Why the wild swim

Theatre-maker Liz Richardson tells us about the therapeutic qualities of a cold dip in the great outdoors.

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As the curtain goes up on her new play SWIM’, we talk to Liz Richardson about the source of her inspiration and the power of connecting with nature.

What inspired you to write about wild swimming?

When I was growing up in the Lake District, we used to jump in rivers, we used to jump from bridges, swim the lakes, but it was just what we did as kids. We didn’t know specifically that it was a thing”. We were just swimming

When I moved to the Peak District a few years ago, after living in London for a long time, I made a group of friends here and I was invited along to their early morning swim that they do in a body of water nearby. I went and I enjoyed it.

I started to realise there was this huge community of people that call themselves wild swimmers” or outdoor swimmers”. I realised that for the people I was swimming with — this was a thing. They were turning to it for something. There was something therapeutic happening.

I had a friend who was going through a really bad time with grief, having lost a young niece and nephew. I realised that she was getting something from the swim. There was something that was coming from this being in the water — more than just the joy of being with your friends. It was almost like therapy.

I started talking to my swimming friends. We talked about the real things that were going on in their lives, and I found out a lot more. Together we were delving into the underlying feelings beneath the day-to-day things that they were dealing with. They were talking about it out in the water.

And I thought, Wow, these conversations are happening specifically in water, not sat around a pub table or having a cup of tea together.” They were being dealt with much better in the water.

How did the connection with Cruse (the bereavement charity) come about?

I wanted to connect specifically with a bereavement charity to get a better understanding of what my friend was going through. I got in touch with Cruse and explained that I was meeting quite a lot of people who were dealing with grief in the water — which was something they weren’t really aware of.

When I thought about it, I thought, of course, it’s working. It’s like going back to nature. It’s going back to basics. We seek so much in medication and in therapy and talking to each other, of course, but with the swimming, everything was there for free.

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I organised a workshop at the theatre for wild swimmers. We brought a group together and they talked about all the various reasons why they wild swim. They shared all sorts of things about their mental health, stress and anxiety, job-related, failed IVF treatment, the menopause.

Then I ran a second session with Cruse for people who are bereaved and use the outdoors — whether it just be walking or whatever — to enable themselves to deal better with the process of bereavement.

Another big group of people came forward and talked mainly about being out on walks. The experience of that feeling of being on top of the hill or mountain and crying out and feeling small. Of being with their loss and being at one with things — much more than when they’re busy in their jobs or they’re at home or they’re in conversation, constantly meeting people trying to support them. More than all of that, the outdoors was providing what they needed

The people that you’ve met and who are finding their way with nature — do you think that they’ve always had that? Is it something that’s open to all of us?

I really believe it’s an education. It should be in our curriculum. Like we should be teaching the very bare facts to children in cities and in the countryside that without respecting nature, without coming back to basics, we are really not going to be able to survive.

I lived in London for many years and I certainly knew kids who had never seen cows or sheep. That’s not going to be part of the curriculum. That’s not what’s going to get them a job, is it?

It was on my doorstep when I grew up. I was very fortunate to have parents that were keen outdoor people, a dad that used to love dragging us up the mountains every weekend and as a climber, a cyclist.

Not everyone in the Lake District had parents like that. Where my school was, it’s quite a poor area on the coast of Cumbria, a farming and mining community. The majority of my class had never set foot in one of the fells that looked right over our school, and wouldn’t know anything about nature.

Lots of them were from farming families, but they wouldn’t necessarily say they were out in and used to nature. We certainly weren’t educated in it. We might go out running in the fells for PE, but even with it on your doorstep it wasn’t necessarily available” — as in we weren’t told, hey, look, here it is.”

It’s kind of crazy, but I think that a disconnection with nature can be the same with a lot of small towns and in rural areas as much as in the city.

When I’m out there doing all that, which I grew up with, it’s just obvious that it makes me feel better. And that’s ingrained in my thinking and my attitude, because I had that as a kid. It’s there for free on my doorstep and I know when I’m feeling absolutely awful or rotten or whatever, by the time I walk the dog over the top of the fells and back I’m better. I feel better.

What do you see when you’re out there swimming?

At the moment my connection mainly is with birds — I’m really listening out for birds a lot more. When I’m in the Lake District, in the tarns, there’ll be sheep around.

Some of the girls that I swim with found out that there are eels and pikes in the water — that’s part of the thrill of being in a body of wild water. And I’ve learned lots about eels because they’re so important in the whole system of the water.

For me, seeing beavers would be amazing. It’d be so weird. It’d be something I’ve never seen. It would be like you’re coming into their world and they’re allowing you to swim. I just love that.

SWIM is a new show from theatre-makers Liz Richardson, Josie Dale-Jones and Sam Ward, featuring live music, videography and playful, intimate storytelling.

See it at HOME in Manchester from 9 – 13 July 2019, and at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh 31 July — 26 August 2019.

You can also find Liz on Twitter.