2,000 years


The sport that defined Britain

Why do we do it? Cold Water Swimming...

Too Cold for swimming?

On the other side of the world in November, a group of 20 school children from Alice Springs were given detention because they refused to enter a swimming pool, saying  it was 'too cold' at 23°C. Yet here in England in December more than 200 Outdoor Swimming Society members took the plunge by following Kate Rew into the heart-stoppingly cold waters of Parliament Hill lido.

The waters are never all that warm at the pool, but at 0.1°C they were about to ice over. Swimmers with heart problems were told to stay clear and a defibrillator was on hand for any that might need it (thankfully no one did!).  With the youngest swimmer just 14 years old, one has to ask, why do we do it?

Cold water swimming has health benefits
The Dawn Swim - naked bathers at Victoria Park London
The Dawn Swim


Today the idea of an early morning cold water swim is enough to make most of us pull the winter duvet over our heads, but the history of outdoor swimming in Britain reveals a very different past. Ice bathing in this modern age has become the reserve of the eccentric few; but has it always been that way?

The Romans Loved Cold Water

Our love affair with cold water bathing may well have started with the Romans. In the ninth book of Virgil's Aeneid, Numanus taunts the Trojan enemy with an account of how the Romans used cold water as a means to toughen their children - rather like a blacksmith toughens steel: 'Strong from the cradle, of a sturdy brood, we bear our newborn infants to the flood; There bathed amid the stream our boys we hold, with winter hardened and inured to cold'

(translated by Dryden)

Bathing fell from favour with the spread of Christianity - but ultimately, the benefits of cold water proved too attractive to ignore.

The Bathing Renaissance

When the British reintroduced the world to better health through the cold water bath, it soon became the fashionable thing to do. In her diary, Madame D'Arblay mentions bathing at Brighton in 1782 (notice the date and time): 'Wednesday November 20th. Mrs and the three Miss Thrales and myself all rose at six o'clock in the morning and by the pale blink of the moon we went to the seaside, whence we had bespoke the bathing-women be ready for us and into the ocean we plunged. It was cold, but pleasant. I had bathed so often as to lose my dread of the operation, which now gives me nothing but animation and vigour.'

Looking back on photographs of swimming history, you soon notice the lack of shadows and definition in the sky. Swimmers took the plunge in the early morning, and they did so by the thousands; for many it became a daily compulsion.

To understand our cold water fascination we could do no better than look to the writings of Laurie Lee in the second part of his autobiographical trilogy, As I walked out one midsummer morning.  On his way to Madrid he awoke one morning shivering, and breakfasted on goat's cheese softened by the damp night air.  He says:

"Nearby was a waterfall pouring into a bowl of rock, where I stripped and took a short sharp bathe. It was snow-cold, brutal, and revivifying... I was perhaps never so alive and so alone again".

Cold Water swimming - Bathing Machine - Bovril Advert
Ice Swimming - Denmark

Whatever happened to the hardy Briton who rushed into the sea and welcomed the vigorous hug of Neptune? Central heating and double glazing may have made life more comfortable, but they have not made us tough. Those who swim in cold water say it boosts their immunity, increases their metabolism, fortifies against depression and, most importantly, makes them feel good!

As always you should take care when wild swimming and never bathe alone, especially in cold water. But if you are in good health and have like minded friends, a winter dip might be just what you need to raise your spirits.

The social histpry of Swimming - Cold water swimming shaped British Culture