words by Elizabeth Stephenson
For the last two and a half years, I’ve carved out some time each week to bob about in a spot of cold
water. It’s a task that has become an integral part of my wellbeing and one I wouldn’t be without now.
I’ve brought together a collection of pictures of my favourite dips through the seasons with a few
words about each of them – I’ve not included the exact locations, but instead encourage you to seek
out your own!
I’ll start with autumn. For two reasons, a) it’s my favourite season and b), perhaps more relevant to
this piece, it’s when I first started weekly swimming back in September 2020. I was having a rough
time at uni with covid lockdowns and no in-person teaching, and a couple friends started getting me
out for a swim together – little did they know what they would spark! (Thanks Sam and Bethan.)
Autumn is a great time to start cold water swimming, mostly as it’s not that cold! The summer heat
lingers in the water longer than it lingers in the air and the colours that bleed into the pools are breath-
taking. The temperatures drop gradually with the leaves and that allows you to slowly accustom
yourself to warmth-gobbling temperatures.
Autumn tingles with excitement for me, the anticipation of the cold that winter steadfastly brings
swirls about my neoprene-clad feet each year with every advancing dip.
Unsurprisingly the best time of year for cold water swimming, winter brings a whole new level of
challenge, and fun. It sneaks up on you, imperceptibly, until one morning those autumn winds are
suddenly bitter, biting at any exposed flesh with sharp, vengeful teeth. Reclaiming warmth for its
own, the water stings, consumes, and drives all other thought from your mind.
Swimming in winter is as brutal as it is beautiful; but I love the rawness of it, the stress it momentarily
puts my body under as I adjust to the cold. It’s a fine balance, and certainly more dangerous – testing
and learning my limits and what my body is capable of is infinitely exciting – but it’s tempered with
caution, erring on the side of getting out early and keeping myself safe.
My body has become very comfortable with cold water but that doesn’t mean I can be complacent –
on my coldest swims, the wind feels warm against me – a strange sensation and a chivvy to get warm
clothes on quickly. I never push it and I never swim alone in winter – this isn’t an advice article, but I
feel the need to pop that in if I’m writing about it!
Cold water swimming has, over the last couple years, brought me a wonderfully freeing sense of
acceptance towards my body.
Sharing this experience with others, especially women, allows me to focus on what my body can
withstand and do, rather than a skewed societal expectation. The fish don’t give two ducks about body
hair, cellulite etc…anyway…
The effects of the cold stay with me for a while in winter – namely that invigorating buzz you’ll hear
cold water swimmers enthralled by which is as wonderful as everyone says it is! My mood is always
lifted by a swim, it’s a safety net I can unfailingly fall back on – and one I’m very grateful for. It’s
utterly absorbing and allows me to fully immerse myself in the bone-chilling power of this season,
bringing a new depth of appreciation for nature and experiencing the turn of the year on a very
On a practical note, my bum takes the longest to warm up and is often cold for hours!
Spring is here you say? It’s getting warm?! Narp, not in the water! It takes a fair bit longer for those
clear, icy rivers to warm up, the lakes are a wee bit quicker but still a way behind the air! I’m
normally in a hat (or two) for most of March/April.
The abundance of life at this time of year can make for some wonderful encounters – I get excited
about anything that wriggles, especially tadpoles. Sharing your swim with ducklings (from a good
distance away) is a delight! I had a beautiful swim the other day with several bright blue dragonflies
flitting around me as I bobbed about on my tow float (affectionately named ‘Floaty toe’).
Providing wildlife are not in the vicinity, my dogs back home are excellent swim companions, even
Swift with her incessant barking at/trying to eat the water… I gain so much joy from messing about
with them in the water.
Swimming in all weathers is another favourite pastime of mine. Last spring, a huge weather front
blew across Cumbria, and I convinced my partner to jump in my car with swim stuff already on, run
into Bass as the rain lashed down and then drive the 2 mins back home to warm up. I vividly
remember closing my eyes against the drops as the gusts tore through me and dived into the water,
feeling utterly joyful at being alive.
The only time of year where the rest of the population won’t look at you like a nutter for getting in the
water! I once had a guy in the depths of winter ask me astounded if I’d lost a bet….
The water is my refuge in a different way in the summer, being someone who is not a fan of the heat,
slipping beneath the cool surface of a lake is a much welcome relief. The long daylight hours that
stretch the edges of the day are beautiful for late evening swims. It’s also a great time of year to
introduce friends to the joy of outdoor swimming and get them hooked in time for the temps to start