Providing purpose, friendships and surviving the pandemic are among the many reasons behind taking a dip in the UK’s iconic outdoor swimming spots, as revealed in WaterAid’s new photo gallery celebrating the power of water.
Reasons to Swim reveals intimate portraits and stories of people from across the UK who are drawn to the cold waters in various outdoor swimming locations, including North Sands Beach in Devon, London Fields Lido, and the West Reservoir Centre.
The unique series was created by London-based photographer Nikki McClarron. With a continued fascination in the natural world and human stories, her creative style comes from using a film camera and printing by hand, providing a rich and timeless feel.
The gallery marks the launch of WaterAid’s Swim Marathon challenge, which starts in August and invites swimmers to take the plunge and support the international charity by swimming 13 or 26 miles over 12 weeks.
Featured in the gallery is Jojo O’Brien, 37, a ski instructor from Salcombe, Devon, who is drawn to the healing power of water. A few years ago, Jojo turned to swimming after a foot operation which still causes her discomfort to this day. She cites the injury as a catalyst for a loss of identity; however, swimming has been her therapy as it was the only form of exercise that did not cause her pain.
This year, Jojo spent her first winter in the UK for 17 years, unable to take up her usual job as a ski teacher abroad due to the pandemic. She recalls feeling lost at first, but a daily dip in icy sea waters in Devon helped rediscover her purpose and form new friendships.
“The icy wintery cold waters put me back in my place and made me appreciate the things I did have. I met some wonderful people going to the beach on my own every day and now have formed some solid friendships – it has helped transition my life.”
Born in London, Audrey Livingston, 57, and Debbie Croydon, 60, met at a triathlon workshop a few years ago. They are regular swimmers at West Reservoir Centre, located on 23 acres of water in Hackney, London, and last summer, they founded ‘Soul Swimmers’, a community of female swimmers from Black and Asian communities bound together by their mutual passion for wild swimming.
The two women were inspired to set up the group following conversations over coffee during the pandemic, about issues like lockdown, George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter. They noticed a lack of Black and Asian females in sports such as swimming. According to Sport England, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England do not swim at all.
On creating Soul Swimmers, Debbie said:
“We often talked about how there were too few of us in sports such as triathlon and swimming, but it is changing, thank goodness! My idea was to set up a swim group for women like us. I wanted to get women learning to swim and into open water. Some children do have lessons but often they don’t continue because their parents don’t swim or don’t have any interest. I thought maybe we could create some interest.”
“I like to swim for the physical and mental health benefits; the feeling of exhilaration after! I like being in London but also being in and surrounded by nature at the same time.”
“I tend to swim to keep fit physically and mentally, open water cold swimming is great to still the mind. It is relaxing and gives you a sense of freedom that makes you forget where you are.”
While open water swimming locations have soared in popularity during the pandemic, the reopening of lidos across the country in April was a welcome relief for millions of swimmers across the country.
Nearby at London Fields Lido, Laurie Firth, 38, is taught by swim teacher and friend Henry Fincher, 38.
Laurie, who has enjoyed swimming all her life, recalls seeking out cold water river spots with friends having moved to London as an escape from the city. She highlighted how the pandemic made her realise how much she missed her swimming community.
“My connection with outdoor swimming came off the back of a relationship break-up. It felt so powerful to connect with a new community and be in my body and immersed in water, rather than in my head.”
“When the lido reopened, I realised it was the community as much as the swimming that had been absent from my life. Swimming is such a bonding activity. Even if people are at very different levels in terms of strength and speed – just standing in the shallows or the showers and talking pre- or post-swim is as important as the swim itself.”
Meanwhile, Henry took up swimming lessons when he was younger after his GP told him it would help his pigeon chest, a condition that causes the sternum and rib cage to protrude outwards. After a 10-year hiatus, he gave open-water swimming a try in Greece and hasn’t looked back.
As a swimming teacher, he adapted his sessions online during the pandemic and revealed the extreme lengths he went to take a dip during a period when lidos were closed. Henry said:
“Some of us went crazy enough to buy large paddling pools and tie ourselves to the end and swim on the spot! I ran Zoom sessions for swimmers 7 days a week, which I’m still running over a year later. We were so grateful when open water venues reopened as it meant we could see friends and make new ones under that shared experience.
“I swim outdoor primarily for fitness, I’m fighting age I guess! It also helps clears my head, there is definitely a meditative aspect to it.”
Lizzie Griffiths, WaterAid’s Events Fundraising Officer, said:
“We all have our own personal connections to water, and our new gallery, Reasons to Swim, celebrates the role it plays in the lives of swimmers across the UK.
“We are so fortunate to have water available at the turn of a tap, yet one in ten people around the world do not have clean drinking water close to home, impacting on their health, education and livelihoods. By taking part in Swim Marathon this summer, you can help transform lives by bringing clean water to communities around the world.”
To find out more about taking on the Swim Marathon challenge and WaterAid’s swimming events, please visit: https://www.wateraid.org/uk/get-involved/fundraising/swimming