In this instalment of In Her Place, Stephanie Cottle gets her feet wet trying open water swimming – an activity whose up take surged following the closing of swimming pools earlier this year.

Sitting with the warm evening sun on my face, I stretch my toes out across the soft, crisp sand and dig my feet deeper into the ground, rooting myself to the beach. It helps with the butterflies, this sense of anchoring. I have a strong urge to keep my feet on the shore. With a dismissive shake of my head I slip off my hoody and stuff it into my gym bag. I can’t remember the last time I was on an English beach in my swimming costume. I unbury my feet and hop out of my jeans. With determined eyes set on the horizon and nerves swilling around my stomach like a snow globe, I put one foot in front of the other and begin my tentative march towards the sea.

There were two main responses from family and friends when I mentioned that I was going to try wild swimming in the sea. ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ and ‘Blackpool sea water is disgusting’.

It’s not hard to see why wild swimming is considered by many as a perilous activity. When I was younger, I remember being told cautionary tales whilst at school in Wigan, teachers warning us of dangers posed by swimming in reservoirs like Worthington Lakes and Alance Bridge.

These warnings weren’t unjustified, there have been several tragic open water swimming incidents in the north west over the years. Although reservoirs often look calm and inviting these masses of water can contain hidden machinery, algae and aren’t manned by lifeguards. Here by the coast, open water swimming comes with its own set of risks.

In August this year, following the lift on government imposes lockdown restrictions, a family from Dewsbury visited St Annes. Like many others that day, they came to enjoy the beaches whilst the weather was warm. It’s common to see our visitors bathing in the waters. Walking along the promenade you can often hear children squealing excitedly as they try to outrun the waves. Tragically, on this occasion, the incoming tide left Muhammad Azhar Shabbir, 18, and Ali Athar Shabbir, 16, in a perilous situation. Unable to reach the shore the brothers lost their lives. The passing of these two young men serving as a stark reminder that our sea can pose huge risks. This occurred just a couple of weeks after my first swim in the sea and the news reports really hit home. Strong currents and rip tides can have serious implications.

There are of course other dangers swimming in open water poses. Our coasts are frequented by a wealth of sea life including seals, dolphins, several jellyfish species and weever fish. These fish spend their time not swimming hidden in the wet sand, they are venomous and can give a nasty sting if they are accidentally stepped upon. This summer one unwitting child was unlucky enough to find themselves nursing a sore foot after an encounter with a weever – though the instances of this happening are rare. It’s important to be mindful of these little guys when you’re at a beach, but they shouldn’t stop you enjoying the water.

Faced with these risks you might well ask why people choose to swim in open water at all. They were certainly in my mind when I decided to try a wild swim. Why not stick to the local swimming pool where there is a lifeguard on duty and the only thing that threatens to touch you is a renegade plaster broken free of its master.

The short answer is that if done safely, there are very few experiences that match the feeling of swimming in the wild.

Photo Credit: Katey Southern of MALLOWS swimming group

The feeling of connectivity to the landscape whilst out swimming in the open is totally intoxicating. Unlike swimming in enclosed pools outdoors there seems to be an unlimited amount of air to breathe. The natural sounds of waves, water and winds are so unlike the echoes of human voice against tiles that you find whilst indoors. The exposure to the elements provides a dizzying freedom. The natural sting of sea salt favourable to the bleachy sting of chlorine.

There are also several health benefits associated with cold water swimming. When swimming in cold waters your body is working hard to keep you warm and as such is burning calories at a faster rate. This heightened metabolism that we experience in cool waters also leads to us having improved circulation which helps the body to flush out toxins. Maintaining regular exercise, we feel a reduction in stress, improved sleep cycles and cold-water swimming can create boosted immune systems.

“On regularly immersing yourself in cold water, you will experience something called cold water shock,” Jane McCormick, a coach at Open Swim UK says in a netdoctor.com article. “This shock can kick-start the immune system, helping to produce more white blood cells and antioxidants, which are proven to boost your immune system and reduce various illnesses, from the common cold to heart disease.’

Despite the health benefits cold water swimming is certainly not to everyones taste. Hearing recollections of freezing temperatures in Blackpool’s stunning (now demolished) outdoor swimming pool is enough to induce blue tinted lips. However attractions such as the recently opened geothermic lido in Penzance, Cornwall offer a warmer, safer alternative to sea swimming and would be an incredible addition to the Fylde coast. We can hope!

The most important thing to consider if you do decide to swim in open waters is your own safety. Whenever possible it is advised to swim with others. If swimming in the sea, stick to beaches with lifeguards on duty. Using equipment such as wetsuits, brightly coloured swimming hats and tow floats provide you with protection against cold waters and mean you are more visible should you require assistance. Aqua shoes help protect feet against sharp rocks and hidden weevers and it’s always advised to bring plenty of warm clothes to change into when you’re out of the water, no matter the weather.

My open water swimming adventure started weeks before I even considered entering the water. I contacted the Outdoor Swimming Society who pointed me in the direction of Mallows, a local wild swimming group who share their passion for swimming through a Facebook page. Embarking on an organised swim, I met a group of experienced outdoor swimmers who were happy to give advice about tidal behaviours and equipment.

For those questioning how clean the waters on the Fylde coast are since 2013, the year the Marine Conservation Society threatened to impose a ban on bathing in Blackpool coastal waters, our shores have been through quite a transformation. Rather than missing the mark for minimum bathing water quality, in recent years the waters here have been classed as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Countless beach clean ups, heavy investment from united utilities and promotions highlighting the importance of correct toilet waste disposal have ensured that Blackpool’s water quality has improved dramatically. During the weeks of lockdown videos circulated online showing our beaches as dazzlingly clean and our waters blue. Who is in charge of keeping our shores litter free? Ultimately, we are. If we are responsible, knowledgeable and safe, the Fylde coast can offer breath-taking views and enriching swimming experiences.

For more information on open water swimming and to find your local swimming group visit outdoorswimmingsociety.com

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  • Stephanie Cottle is currently a research student at UCLan working alongside the curatorial partnership In Certain Places. Her practice investigates place & the everyday experiences of the North West of England.

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