Why I Swim

Hi there!

I've noticed of late that I've got some new readers here and on my Instagram account and thought I'd like to share my wild swimming story with you. Why I Swim is a project currently being run by Swimferal and one I've added my voice to. Click on the link to find out more.

And this is where it all starts. Personally I find the call of the sea is so strong, but maybe that's simply because I live in an incredibly beautiful part of the world. Who wouldn't be drawn to the ocean when you see this?

Winter sea swimming is all about staying warm before and getting warm after your swim. I wear a full set of wet weather gear as it's so efficient at keeping the wind out as well as keeping the heat in. Underneath this is a fleece jacket and joggers, cashmere polo neck, heavy duty thermal long sleeved top plus the obligatory woolly hat and gloves and thick socks and fur lined boots. This is one time I'm happy to forego the glamour!

The swimsuit has no thermal properties however, so it's up to me to thrash about as fast as I can to keep warm. Ear plugs, swimming cap and goggles are essentials for me. 

This set of photos was taken in January when Fiona and I happened to hit upon a lovely still day that was worthy of a photo shoot. I've no idea what the sea temperature was, although I may have read somewhere that it was 8 degrees. I maybe need to buy myself a water thermometer. From water's edge to swimming I take as little time as possible. Not for me the strange ritual of wading slowly into the water followed by that chilly flicking and splashing of cold water onto the top half of the body. No, I walk purposefully into the sea up to waist depth and plunge right under as quickly as possible. During the winter months the wind chill factor is often colder than the actual sea temperature, so get in and get going!

The clear icy water has wonderful anti-inflammatory properties as well as being a boost to the immune system.  Which brings me on to the main reason I swim...

At the age of 18 I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, Ulcerative Colitis to be precise. It has been a long term illness, one that has resulted in me being hospitalised on several occasions, being treated medically rather than surgically with not much success over the years. The disease can be hereditary and is also stress related which is ironic as having bowel disease itself is very stressful. If you can imagine living with a bad dose of food poisoning for prolonged periods of your life and the impact thereof, you might get the idea of what it's like to live with bowel disease. I've missed weddings of family and friends, Christenings too and other social occasions where being away from a loo was impossible for me to manage. (Question - why do Churches not have loos?) Travelling is out of the question during a flare-up and eventually your life revolves around a mental map of loos or more often just being at home if the stress is too much. The stigma of bowel disease makes it awkward to explain what looks like odd decisions or behaviour (suddenly leaving a gathering) as it's not an easy subject to weave casually into the conversation. Most people are pretty squeamish about this topic I've discovered.

And so it was, eight years ago that I suffered a particularly severe attack which laid me low and left me feeling beaten. After a week of crawling back and forth between sofa and bathroom I decided that I needed to take control of my health. The prescribed medication made my condition worse and the steroids that the doctors kept in reserve for acute flare-ups had previously sparked a series of manic episodes - no drug is without its side effects as I learnt to my cost. Things were as bad as they could get.

Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can start to make your way back up again. This was no time for wallowing. It was time for me to take my own health in hand. I spent hours searching the web, looking for natural ways to get well and to boost the immune system. After lots and lots of reading and rejecting the wacko ideas and their wild promises, I came across a book that claimed to treat bowel disease through diet. Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall shares the details of her own experience; the Specific Carbohydrate Diet is what she created in response to her daughter's bowel disease. This was to be the first stage of my recovery. I followed the diet for a month and by that time was well enough to leave the house again.

The next stage was to rebuild my strength. The web came up trumps again suggesting Cold Water Therapy. The natural remedy of taking the waters has been used for centuries to bring about wellbeing for all sorts of illnesses. The cold water shocks the immune response galvanising the white cells into action. I didn't need much persuading. My initial swims were merely dips under the water and out again. Yes, it was shockingly cold! However as I was able to stay in longer and swim a little further every day it became more bearable. It was May so the water temperature wasn't too cold. As the summer progressed, so did my swimming. 

So, that was then and this is now and I've been well ever since. The combination of diet and swimming are what works for me. I can't say that this would work for everyone, but it's been like my own little miracle. My commitment to wild swimming comes from a driving need to be well. I don't drink alcohol, smoke or eat junk food. I've made a lifelong pledge to myself to do the right things in order to stay well. The joy of being able to travel (ah, the good old days), to swim for hours, to walk for miles - all without the worry of where the nearest loo is - it's a heady sense of freedom! Who would have thought that I could spend 6 hours in the sea as I swam around the entire island of Tresco? If someone had said that to me eight years ago I would have thought they were mad.

