Valentine’s sun dogs and sea swim in Boscombe

An eerie combination of the view over to the Isle of White and the reflected view of the sun setting over Bournemouth.

I revisited a previous stage in my cold swimming mind-over-matter journey the Sunday before last, the stage where you question your sanity for wanting to get into cold water that everyone else is appreciating from a dry, sensible distance. It was eight days since Windermere and the Big Chill swim and I had been pretty ill for most of them, quite suitably, with a stinking ‘cold’.

I had been looking forward to this sea swim though, been keen to get well in time to do it. And I almost was.
Just as I mostly recovered from the cold, I also mostly recovered from the normal person perspective on jumping in the sea in February. 

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The sunlight was low and sharp at Boscombe beach, a pool of surfers were hanging and bobbing about on the west side of the pier, lots of couples were out with their dogs for Valentine’s Day. If only the canines knew how they feature in this special day of romance. I think they would be flattered.

The sea took me away from the beach, away from Dorset, all the way to the furthest shores and deepest waters, it took me to the weirdest sea life and tallest ships. And for a few minutes of breast stroke in gentle waves I was on holiday from the world as we know it. 

  

 

At nine degrees, it probably was a good place to ease back into the open water instead of a pond in Hamsptead which would be more like four or five. I certainly wasn’t out to test the limits of my immune system.

I had a support team of my friend and her one-year-old son. He kissed pebbles as I swam, and my friend had my once humble scarf, now convenient but ineffective swimming towel, at the ready for when I came out. Which was not long after I got in. 

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After the swim the leisurely holiday feeling stretched out as the shadows lengthened and everything grew a warmer colour. In the shelter of the thin wall that runs down the middle of Boscombe pier, I sat on the wooden decking with my support crew and ate chips and drank tea with a huge post-swim appetite. 

My theory is that we have evolved to want to eat so much more after swimming because fat makes you more buoyant. Just a theory.

 

We had a side-on view of the surfers in the water, never getting closer to the shore but hoisted up and then down a level by passing waves now and again as they waited to catch a breaker.

Then my friend pointed out a couple of smudges of rainbow either side of the sun. This baffled me as it went against how I understood rainbows to be formed. Such spectacles of light spectrums sit on the opposite side of the sky from the sun, generally. 

Sun dogs at sundown also known as high-altitude icebows.

Turns out these were sun dogs. Perfect, vibrant smudges of rainbow, equidistant from the sun and level with it above the horizon. Apparently they are caused by the sunlight refracting through ice particles high up in the atmosphere. 

But that fact risks distracting from the romance of these sun dogs. Like a celestial reflection of the happy canine’s role in the special day enjoyed by lots of lovestruck couples, these two were perfectly paired in their sky world, separate but brought to life by a single, higher force of nature.

Cheery chill swim in Windermere

After the 60m Big Chill Swim in Lake Windermere on Saturday it’s all I can think about is the next swim, what it will be like, what the temperature will be, fresh or sea water, through and above water views, how long will it last? It’s clear to anyone I’m hooked, but the short swim at the weekend left me feeling a bit short changed and thirsty for much more mermaid time.

 

Yours truly in lucky lane seven, swimsuit adjusting by the looks of it

 

Windermere water is a heavy turquoise in the deep and crystal clear at the shore where you can see the beach of rocks slope gently off into the blue. The clouds were low and bulky, threatening to meet the surface of the lake. The weather cutting off the distant mountains brought the rippled Windermere in to focus. I was delighted to be swimming there.

My only trepidation was about one minute before the race when my lane neighbour said that she had been swimming there all winter, well apart from December when the Environment Agency advised against it. But apparently whatever had been washed in to the lake from the floods had ‘settled’ now so it was fine. Right. It was a bit late for cold feet and knowing how paranoid these authorities are about being sued by sick swimmers I figured it probably really was ok anyway.

 

The view towards the gala from a little way north up the lakeside

Someone asked me once how you stay warm in cold water and replied ‘you swim.’ Usually there’s no hanging about at first but I do allow myself some pottering time a few minutes in just to soak up the scenery. I hadn’t really given this much thought until the race context meant zero pottering time.

Some savvy swimmers stuck around at the lakes for longer and went in the water again at their own pace outside of the gala (there are couple more races on the Sunday including the 1k.) I’m not one to look this far ahead usually but I have a bit of a plan for next year: spend longer at the lakes, enter more than one swim, make one of those swims the 120 meters so I have a much-needed higher endurance target.

