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At Dawn: the women-only swimming group in Southbourne

Milly Withers, Amy Whatt,  Elissa Davies, Emily Huckstep and Samantha Gillingham during an At Dawn session. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )
Milly Withers, Amy Whatt, Elissa Davies, Emily Huckstep and Samantha Gillingham during an At Dawn session. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )

Meet the friends who founded a women-only swimming group in Southbourne where they share their love of cold-water swimming, yoga, life stories and hot chocolate, whatever the weather, to support their wellbeing and to make new friendships.

For thousands of people across the UK, cold water swimming has been something of a saviour during uncertainty times. Backed up by scientific research cold-water immersion helps to boost dopamine levels, also known as the ‘happy hormone'. So, it’s no surprise that increasing numbers of people are turning to a practice that releases mood boosting endorphins, helps us stay in the moment and helps us to connect with others in nature.

Every three weeks, on a Saturday morning, whatever the weather, on a beach in Southbourne, Dorset a group of women meet for breathwork and a dip in the sea, followed by steaming mugs of cacao and a chat. They call themselves At Dawn. Founded by best friends Emily Huckstep (Em) and Elissa Davies, the pair met through their appreciation for nature, the sea and meaningful talks. They wanted to create a sanctuary for women to nourish the mind, body and soul in the simplest of ways, by the sea.

Great British Life: Elissa Davies and Emily Huckstep, the best friends who founded At Dawn. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )Elissa Davies and Emily Huckstep, the best friends who founded At Dawn. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )

Elissa is a life coach for women, breathwork teacher, and special mission pilot. ‘Having been a pilot since I was 17, I understand the complexities of working in high-stress environments. As a life coach, my aim is to help women weave wellbeing into the way they work.’

Originally from Hertfordshire, Elissa lived in Teeside for many years before making the move to Dorset. ‘I didn’t know anyone, other than some work colleagues, but I wanted to make meaningful friendships.’ Even though she tried a few meet up groups Elissa just couldn’t find ‘my people’ so she signed up to a yoga studio and went to a class run by Em. ‘We hit it off straight away,’ she grins. ‘We quickly realised that we had shared interests. There was local event that we both wanted to go to - a cold-water swim in February. This was the first time that I’d done any cold-water immersion – and I loved it!’

Em adds. ‘We’ve been inseparable ever since. We created a strong friendship in such a short space of time. You only really get to know some someone when you drill down and become vulnerable with each other. We just understand each other and,’ she laughs, ‘we now have matching tattoos!’ She points to a pretty fish design inked near her collarbone.

Great British Life: Some of the At Dawn swimmers entering the water. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )Some of the At Dawn swimmers entering the water. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com ) Great British Life: Elissa and Em in the sea at Southbourne. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )Elissa and Em in the sea at Southbourne. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )

Em, who grew up in Oxfordshire, moved to Dorset with her husband Ian. She now runs a successful marketing business which helps hundreds of small businesses globally, as well as teaching at the Arts University Bournemouth.

‘I’ve always worked in marketing, mostly focussed on storytelling, messaging and brand building. In 2018, I had an anxiety crisis and realised I didn’t want to keep working the way I was, so I trained to become a yoga teacher. I had started practicing yoga about five year earlier and found it was the only thing that helped deal with my anxiety.’ Em quit her job and trained as a health coach. ‘My husband and I moved into a van and travelled around Western Europe for six months before settling in Bournemouth in 2019.’ Initially Em taught yoga fulltime but now she just teaches yoga during At Dawn’s retreats. She is also a women’s business coach ‘guiding and mentoring women to create businesses they love.’

Last year, Em was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which contributed to her ‘bad burn out at the end of 2021.’ She continues: ‘I was in a hyper manic state; you have high levels of energy, your mood is high, and you are extremely confident. I just worked myself to burn out. Now I’ve scaled things back – my mental health is the most important aspect. What works for me is being in nature, eating well and therapy. For me that means getting outside and swimming in cold water. There is no way to describe it if you haven’t done it before, it is just incredibly grounded. I really like the cold and I look forward to the winter months.’

