The longest swim: solstice swimmers around the UK – photo essay

The pandemic has been a tough time for swimmers. Lockdowns and tier systems meant swimming pools were closed for more days than they were open. Outdoor swimming spots were only for use by those local enough to access them easily.

However, despite the restrictions, there has been a huge surge in the popularity of swimming, particularly outdoor swimming in ponds, lakes, reservoirs or the sea.

Recent figures from Sport England suggest more than 4.1 million people are now dipping more than their toe into Britain’s waters to go open-water swimming.

The Outdoor Swimming Society has seen an increase in membership but it has had to cancel its popular swimming events for the second year in a row.

While it hopes the events will be back next year, this year OSS has launched the longest swim on the longest day event and has more than 500 swimmers taking part around the world.

There are no rules, it can be any distance, any stroke, any place. We travelled around the country to meet some of the intrepid swimmers taking part in their longest swim to see where people are dipping and why.

Alex Sehgal, 28, regularly swims outdoors year round. She says she swam just under 1km (0.6 miles) today as the sea was too choppyfor a longer swim. “When you get the chop, it just makes breathing a bit difficult.” She usually swims up to 2km.

Recently Sehgal was swimming with her husband and a friend in Belhaven Bay in Dunbar and they found themselves near a pod of three or four dolphins on a sunny clear evening. “I didn’t believe it at first but there they all were a few hundred metres away. It was amazing. There are sightings of dolphins at Portobello beach too.”

Poppy Anderson, 28, got into cold water swimming through her “crazy Irish friend” and has been swimming regularly since October.

Maisie Barlow, 21, met Poppy at university.

“Poppy was swimming all winter and I thought she was mad, then I came with her one day and thought, actually that looks great.”

Rowena Barlow, 57, Maisie’s mother, moved to Edinburgh in August and also wanted to start cold water swimming. She finds it therapeutic and it helps with her aches and pains. The salt and cold are the best remedy. “I can’t recommend it higher,” she says.

She has been practising in the bath, and today is her first go at it on Portobello beach.

The trio swam for about 20 minutes.

Gemma Whittham, Sophie Badrick, Wendy Mitchell, Alice Mitchell and Sara Barnes took their longest swim on the longest day across the 1.24 mile length of Buttermere in the Lake District.

“I’ve always swum though I mainly did cycling and running but then I had a major operation on my legs for osteoarthritis and it was four years before I could walk with no pain. I started swimming to get my self outdoors, keep fit and keep my mind sane.

“My first time in the water was at Crummock and I went in on my crutches and because it was so cold, there was no pain … I got my confidence back and realised I actually had a physical future because I thought I might be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

“It’s been four years of hard work to get to this point and swimming is everything to me now … I’m addicted but it’s very good for you physically, mentally and emotionally and I swim every day whatever the weather.”

Roger Taylor: “We’re swimming out to Norfolk Island in the middle of Ullswater. I’ve sailed to it and camped out there but never swum to it before.”

Dave Pye: “This is my local, I come down here all the time. I just love the buzz and the chance to connect to nature. Swimming is probably the reason I stayed in the Lake District. I was thinking of moving away but I started jumping in all the lakes and I fell in love with the area again really. I got going properly about two years ago. I try and get jobs in the area so I can get straight down here after work and jump in. I only recently started wearing wetsuits, which means you keep warmer and can go further, especially in winter.”

Jamie Miranda: “I do a lot of running and swimming improves your blood circulation so I’m doing it for that. It also helps my legs if I go for a swim after a long week of running.”

RT: “I’ve always swum to some degree mainly in rivers but when I was doing the Wainwright’s, swimming in the tarns as you’re going along and it’s red hot in the middle of summer jumping in a big muddy puddle is ideal really, incredibly refreshing and just nice places to be.”

DP: “We were all yawning on the way here but we’ll definitely be feeling a bit livelier when we’ve finished. I’ll sleep better at the end of the day though.”

Bethan Thomas took part in the OSS’s longest swim on the longest day event at Trevone ocean pool in Cornwall, with Rosie Maunder and Sara Ayerman.

