Ali Phillips is a fresh-air-head
Why do we call it 'wild swimming' - it's just swimming, surely? The lack of luke warm showers, diving sticks and lane markers we guess.
There's no real easing yourself in to open water swimming (that sounds better) in the UK, except a few balmy days in summer, eventually you've just got to jump in. Once your body gets used to the cold though (it does, honest), it's pretty special. Lots of sports are hailed as immersive but nothing is quite like jumping into unheated water. It's like mainlining nature, right into you veins. What a hit.
In search of some answers, we went to the Alpkit Keswick social swim. It's run by Ali Phillips every Thursday at 07h15, in Derwent Water. The last time we saw Ali was on the Isle of Arran, in March, when we had to hold her back from swimming in every available body of water, even as snow was starting to fall. Yep, Ali is a fresh-air-head.
In the summer months, Ali describes her wetsuited walk to the lake from her flat, with others figures all dressed in black emerging from back alleys and doorways to join her for an open water hit. Now though, in mid November, it's barely light as Ali, Ian her partner (he’s a climbing instructor at Kong) and I head down to the Lake. A northerly wind is up so they're only expecting a few. We stand chatting on the flooded jetty looking out to the snow still on Grizedale Pike and as promised, out of the dark emerge Phoebe, then Abby (She also works for Alpkit) and lastly, another Ian.
"It's not really the season for long swims, so we're not bothering with wetsuits." Ali explains, as they begin tottering on one leg to remove leggings, followed by a bit of a warm up dance. Just swimsuits, gloves, booties and a woolly hat, or two woolly hats in Phoebe's case. Before I've even worked out where to get a picture from, still in the half light, they start to wade in.
They may not be in wetsuits, but this wasn’t just a quick dip. They stay in for a good 10 minutes after the initial shrieks and yelps as the water reaches certain parts of the body. They clamber up onto the flooded pier to wave Ian in (he's going for a long swim, so has a wet suit and float to wrestle with) before jumping in again - it's not as cold second time around, apparently. As they come back to the shore and emerge on to dry land, they are all absolutely ecstatic.
As they’re drying off, I asked them why they do it. "It's so serene. It's total freedom. If you have a problem, you can't dwell on it when you're swimming” says Ali. “You can only think about breathing, coordination of limbs, the cold and where you're going.”
"The wild swimming scene is so welcoming, no one is judging you for not wearing a wetsuit, or not swimming far." Abby explained.
Phoebe (who works for Atom Packs, who you should check out) explains why the Lakes are so good for long swims - being able to swim from A to B and feeling like you're in a whole new place. Floats are a must for longer swims and a support kayaker if you can get one. "People stealing my clothes while I’m swimming is my main worry, or a dog peeing on them,'' she laughs, which I agree would be quite harrowing.
We head up to a cafe to warm up. Two runners are leaving Abrahams tea house - we offer them some bars for the day that they gladly stuff into pockets before heading down past the infamous Moot Hall. Hot Chocolates are ordered and it's only 08h00. What a way to start the day.
Ali’s Instagram feed is full of incredible swimming spots and she knows the Lake District ones like the back of her hand. She has a few favourites that she’s being coy about the exact location of, which is fair enough - you'll have to get in touch if you want to know more. “That one’s up above Thirlmere, where you really wouldn't think to look. You can hear people up on Helvellyn ridge behind you,” she explains. “I usually scour the map for waterfalls, they often lead to good swim spots.”
Just before we go our separate ways, Ali remembers some top fresh-air-head open water swimming tips. “The secret to warming up quickly is to get your swimsuit off asap and get dressed from the top down - that’s the bit you need to get warm. Oh, and don't bother with underwear!” In hindsight, the first bit makes sense, but we wished we'd asked her to explain the underwear thing.