Great British Life: Emily Huckstep, Elissa Davies, Amy Whatt and Samantha Gillingham walking on the beach at Southbourne. Both Em and Elissa have the same fish tattoo. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )Emily Huckstep, Elissa Davies, Amy Whatt and Samantha Gillingham walking on the beach at Southbourne. Both Em and Elissa have the same fish tattoo. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com ) Great British Life: And they're off! Em and Elissa lead the dash towards the sea from Southbourne beach. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )And they're off! Em and Elissa lead the dash towards the sea from Southbourne beach. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )

The sea became a significant part of Elissa’s well-being journey too. ‘I have a very busy mind,’ she admits. ‘What I love about being in the sea is the peace that I feel. It fosters a strong mind and body connection. When I get in the water, there isn’t space for anything else other than focusing on the present. It has made a huge impact on how I manage anxiety and stress. We both feel passionate about sharing this with other people.’

The pair cold-water dip throughout the winter, facing frosty sand and bracingly low water temperatures. ‘It’s those moments in the sea, during the winter months, that has built my mental resilience,’ says Elissa. ‘If I’ve had a busy week – whether its flying or working on my laptop - taking those moments to be by the sea and in the sea is so healing. Enjoying the sheer bliss that washes over me when I look at the horizon.’

Having reflected on the positive impact of the outdoors, sea swimming and their friendship, the duo created a monthly event, just for women. ‘The feeling we get in the water is very similar to the calm and presence we find on our yoga mats,’ Em explains. ‘We wanted to create a welcoming space to encourage more women to feel that true sense of calm and belonging. That sense of closeness, community and conversation that we have.

Great British Life: The wild women of Southbourne! At Dawn swimmers join hands in the water. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )The wild women of Southbourne! At Dawn swimmers join hands in the water. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )

Elissa is outgoing and gregarious, and I’ve done a lot of community building through yoga events, so it felt like a natural progression. At Dawn was born from our love of the sea, yoga, breathwork, and community.’

Its name was inspired by the time of day that Em and Elissa met for their sea dips. ‘In the winter, when you’re watching the sunrise from the sea its truly magical. You’re also one of the few people on the beach at that early hour. When you’re in your own little world, it is easier to have those conversations and be vulnerable. It’s also a time for fun and play.’

To keep things intimate, there are a limited number of places available to book each month. Whether you’re completely new to sea dipping or just want to make some friends, women of all ages and backgrounds are welcome.

Great British Life: There's a lot of fun and laughter at his women only swimming group! (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )There's a lot of fun and laughter at his women only swimming group! (Photo: matteamckinnon.com ) Great British Life: After the At Dawn crew have had their swim they warm up with steaming mugs of vegan hot chocolate. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )After the At Dawn crew have had their swim they warm up with steaming mugs of vegan hot chocolate. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )

‘We had one woman who was very new to it,’ says Elissa. ‘At each meet, she immersed a little bit more of her body into the water, first up to her knees, then to her hips and eventually full-in with a head dunk. That’s her go to now! It was amazing to see her progression because she felt safe to be able to do it. It’s great to see the friendships that have formed too.’

Whilst At Dawn have their regulars, people travel from far and wide to come to Dorset for their vitamin sea fix. And listening to these two extolling the mood-boosting benefits of a sea dip in winter you can see why. ‘As long as I can smell the salt in the air, I’m happy!’ declares Em.

More details: atdawnswim.com follow on Instagram @atdawnswim

Great British Life: Best friends Elissa and Em enjoying a post swim moment on the beach, they have a shared love of the sea and swimming. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )Best friends Elissa and Em enjoying a post swim moment on the beach, they have a shared love of the sea and swimming. (Photo: matteamckinnon.com )



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