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


It had to happen...

Hello lovelies, how are you? I hope you're well and coping with the lockdown in England if that's where you are. This was me on Friday morning, emerging from my daily swim on Appletree Bay, smiling broadly and so pleased with having met the challenge once again. 

I regard my sea swimming as my health insurance, my personal policy for keeping well, warding off colds and general day to day illnesses. However, I'm guilty of ignoring my own warnings of "running on low" that I've been talking about on the blog recently. Some 24 hours after this was taken I was hit by a tummy bug which felled me and is still taking its toll now. Instead of the planned fitness regime for my month off, I'm laid low, sipping re-hydration drinks in between trips to the bathroom. No longer fit, healthy and robust, I'm weak as a kitten and sweating like no lady should. I just wanted to touch base with my loyal readers so that you don't think I've forgotten you. I'll be back when I've recovered. In the meantime, here's a round up of the daily walking that Fiona and I have been doing of late - this scenic circle of the island is a wonderful dose of sights and sounds to aid our mental well-being. 

Thanks for joining me. I'll be back soon. Lots of love to you!

Anna x


When the swimming is wild!

What a difference a couple of weeks makes! Two weeks ago I was skipping about on Ganilly sandbar, barefoot and shimmering in my sequinned mermaid coat in the September sunshine and now Storm Alex is blasting through the Isles of Scilly with a vengeance. This wintery backdrop is however, perfect for my latest fitness push.

White horses in the channel would normally have me turn my bike around and head off to the opposite side of the island in search of calmer waters out of the prevailing wind. But recently I've reviewed my fitness regime and have found myself lacking. I've been in this comfort zone for years now, smug in the knowledge that sea swimming without a wetsuit was a great form of exercise. But I wasn't really making much progress. (Yes, I do know that swimming around Tresco was an impressive achievement, but that was a one-off, not a daily push.)

If you're a long term follower of the blog then you'll know that I constantly strive to be the best me I can be. I'm driven by the inner childhood angst of not being good enough and nothing I've done in life seems to have eradicated that. Don't feel sorry for me - I don't feel sorry for myself, in fact I'm grateful to have this fuel to burn and propel me further onto better things. If I'd had an idyllic childhood I may not have ended up where I am now and that would be the tragedy!

Anyway, back to the swimming. As I said, I've recently decided to throw the gauntlet down to myself by searching out the windswept beach of the day. This came about when last weekend Fiona and I swam together and I found myself struggling and lacking stamina. It was a swim against the tide at one point and this defeated me at times, causing me to roll over and float on my back as I caught my breath. No biggie really, but I like to view myself as fairly fit and that's not how I felt. The following day I went back to the same beach and repeated the same swim on my own. My focus was sharp as was my intention, plus I had researched the tide and planned to swim the most challenging leg of the swim first, against the tide, when I was at my strongest, turning around and benefiting from the following tide on the way back. I cracked it and more importantly, it was a fresher day, the sea was more lively and somehow more energising. I was hooked!

These shots were from Saturday which was also my 39th wedding anniversary. Steve's gift was to accompany me and take these shots for the blog - generous soul he is! 

The first moment of immersion is the gasp point, but thereafter it's all about calming the breath and keeping moving as movement is what stops you getting cold. I concentrate my thoughts on counting the breath initially; up to 70 breaths and I'm no longer feeling aware of the temperature, but am looking at the scene ahead, deciding how far I'll swim today. Appletree Bay is the perfect length for a there and back swim. I'm not sure how long the beach is, but it's a comfortable swim. Pentle Bay is much longer and I'm more prone to getting chilled when I swim the whole way along and back.

This tow float is my latest bit of kit, designed to keep the wearer seen and safe. It's from the UK company Swim Secure.  It's small and virtually drag free and is also available in pink if you prefer. It's really important for me to feel safe in the water, especially because we have such a lot of boating traffic here on the islands. During the summer there are lots of visitors who hire boats for fun things like water skiing and do-nutting, both of which require the driver to be looking behind for a lot of the time. They'll often use the same lovely long stretch of beaches to do this as we sea swimmers will. Fiona and I will check the horizon for boats before we get in, but half way through a swim you can sometimes find your safety compromised when a speed boat turns up on a jolly. That's when a tow float like this comes into its own. As it's drag free it doesn't impact on my swim and in fact helps me relax into the flow of the moment, safe in the knowledge that I'm highly visible from afar. 

Swimming alone in the winter in choppy waters could also be a dangerous time, but I'm confident that the float is visible even when sometimes I'm not.

The Swim Secure message is simple - Be Safer Be Seen. Much as this might look like I'm out in deep water, I'm always within reach of the shore. There's no way I'd be doing anything risky nor would I want to put others at risk through my own stupidity. 

Cresting the waves sometimes had me lifted out of the water, crashing back down with a jolt. It's crazy, but somehow exhilarating too!

Flushed with success. This was indeed wild swimming! It was a brilliant way to start the day, especially on our anniversary.

