By Monica Ilett aka the Water witch
Last summer, 2020, during the height of the wretched Covid19 pandemic when all our gyms and pools were ordered by the Government to close, the stark realisation that this situation was not going to be a quick fix, lead me to my long-drawn-out search for alternative exercise to swimming.
For many, myself included, the craving for exercise in water, was too much and soon the urge turned my thoughts to wild swimming. I investigated rivers, streams and lakes but realised that before considering wild swimming, I needed to assess the risks. These are some of the risks I obtained from various sources as part of my assessment.
First, never swim alone, swim with a competent swim buddy. Think about your own ability. There needs to be a safe place to enter and exit the water. Wild swimmers need to be fit and have a healthy immune system and consider any underlying health issues. The temperature of water in rivers and lakes is mostly cold, especially in deeper areas, so plunging into cold water without acclimatising gradually, can be a shock to the system. The speed and strength of the flow of the river also needs to be considered. Swimming downstream with the flow is all well and good but swimming back against the flow m when tired, can be much harder work.
Checking with the environment agency about your chosen river water quality is a must. I discovered there are actually very few, if any, waterways in Britain that have completely clean, uncontaminated water. Although rivers have been cleaned and cleared of much pollution since 2016, the pollution levels have plateaued. During times of heavy rainfall, chemicals and effluent from farms, farmland and urban areas are frequently washed into rivers, as is sewage overflow, when surrounding areas are flooded.
Other risk factors to consider are unseen hazards such as weeds growing in the river bed, foreign items thrown thoughtlessly into rivers, i.e., shopping trolleys and bicycles. The blue/green algae that blooms in warm, shallow water in late summer can cause a skin and eye irritation, and sickness. There is something called ‘swimmers itch’ caught from the infestation of small snails that live in reeds at the edges of rivers. There is also Weil’s disease from the urine of the rats inhabiting river water, in urban areas.
So, there are a significant number of issues to consider before taking that wild water plunge.
An alternative swim might be a lake or quarry that has been assessed by a wild water swimming association as a safe area to swim and where safety features have been added. There may be a small fee charged to swim in these waters and restricted opening times, but safety first should be the main consideration.
For me personally, during the pandemic lockdown, when swimming pools were closed, my health deteriorated. I had often wondered what would happen if I ever couldn’t swim. Would my limited mobility through arthritis, be compromised? And Yes, it certainly was! So much so that it affected my mental health too. I cast around for suitable areas to swim i.e. river, lakes and the sea considering all the risks above. One of my friends who worked for the Environment Agency said ‘DON’T DO IT!’ But others, already were doing it! After considering all the pros and cons, and as much as I really wanted to swim outdoors, I realized that wild swimming, at this late stage in my life, with my health issues and decreased mobility, was not feasible. So, whilst my joints deteriorated through lack of the only exercise I could do, I felt left with no choice but to sit it out and wait for the swimming pools to re-open.
As we approached the spring of 2021, I dreamed of our wonderful Lido opening, when once again I would be able to swim in the fresh air, with the sun and clouds overhead. How much I needed the news that the lido would open once again this season. So, when we learned that from 29th March this year, our beloved lido was going to open, I was overjoyed. My dream finally came true! Back to swimming regularly now, I already feel better both physically and mentally.