RIP wild swimming! Nature’s ‘cure all’ has thrown in the towel | Swimming

Farewell, wild swimming, it’s been fun. Well, not fun. Not “fun” in the traditional sense of the word. More, I suppose, it’s been baffling, sometimes bloodcurdling and, eventually, a banal cliché flattened by overuse, but this is an obituary of sorts, so we will be kind.

Much in the same way Lucozade rebranded itself from medicine to energy drink, in the past decade this hobby pivoted to wellness, adding the “wild” having spent many years known simply as “swimming”. Led in no small part by this newspaper, it became a trend, elevated by its health-giving properties and photos of nice ladies grinning in swimwear. It was not for me. No, I am a person quite tied to dry land, and cosiness, and a lack of eels scraping my shins, but I applaud those who did it. Those brave enough to jump straight into lakes, whether for exercise, their mental health, their headaches or their Instagrams. You always knew who was a wild swimmer, because they would tell you, frequently. And I’d applaud until my palms stung, because this was a feat of endurance and bravery so far beyond my own pathetic limits that they might as well have jumped into an active volcano rather than the local pond. But.

But but but. When something becomes a trend, whether miniskirts or buccal fat removal, its clock starts ticking. Wild swimming is no different. The first nail in its coffin came with the blunt force of marketing: it was presented as a cure for everything. Feeling sad or feeling fat, feeling a low ache in your temples, feeling burned out, grim from too long online, feeling an unravelling guilt about contributing to the climate crisis, feeling disconnected from your body, disconnected from your community, feeling too many feelings or too few – take your clothes off and jump in the lake. There, nature will cleanse you quickly of all your human agonies and sins. Cured.

It has long bothered me, this idea that nature exists as a wellness product, like a scented candle or very green tea, rather than a system that persists in spite of our many-pronged attempts to control it or, of course, profit from it. The popularity of wild swimming led to an increased interest in similar nature therapies, like “forest bathing”, said to counter illnesses including “cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression, anxiety and stress”. This morning I received an email advertising a restorative forest bathing retreat with overnight prices starting at £599 – a light lunch is included. Without wanting to sound too much like a red-faced management consultant shouting in a beer garden, that is a lot of money to spend on going for a walk. Isn’t it?

I have no doubt these moments of slowness and fresh air do help, but their ability to cure a person of all their pains surely also relies on serious structural support and a little bit of medicine, too. But the nail had been banged: these spiritual experiences had been packaged and given price tags, and the magical sheen was dulled.

The second nail was, well, the sewage. Last year, the images of blissy swimmers we’d become accustomed to were replaced by pictures of floating faeces and stories about people falling horribly ill after ingesting raw sewage. According to the Labour Party’s analysis of Environment Agency data, since 2016 water companies have pumped raw sewage into our seas and rivers for more than 9m hours. And last week it was reported that hundreds of landfill dumps containing “plastics, chemicals and other waste are a ticking timebomb threatening to leach pollution” on to beaches and into the sea. Alongside these hideousnesses are new health warnings, unrelated to the viscous shit in the water.

Doctors are warning healthy open-water swimmers about “swimming-induced pulmonary oedema”, a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause them to “drown from the inside”, owing to increased pressure on the body’s blood vessels as a result of exertion, immersion and cold. I mean, admittedly, it would not take much to put me off wild swimming – a decent biscuit and weather that dipped below 40C would do it – but this handful of horrors sounds like an alarm, a plea to get out of the water.

So, it is with some sadness, and a little relief, that I must confirm the death of wild swimming. Its devotees will no doubt continue to plop themselves into any number of seas, rivers and large dark puddles, but without the impulse to post evidence of the plop online two minutes later. And it will soon be forgotten by those at home, who, after all, often have local swimming pools or failing that, baths, at their disposal. Trends come and go, all eventually overtaken by something bigger or wetter. It had a good run, wild swimming, becoming both a punchline and a way of life, a way of immersing oneself in the world, and stepping out into a DryRobe as somebody pink and better. But let’s be honest, few trends, bar perhaps denim or burgers, could survive having pure shit chucked at them for 9m hours.

Email Eva at or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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