Less than twenty miles north from Glasgow lies Loch Lomond, one of the biggest fresh water lochs in Britain. Or lakes, as they are called elsewhere in the world. It’s a place that takes you from the urbanised central belt to the Southern Highlands and is a renowned beauty spot. People come from everywhere to visit and go walking, camping, hiking up Ben Lomond and picnicking on the shores and beaches. On the water you will find pleasure boats, kayakers and other water sports. As a local, I find it a special place, but not somewhere I would consider as a spot for swimming.
Although I grew up taking family holidays in Scotland, always swimming and playing in the sea, it’s not something I’ve considered much as an adult. Simply put, the sea around much of Britain is very cold. And while there may be some gentle, warm pools in the South of England, up here it’s mostly Baltic, especially the North Sea, which I’m told only gets five degrees warmer in summer than the winter. This is a real shame, as Scotland has some of the most beautiful, empty, white sandy beaches on the planet. Of course they probably wouldn’t be so unspoiled if the sea was as warm as the Caribbean, so I suppose there are some things we should be grateful for.
Apart from the shivering cold of the sea, I’ve never been afraid of it, unless you count the typical post-Jaws terror that all kids of the 70s experienced. Despite the reassurance of adults that we did not live in a country surrounded by shark-infested waters, I still dreaded the appearance of that fin, ready to chew my legs off. Other than that, I’ve long considered the really scary stuff in the sea to be far away from shore, well beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone and therefore nothing to worry about. Aside from avoiding the jellyfish and sharp stones that might hurt my feet.
Lochs, on the other hand, were a different matter. I was always suspicious of how dark they looked and of what might be underfoot. I pictured slimy green fronds that would wrap themselves around my legs, dragging me into the murky depths. Or trout that might swim by and touch my skin. And while I don’t believe in monsters, our Celtic folklore is full of tales of half human or alien creatures residing in our waters. There’s an understanding that lochs and lakes are deep and mysterious, adding an element of danger. They are not to be trifled with.
While I enjoyed swimming as a kid, I found it less appealing as an adult. Partly because of the hassle of drying off, but mostly due to the never ending chore of bikini hair removal or feeling chubby. Most women’s swimwear is designed to show as much of our bodies as possible. Even modern shorts styles are fairly brief, with little coverage of the thighs. And woe betide any woman who lets her spiders legs escape from her gusset. It could possibly call for the evacuation of a swimming pool, or at the very least, pariah status for the untidy wench responsible for offending people with her body hair.
Going on holiday, I would make the effort to prepare so that I was ready to swim in a pool or the sea on a daily basis. And whenever I’ve had the time and inclination for regular swimming, it has made me feel really good. I’m not one of those speedy swimmers and I don’t really like putting my face in the water. I’m happy pootling along using a slow breaststroke, like one of the old dears with floral, rubber swimming caps, who I used to see at the pool in my youth. I suspect it’s this slowness that gives me the sense of wellbeing I get from swimming. Unlike other exercises, I’m not trying to hurry, or be better or compete with anyone. It’s just about floating along.
Recently, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany when it comes to swimming. Along with a group of other menopausal women, I’ve discovered wild swimming. Inspired by the Gower Bluetits, our wee group
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has been dunking in the sea or lochs close to Glasgow for the last few months. Some have been several times a week, but due to house move and mum duties, I’ve only managed it a few times. For me, this is something I have never, ever considered doing and it is a revelation.
Anecdotal evidence shows that regular swimming in cold water has great health benefits, from improved sleep, to increased metabolism to better circulation. Many of the women from Gower who started swimming to help their menopause symptoms have noted improvements in their anxiety and depression. I haven’t done it often enough to say, but I have noted a real natural high, both while in the water and immediately afterwards. It was a complete buzz.
The first time we went, it was into the sea at the Ayrshire coast. I’d been swimming along that way before, so although it was tough getting used to the cold, it wasn’t a new experience. The revelation came when I had my first swim at Loch Lomond. It was a week day evening at the end of August, following a muggy day in the office. Coming home from work, I was hot, bothered and grumpy; in two minds about going out at all. But I forced myself out and I’m so glad I did. I discovered one of the loveliest experiences I’ve had in a long time.
First of all, the coldness of the water was absolutely delicious after the heat of the day. I won’t lie – getting in is the worst part. It takes a good couple of minutes of feeling close to pain until your body gets used to it. It’s advisable to splash the water on your pulse points at your wrists, neck and the back of the knees as you wade in. Then get submerged up to your shoulders as quickly as you can, because you won’t acclimatise until you do. I’ve found that screaming and swearing loudly helps at this time. Legs aren’t too bad, but once that cold water hits your fanjo, it’s gonna hurt for a minute.
Once you get past that, it’s just wonderful. I can’t overstate the joy of being in water, looking at trees and mountains and breathing in fresh air. Once in, I realised the dark water was clear and nothing to be frightened of. I found it a relaxing way to swim; not going out of my depth and moving horizontally to the shore. It was easier than swimming in an indoor pool, where I would tend to define myself by the number of lengths, thereby turning it into a chore. This time I would say ‘oh I’ll swim to that post and back’ but otherwise I felt liberated from counting. I found myself grinning with euphoria.
Caution is required though. You do need to keep an eye on time and make sure you’re not in too long, and it’s recommended to swim with others as much as possible – which is part of the fun anyway. It seems that the minute you feel that you could stay in forever is about the right time to get out, because you could be in danger of hypothermia. If you have a heart condition or breathing problems, you should consult a doctor before getting into the water. This is probably not for everyone.
Some kit is recommended – a fluorescent swim cap and tow float so you are visible from the shore. Googles if you want to go under. I bought a pair of swim gloves today after finding my hands quite cold after a swim on Monday. You need to be ready to get changed quickly and into warm layers afterwards, with a hot drink and something sweet ready to go.
As for the suits, so far we have all swum in ‘skins’: swim lingo for normal swimsuits or in my case, a swim tshirt and men’s swim shorts which are satisfyingly long, leaving me to ponder why they get all the good coverage. Some people swim like that all year long, but the majority will wear wetsuits to continue through the winter.
I am not sure what way I will go. Currently I don’t have the spare funds for a good wetsuit and I’ve found the cold beneficial. Finding times to go will become more challenging, as the nights are drawing in so quickly now. My plan is to keep going as much as I can until I can’t bear it anymore. In
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the cold water I don’t feel like a fat, sweaty, middle-aged woman, I just feel like a floating, happy version of me. And that’s something worth braving the long, cold, Scottish winter for.
Until next time,