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Swimming Solo

With Liz Richardson

Understanding the benefits of cold water swimming

I recently visited Another Place, Ullswater in the Lakes. This was the first time I’ve been back to Ullswater since I was there a year ago touring my theatre show SWIM: a show about a community of outdoor swimmers where I live in the Peak District and, more specifically, a close friend who swims outdoors to help manage her grief.

Image of Liz Richardson

Swimming solo, part of a community

SWIM opened at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and then toured around rural Cumbria, before we headed to amphitheatres and theatres on the Cornish and Dorset coasts. As I toured this solo show, I met each day with local swimmers who invited me to join them at their regular swim spot, I then blogged about them and why they swim outdoors.

No matter where in the UK I was swimming, the story of why these swimmers swam was nearly always the same: for mental wellbeing and for joy.

I met such a wide range of people who had come from all walks of life, but they all talked to me of how the cold water has held them through or after some of their harder times in life so far.

image of people swimming

The benefits of cold water swimming

In my lead up to writing SWIM pre-pandemic, I did a lot of research into the facts and stats of the benefits of cold water swimming, plus the risks and dangers. I worked with Mike Tipton MBE who is a Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth; I hosted panel discussions with outdoor swimmers; I hosted panel discussions with those who are grieving; I organised large swims for publicity; I worked with Cruse Bereavement Care and the Outdoor Swimming Society…I wanted to make sure I was as well-versed and prepared for writing and performing a story about grief and of outdoor swimming as I could be, alongside continuing my weekly swims with my grieving friend.

I come from a ‘background’ of swimming outdoors: I grew up in Cumbria, I spent my childhood swimming in the rivers, lakes and tarns (there wasn’t an awful lot more to do!), I know swimming well but I felt I needed to double check with everybody else! I felt like I needed to know why it was much more of a done ‘thing’ now and what grown adults were getting from it, rather than just the joy I found in it as a child. But despite all my research and preparation, I don’t think there was anything I learnt (bar a lot of the stats from the Prof!) that really, deep down, I didn’t know already: that more people are swimming because more people are turning to the things that come for free. Elements found in nature and in community, to help support us get through life. Life which has become faster, busier and under more stress in the Western world than ever before, and that maybe people are scared? But when we swim that fear doesn’t belong in those moments, because there is…

…an utter freedom of moving your body through a body of water.

Image of a lake

Heathers story

My blogged swims when touring in Cumbria were quite Derwentwater-heavy but two of the more memorable swims I took were both in Ullswater. One was with a woman called Heather, who invited me to swim with her at the upper end of the lake at her usual spot. Heather, a fingerprint specialist for the police (I’ve never met a fingerprint specialist before!), moved from the south of England to Cumbria just weeks before the pandemic hit and found herself in quite a lonely position. It was only when Heather was invited by a colleague to join them for some paddleboarding that she was actually more intrigued by getting into the water, and three years on, Heather is swimming every day to help, specifically, with her mental health. A tough job, living on her own, going through the menopause and seeking out a community to establish herself in in this remote part of the world, was all particularly hard and Heather talked of really struggling at points. There was a sense of sadness and loneliness to Heather.

After our swim, Heather came to watch SWIM and messaged me later, saying “You gave me a great gift tonight which was making me realise why I swim and why I swim on my own. Though the pain and grief is not like (character in show’s) I realised I swim for that same release and I will continue to swim on my own, and when days are good I will share it with others. I know that one day the sun will shine again and my laughter will return and my sparkle will come back”.

I felt emotional reading Heather’s message but it rang so true to some other people whom I’d also swam with and their stories, that I couldn’t help being reminded of why some of my old prejudices and scoffs at the dizzying high number of people swimming outdoors now; all the swimming brands and ‘gear’ being marketed, that those old quiet-irritations of mine really couldn’t be justified and that all of it only reflects the need for this swimming; the joy and celebration people are finding in it. And anything which celebrates a coming-together or even a sense of peace with oneself when alone, can only ever be a good thing. I come to this conclusion towards the end of my show.

Image of a person swimming

My story

My other memorable blog at Ullswater was when I took a day out from the show to be with my family, who I often feel very distanced from, physically and mentally when touring my shows. I swam and they played on the shore. I looked back at them from the water and I felt a surge of safety in my family.

It was quite a treat to be able to come back to Ullswater, this time with just my husband, and take some time to retreat at Another Place days before kicking off my final tour of SWIM to regional UK theatres.

Image of a lake with the word "Swim" above it.

Another Place, a swimmers place

On entering the hotel I was struck with the thought ‘OK, this is a swimmers’ place! This is like no hotel I’ve been to before. This is another place’. Not just because it is stylish and modern and has all the luxuries of a really nice hotel (great swimming pool, hot tub, treatments and a gym) but because its main focus is on its location- it doesn’t ignore its location, and with its location you can’t ignore the invitation to swim!

Another Place has all the gear and all the idea: a designated swim shed to change and warm up in; wetsuits (and paddleboards) galore; shepherds huts to sleep in if you really want that near-to-lake experience and all packaged up nicely with a professional cold water swimming instructor on hand: the recently honoured in the Ice Swimming Hall of Fame, Colin Hill. There are lots of opportunities on offer to get in the lake, from introduction to cold water swimming to cross lake, wild swimming and night swimming. This is a hotel not only promoting doing outdoor swimming safely but also encouraging it to be seen as a great method of fitness.

I took the time there to swim in Ullswater again, I took the opportunity to spend time next to the lake and just sit with my husband. I took time there. And for all the buzz of families and dogs and paddleboarders and swimmers, I think collectively everyone else was taking the time there, to just be, be outdoors.

Image of someone sat on a lake dock

Read our interview with Liz Richardson about SWIM here.

For more information about SWIM and its tour, visit www.lrproductions.co.uk where you can also ‘Listen in the landscape’: audio excerpts from the show presented with the National Trust; buy the play and support the charity which features in SWIM.

Wild swimming at Another Place

Find out more about cold water swimming and sessions.