Wild Swimming in Hertfordshire: Local Swimmers Share Their Top Tips & Swim Spots
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Alfresco swimming is always a draw in summer, but with swimming pools closed (or capacity reduced) due to the pandemic, more of us are likely to join the enthusiastic groups in Herts who swim in our rivers and lakes
I first got into wild swimming about three years ago when a friend invited me to Nackareservatet, one of the largest and most stunning nature reserves in Stockholm, Sweden. While living there, swimming outdoors was a norm for me, addictive perhaps, a place I could escape to and feel invigorated again.
Many of us know that being around water makes us calmer. Although we don’t quite understand why water makes us feel this way, it just works. With the year we have had so far, our wellbeing –physically, emotionally and spiritually, is vital and we should all try to be doing that bit more selfcare.
Swimming in the outdoors is totally normal in the Nordic countries, so much so, the term wild swimming is somewhat of a strange concept – it is just called a swim. They have the advantage that the Stockholm archipelago offers more than 30,000 islands, so it’s tempting to take a dip.
While it’s still quite a novelty in the UK, over the past few years wild swimming has increased in popularity. More people are embracing the idea of taking a dip in natural waters after years of swimming up and down lanes in chlorine-filled swimming pools.
‘I think I’ve been going wild swimming for around three years and I generally swim from late May to the end of September,’ says one Hertfordshire advocate, Clare Gittings. The 66-year-old swims a couple of times a week with her friend Barbara in a stretch of the river Beane in Bengeo, Hertford.
‘We start below St Leonard’s Church and swim to the small peninsula where the Beane joins the river Lea below the lock gates, getting river-level views of aquatic plants and creatures as we are gently helped downstream by the current.’
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She adds, ‘We don’t wear wetsuits, just swimming costumes and footwear, although I do have gloves to stop my hands freezing. Barbara can survive an hour in the water but I only last about half that.
‘I like swimming when it’s warm, from late morning onwards into the evening. This year I have preferred to go when there are not so many people about, so weekdays rather than weekends. I swim for half an hour, which takes me from the place I enter the river to the point at which it joins a larger and probably less clean river and I get out.’
She says swimming in the river gives her ‘a huge feeling of freedom, particularly this year during lockdown,’ is good exercise and also give a sense of achievement. But she admits there are conflicting emotions: ‘It’s very exhilarating to swim in the river but I’m always aware that it could be pretty serious if anything went wrong.’
When the proper precautions are taken, wild swimming can be a safe and exhilarating way to enjoy the outdoors and you need very little to be able to do it. But it’s important that anyone new to the sport knows the dangers and how to do it safely.
So what precautions do you need to take before you take the plunge? Firstly, you should always have a swim buddy and tell someone else where you are going. Even if you have swum in the same spot many times, accidents can happen.
As well as Barbara, Clare is accompanied by her partner Malcolm and, for extra support, Barbara’s dog Phoebe – ‘Both on the bank at least two metres above our heads,’ she says. ‘Malcolm very kindly carries our clothes, towels and a Thermos of sage tea!’
Second, dress appropriately for a dip in the outdoors. Always have warm, dry clothes nearby for when you get out of the water. Goggles are also something to consider as they can protect your eyes in the murky water, and think about your visibility – perhaps wear a brightly coloured swim cap.
If you are swimming in a new location, it’s vital to check the depth of the water and the current before getting in.
‘For this reason I recommend finding a local group or finding someone experienced who is happy to teach you the basics,’ says Bex Band, founder of Love Her Wild, the UK’s largest women’s adventure community, which has a local group: Beds, Bucks and Herts.
'I recommend finding a local group or finding someone experienced who is happy to teach you the basics'
She says she launched the Facebook group three years ago after noticing a gender imbalance in outdoors pursuits and wanting to connect with more women with an interest in it.
‘Outdoor spaces can be very competitive, male dominant and judgemental,’ Bex explains. ‘I certainly found it off-putting when starting out as I was really lacking in confidence.
‘I never imagined how big the community would grow! What started off as a modest Facebook group now has over 10,000 members and has taken over 1,000 women on adventures all over the world.’
Another resource for a local swim buddy, meetups, advice and swimming suggestions is Herts Open Water and Lido Swimmers (Howls).
Cofounder Alex Yates says, ‘Finding places to swim isn’t easy in Hertfordshire, so I set up the group to share information on locations in and around the county as well as local swimming events,’ she says. ‘It can also be a way for people to find a swimming buddy. It’s open to anyone, from people who haven’t tried it to people who swim all year round.’
The 48-year-old tries to swim once or twice a week but wishes she could do more.
‘I usually swim in the Beane in Hertford. I’m always looking for locations on runs and bike rides. There are some more organised locations such as Stanborough Lakes [Welwyn GC] and Redricks Lake [Sawbridgeworth].
‘I always come away from a swim wishing I could retire and swim every day. It’s a good social activity but it is also incredibly calming. When you’ve had a bad day, going for a swim and seeing all the beautiful wildlife resets you mentally and helps you relax and get some perspective. It makes you feel incredibly lucky to be able to be there.’
OPEN WATER SWIMMING RESOURCES
Redricks is open to anyone wishing to do open water swimming. This includes novices to triathletes and those wanting to get fit. One-to-one sessions are available.
Do check water quality targets before swimming. Find data on your local river at environment.data.gov.uk