Starting with TriSwim a few years back in the scenic environment of Honnington Lake, realistically my love of swimming outdoors goes back years before. Swimming holiday in the Outer Hebrides in 2004 with SwimTrek really nailed it, although back then swimming in September between Isla to Jura and climbing out of the water unable to feel my knees as I fell on the pebbles (or my feet), I took to my wetsuit for the holiday. It still fitted me then.
Fast forward to the advent of TriSwim and swimming in Haysden Lake or Honnington in the summer of 2016 and 2017 in the evenings on the way home from work as my late husband Richard would be looking after our children post school. Sometimes twice a week, although in those days I didn’t concern myself with the water being cold or requiring adaptation. Throughout the years we’d holidayed at Bunn Leisure, Selsey (near Chichester) and I always swum in the sea there, and at the wonderful West Wittering Beach.
2018 brought epilepsy in juvenile guise to my older son, and in later life guise to my sister, and the loss of my late father to cancer in the June 2018, although I recall swimming at Haysden Lake a few times in May 2018. As a family we embraced the sea in our August holidays in Selsey, and in Borth, Wales. By this time further angst was appearing as it became plain my husband Richard was unwell, and in the October 2018 brought his terminal cancer diagnosis. I do not remember if swimming was part of life very much over this time unless I was swimming indoors at Tonbridge. I do remember that I just couldn’t wait to get in the water and was reading more about cold water swimming and adaptation.
2019 brought forth an end to Richard’s fight with cancer, at Hospice in the Weald, Pembury in July 2021 just as my younger boy had finished Year 6, and settling for secondary school. Literally passing away a week before our August holiday in Selsey, Richard instructed me to go as usual and find someone to take his place as he wouldn’t be able to go this time. The humour of the guy at such a poignant point was not possible to measure however myself and the boys did traipse to Selsey for two weeks. I was in the sea more than out of it, and was resolute that more of this must be done, but easier said than done in the early stages of grief and helping the children. Friends were around but it was a spa day with a friend of mine at the Knowle Grange Health Spa which reset my focus. They had an outdoor pool, which was undercover in winter, and I just had to join. Absolutely 😊. Negotiating on my return to work after Richard’s death towards the end of October 2019, I was able to work two days in my London office, and three days from from home and continue swimming. Supported also by counselling at Hospice in the Weald, this lifestyle was embedding, and we were looking forward to Selsey and a return to Wales in August 2020.
Covid-19 then brought all plans, and any swimming for a time to an end. It was heavenly being able to book sessions at Knowle Grange from July 20 and get ready for what happily was holiday as usual in August. Then I started swimming at Hever Castle Lake from August 2020 as well, and stayed with doing that at weekends until they closed end October. I was getting so much positivity from the weekend immersions, without wetsuit type gear until the October. I was technically not in practice with cold water adaptation so I did not sign up to tow float and staying in skins when the temperature dropped below 15c. This was the right decision for me last year, and besides I used a rash vest and neoprene trouser separates for the October swimming, where the temperature saw a drop to 9C. I had amusingly found prior to this that my wetsuit last worn in 2004 (and possibly in the earlier stages of my children’s life), no longer fitted me. Incredibly I put on my late husband’s wetsuit by accident once and wondered why the legs on it went on for ever. He was over 6ft. That taught me to check first !!!
Lockdown kicked in again with no swimming from November 2020, virtually through to the end of March 2021. Mentally this was such a challenging time, without support from a friend of mine at work (although I do not think to this day, that he values himself enough for this!), I would have struggled. I had returned to counselling having hit an all-time low, had problems with a builder leaving me in the lurch with an unfinished kitchen – eventually done in December 2020. I was also scammed in early 2021. I remember the excitement when I could return from March 29th, 2021 to Knowle Grange to swim outdoors. It was wonderful and helped me to start looking forward again.
Hever Castle Swimming restarted in April 2021 and we had some magically freezing swims, albeit I was wearing my swim/run open and back closing shortie wetsuit over this period to May 2021, where the temperatures sailed down to 3C. Undeterred by freezing hands, finding it seemingly normal to be unable to unzip my bag, and unfazed by turning the wrong way out of Hever in my car to go back to Tunbridge Wells – I embraced this lifestyle. Totally hooked. Who cares if I was so nuts I had gone home that day via Edenbridge. I drove home in my DryRobe and Bobble Hat. Just hoping I wouldn’t be seen as I climbed out of my car on the driveway 😉.
