A few weeks ago, I started on a journey toward something that helped me feel the most happy and alive I have in a long time – I took my first, cold, fresh water swim in a glacial lake in Wales. You might think ‘sure- that’s great, but why are you writing about it?’. When I think about the actual logistics of this lake, it was small. It was shallow. It wasn’t ‘really’ that special, but, for me, this wasn’t just any old swim, it was much more significant than that. The actual act in itself was small in comparison to many other experiences in my life. It was the journey I went on, everything that led up to that moment that really had this big, lasting impact on me. You see, the experiences we have in life are rarely about that moment only. Sometimes, to get to the top of that mountain are years of dreams. Hours and hours of putting yourself through your paces. Obsessive thoughts, conversations, doubts, fears and everything in-between. There is often a whole lived experience between deciding you want to do something and actually doing it. What I found so significant about this experience was that it taught me just how important those other experiences are that set you on the trajectory to where you are today. There’s something really important in recognizing all of the actions that are involved in making your dreams a reality.
My obsession with wanting to wild swim started a number of years ago when we visited Switzerland for the first time – more specifically, the Bernese Alps. At this point, I think our trip to Switzerland was one of our early adventures. It was quite a significant one as I was really starting to get a sense that I really loved this whole adventure life and that it was for me. What I remember the most clearly from that trip was my first glimpse of pristine, glacial lakes. Travelling along the Susten Pass, looking down onto the mountains and valleys below, my eye was caught by this circle of bright blue shimmering beneath me. What I loved the most about seeing this lake was that for the first time, as someone scared of heights, I’d somehow managed to come to terms with the fact that it felt like we were near hanging off a cliff in a hire car and I could actually enjoy the view. I was mesmerized by this lake and shouted to Matt to pull in as quickly as possible. When I got out of the car, I stood, looking at the lake with this sense of bubbling in my head – this was a feeling as a creative I was used to – an idea was brewing. However, right then and there, I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on what it was. That same trip, we hiked another lake, one of the most magnificent sights I’ve ever seen. The crystal clear blue waters against snowcapped, high altitude mountains and the emotion it evoked, I think, will be imprinted on my brain forever. It was upon looking down at the lake and seeing a movement in the water, with ripples forming around that caught my eye. I remember saying to Matt, what is that? To which we stopped and realized it was someone who seemed brave enough to swim the lake. By the time we’d hiked around, the person swimming had reached the other side. I started to get that tingle in my head again, but it was also accompanied, like many things I’ve experienced that have led to my biggest growth spurts, with feelings of insignificance and that whatever this thing was, was impossible for me.
The lake that started my wild swimming obsession.ID: A landscape image. A glacial lake sits in the centre of the image with various streams coming out from it. It is green/blue. The valley around is brown and leads up to snow capped, alpine mountains.
That trip cemented a fascination for me that didn’t seem to go away. I found myself secretly looking at videos of, what I’d learnt by that time, referred to as wild swimming. Why in secret, I don’t know. At the time, it felt like going wild swimming and really embracing this was something that just wasn’t on the cards for me. You see, at the same time, I’d been dealing with body dysmorphia and the recovery from an eating disorder and the warping and low self esteem that went along with that for a good few years. For me, covering up and taking up as little space as possible was pretty much the main goal of any given day. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt comfortable wearing anything remotely resembling a swimsuit. The previous year, we’d visited Greece and I remembered sitting on the beach completely covered up whilst I saw other people, of literally all shapes and sizes, relaxed and having fun. I desperately wondered how they all had so much confidence to just put themselves out there. However, whilst I was developing this fascination with wild swimming and all it involved, I’d also enrolled myself on a course that had a big impact on my life. It was all about taking a journey towards respecting myself more and developing my self confidence. Later that same year I remarked to Matt one evening that I wanted to go swimming. He was extremely surprised, knowing my background, but supported anyway. The next week, we visited our local swimming pool. That first experience literally felt like jumping in the deep end. I was scared people would stare at me, worse still, laugh. But in reality, I got into the pool, a few people glanced a look and then just carried on with their own swim.
I think, by the time I’d finished that first swim in our local pool, it was potentially the first time I’d been swimming since my teens. What became abundantly clear to me at the end of that was how invigorated I felt. I felt a certain sensuality – a mindfulness of the water embracing my body that felt so natural and I just felt alive. The pool became a regular activity. It was a safe haven for me. It allowed me to develop my confidence and my ability as a swimmer. Sure, I wasn’t very ‘good’ at it, but I enjoyed it. However, it just didn’t give me quite that same feeling of excitement as a cold water glacial lake.
