The pleasure of open water

Open water swimming is being talked about as a lockdown phenomenon. When our access to sanitized pools was cut off we turned in massive numbers to the outdoors: walking, running, and swimming. I’m sure that there has been a surge of outdoor swimmers, but it’s certainly not new. My Dad won’t swim indoors – although we did once about five years ago persuade him into the Lido in High Wycombe. My Gran finds the very idea of swimming in a pool curious. She used to swim at Talkin Tarn in north Cumberland. When she was growing up, it was well set up for open water swimming. There were changing rooms on the tarn shore and a man in a boat keeping a watchful eye on those swimmers heading over the legendary depths of this small tarn.

Black and white photograph of a woman on a jetty on the edge of Talkin Tarn
My Granny, then Paddy Matthews, at Talkin Tarn

By the time that I was growing in Cumbria swimming in Talkin Tarn was off limits. Blooms of blue-green algae encouraged by pollutants contaminated the waters. Luckily in Cumbria there was no shortage of alternatives; we still spent our summers exploring lakes, rivers, meres, pools and puddles of open water.

Living now in Sheffield, we miss the sea, so this week we found our way out to it for a few days. Walking out from Flamborough, we traced the edge of Yorkshire where the rock slips into the sea. It’s a stunning coastline. The cliffs are white chalk hollowed into caves, arches, towers and coves. It is a landscape of mystery-familiar worn away with stories of smugglers and their secrets.

On the last morning we got up early, so that I could have a swim before people filled the beaches in search of their own adventures. I had the sea to myself.  I swam head up, soaking in the view. The cove was sheltered; the tide still coming in; the waves were gentle.  The emerald water flecked with the pink of the sunrise. If anyone wonders why people swim outdoors in October, it’s for moments like this.

As I swam outwards, I noticed a dark shape bobbing on the water in the distance. It disappeared. Reappeared. Disappeared. Resurfaced. I realised that I didn’t have the water to myself. I was being watched warily by a seal, or possibly by two seals. Swiftly, I retreated to the shoreline, not wanting to disturb them any more than I already had. Swimming, I studied the seal with the same caution it was inspecting me. My swim was cut short, but I am still fizzing with the excitement of that proximity. As a child, I was slightly obsessed with seals. The child in me still cannot believe that I have now – at great distance – swum with a seal.

I prefer to call what I do open water swimming, rather than wild swimming. Wild implies carelessness; swimming outdoors needs to be undertaken with care and with sensitivity to nature, including for the creatures who share the water. We’ve been swimming outdoors for generations; let’s do what we can to keep the waters clean.

Swimming back to the shore. Seal in distance. Photograph by Shane Surgey.

1 thought on “The pleasure of open water”

  1. Beautifully written, lovely images of times past and present. What a privilege to swim near seals. I remember swimming in Muizenberg beach, Cape Town when a dark creature tumbled towards me, tossing about in the waves. I froze as thought it was a shark. It was a baby seal!


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