Mixing from May onwards, visits to Hever with visits back to TriSwim who had reopened. I decided to try out Chipstead Lake which I had not been to before. It was magical and similar 750m circuits for swimming and I was able to swim skins. Thereby started my determination from now on to see how far into the season I could manage my skins only for. Partly also with Covid restrictions, it meant waking up my teenager to zip up my wetsuit at silly hour in the morning, and swimming at Chipstead meant leaving at 6:30am. Not popular hour for teens 😉. I was also able to track my swims more with my Garmin Instinct Solar watch which was able also to track the water temperature as well as (with moderate success), my actual distance swum. I unashamedly admit to loving my Garmin gadget and the manufacturer keeps trying to entice me with requests to look at the latest range. This is the tragic aspect of cold water swimming, the need to research and have the most accurate gadgets alongside the DryRobe type gear for when you get out of the water and need to change in the most challenging of places. My DryRobe is exemplary. Short sleeves as I am challenged in height.
Throughout I have swum in wetsuit boots as I cannot deal with pebbles on my feet, this relates to my experience back on Jura in 2004. Unable to feel my feet. So throughout the season, the wetsuit boots win. This means that to date as in October 2021, I am still able to swim skins with my boots. However I did do a 2.5km swim wetsuit clad for the Outdoor Swimathon for charity as that was the rules. Really looking forward to swimming 5km, even 10km in years to come outdoors. It is my wish that in 2022, that TriSwim could sanction one venue to be used for the Swimathon event, for enough time to do or attempt these greater distances.
Nearly at the end of October it continues to be magical swimming in the cold water now at Bewl Water. The chill is just amazing, and I am relaxed for the hours afterwards. As I work full-time with the children now in Y9 and 11 at their respective schools, I reflect that over two years on, we are moving forwards now. The chill and the thrill of my cold-water fix keeps me focused on positive life directions through managing work, my own fitness, my teenagers working through their emotions and grief, and for forging new opportunities and firm friendships for me for the future. It is magical.
The autumnal sun’s rays
Shine over the start of our days
Readying ourselves for the morning chill
The dipping of our toes sends a thrill
Or should that be a shiver
Of realisation of sense m’arm go thither!
Off go the kayaks in to the lake
No time now for you to shake
Your head at the sight
Get in the water now or you might
Just wobble or run
You’ll miss out on so much fun
Stepping purposefully forward
The water seeps into your boots chilling hard
You walk in up to the first buoy
From which you can still see land ahoy
Get swimming and the water feels your face
The chill thrills and embraces you apace
I cannot feel any more aches or any pain
Any angst or grief erases itself again
My life has I admit ongoing trials and some challenge
The elixir of the cold allows some revenge
Numbs the reality and resets the mind
Positively refocusing my brain for the daily grind
Everyone emerges from the lake
Joyously radiant it really is no fake
The unmistakeably red and frozen image
We all are cheerful which may be hard to gage
Just amazed by the chilling experience
Of our wintry aqueous extravagance
Weekend Swimming ….. Outdoors!
Or should that be thrilled
The feeling of relaxation
After my weekend swim of salvation
Shivering as I towel my face
So I can put my glasses on apace
Reflecting on as I enter the magical lake
Not a single qualm or shake
Focused on the swim ahead
Stepping further and further instead
The satisfying ahh as the calm water
Enters my head without a falter
Swimming along with purpose
Leads me to muse and suppose
The water awes as it inspires me
To carry on forward with glee
Exhilarating is the way forth
For as long as the cold steals with stealth
Swimming with care outside
So spacious and no lanes wide
We are safeguarded by our lifesaving crew
As well as our thoughts of the coffee brew
As I walk out of the lake once again
This experience is so magical I’ll be back again!!
Written by Anne-Marie Billingham for TriSwim
Published on “AMB Original Poetry” on 17th October, 2021.