I was going to have to get over a few things before that was really possible, though.
I kept mentioning that I was really interested in wild swimming, but every time I mentioned it, I was able to come up with a reason I shouldn’t do it. I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer. I needed a wetsuit. I didn’t want to carry all of the stuff with me. Really, I was actually pretty terrified of getting into something that felt very different to a regimented swimming pool. You see, there seem to be those people who, when you go to the beach, are walking around slimy rocks with no shoes on. They’re climbing up things bare foot and jumping off. Well, that person isn’t me. Having grown up in a small industrial town in the North of England with a family who were on a relatively low income, trips to the beach were something that might happen once a year. Combine that with two anxious parents, and the idea of me doing anything adventurous was off the cards.
ID: A landscape image. A close up of Fay’s hand skimming the water. The water looks brown due to the bottom of the lake. There are ripples around Fay’s hand where it meets the water.
A trip to Ibiza in 2019 presented a perfect opportunity to wild swim and to snorkel. I was really excited about it and, now having much more confidence, I had no real problem with being in a swimsuit. It took me a good couple of hours of standing in the water that first day to get the courage to kick off and actually start swimming. What if I got swept away? What if I wasn’t strong enough? What if it was too deep? The next thing I know, Matt was getting out of the water with a jellyfish sting. That certainly didn’t help me feel any more confident! However, as the week went on, I found myself becoming more and more confident with swimming in the ‘wild’. I was mesmerized by the fish I swam with – one day, I think I must have swum in the water looking for different fish and marine life for so many hours that when I got out, I’d lost my balance. It was at that point where I decided that if I’d enjoyed this so much, then what was I waiting for with my lake swimming. I still felt scared of the slimy rocks, the feeling that there were things in there that I just didn’t know and that it presented a whole different proposition to the swimming pool. I started to think about how we could tie this into bigger projects and what we could do here. Perhaps this could be an opportunity to have an excuse to just go for it.
Then covid happened, putting all of that on massive hold. When the pandemic hit, I went from swimming in a pool three times a week to nothing for months. Then, when we were allowed to swim again, I’d lost my momentum with it. I just couldn’t get back into it in the same way. Coupled with that, I just didn’t feel like that was quite the right time to start wild swimming again. I’d lost a lot of my confidence generally and found I really had to ease myself back into my time outdoors and embracing adventure again – it wasn’t the easiest experience. Just as I was starting to build up my confidence to explore again, lockdown two happened and something really flipped in me at that point. I thought about all of the times I’d said no to things that I’d secretly wanted to say yes to. I thought about all the times I’d turned back on a hike because I feared a ridge. It made me really feel like I didn’t want my life to slip away, and I literally longed to feel scared. I longed to feel that sense of exhilaration that comes from facing something in the outdoors that challenges you. I wanted nothing more than to feel that sense of life again, because right at that moment in time, all I felt was sadness and a sense of loss.
The other Swiss lake that helped me develop an obsession with the idea of wild swimming. ID: A landscape format image. An Alpine scene. A Turquoise lake sits at the bottom of the frame. There are some treetops in the foreground. On the far shore of the lake, we see a sheer rock wall leading up to high, snow-capped mountain peaks. The scene is bathed in warm, golden Autumnal light.
I just needed an excuse to push myself. I needed a reason to get out there and actually do it – client projects are a brilliant way to do that for me, because the ‘fear’ of not producing what I’ve committed to is enough to make me do things that in the grander scheme of things I’m always secretly wishing I had the guts to do without any kind of pressure! I’d been thinking about a place I wanted to wild swim and immediately, my thoughts turned to the Brecon Beacons. I’d found a number of lakes that were described as one of the ‘last wildernesses in Wales’ (more on that later). So, an opportunity arose to head off on a project with a brand to tell the story of finding your happy outdoors again as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. I immediately thought ‘this is it, now or never for this wild swimming thing’.