Hot honey and lemon is the reward for my wild endeavours. The afterglow sets in and honestly I can't begin to describe the immense feeling of well-being that this gives me. Winter always brings with it the dreaded S.A.D. symptoms which plague me, but goodness knows how much worse these would be without my daily dose of this adrenaline rush.

I've written about the benefits of cold water swimming before, but I would like to revisit this topic as featured on the Swim Secure website. The seven points in its favour are -

  • An increased tolerance to stress
  • A boost to self esteem
  • The mindfulness effect
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Increased immunity
  • Radiant skin
  • Post swim high
See the full feature here. If you're dreading the long dark winter days ahead then you may want to consider winter swimming at your local lido or wild swimming with a group of like-minded friends. I can't recommend it enough - it's turned my life around.

And finally, here's a lovely shot of hubby and me on our honeymoon 39 years ago. My, my, look at how young we were!

 Have a great week everyone!

Anna x


My skin cancer journey

Hi there!

Today's feature has been written to coincide with Skin Cancer Awareness Month 2020 which runs from the 1st to 31st of May. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure and educate the public about the ways to help prevent skin cancer. UV exposure from the sun is one of the main causes of skin cancer and also one of the most preventable. This campaign hopes to reduce instances of skin cancer and increase the likelihood of early detection through education. 

During the month, people who have been affected by skin cancer are encouraged to get involved by sharing their stories on all forms of social media using the hashtag #MySkinCancerJourney, and everyone is invited to share information about sun safety, skin cancer prevention and early detection with friends and family. 

These photos are taken from my trip to Cape Town in January 2019 when I was oblivious of the dangers of skin cancer. I'm an every day sea swimmer and have always thought that my half hour in the ocean would be helping me to not only keep fit, but also get my daily dose of vitamin D. Oh what a healthy bunny I thought I was!

Fast forward 6 months and I had been referred to a skin specialist as a result of some patches which I thought were eczema. The itchy, flaky sores had been quietly growing and spreading across an area of my upper back for what may have been months if not years. I was questioned about my sun exposure, in particular about sun bathing, which I rarely do. On further questioning it turned out that my daily swim affording me of my dose of vitamin D was in fact far too much for my fair skin. Ten minutes maximum is all I ought to subject myself to and even then, just showing my forearms for that length of time would be perfectly adequate. Instead, the sun's rays hitting my skin through the water were effectively intensifying the sun damage. The diagnosis was Basal Cell Carcinoma, the least dangerous form of skin cancer, but it can still be disfiguring if left untreated. In November I travelled to the mainland to have the two deeper lesions cut out.

By December the wounds had already started to heal nicely and 6 weeks after the surgery the stiches were removed. The other patches were being treated at home with a chemical cream.

Another month down the line and both kinds of treatment were looking similar and healing well. I had been banned from the sea after surgery and missed almost 16 weeks of swimming thereafter. Staying out of the water ensured that I didn't pick up any bacteria in these open wounds. During that time I resorted to lunchtime beachside walks to get my daily dose of ozone.

Another month later and the wounds had healed and the skin was settling down again.

And now this is how the area has mended. The excision has left me with little mounds of skin that are prone to itching, but I can only think that's still part of the healing journey.

This was my pre-cancer norm as far as swimwear was concerned. A swimsuit and not a jot of suncream. Pah, half an hour in the early morning sun was no risk at all - oh what a fool I was!

And now for me, cover-up is the name of the game. I've invested in some swimwear to protect the vulnerable areas where I've had treatment. I use factor 30 suncream on my legs, but I'm not confident that I could reach all of my back and get full sun protection. If you're a regular sea swimmer or any other outdoor swimmer, then do think about your own skin type and if you're doing enough to keep yourself sun-safe. The past six months have made me reconsider if it's more important to wear a natty little cossie or to guard my skin from further damage.

What I hope you may take away from this is that even in the UK we can get skin cancer. My daily sun exposure is what accelerated my own condition, but I would advise anyone who exercises outdoors to take note of any moles or skin blemishes that become a permanent feature. Take photos so that you can monitor any changes in size, shape or condition of the area and if you notice anything different I would urge you to visit your GP. I know of two friends who had moles on their legs that turned out to be melanomas. One of them had surgery and has fully recovered and the other is still undergoing treatment two years after diagnosis. 

The other thing I've learnt through the Sun Awareness website is the danger of using sunbeds as they too can cause skin cancer. If you want to sunbathe, then do so safely using at least a factor 30 and reapply after swimming. Avoid the midday sun and don't allow yourself to get burnt. And follow the advice of Slip, slap, slop for young children - slip on a tee shirt, slap on a hat and slop on some sun cream. Our recent Stay Safe advice must surely extend to our sun awareness too, now that we're on the brink of summer. Last of all, please check out The Big See website to find out how you can protect yourself from this form of cancer which kills two people every hour.

One final link worth looking at is from the Skin Cancer Foundation. It dispels the myth of the healthy tan - it's a must read.

Thanks so much for joining me!

Anna x

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