In Michaelmas 2021, Jesus 2nd-year students Ellie Ford (Experimental Psychology) and Daniel Bazely (Physics), along with Somerville College 2nd-year Ruby Cooper, founded Oxford University Wild Swimmers to raise awareness of the mental health benefits of cold water swimming.
Just a few months on, and the club now has over 400 members from across the university, and has featured on BBC News. Ellie (below) explains why an icy dip is good for us, and how the club is lending its support to the campaign for an end to unregulated sewage releases in to rivers.
“I’ve been swimming in cold water for as long as I can remember. My mum has always enjoyed swimming outdoors and used to take us regularly, so I’m adapted to the cold! I grew up in London so when I got older we’d go to the Ladies Pond at Hampstead Heath.
When I talk about cold water swimming, it’s important to emphasise early on the difference between what our club does, and general open water swimming. Cold water swimming is about the positive effects on physiology and mood that a short period of immersion in low temperature water can have. Anything below 5 degrees is known as ice swimming. At this time of year, when the water is between 3-5 degrees, we only swim for 3-4 minutes – it’s more like a dip than a swim, especially as we swim ‘skins’, which means without wetsuits. We have to be very careful about how long we spend in the water.
I don’t do cold water swimming for the cardiovascular benefits – it’s about the sensation of being in cold water and how the brain responds to that sensation. While much is known about the physiological effects of wild swimming – especially at low temperatures, there is little research (so far) as to why cold water dips can improve mood, and mental health more generally. It’s a topic I’m passionate about. In my spare time, I have read a lot of the existing research, mostly carried out in other countries, which has shown evidence that old water immersion – where the body undergoes a stress response – can help people to build tolerance to other kinds of stress in their daily lives.
In Trinity term last year, I joined a small environmental group with students who were interested in wild swimming. Returning to Oxford in Michaelmas, Dan, Ruby and I realised that we were the only ones from that group interested in continuing through the winter, which is why we founded Oxford University Wild Swimmers (OUWS). Now we have 410 members – including quite a few Jesus students – and around 30 members who swim with us through the winter.
Port Meadow is absolutely beautiful and a wonderful place to swim. We often swim in a different spot from other open water swimming groups in order to create a more relaxed environment – especially for our beginners. We do special beginners swims on Saturdays, to ease new members into the practise slowly and very carefully. Safety is paramount, so I’ll walk them in to the water and they can immerse themselves as much as they want. We never allow anyone to jump or dive into cold water – the shock can cause a swimmer to gulp for air and subsequently ingest water; it’s always a gentle process.
Water quality is always a concern, and I keep a track of all Thames Water sewage releases to make sure we’re not swimming in a sewage-polluted area of the river. We follow several Facebook groups and use apps that promote safe open water swimming locations around the UK coastline and inland. We also tell our group swimmers to never put their heads under the water when in the river.
For me, the enjoyment of cold water swimming is also about the social aspect. If I need a swim, I’ll message Dan, who lives near me in Stevens Close, and we’ll head to the river together. For my third year, I’m going to be living close to Port Meadow so I can literally run to the river, take a dip, pop my Dry Robe back on and head home to warm up. I can’t wait!
OUWS has now grown so big that we’ve delegated some of the management responsibilities to a committee, which looks after things like scheduling, IT support, access and outreach etc.
I am so proud of how successful the group has become; we never expected for it to become so popular. It is so much more than a swimming group, there is this electric atmosphere that can’t be found anywhere else! Ultimately, I just want to share my passion for cold water swimming, and provide a safe and supportive environment for beginners to discover the magic of cold water.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about OUWS, you can contact Ellie via the group’s Facebook page: Oxford Uni Wild Swimmers, or on Instagram: @oxuniwildswimmers