The romantic poets – Coleridge, Byron, Keats – loved to swim. Swimming in open water offered the opportunity to connect with nature, nourish creativity, garner spiritual inspiration and experience the sublime. Their obsession was called hydromania, and it’s back. “Wild swimming”, as it is now known, is growing in popularity across the UK. It is increasingly featured in the press and on social media, often coupled with intensely romantic language. In publishing, memoirs about swimming and its ability to heal addiction and mental health problems have become their own niche genre.
This, together with a boom in nature writing, a new trend for “forest bathing”, a general obsession with going “off grid” and internet-free retreats, and the introduction of a new natural history GCSE, all seems to indicate an increased popular engagement with the natural world. Is this a response to the climate crisis and the pressures of modern living? It feels as though we are entering a new era of high romanticism, but unlike the past, the proponents of the trend – at least in the often twee fascination with it online and in the media – seem to be white, upper and middle class urban-dwelling women.
I’ve never been a fan of the phrase “wild swimming”; in Snowdonia, where I grew up, we always just called it swimming. To call it “wild”, I feel, is to centre the urban, the municipal and the populated, and to place the rural and the natural at the margins.
I spent much of my childhood swimming outdoors, because we were spoiled for beautiful, clear, deep bodies of water, in the form of mountain lakes and river pools, quarry holes, waterfalls and lagoons. We thought nothing of it; the idea of it being a “trend” would not have made sense to us. These days, social media is flooded with posed photos of attractive, middle class urbanites in natural lakes and rivers. To the many rural-dwelling Brits who prefer to swim in a natural setting, it must seem strange to see something that is simply a part of many people’s routines become an activity to show off about on social media. My friend’s nan has been swimming in Lake Windermere for decades. Now you can buy a Wordsworth-themed wild swimming package holiday and join her.
I was bemused when my old local lake, Llyn Padarn, at the foot of Yr Wyddfa (or, if you must, Snowdon), popped up in a New Yorker article about the vogue for outdoor swimming, via an Observer piece recommending the best winter spots. Llyn Padarn is the last place we would have swum as teenagers – not especially clear and, back then, not very clean either, being as it is next to a sewage works. These days I’m told it has been cleaned up and, as it offers a free, family-friendly activity in a deprived area, is packed with people in the summer. There are even food trucks, and a resulting litter problem. Locals I know continue to keep the quieter, more beautiful swimming spots to themselves.
Seeing my much-loved lake marketed back at me did lead me to wonder, perhaps ungenerously, whether this whole trend is being led by those who view the natural world as a cure-all in the midst of a capitalist-driven mental health epidemic. “It’s all incredibly elitist,” says Luke Turner, author of Out of the Woods, a memoir about love, sexuality, religion and nature. “Go for a wild swim or a forest bathe and you’ll be easily connected with nature and all your problems solved, your guilt at being part of the capitalist system causing climate change washed away.” Turner set out to write a nature cure book, but “it ended up being about how we need to dissolve this nonsensical idea that forest bathing or climbing or swimming or looking after a wild animal is some kind of universal means of solace, healing and redemption.”
In London, the Hampstead Heath bathing ponds have become, for some at least, a sort of posh girl status signifier, as satirised by the hilarious Twitter account Bougie London Literary Woman. Now the ponds’ inclusion in a long New Yorker essay has cemented their cachet. As one of the few single-sex spaces in the city, the women’s pond has a special place in many hearts, including mine. It is particularly beloved by older and queer women, and there has been some beautiful writing about it, most notably in the Daunt Publishing collection At the Pond. But the flipside of this is that, in summer, it’s packed with people trying to take photos in the meadow where everyone sunbathes topless.
My friend Nell Frizzell, who worked as a lifeguard at the women’s pond, points out that urban dwellers are more alienated from nature than perhaps ever before. “They travel to work on a bus, they sit at a computer all day, they live in a small flat with no garden, they buy their food in supermarkets, there are no trees on their street, they have never grown food, they do not recognise birdsong, they miss entire seasons,” she says. “We are not built to live that way. Of course we’re not. And so, I believe, a latent hunger for something – anything – that feels like the outdoors world pulls us to ponds, to rivers, to the sea.”
Young women’s bodies are also among the most surveilled by capitalism, and to remove one’s body from its place as a perceived site of transaction and to dunk it in freezing cold water can feel rebellious and freeing. Yet 4 million people swim outdoors each year – people of all ages, shapes and sizes choose to do this, and groups such as Swim Dem Crew aim to make swimming more inclusive. The attractively posed shots are only part of the story.
Even if some of the behaviour on social media is annoying, Frizzell says that, when undertaken regularly, outdoor swimming significantly improves your life, and I agree. It is certainly no miracle cure, but it can offer a kind of healing. A friend who swam in Llyn Padarn during her cancer treatment tells me that it was a way of remembering who she was. Amy Liptrot’s memoir of addiction, The Outrun, contains one of my favourite passages in literature about swimming. Liptrot writes: “By swimming in the sea I cross normal boundaries. I’m no longer on land but part of a body of water making up all the oceans of the world, which moves, ebbing and flowing under and around me. Naked on the beach, I am a selkie slipped from its skin.”
This passage suggests that sea swimming results in feelings of communality, of living in the world; much-needed sensations for those alienated under capitalism. It seems clear that the climate crisis is part of the picture, even if unconsciously. It has brought about a need to recuperate the nature that has been so neglected, to take stock of it and make the most of it while it is still here. It’s a way of communing with a planet that is dying, of feeling part of the whole.
I wonder what the historians of the future will make of this vogue for throwing ourselves into the water, then writing about it. Are we swimming while Rome burns, projecting our own 21st century narcissism on to a natural world we’ve treated with contempt? Or are we waking up to what really matters? And is it all too little, too late?
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist