Summer is finally with us, but if you need a bit of encouragement before dipping a toe in Brockwell Lido, let local swimmer, author and podcaster Freya Bromley be your guide.
She discovered the healing powers of wild swimming after losing her brother in 2016. Together with a friend, she embarked on a mission to swim in every tidal pool (sheltered pools of seawater, surrounded by rocks, on the sea’s edge) in Britain – within a year – and has written a book about her experience.
Published last month, The Tidal Year takes readers from Freya’s local haunts including Brixton Market and Brockwell Lido to far-flung pools hidden beneath cliffs and a quarry lagoon in rural Wales.
We spoke to Freya about The Tidal Year and her journey with wild swimming.
Where did your journey with wild swimming begin?
My first wild swim as an adult was on January 1 2021. I was meeting my friend Rohanna at Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond for the New Year swim. We’d met at a bereavement retreat the year before and bonded after sharing our experiences of sibling loss. Rohanna said she started each year with a dip. I thought that sounded like something a woman in a film would do, so I agreed to go with her. At that time, I was feeling a lot of grief and despair. Then I climbed down the metal ladder into the amber-coloured pond and the shock of cold water melted everything away. Since then, I’ve been totally hooked.
It sounds like you threw yourself in at the deep end, literally, but how would you generally advise people adjust to swimming in cooler temperatures?
When people ask me about trying wild swimming, I usually suggest starting in summer and keeping going through the colder months. I did the opposite but loved it all the same! People often ask me if I wear a wetsuit in cold water, but I personally don’t like the hassle. Instead, I wear a swimming costume and a woolly hat. Neoprene socks are also good for keeping your toes warm. Some people wear gloves too, but I like to touch my thumb and index finger together while I’m in the water. If they’re cramping then I know it’s time to get out. If you’re not sure how long to stay in the water, a good guide is a minute for every degree. So if it’s 5 degrees, don’t stay in longer than that.
In your book you talk about the healing powers of wild swimming, which you discovered from your experience of coping with grief. Can you tell us a bit more about your journey with it?
My brother died in 2016 and I felt so lost and misunderstood at that time. I was very young and felt like my friends and colleagues didn’t know how to talk to me about grief. I shoved all those feelings down as far as they would go and avoided acknowledging them. After a few years my loss felt so overwhelming. Quite like the sea, really. Tidal pools became a metaphor for diving into something that seemed unbounded, in a protected way.
I love the post-swim glow. The way my skin feels ablaze, and my body rushes with endorphins. Swimming teaches you how to have control over stress responses which is something that’s incredibly helpful for the trauma of grief.
What made you decide to venture further afield, testing the waters of other tidal pools?
The first tidal pool I swam in was Walpole Bay in Margate. I’d never been in a tidal pool before and didn’t even know they existed! Ever since I’ve been so interested in learning more about them and discovering different ones around Britain. They’re the perfect architectural harnessing of nature. They fill with seawater on an ebbing tide and are a unique combination of being naturally formed with man-made elements such as metal steps or a cement boundary. Margate’s Walpole Bay has both while some – like Dancing Ledge in Dorset – were built using dynamite to create a lozenge-shaped pool on a rocky platform.
Were some of them tricky to reach or access? What lengths did you have to go to in order to complete the list?
Our road trip on the East Coast of Scotland was amazing. It’s so rugged there and lots of the coastline is unswimmable because of strong currents and colossal crashing waves. Swimming in The Trinkie in Wick was an amazing experience. Waves thrashed against the cliffs but we were sheltered in the tidal pool.
Wild swimming has its risks. Have you had any hairy moments on your journey with it?
On that same swim in The Trinkie, the excitement of the trip and the stunning surroundings led me to staying in the water a moment longer than I should have. I’d been swimming regularly in London at that time so didn’t think twice about the cold water. but being so much further north of course the temperature was very different and I had my first brush with hypothermia. It reminded me why I always swim with a friend. She was able to quickly wrap me up warm and get me some sugar when she realised I wasn’t responding to her talking to me.
The same friend joined you on your whole swimming journey. Who is this brave soul who took the plunge with you?
My friend Miri went on the adventure with me. I like to joke that when I met Miri, on a swimming holiday in Cornwall, it was love at first sight. After all, friendship is love; it’s transformative, honest and unconditional. Much of The Tidal Year is about the power of female friendship. I wanted to elevate the story of two women to the levels that we read in romcoms.
Having now swum in every tidal pool in Britain, do you have a favourite?
My favourite has got to be Trevone Bay, which is also known as rocky beach because it’s set amongst these sloping stones. You have to grip the rocks around you as you climb to the tidal pool, really getting hands-on with the landscape. When I looked out to sea from this point on Cornwall’s coast it was as though I could see the widening of the world. It’s a truly magical place.
For anyone reading this who might want to go on their own journey with wild swimming, what advice would you give?
Go with a friend to stay safe! If your friends aren’t keen to try cold water swimming, it’s a great way to make new connections. You can find local swimming groups on Facebook or via the Mental Health Swims website. Our local, Brockwell Lido, has a great community too.
And for those who need a little more encouragement getting in the water?
Swimming is about the little joys so prepare post-swim treats for yourself. I find a hot water bottle, cake and a flask filled with a warm drink are always welcome and a great way to turn a stranger into a friend. Or if you’re at Brockwell Lido, my favourite post swim snacks are the pizza from onsite restaurant 400 Rabbits or arancini from The Sicilian Delicatessen in Herne Hill.
The Tidal Year is published by Hodder Books and is available to purchase in bookshops and online. RRP: £16.99. Author Freya Bromley is doing a book signing at Rye Books on Saturday July 15, for more, visit: www.freyabromley.com/