Getting into chilly water is enough of a buzz for most wild swimmers, when you add in the race factor it gets added adrenaline going. I had enough of that coursing through me to make it from 0 – 30 meters pretty fast, and the following 30… well, less fast.


If I haven’t waived my right to be fussy about things not being hot enough, I would say to the organisers that the Cumbrian air was enjoying a bit too much of the heat from the sauna and not enough was lingering inside the barrel-shaped walls. But overall, from 9am to 5pm races between 30m to 450m ran like clockwork and the atmosphere was so cheery and chilled that I don’t think I’ll wait until 2017 before going to another such event.

 

Gorgeous sauna for your after swim thawing, could be hotter though

 

Cooling off feet first – with the men

Sunrise through the trees at Hampstead Heath

The men’s pond was open to the ladies of the heath this week. Ladies who usually walk past the ‘men only’ sign at the bigger swimming pond at Hampstead Heath on their way to the ‘women only’ sign that marks their own, more discreet pond around the corner. 

Bigger, squarer, more manly perhaps. What does swimming in a manly pond feel like?   

Compared to our compact changing area and jetty there are extra metres of concrete between where you leave your sensible, normal, winter clothes and walk in a silly piece of Lycra until said concrete gives way to water. They cause your feet an unwelcome head start in the bodily cooling process. 

Once you’re dunked and on dry land again, a better versions of yourself, feeling fresh, tingling and awake all over, your feet have already given up and gone straight to pain. 

But I’m hardly going to make a fuss, this is a man’s bathing establishment after all. So I kept the ‘ows’ that came with every footstep to almost inaudible. 

 

View of the men’s pond #filtered
 
It’s definitely a more open version of open water swimming there. The swimming view includes more sky, more of the surrounding heath, more dogs and their dutiful humans. I actually found the space and the views a little disconcerting, as though the leafy, sheltered ladies pond had become cozy to me in comparison. 

But that’s ludicrous because one of my favourite things about swimming in the sea is that it’s so mind bogglingly vast and if you navigated it right you could, in theory, swim right around the world and back to where you started. And meet some whales, giant octopus and maybe some mythical sea creatures along the way. 

The smaller, unsalted body of water at hand may be broader than my usual dive but it’s still beautiful. I had heard the water is less clean by the time it filters from higher ground (near the ladies pond) down to the men’s but I couldn’t discern any difference in clarity. 

Ducks are chilling nearby, because they get how relaxing the place is, and for humans it’s a stunning place to step off the concrete edge of London and escape to a watery world, for as long as your toes can take it. 

  

Wrapping up and stripping off at the ladies pond

Shit just got wilder at the ladies swimming pond in Hampstead. On Sunday everyone wanted to get a last swim in before the pond was closed for three months for construction works, yet most swim suits stayed dry. That’s right, naked pondering no less! Whatever next? Surely wild swimming could get no wilder. 

That said, there was as much excitement about not having to take home and wash wet swimsuits as there was about the prospect of the nudity itself.   

  

Days prior to Sunday’s pond relocation party there had been furious sewing and knitting going on in the changing rooms and on the deck area. That’s how we roll at the pond, sometimes things just get crazy like that. It was all in aid of a ‘wrap up the pond’ project where the vague aim was to knit a scarf long enough to go around it before we have to relocate for three months while they put in swanky new changing areas and dredge the pond.

  

The afternoon rounded off with the unraveling of the 200ft scarf we had all contributed to with mismatched stretches of our knitting efforts. It was duly wrapped around the jetty and the pond building like bunting. Messages were left on the walls for the builders, reminding them, among other things, to feed the coots. Some messages were left for us to inspire a bit of parting positivity. 
  

  

Then we took the scarf down and carted it to our new temporary home at the mixed pond. Like when you move house or office and you put a couple of plants and nick nacks up to feel at home, we also took sprouting bulbs, the women only sign and the notices chalkboard with us to make the new space our own.&nbsp
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What’s important about our space? The pond and swimming in it mean a lot for us all and many people have found it life-changing. Our space embodies all that enjoyment, gratitude, hope and the friendships made there.

