Making a splash: cold water swimming

A day of cold blue therapy. Where volunteer marshals lined up more than 700 competitors for 114 races at intervals timed to the second. “Get in the water, get your shoulders under,” they said briskly and everyone did, briskly.

  • Getting cold feet.

  • Survivors congratulate each other.

  • By degrees.

There was barely time for swearing at that first freezing slap before the countdown. The water was 1.5 degrees – ice queen Jackie Cobell reckoned it was nearer 2. Cold water swimmers are set to a fine calibration.

  • Loving every minute.

Dress to impress

This cold hits you over the head; there’s no soft subtlety here. It’s like panto, with brash fun, broad humour and loud outfits. People swim in glitter lipstick, joke shop wigs and their boldest swimwear. Homemade hats feature monuments and anemones, igloos and an enormous iceberg lettuce.

  • Headgear included a lily pad and an igloo.

  • Hat’s your lot.

This was not the first year a hat had invoked salad vegetables – one year, the winner of the best hat was made from the crisping drawer of a fridge.

In the swim

It’s easy to forget that for some, it’s not just the taking part. This is a day of competition, there are medals to be won and official adjudicators keeping time and awarding penalties for people too quick off the mark.

  • A cold butterfly.

  • There are medals to be won and official adjudicators

If people take it seriously, you would still be hard pushed to find a serious face. “You look so happy,” I said to one swimmer. “I’m always happy when I come out of the water,” he replied. “This is the best medicine.”

The oldest competitor was 77, the youngest was 14. There is no defining feature of the cold water swimmer, just maybe a willingness to keep a bit of oneself unfenced. And that post-swim smile. “How was it?” I asked one member of the Chilly Nipples relay team. “Terrible!” she replied, “But I enjoyed it.” Relay team names are a study in themselves. Some set a false trail (Munich Cricket Club), some are random (Cashier Number One Please) and some represent important work (International Institute for Swim Cake Studies).

Hot tubbing

It was a day when grinning racers from around Europe hopped numb-soled and lobster-red-limbed into steaming hot tubs. Where they rubbed bare shoulders, laughed and drank warm Ribena, waiting for that adrenaline surge to settle down, for heartbeats to get back to normal.

  • Swimmers warm up in a sauna after their race.

  • Participants warm up in welcome hot tubs.

“We did it! We’re alive!” said more than one swimmer, almost giddy from the concentrated magic of cold water.

Team effort

This was a day run by volunteers, who hung the bunting, built the milk carton igloo floating in the pool and handed swimmers their clothes as they got out of the pool. In the grandstand, supporters whooped, hollered and blew their horns.

  • Florence Green (left) and Annie Jones warm up with pizza.

  • Spectators at the poolside.

  • Volunteers inside the cafe.

A man in a polar bear onesie with sequin knickers sold raffle tickets. A small dude dressed in fur with a pink inflatable guitar sold fairy cakes from a basket. Volunteers bought trays of soup and bread round for other volunteers. This is the wonderful community of swimmers. Inclusive and happy and creative and kind; it’s only cold in the water.

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