Standing barefoot on an icy slipway in the dark, wearing only my dressing gown and swimming costume, I shivered as I realised this was it. The headlights of my friend's car illuminated the breaking whitewater of the Atlantic Ocean as we braced ourselves for our first official cold water sea-swim.
After growing up surfing in a thick neoprene wetsuit, going into the sea in just my togs in the depths of winter seemed like madness. But we had discussed the health benefits of cold water immersion and decided swimming in the sea was just as good as any ice bath.
The word 'swimming' is a bit of a stretch; we dipped, at best. That first experience lasted about 30 seconds. The cold part, however, is undeniable: the average sea temperature in the UK during winter is around 9°C. That first day I could have sworn it was closer to zero.
Despite the shock, it was exhilarating, so I went the next day too. Cold water sea-swimming fast became an unexpected addiction and now I can't imagine my life without it.
So why should I try cold water swimming?
1) A Natural High
The main reason I love cold water swimming is that it feels incredible. To be more precise, it stops me thinking and starts me feeling. The brain has a limited bandwidth and the cold forces you to focus on the intense sensations and your breathing, which doesn't leave you much capacity to worry about daily chores and life's stresses. Entering cold water gives you mental calmness and awakens you to your inherent physical robustness. I find it empowering. People now regularly say to me "Wow, you're brave!". I'm starting to realise that, yes, I am braver and stronger than I ever knew, and I'm not bound by my comfort zone. Plus, the hit of dopamine and endorphins – the feel-good chemicals the brain produces – leave me feeling high after each swim.
2) The Science
Cold water swimming is said to boost the immune system and improve circulation and libido. Some people, such as the ‘Ice Man’ Wim Hof, the extreme athlete who holds many cold endurance records, claim cold water immersion can even help cure modern diseases such as Crohn's, arthritis, psoriasis and depression. Gwyneth Paltrow's 'Goop' team are believers after jumping in the icy water with Wim Hof in the name of wellness for her new Netflix show "The Goop Lab."
However, although there is a whole raft of anecdotal evidence, scientists are still reluctant to say if it will cure diseases because there is so little data. The issue is that it's hard to isolate the cold water as the positive effect when socialising and exercising also improve general health and wellbeing. The cold water may be a placebo. So what? It works for me even if we don't know precisely why.
I have made some of my best friends through swimming. Having a shared experience in which you are both vulnerable and exposed, but also empowered and resilient, is a bonding force – it's like a glue in your friendship.
I also love the accessibility of the sport: almost anyone can do it regardless of age, gender or income, and there are places with dedicated facilities for people with disabilities. You don't need a wetsuit or any expensive equipment, just a dash of courage and a couple of friends.
4) Back to Nature
The majority of the UK's outdoor lidos are located in beautiful parks surrounded by acres of trees. Time in nature is proven to reduce stress and the risk of depression, and wild swimming always requires some degree of immersing yourself in the elements.
I also think a connection to our natural world is an integral part of protecting the planet's wellbeing. Why would we care about the environment if we are entirely disconnected from it?
Check out your local wild swim spots >
It should be noted that although cold water swimming can have many benefits, it can also be detrimental. Immersion accounts for 7% of all deaths (World Health Organisation, 2014), so putting yourself in cold water should always be done cautiously. There are some fundamental safety rules you should follow before jumping in. I recommend reading the following guides:
- Sophie Hellyer’s guide to cold water swimming >
- Royal Surf Life Saving: Open water safety guide >
- Outdoor swimming society: Is it safe? >
London’s best outdoor swimming spots
If you are looking to go cold water swimming, these are some of my favourite blue spaces:
1) Kenwood Ladies Pond
This is a hidden gem nestled amongst the canopy of towering trees on Hampstead Heath. Arriving at the pond is like stepping out of city reality into a tranquil idyll. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only outdoor women-only lifeguarded swimming area in the world, so it's a great place to start swimming safely. Although access is down a gravelled lane, there are also facilities for people with disabilities, including a hoist.
2) Parliament Hill Lido
More accessible than the ponds with the bonus of a sauna (if you go before 11 am). The lido is another little sanctuary of urban escapism with a cafe opening onto the heath. If it's your first time in cold water, give the lifeguards a heads up before getting in.
3) Frensham Ponds
Just over an hour’s drive south-west of London, there is a rare inland sandy beach with clear waters settled in 1000 acres of woodland. There is a roped-off area for swimming, but there are no lifeguards, so take care if you're going in the water.
Without a doubt, cold water is always best enjoyed with a new friend or two. If you want to join the community on and offline, regular meetups are organised around the country through the women's Rise Fierce Facebook group.
And if you're not sure it's your thing, well how can you know until you've quite literally taken the plunge.