  

The swimming on Sunday afternoon was smoother than usual, what with the lack of fabric layers for the water to resist. I didn’t find it made a big difference to the temperature whether you have a suit on or not. One thing I noticed was just that it was fun to be doing backstroke looking towards your toes and see yourself in the buff as though you are just in some oversized, natural bath tub. 

It didn’t top the Saturday swim though when blue skies and bare trees made for stunning backstroke views. It might actually have been my best swim ever at Hampstead. Maybe because I had been missing it for a week, maybe because I felt more confident with the temperature (about 6) than I had done all winter, so I could focus more on just enjoying the experience. 

  

When you can only stay in the water for a short time but you have gone to a fair bit of effort and taken a good 45 minutes getting there, you would be crazy not to appreciate every moment of an aquatic experience that can be equal parts thrilling and tranquil. 

Waterboxing

 

Parliament Hill Lido sparkling in the sunshine

This week I made the dreaded return to ‘normal pools’.

Well one was still cold and outside but they were both rectangular and consisted of a significant part chlorine. I won’t be slagging the pools though, I’m not a complete open water snob, maybe just a bit.

There’s a place for them, evidently lots of places for them, one on every street corner in a city centre. That’s one of the things that appeals to me. And the great pay off for parting with an exorbitant amount of money to splash about in a chemically, luke-warm water box is that you can push your fitness limits without thinking how embarrassing it would be to tell people you will be late in to work because you went and got yourself hypothermia.

Always a worry in a pond. What would I say to people if I stayed in too long and actually had to go to hospital? There are genuine thoughts of life preservation, not just pride preservation taken into account. But I certainly wouldn’t expect a lot of sympathy for making the mistake that my body could take more cold than it actually can.

POSH PEOPLE

On the note of weaving leisure-focused danger in to your life, Katherine Ryan wrote a great piece on posh people’s weird practice of throwing themselves down mountains on skis ‘for fun’. I love her NME column.

Back to the matter at hand, the limits of my swimming fitness… do not reach very far. Even if I could run half marathons every month, which I don’t because my back, my knees and my physio all strongly advise against it, land fitness does not directly translate into water fitness. So I’ll have to both push it in the pools and keep cold-acclimatised in the ponds if I want to train for longer open water distances in the future.

THE POOLS

Parliament Hill lido is beautiful. It’s lined with metal so the water looks extra sparkly and inviting. I don’t think that was the main aim of the design but I definitely see it as a selling point. The 1930s listed building makes you feel like you’re stepping back to that era when a bracing dip was something the doctor might prescribe.

Queen Mother indoor pool in Victoria is… central, pretty clean, not too crowded on a weekday morning and not really remarkable in any way. Apart from the Westminster premium on your swimming experience. I don’t quite know the theory behind that but when the lady said it would be £6 something for one swim please I involuntarily released a shrill ‘really?!’ And she just replied, ‘well Westminster so…’ Right, Westminster.

Clean water, dirty air

My second ever winter swim at Kings Cross pond was a bit crap. It’s Monday, early afternoon, most people are in work and I have a spare hour to get a swim in. So far so good. 

But sadly a lot of those people who are working at that hour are working in massive machines, cranes and trucks on the building site that is outer Kings Cross.

They are on a mission to turn the area in to something very high-end and lovely I know, but the air pollution there today was pretty bad with all those engines going.

I’ve never wanted to be an under-water breathing mermaid as much as I did swimming in the pond, so I wouldn’t have to keep coming up for filthy air.

It was 7 degrees centigrade in the water, it had heated up three degrees since I was last in. So I thought that idea of going pond-sauna-pond today might not be so jarring on my thermoregulatory system.

Some fellow sauna-loungers asked if it was easier to get in to cold water again after being in almost too hot air. It’s different. To me the water felt fresher (I’m running out of words for cold) and that made it feel nicer.

I definitely had the natural high by that point so once I got talking to them about the joys and quirks of open water swimming all my etiquette of calm, polite chitchat with half-naked strangers in public places went out the window. They may have wished they never asked.

Lessons learnt from this trip: silicone swimming hats insulate against overpowering sauna heat quite well. Locker keys, on the other hand, heat up very quickly and should probably not be worn on your wrist in air temperatures over 70 degrees centigrade.

