Take the plunge: thrills and chills of open-water swimming

There’s plenty of cold comfort in a splendid new guide by John Weller and Lola Culsan. Dan Carrier dives in

Thursday, 21st April — By Dan Carrier

Hampstead Mixed Bathing Pond-

A diver enters Hampstead Mixed Bathing Pond

LORD Astor was, according to the authors of a new guide to cold water swimming, the Jeff Bezos of his day.

Like the billionaire owner of Amazon, William Waldorf Astor inherited his wealth and became a household name for his business interests, eccentricity and opulent tastes. In 1890 the richest man in America, upped sticks and headed to England, stating the US was “no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live”.

In his wish to follow the princely life his wealth led him to believe he was entitled to, he bought Kent’s Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and poured a fortune in to it.

Astor employed 800 navvies, working 24 hours a day for two years, to dig out a lake – and Astor’s egotistical largesse today means lovers of a cold water dip can do so in truly stunning surroundings.

Swimming fanatics and authors John Weller and Lola Culsan have included Astor’s lake in a 140-strong run down of where you should be spending your spring and summer in their latest book, Outdoor Swimming London.

This unique guide to outdoor swimming is not the couple’s first offering. The pair have previously toured Spain, and written about the very best places for wild swimming in the Iberian peninsula.

This time, they have stipulated they would take a dip in places they could reach by bicycle or public transport from their north London base.

The book reveals that once you’ve dived into the Hever Castle lake, the 38-acre water offers “beautiful views of white colonnades of the loggia, piazza and Nymph’s Fountain”. It is just one of many extraordinary places they have discovered and charted for anyone who likes an outdoor swim, or for those tempted to take it up.

They consider how immersing yourself in cold water has captured the imaginations of so many in recent years, and put into words the almost indescribable reasons people swear by this pastime.

John Weller and Lola Culsan

And the mystique many refer to after plunging beneath the surface is not just the mind-expanding thrill of reacting to a violent change in temperature.

Citing cold water research, they quote work by Dr Mark Harper, published in the British Medical Journal in 2018. “Cold water swimming is a holistic therapy,” he wrote. “Exercise, being in nature, community – the cold water is an additional effect.”

For John and Lola, the pleasant effects of their favoured exercise are both obvious to them every time they climb out and wrap themselves in a towel, while the medical evidence constantly stacks up.

“Recent studies into the medical and physical health benefits of cold water swimming have confirmed what hardy swimmers have known for years, nodding at ducks and coots while the odd heron or cormorant soars above our heads brings us into the present with a smile,” they write.

“Scientists have begun to explain that, unlike constant low-level stress, which is detrimental to our mental health, the high level of physical stress of submerging our bodies in cold water activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This slows our heart rate and increases the activity of glands and intestines. Moreover, immersion in cold water activates the vagus nerve, embarking our bodies to relax after stress and helping to decrease depression, while the exercise releases endorphins and creates a feeling of euphoria.”

The pair have a special affinity to the ponds on Hampstead Heath – and their book explains why.

When a High Court judge, earlier this year, asked quizzically if a lawyer could explain why the Heath’s ponds were different to a swimming pool, they could have simply opened any page of this marvellous book for the answer.

The barrister, working on behalf of swimmers who say the imposition of charging has discriminated against many, did not point out the Heath managers the City of London were defeated in 2005 as the High Court judged introducing charges was tantamount to enclosing the ponds – which goes against the Heath’s protected status as Common Land.

And as the barrister discovered, trying to summarise in legal terms what makes cold water swimming something akin to a religious experience for many is a big ask: and is something John and Lola manage to bring alive in 140 detailed sections that will persuade the most cold-water-shy swimmer to grab their cossies and head to their nearest open air expanse.

Taking the temperature at Parliament Hill lido

“In a nutshell, cold water swimming has been shown too improve our immunity, circulation and libido, while decreasing stress and burning calories,” add the authors. “It is also a great buzz. If undertaken safely, cold water swimming can provide a multitude of benefits in an inexpensive, natural and sociable way. What’s not to like?”

If leaping into a pond or river when winter’s harsh reach has yet to be fully shaken off by spring fills you with dread, they offer a step-by-step guide to taking up the pastime.

Drawing on their many years of swimming, they suggest anyone taking up cold water swimming acclimatise gradually – swim two or three times a week through the summer, and you’ll be able to do the same in the autumn and winter as the temperature drops incrementally.

There is also a lot of good cold water swimming gear on sale: neoprene hats, gloves and socks will make for a less shocking experience. When the temperatures drop, don’t spend too long in the water – hypothermia is no fun, they add.

While holding your nose and leaping in may seem the more sensible option when dipping in a toe merely confirms how cold the water is, don’t be tempted to be gung-ho about it. They say don’t do a run and jump – take your time so your body is ready and finally, once your swim is complete, get dressed quickly, wrap up well and cover your head. A hot drink and something sugary will also make you feel splendid after the thrill of a cold water dip.

While John and Lola have travelled widely to find gems to share, both are regulars on the Heath. They reveal the history of the Heath’s ponds. Starting in earnest in the 1800s, the Mixed Pond on West Heath was first to become a bathing spot. The Men’s Pond opened officially in 1893, with women allowed access on Wednesdays – though they also bathed in secret at a pond further up the chain, the book reveals.

“Swimming beneath an endless expanse of sky brings freedom and fun,” they state.

John remembers “long hot summers spent exploring the boundless beauty of Hampstead Heath and swimming with his sisters at the Parliament Hill fields Lido”.

Lola’s childhood dips were spent at Wealdstone Lido, while her summers played out with her Spanish family on the Costa Dorada.

“We are both passionate about swimming and we love discovering new places to take a dip,” they write.

“So we joyfully set off to find roofless places to swim within about an hour’s travel from London, only using public transport where possible.

“Our quest took us to lidos, rivers, lakes, beaches and hotels, where we met with unbridled enthusiasm and unfettered optimism from pool managers, lifeguards, lake owners and fellow swimmers.”

It is a quest they have completed to bring the reader beautiful pictures and wonderful prose that makes this so much more than a guide book. It is a brilliant inspiration for the seasoned and novice cold water dipper. Follow their advice and this will be the book that genuinely changes your life.

Outdoor Swimming London. By John Weller and Lola Culsan, £18.99 from wildthingspublishing.com

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