Bethan Thomas, of Project Seagrass, says: “I’ve always loved the ocean and the water. I wouldn’t say I’m a great swimmer but I get out and do it anyway. I think ocean swimming refreshes you. It makes you forget any stresses that day – nothing else enters your mind when you’re swimming except how amazing it feels. The water supports you in terms of natural buoyancy, and it feels like it supports you mentally too.”

“Trevone is just a beautiful setting with the coastline and the sea in the background. It’s a lovely place to go for a swim: it’s not difficult, you’re not battling the tide, you can just swim for as long as you like. “Seagrass takes out bacteria and pollutants from the water; it also keeps our oceans clear by helping to drop the sediment that’s in the water to the seabed. It’s a wonderful ecosystem and if you want to swim in clean, clear waters then protecting our seagrass and restoring what we’ve lost is vital.”

(Proceeds from the OSS longest swim event are going to Project Seagrass, which Bethan works for).

“Two years ago, had you told me that my longest swim of the year would be 1.8km by the time of the longest day, I’d have wondered what injury I’d sustained. Even on a slack swimming year, by this point I’d have completed the Swimathon and be regularly swimming 3km plus in training for my favourite swim in July, the 6km Bantham Swoosh down the River Avon in Devon.

“On the longest day last year, with outdoor swimming venues still closed and my body weak post-Covid, I’d have wept for joy and relief had you told me that my beloved West Reservoir was open and my body strong enough for a 1.8km swim.

“The longest day of 2021 has been far from the warmest, and my swim far from the furthest, but my chilly dip in the grey reservoir waters with rain splashing the surface all around is the one I am most grateful for.”

Anna Morrell, 46, and her daughter Aurelia, 10, completed their solstice swim at All Hallows beach, which is on the opposite bank of the Thames Estuary from Southend. They both wore flower wreaths on her heads to celebrate the longest day during their swim.

Morrell has been with the OSS for a decade and writes and edits their newsletter. She has lipoedema, an abnormal buildup of fat in the legs and sometimes arms. The condition limits how long she can swim before she becomes tired. Morrell swims close to shore and usually with friends in case she gets into difficulty because of her condition.

Morrell’s daughter Aurelia has been swimming since she was a year old. Aurelia found the weather and water on the 19 June evening too cold and windy and did not swim for too long.

Torbay Shoal is a Facebook group with about 200 members who are based primarily in Torbay. The group has been going about five years, perhaps a little longer. Some members of the group meet most mornings all year around at The Steps, the tiered concrete that fronts the sea wall along the promenade in front of Tor Abbey Meadows in Torquay.

“I love the scenery, just getting outside and seeing the change in seasons,” says Chris Popham. “I swim all over the coast and the moor, and love seeing the birds, fish and sometimes seals. If it had been a clear morning, the sunrise would be fabulous. I started outdoor swimming when I was 10 years old, you had to be able to swim across the river to be allowed to use the family boat. I love being part of the Swimming Society, it’s great to bring people together, and is very inclusive. Anyone can swim, you don’t have to swim miles.”

In pre-Covid days there were swimming meet ups several times a week to take advantage of the great variety and special scenery around the bay.

The event planned for this morning was a mass meet up at Anstey’s Cove for sunrise. Those who were inclined would then swim the 1.25 miles (2km) along the coast beneath the cliffs to the wide sandy beach at Oddicombe. Anyone who was inclined could walk over the headland to meet us and swim again.

Residents and support workers from Tom Harrison House’s addiction recovery programme for military veterans have come to swim at the Liverpool Watersports Centre, which is run by Local Solutions, a social enterprise. These men are training for a triathlon in Wales this autumn where they will compete to raise money and awareness for Tom Harrison House. Brian is a live-in support worker at Tom Harrison House who is himself a former addict.

“Stee”, as he is known to his friends, is a military veteran who served in the British armed forces for six years, enlisting as soon as he left school. Struggling with daily life when he left the army, he become addicted to drugs and alcohol and eventually suffered a drug-induced psychosis and was put in prison for nine months. He came out of prison in November 2020 and, after seeking help with his addiction, was taken in by Tom Harrison House for its 12-week rehabilitation programme. He is now fully recovered, having completed his programme in May, and volunteers to help other military veterans who are struggling with their own addictions.

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