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How the 'green and blue therapy' of wild swimming has changed lives

Jane Yettram
By Jane Yettram

Fancy a chilly dip to work on body and soul? How wild swimming is enhancing the lives of a group in the Lake District.

When major surgery on both legs left Sara Barnes unable to walk, it was swimming in the spectacular landscape of the Lake District that saved her. ‘Osteoarthritis had eaten away the cartilage in both knee joints, leaving bone rubbing on bone, which was excruciating,’ she explains. ‘So I had surgery to break my tibias and put in a bone graft, realigning my legs.’

The 58-year-old spent eight weeks in a wheelchair and had to learn to walk all over again. ‘Outdoor swimming really helped my recovery,’ she says. ‘The water supported me so that weight wasn’t pressing down on broken bone, plus the cold temperature numbed any pain.’

Four people's heads are visible above pale water with a lake and wooded slope behind
Swimmers braving the chilly but bracing waters of Windermere | Joseph Pearson / Unsplash

Body and beyond

But the benefits of wild swimming were more than physical.

‘In nature – in the fresh air and sunlight – you feel stronger physically and emotionally; you feel hope that things will improve. And you feel connected to the world’, Sara said.

This has been crucial for her. ‘I was always really outdoorsy, running round the fells and cycling over the passes. So now, as I can no longer cycle or run, outdoor swimming is my way of getting into the countryside; of being able to look at the fells and still enjoy them from the water.’

And she’s also found friendship in the outdoor swimming community. ‘You start to feel part of something again, which helps with that sense of isolation.’

'Outdoor swimming is my way of getting into the countryside; of being able to look at the fells and still enjoy them from the water'
Sara Barnes, open water swimmer

A sense of community

Sara belongs to Lake District Open Water Swimmers (LDOWS), a group set up on Facebook by Pete Kelly from Ambleside. LDOWS has members of all abilities, as Pete – who began outdoor swimming when he moved to the Lake District just over 20 years ago, and went on to set up a guided-swimming business called Swim the Lakes – explains. ‘We have amputees and people who have problems walking, then we have athletes and extreme ice-swimmers. Plus we have everyone in between.’

This, Pete feels, is the great thing about swimming. ‘It’s open to everyone. Although the range of fitness levels is vast, everyone helps each other and everyone is made to feel welcome. We all get in the water, go off and do our thing. But after a swim we meet up for a cup of tea or to go to the pub. It fosters friendship and community feeling.’

Pete is passionate about the benefits that outdoor swimming in the natural environment brings. ‘It ticks so many boxes for your health and wellbeing. Being outside is what we call green and blue therapy – being under the blue sky and among the green leaves.’

'Being outside is what we call green and blue therapy – being under the blue sky and among the green leaves'
Pete Kelly, founder of LDOWS

immersion – of all kinds

And Pete believes outdoor swimming is a particularly powerful de-stresser.

‘Swimming is literally and figuratively totally immersive. Everything melts away when you get in the water and you come out feeling bloody great! Part of that’s the cold temperature, which gives an increased exercise high, plus the support of the water is wonderful if you’re overweight or have joint problems.

‘As a swimming guide, I get regular emails from folk saying that the swim they did changed their lives.’

Pete swims or kayaks several times a week throughout the year, or more when he’s guiding. ‘Sometimes my wife Andrea and I pop out at lunchtime for a swim when our little one is at nursery. It’s a lovely thing to do together.’

And every swim can offer up a special experience. ‘Once I saw an otter on a moored boat, sitting there as if he was the captain! He hopped off the back and I swam as fast as I could, just about keeping up with him.’

'I really am alive in the water.'
Jakki Moore, open water swimmer

Coming up for air

Jakki Moore is another LDOWS member for whom outdoor swimming gives her space to breathe. ‘I swim because it gives me an escape from the world,’ she says. ‘I run a theatre, and all day and evening I am talking, acting, planning.

‘But when I get into Coniston Lake, I can relax; unwind; think positive thoughts. In the middle of the lake I listen to nature, to my breathing, my mind. It is amazing for my health, and the total opposite to my busy lifestyle full of stress. I really am alive in the water.’

Jane Yettram is a freelance journalist who has written on everything from gardens and education to health and older people’s issues.

A version of this article was originally published in CPRE’s award-winning magazine, Countryside Voices. You’ll have Countryside Voices sent to your door three times a year, as well as access to other benefits including discounts on attraction visits and countryside kit from major high street stores when you join as a CPRE member. Join us now.

If you fancy dipping a toe in the water, see our wild swimming spots recommendations.

Sara Barnes wild swimming
Sara Barnes says wild swimming makes you stronger physically and emotionally Sara Barnes


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