Taking The Plunge
The ritual of a freshwater dip is healing for many. We speak to Wonderful Wild Women about community, courage and braving the cold
By Annabel Herrick
Photography by James Cannon
In the UK, it’s fair to say that wild swimming in a silty river doesn’t have the same allure as an Alpine lake or Californian ocean. However, one group of women believe that braving goosebump temperatures and gloomy skies make quick dips all the more satisfying. Based in Cumbria, Wonderful Wild Women see the raw, authentic British countryside as a reflection of their ethos: “We wanted to show something real away from the shiny, superficial fitness narrative. It’s about all sorts of bodies simply enjoying the outdoors and having fun.”
Launched in 2016, founder Sarah Gerrish admits the concept came from a desire to find like-minded women with similar interests: “When I started, I hardly did anything outdoors. This was a way to challenge myself to do more and find people to hold me accountable if I lost momentum with it.” Now boasting a global Instagram following of almost 39k, Sarah explains that the community is largely online and their Facebook group of 5k is particularly engaged with a UK wide community calling out for other women to join their adventures. During their monthly meetups for people who “just want to give it a go,” as Sarah describes, as many as 25 women turn up for each walk, swim, yoga session, run, hike or climb.
After noticing that the outdoors community in Cumbria was largely siloed (“the climbers stick with climbers; the hikers stick with hikers”), Sarah wanted to bring everyone together where all ages and abilities would be welcome. As she put it: “We’re all about making everyday choices to be outside and to appreciate the benefits of that. There was nothing like this when we launched. We offer a real range and like to mix it up.”
Over the past few years, Sarah has noticed a steady rise in swimmers, which totally exploded during the pandemic. Gyms closing meant people were suddenly looking at their surroundings in a new light. “The swimming group formed in parallel with the WWW community. Through social media people would get in touch to join in – as a result the morning swim group grew organically with friends bringing friends,” Sarah explains. Now a few women in this group are even training to become outdoor swimming instructors. Fellow member Sian Jenkins loves that nothing can get in the way of a wild swim, whether it’s a hailstorm or a holdup at work: “It’s got to be the least weather dependent sport. If it’s raining, you’re going to get wet anyway. And there’s so many different ways of participating; you can take a long, leisurely swim or just dip in for two seconds – you still get the same sense of achievement.”
Standing knee-deep in freezing cold water, side-by-side, Sarah admits there’s something about the camaraderie that helps her face the ice-cold slap of water again and again: “I definitely don’t swim as much when I’m on my own! The community is really supportive. We all egg each other on and, obviously, finish each swim with tea and cake.” Another member who loves the social aspect of the sport, Anna Brisley, agrees that swimming in a group is a totally different experience: “I find I spend more time by the lake enjoying nature when I’m with people. If I’m by myself I just rush off.”
So why swimming in particular? Sarah explains: “I just don’t get the same immediate mood lift with any other activity. It’s like an instant hit. Sometimes we don’t even swim– you can just show up with a cossie and sit in there. Getting in is the hardest bit!” As for Anna, nothing tops the feeling when she emerges from the water: “I see swimming as a mix of sport and wellbeing. I love the adrenalin and when I come out of the water my whole body is tingling – it’s an amazing sensation.”
By showcasing several different swimming spots around Cumbria, Sarah hopes to encourage women of all abilities to join. She makes sure to include places with easy access for the older generation and those less abled, citing Windermere, Rydal Water and Loughrigg as her favourite places to swim.
“For this shoot, we wanted to show places that are special to us as women and important to us as swimmers. It’s where we feel a real energy as soon as we arrive. I think it’s something to do with the familiar ritual that we know will make us feel so good afterwards.” When organising with photographer James Cannon, Sarah explained that the important message was diversity: “The idea was that if we showed all types of bodies then more women would see themselves in us and they wouldn’t feel too intimidated to give it a go.” Far from photoshopping and fake tans, the images show an accessible sport that women can relate to. James elaborated: “We wanted to make something that we felt represented the ethos behind the community. I’m not trying to sell anything, I’m discouraged by that, I was just curious to explore and uncover their freedom. Something which I wanted to be a part of too.”
From talking to people in the group, Sarah, a busy working mother, knows that the outdoors serves as a tonic for the stresses of modern womanhood and has helped members –including herself – through really difficult periods: “For me, swimming in the morning is a real leveller. I go in knackered but I emerge feeling ready for the day and totally glowing. I’m addicted.”
During a period when mental health is at the forefront of public discourse, Sarah is looking to continue supporting Blue Minds Swim; an organisation founded by Wonderful Wild Women member Gilly McArthur. The group arranges free meetups hosted with two psychotherapists, created for people who are struggling with mental health and are new to swimming. Sarah wants to organise more in-person meetups to connect with the community and teach more women the benefits she swears by. As we continue to rekindle the courage we have lost through the Covid pandemic, it seems a bracing dip could be the perfect way to start the day.
Tips for cold water dips
Don’t go by yourself!
Ask a local for advice.
Do what’s right for you. It’s fine if you only dip in for 10 seconds!
Dab cold water on your neck and wrists to prepare before you wade in.
Move in slowly.
Wear something on your feet.
Pack plenty of warm layers and a hot drink – be wary of ‘afterdrop’ (when a body has a delayed reaction to sudden cold water).
It’s not a race and remember every body reacts differently.