The icing on the cake has to be the wonderful afterglow that rushes through your system after cold water swimming. That sparkle, that buzz; it's probably the thing that all wild swimmers see as the elixir of life.  Swimming isn't just my hobby, it's part of who I am. Without my daily swim I'm a fraction of my whole self, running on low until I'm topped up again by the energy of the sea. I'm so grateful that my health journey led me to this place.

Two pieces of information about outdoor and wild swimming have emerged in the past year, both pertaining to good health. The first (seen on BBC TV) is that scientific research has shown that cold water swimming can play a part in delaying the onset of dementia. And the second (heard on Radio 2) is that the effects of cold water swimming i.e. the mobilising of white blood cells are similar to the effects the Covid19 vaccine has on the immune system. 

Eight years ago I was the only wild swimmer on the island, raising a few eyebrows as I beat a path to the beach regardless of season or weather. Nowadays the sport has taken off within the Isles of Scilly becoming a selling point for holidays and activity breaks. There's barely a week goes past without open water swimming making the news now that it has become a mainstream form of exercise. My post script to this has to be that my two sisters have both taken up sea swimming in the past 12 months too. Hurrah for the joys of wild swimming!

                                                                                                         Anna x



  1. You know how amazing I think this is. But your story is even more amazing. I work out 5 times a week because of my lung disease. Without working out I would be so much worse. But your swimming.....I admire you for that.

    1. You're so kind Nancy, thank you. I think that once you've found your way back to good health you wouldn't give it up for anything would you? x

  2. I know we talked about this when we met but I LOVE that you do this and I would love to do the same if I lived near a clean, safe beach like Pentel bay(or the other one!) - I really do love swimming, even though I am not the best at it!
    I wanted to ask you about your ear plugs too as I get unbearable ear ache when I do back stroke and I wondered if earplugs would help at all? Which ones do you use and where did you get them?

    1. I'm so blooming lucky to have access to lots of beaches with clean water Kezzie. Re. the earplugs - I buy mine from Wiggle. They are shaped like the inner ear and are made from silicone - very comfy to wear and better than those barrel/stalk like ones for keeping the water out. x

  3. I love hearing your story again, Anna. I'm so happy for you that you've found this solution to reduce your health issues. Through diet, my husband and I have worked through his often-crippling IBS so that we are at a place where we don't have to be near a loo at all times. I get it.

    Big hugs to you on this chilly day!

    1. IBS and IBD are such limiting diseases, but it heartening to know that you guys have found a way to manage it too.

      Wishing you a lovely week x

  4. This is a truly inspiring, uplifting and encouraging post Anna.
    It’s amazing that you have fought your way back to good health and are now able to share your story and the benefits of this with others, who may be at the end of their tether and struggling to find a way forwards.

    Thank you for this. X

    1. Thanks for your feedback Phyllis. UC is not an easy illness to share but every once in a while I feel driven to put my story out there in case it can help others. I'm pleased to say that I've had contact from two sufferers who are following up my advice and suggestions to get well. That's very rewarding.

  5. Brave. That's what you are Anna. We both know how bad stomach disorders affect our lives and boy do I feel your pain. It's good that you've found a way to combat your stress and relieve your symptoms xx

    1. IBD affects so many people out there and many are too embarrassed to talk about it. I feel it's my duty to share my progress, especially as it doesn't require medical intervention.

      Thanks for you comments x

  6. You're inspiring and brave!. Great post, great photos and great You.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story.
    I also have UC and have been swimming in the Loch (Highlands)past 4years in a wetsuit and recently added skins swimming which I love too.
    I didn't start swimming because of the illness but hoping it will help me to keep in remission.
    I have tried the same diet based on the book and felt great on it for 4months but didn't manage to stick with it so I admire you for doing so.
    Keep going and fingers crossed we stay well so we can enjoy what we love doing ��

    1. So lovely to have your feedback Silvia. We have a lot in common indeed, although I do understand you giving up on the diet. For me it's been an absolute lifeline, paving the way back to wellbeing.
      Good luck with your winter swimming!


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