure. I realised in lockdown how much of a treadmill I was on and this was a step back from the mundanity of life, it’s a really nice way to spend time outdoors.
"I think lockdown is a massive part of it (the rise in interest in wild swimming).”
While Rachel, and wild swimmers, extoll the virtues of the pursuit they say it is not a case of just finding water and jumping in.
Safety and preparation is key, and even more so in the wake of the tragic drowning at Crookes Valley Park, where a man in his 20s died, last month. Nationally 400 people drown each year, says the Canal and River Trust.
Rachel said: “Everyone is devastated, first of all on a personal level for the family affected.
"And then you can’t help but think it is going to reflect badly on the wild swimming community, there will be negative press about wild swimming and a big clampdown on it.
"There is a massive movement to raise awareness and there is a petition put there to get more education on how to swim safely, at a national level it is not really being done. There isn’t enough being done to educate people about how to be safe around water and cold water swimming.”
Before going wild swimming, Rachel says people should research where they are going, check rain levels as it may affect safety and chemical run off from fields, as well as planning where they will get out from the water.
A thorough check of rocks is advised, and looking over the location even if you have been before to see if anything has changed.
Don’t swim after drinking or taking drugs, and the cold water shock needs to be prepared for as it can cause people to take a sharp intake of breath in the water.
"Even if you are a strong swimmer, the cold water will affect you. Get in gradually and let your body adapt and your breathing regulate before trying to swim.”
Rachel advises people should only go with someone else, preferably someone with experience, and be aware they will continue to get cold after getting out, in what is known as the ‘afterdrop,’
It is recommended to only stay in for a few minutes, even in summer, and if swimming where they may be boats, to be visible with a brightly coloured float.
Being aware of noise pollution in designated parks, the local wildlife and biodiversity issues, and if a site is a Site of Scientific Interest, are also factors. It is good practice to rinse after one dip if planning another nearby to avoid the transfer of non native species.
Rachel added: “People who wild swim are generally very respectful of the environment.”
As a sports massage therapist, Rachel found herself with ‘a lot of thinking time’ during the pandemic, and has now launched her own Wild Moose range, including lined changing robes and hot water bottle waistbands to beat the chill.
But she says: “The best thing about wild swimming is that you don’t actually need to buy anything. Anyone can do it.”
If you like to warm up quickly, however… “The robes are a real game-changer.”
With the help of Rachel and fellow Sheffield wild swimmers, I stepped into a pool at Rivelin Valley (one of two places where it is legal to take the plunge here) earlier this summer.
There were a few deep breaths as the water rose, and once our shoulders were under, it became invigorating.
There is a waterfall at one end of the pool and despite its small size it is possible to swim a few strokes while admiring the stunning 360 degree view. A miniature adventure on a lunchbreak, indeed.
Rachel’s website is here https://wild-moose.co.uk