Winter check-in at the Kings Cross pond and sauna

Yesterday I went to the Kings Cross pond, to see how the weeds were growing, see if it’s crossed over from sterile looking art project to a dirty, living, nature-owned space that you feel like a visitor at rather than a customer.

It’s getting there. There are plants to look at under a lot of the water, which has taken on a slightly murkier colour. That could be an illusion by the pond being lined with a dark coloured layer rather than the water itself getting any less clear.

The wonky shape means you have to bear in mind where you are swimming to, just like in proper wild water.

TASTER

I did accidentally drink some of the water and it tasted like mineral water. It’s not very pleasant to accidentally drink water when you’re swimming. It means something has gone awry with your breathing/not breathing rhythm. And having swum mainly in pools and the sea before becoming a ponderer, I’m still conditioned to expect my oesophagus and nose to burn with chlorine or salt afterwards. So it’s always nice when that doesn’t happen.

One thing I was very grateful for was the clear understanding of the length I was swimming, just because I’m training for a 60m cold water dealy. Up at Hampstead Heath it’s a little vague what the distance is around the edge of the pond or between buoys.

Finding I had done 60 and neither my hands or feet were burning with the cold, I got out and decided to jump in again at the deep end. Just for funsies.

That cold in the limbs thing, I don’t know what it is that causes the pain. A colleague asks me when you get in freezing water, how do you not just freeze yourself? I think he imagines your blood just starts to become ice as soon as you get in. When that tingly/sharp/ burning creeps in from the extremities, it does feel like little ice crystals forming in your fingers, then hands and so on, in theory, to other places more vital to life but in practice that’s when you get out, so it’s fine.

The jumping in was great. You can see the bottom but it’s plenty deep to be safe for someone of any mass to not whack the floor of the pond with any significant impact if they bombed in.

SAUNA

Then there was the sauna, ahhhhh. That was so good. So weird, but good. I was restless in there because my poor body had no idea what was going on but I knew that apart from the confusion it was pleasant to be thawing out in this smooth, clean, oversized barrel at very hot degrees centigrade.

From the toasty belly of the barrel, that I should mention smells like the fragrant wood it’s made of, exaggerated by being heated up, there’s plenty of light and a handy view of the pond. So I sat in intermittent comfort watching three young Spanish men shock themselves silly by jumping in to 4 degrees water for the first time in their lives.

The temperature confusion stemmed from the fact that when you go numb from being in cold water you don’t feel cold, it’s nice. You might be in a bit of pain, you might be numb but, speaking for myself, I rarely feel cold when I get out. You feel cold when you start to get the sensation back and what you can feel feels cold.

So I’m shifting from one bench to the other in this delightful mini sauna, and I’m getting colder and colder whilst at the same time getting hotter and hotter.

Confounded a little by this I decided to gauge how long I stayed by the simpler measure of how much I had dried off rather than how warm/cold I felt.

A lifeguard told me I had time to go back in the pond again if I wanted, even though it was getting on to 4pm. I would like to try that at some point, just to see how it is to go from sauna hot to pond cold. But to be honest I couldn’t get my head around putting my body through more extreme temperature variations so I called it a day.

Once dressed I didn’t get creepy-cold-back like I do after swimming sometimes. That’s a weird one. You know when you get a tingly spine becomes something ‘chilling’ has happened? This is like a few steps further where you’ve got an actual freezing cold, unwelcome, spirit hitching a ride on your back. Because that’s where you’ve got the sensation back first before you’ve had a chance to walk fast and the circulation returned to normal. I’ve had cold belly and cold legs too. That’s not really creepy though, just a bit strange feeling.

The point there is that the sauna, not surprisingly perhaps, seems to help warm up quicker and stay warm after a cold swim. Great news for avoiding an actual, coughing, sneezing style cold. No one wants that.

NATURAL HIGH

All you want to be left with after such a wonderful swim is that glowy feeling; you see more and clearer, you feel delighted with the world and everyone in it, things you might not have noticed before, now strike you as beautiful.

Alright, yes it’s a bit like being high. I’m told by a Kenwood Ladies’ Pond lifeguard the high is very much like what you get from a drug. But saying it like that sullies the experience somehow, only because of the the fact it starts to sound like so much fun it should probably be illegal, or at least illicit. Let’s call it a natural high for now.

Right, I’m off to ponder in a new black and white, striped, Beetlejuice-esque swim suit!

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