I grew up in Newcastle and throughout my childhood summer holidays and day trips were taken close to home. Until we strayed further afield (when I was a nearly-teenager) the whole family would, without demur, summon up the resolve needed for plodging and swimming in the North Sea. When we did eventually make it further south we were amazed by the balmy waters of Newquay!
Wherever I lived (Southampton, London or Leeds) I always came back up here for holidays, for the sense of openness and belonging, for love of the landscape, and with pride about being ‘from here’. I never stopped bracing myself for the cold shock of these greyer, calmer seas, edged by proper beaches, castles, sand-dunes, wonderful wildlife and chilly breezes (causing wind- rather than sun-burn). But, more recently, it started to seem that it was only middle-aged, well-upholstered women (like me) who ventured in without the protection of a wet suit (wimps!). Now, with wild swimming catching on everywhere, there are more of us, all shapes, ages, genders and sizes.
After a long and eventful journey of nearly 60 years, I returned to Newcastle in May 2019 and am deliriously happy to be living only a couple of miles away from the sea. After the upheaval of moving house it took a couple of months to find sea swimmers in my area (as well as up the coast in Northumberland where I have a caravan). I found that Facebook is full of slightly bonkers-sounding groups: ASS (Alnwick and Amble Sea Swimmers), BADASS (Blyth and District Sea Swimmers), TOSSERS (Tynemouth Openwater something or other), and COWS (Cullercoats Open Water Swimmers). I’ve been out with the Alnwick group a few times but Cullercoats is the nearest beach to home and is my favourite- perfect for safe, sheltered swimming and very beautiful (as below), so I have become a happy member of the COWS.
Cullercoats Bay at ‘swimrise’
I started swimming with this friendly herd in the summer and continued, as regularly as I could, until lockdown in March.
Here’s what it means to me, and what I am missing so much:
It’s GOOD for me, in so many ways. Improves mental and physical health, boosts immunity and lifts my mood. Underlying this is stimulation of the vagus nerve, the primary agent in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s yin (rest, digest, feed, breed) to the sympathetic nervous system’s yang (fight, flight, freeze). It brings our bodies back to a better balance in our over-stimulated, stressed-out lives. And just makes you feel really, really good.
It offers deep CONNECTION to the natural world, the sea and the life it contains and nurtures, the sun, moon and tides, the sky and the weather, the rhythms and resonances of all these wonderful systems. It reminds me that I am (a very small) part of all this energy and flow. I am humbly grateful that the water HOLDS me without any effort from me. There are entirely new wonders, like being in the sea to witness the sun rising at the flat horizon line (on the sea since we are at the east coast)- the bright dot of its emergence blinking off and on as the waves bob us up and down.
SUPPORT and friendship is freely given in most swimming groups, and the COWS herd has been a gift to me as a newbie round here. It is open to all-comers, without judgement about each other’s bodies, fitness or swimming prowess, generously sharing information and top tips about this extraordinary activity. I will not forget my first swim with the COWS, not knowing anyone and being a much slower swimmer. Crossing the bay with my usual inelegant breast-stroke, one of the regulars came back and swam alongside me, quietly ignoring my insistence that I was OK until I was back in my depth and ready to return to shore. Watching out for each other seems to be an unarticulated part of the group’s ethos, remarkable and lovely.
Here is something I wrote, inspired by swimming in the sea, as well as this bonny painting by Janet Lynch
The women are inches from death
but, unconfined in a bliss of living,
are held by the concentration of salt.
Bobbing up and down on the sea’s skin.
Bellies, limbs and curves blend with
the water’s waves and currents.
They are not alone but curl around each other.
Recalling the sea as mother.