The seasonality of wild swimming is an organising theme of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, which begins in April in the Scilly Isles, and climaxes with a Christmas Day plunge into the North Sea. If I haven’t been quite so adventurous as to keep my wild swimming habits up in the depths of the English winter (I gave up in November), at least my season opener, a fortnight earlier than Deakin’s plunge, and in the far north of the country, has a certain daring to it.
Holy Isle, Scotland
I rose from my sleeping bag on our second morning of camping out, feeling greasy and hungover, and smelling strongly of BO and woodsmoke. Our campsite had no showers, and offered little to do after dark but build enormous campfires and drink heavily. We were on the Isle of Arran, just off the west coast of Scotland. It had made the news a fortnight ago by suffering snowstorms so severe that the north end of the island had been virtually buried, and all power from the mainland broken off. When we arrived, the snows were gone save from the tops of the very highest peaks, and the sole memory of that week were the great rectangular generators, lined up on trucks all down the Brodick seafront, and still visible down many a highway and byway throughout the island. We had some fears that the islanders might have resorted to cannibalism, but it turns out that when face with the breakdown of civilisation, they had done the British thing, and retired to the pub to play board games.
Even in the absence of snow, the morning was remarkably chilly, and I pulled on every scrap of clothing I had as I went about the morning chores of making skillet and filling my water bottle. A thin, chill mist hung over everything, blurring the peaks that had been pin-sharp yesterday, and making the sunlight fall weak and watery on our faces. The decision was made to go for a walk on Holy Isle, just off the coast of Arran, once the hermitage of a Celtic Saint and now the location of a successful Buddhist retreat. Half the island is a nature reserve, and some of it is devoted to a group of reclusive nuns who’ve retired from the world for the next four years, but there’s still plenty of scope for a hike up the island’s sole mountain, Mullach Mor, and a walk back along the seashore.
The island was an odd place, with bright, wind-ragged Buddhist banners flying high above the heather, and hardy brown Asian sheep, with great curved horns, browsing on the thin winter grass. As we reached the top of the mountain it became clear that the chill morning mist had somehow turned to baking noon haze, without thinning or thickening or altering in the slightest. The mainland was completely cordoned off from the eye, and the isle was covered in a luminous, Celtic Twilight atmosphere that photos don’t really do justice to. Temperatures were reaching 18 degree highs, and all the softshells and banded jackets we’d donned that morning were being stuffed back into our groaning daysacks.
Cooling off slightly, we came down to the shore, where some split off to wander into the caves, others to admire the beautiful Stevenson lighthouse, and still others to skim stones skillfully across the water. I decided to paddle – but paddling is an art I’ve never quite mastered. Somehow, I always seem to end up going swimming – and even when I don’t, I still get damp shorts. In this case, I waded in and splashed my face for a bit, and then thought ‘Hell with it’ and took the plunge.
The agony and the ecstasy of the water was almost sexual in its intensity. I drifted out from shore on my back, hyperventilating mildly from the cold shock, while my friends on shore waved and cheered. It felt like I was undergoing a whole body attack of pins and needles. Every drop of blood beneath my skin had decided there was somewhere else it would much rather be, and fled back to my core. A deep and purifying cold was scouring the sweat and woodsmoke from me.
I rolled over onto my front and executed four strong strokes towards Arran, with swiftly numbing limbs; then thought the better of it, turned again, and struck out for the shore. I had swum almost a mile in the sea off Mallorca a week ago – but that had been the warm Mediterranean, and I’d still emerged shivering and blue around the edges. Outside of a wetsuit, this was not a sea in which you would want to spend a lot of your time. As I emerged and began to towel some feeling back into my limbs, I had the pleasant experience of seeing my friends cautiously dipping their feet into the water, and jerking back with pained expressions. And so a new year of wild swimming begins!