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Cornwall’s Wild Winter Swimmers

Squeals and swear words fill the frigid air. A huddle of happy swimmers have stripped down to swimsuits and wellies and stand, shivering and elated on the frosty shore, ready to plunge into the chilly water.

These are Cornwall’s wild winter swimmers and you can join them, if you dare.

They meet on beaches, riverbanks, quarry sides and lake shores across Cornwall throughout the winter months. Leaving their wetsuits languishing on the washing line, these otherwise sane individuals like to dash into cold water together, clad only in their cossies.

“It’s addictive,” says swimmer Fi Matthews from Mawgan Porth. “There’s a certain adrenalin high, an endorphin surge, that you only get from very low water temperatures.

“And once you experience the way your mood rises, once you feel the elation of your senses, you won’t be able to get enough of it.”

Winter wild swimming in Cornwall is undoubtedly experiencing a surge in popularity. When Pauline Barker founded the Cornwall Wild Swimming group seven years ago, there were only five members.

Now there are more than 3,000.

To what does she credit this swell in numbers?

“Facebook, pure and simple,” she says.

“Getting in the sea in winter is nothing new, but thanks to social media, we can now find like-minded lunatics and get together.

“Wild swimming, and wild winter swimming in particular, has a strong social aspect to it. There’s a wonderful camaraderie.

Pauline and many of her fellow club members have gone on to explore swimming in a range of even more intrepid ways.

Pauline herself one of only 227 people worldwide to have swum an Ice Mile, that’s a swim of one mile in water temperatures below 5 degrees wearing just a swimsuit. She is one of only three women worldwide to have swum more than five ice miles, and the only person – male or female – to have swum an Ice Mile in butterfly.

Her longest swim so far was 21 miles across Lake Windermere and back, undertaken at night beneath a canopy of stars. This year, she’s been keeping it short with a swim of a mere 13 km across Lake Geneva from Switzerland to France.

If you think wild winter swimming might be too much of a breeze for you, then perhaps you might like to try a spot of ice swimming instead. Pauline competes at ice swimming at events all over the world and has swum – sans wetsuit – in Latvia, Estonia, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Ireland and USA.

Next November, she will be the GB representative on an international team of ice swimmers undertaking a 1K swim in Antarctica.

“That all sounds mighty serious, but I’m also a member of a jolly group known as the Cornish Mermaids. You can sometimes spot us on Cornish beaches in our ‘tails’.”

Some of her fellow mermaids are also members of Pauline’s newly founded Polar Bear Club. To become a member, you must swim at least 200 metres at least twice a month, from November to March, in a sea, lake, unheated lido or river of your choice in just a swimsuit – no wetsuits or neoprene allowed.

Technically, these Cornwall Polar Bear swims don’t qualify as the extreme sport of ‘ice swimming’. Under International Ice Association rules, the water has to drop below 5 degrees celsius, whereas the sea around Cornwall rarely dips below 7 degrees.

But, winter wild swimming in Cornwall still offers all the fun, exhilaration and health benefits of an official ice swim, though.

“A swimming pool feels so enclosed,” says Pauline. “Swimming in a sea or lake takes you closer to nature and the elements.

“It really is a most amazing stress buster. Getting into a cold sea just washes all that away and you always come out of the water feeling a whole lot better than you went it in.”

If you fancy doing something different next time you visit Cornwall, you can find out more about Cornwall’s Wild Swimming Club meets here, or read our top tips below:

Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming Tips for Winter

  1. Always swim with a buddy or at least have someone watching out for you from shore. Never swim alone. Swimming with friends is safer and the companionship makes it more fun, too.
  2. Don’t hang around in the cold chatting after your swim. Get yourself dry, dressed and with a warm drink inside within 10 minutes, as that’s when the drop in temperature will hit you and the shivering starts.
  3. Before you get in the water, make sure your clothes are ready for when you get out. They should be stored in something waterproof but easy to access, right side out and stacked so that the clothes you put on first are on the top with your towel over them. Dress your top half first, then put a DryRobe on if you have one and dress your bottom half.
  4. Bring a bathmat or car mat to stand on while you’re getting changed. Your toes will thank you for keeping them off the cold ground.
  5. Pile the heat on your head. Don’t remove your swim hat until you’re ready to put your warm hat on. Then put your hoody hood up over your hat to keep the chill off your neck.
  6. Zips, hooks and straps are infernally fiddly for cold hands so invest in a vest.
  7. A long sleeve thermal top tucked into thermal leggings under your normal clothes make you look like a bank robber, but keeps you warm and cosy.
  8. Warm socks and boots are a must. Take a spare pair of fluffy socks. Your first pair may get damp and cold if you put them on damp and cold feet, so take them off and put on a warm fresh pair about 10 minutes later.
  9. A bottle of warm water poured over your hands and feet will revive them. A hot water bottle can be comforting too.
  10. A flask of something warm – Ribena, Bovril, sweet tea or coffee can all be good. Some root ginger left to steep in a flask of hot water is an amazing treat when you get out of the water. Bring an oversized mug to drink out of so that if you’ve got the shivers there’s some splash room and you don’t spill it all.
  11. Don’t stay in too long. Set yourself a time limit before you get in and stick to it. If you feel OK and recover well then you can always up it next time. Get a cheap waterproof watch with a big old fashioned clock dial than set it to midday just before you get in you can easily see check to see if it’s time to get out.
  12. Combine steps 4 and 9 and pour the warm water into a bucket: fantastic to stand with your feet in warm water while you get dressed.