The day before the shoot, we went on a hike up to another lake in the mountains fairly close to our location for the shoot day. It was a beautiful location, but I can’t say it really improved my sense of confidence and level headedness before the shoot that was going to involve me wild swimming! I don’t know why, but I am squeamish and as we sat having our lunch by the lake shore, Matt started to comment that he could see tadpoles, leaches and all manner of other weird and wonderful creatures. We commented and laughed at how this lake we’d found was like a witch’s cauldron full of the kind of things you’d expect to hear in a fairytale. As we headed back to the car, I started to worry about what creatures I’d encounter in the lake the following day. I felt a bit nervous. I think Matt could tell I was feeling scared as the following morning he assured me he’d done some research and that those leeches weren’t in fact the blood sucking kind so I should be ok. Well, that was that then. Literally no reason to held back now, ey? Except, you know, this sense, for some reason that I was going to be horrifically impacted by this. What if I couldn’t handle the cold? At all moments within this worry, I seemed to have forgotten that I could just…you know…get out, if I didn’t like it. Sometimes our logic just doesn’t take over, does it?
We’d decided that the wild swimming section of the shoot was to be last, due to the fact that I’d be wet through. That didn’t really help things. As we started to walk uphill to our destination, I started to think that I just wanted to get it over with – having it be at the end just made me feel nervous. I’d planned this shoot out to the letter – and was especially keen that it was likely to be quiet. I’d done my research, it all looked good. However, what we seemed to realize very shortly after arriving was that when something is described as one of the still generally wild and remote places in Wales, it has probably had a massive increase in people (like us) visiting, who want solitude. It was not quiet. I felt even more nervous about my wild swim. It wasn’t helped by the fact that just before the lake I’d planned to swim in, there was a sign saying, ‘do not enter the water’. Brilliant! I thought – what was I going to do now? At the same time, the part of me who would have been quite happy not doing it, also thought, brilliant! I was determined not to let that part win over.
We looked over the map and found a few areas that looked like fairy pools and lakes and decided to explore those instead. Reaching one, we realized it was actually probably perfect for my first, glacial cold swim. It was beautiful. The water was clear. It had mountains in the background. It was quiet. I started to put on my changing gown and struggled and fumbled to put my swimsuit on, I donned my wetsuit boots and put my hair up in a high bun. I stood in front of the water and as I did, I had to give myself the ultimate pep talk. I don’t know what I was so scared of, but the cold was one of them. I think we always have this anxiety or rather, curiosity when we don’t know how something is going to feel. I realized that if I didn’t do this now, I was never going to. I just needed to get in.
ID: A landscape format image. Fay is wearing a swim suit and is stood in a mountain pool having just been wild swimming. There is a waterfall and a mountain in the background.
I walked in…ok…not too bad. I then took the plunge. For a few seconds, nothing else actually entered my mind. My thoughts were so concentrated on my breathing. It was the ultimate shock. I felt like I was making these deep, grunting noises as my body and breathing tried to catch up with each other. After what was probably closer to a minute than two, I had to get out. It was just too much. I was focused so heavily on just not feeling that cold. After a few seconds of being on the shore again, I felt I needed to go back in. I’d got a taste for it at that point. That time, it didn’t feel quite as cold. This happened several more times, and after a while, I realized that it really helped when I tried to intentionally breathe. You see, when you feel that cold, you seem to stop thinking. However, the logic I’d picked up from swimming started to come back to me. Towards the end of my experience in the water, I started to feel like I was really getting the hang of it. What I wasn’t expecting was how I’d feel when I got out properly. I felt euphoric. Partly, this is a feeling I’m used to experiencing when I try things that put me out of my comfort zone and go through the other side. However, this was more intense. My skin felt alive in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I felt alert. I felt happy. I felt like I’d had a genuinely life changing experience. I felt confident. I felt really in tune with what was going on. My connection to the water in this lake lasted for 15 minutes. But it was something that had been built on for about four years. It wasn’t just those 15 minutes. It was the whole experience. The marking of the event where I finally plucked up the courage to do something I’d been dreaming of.
You see, that moment where things all come together, where the stars align, where you get to finally experience that thing you wanted can seem so short. But that feeling I experienced in the water was enough to truly make me realize everything that seemed to have to happen to get me to the point where I could actually do that. Who knows where I’ll go with my wild swimming, and I do have plans to explore more, but even if I never get to wild swim again, that first experience was worth every second of preparation it took to get there.
ID: A landscape image. Fay is captured from head to low torso standing in the water. Fay wears a black swimsuit and is laughing. Fays right hand is up to the face brushing water off from the swim.