There are plenty of spots for a wild dip in the Yorkshire Dales national park. Some such as Cotter Force have an accessible lay-by and path to the waterfall, however it’s important to remember that accessing a waterfall pool is never going to be risk-free. Waterfalls and the pools around them are often surrounded by rocks, which can be slippery and sharp.
If you are a wheelchair user, realistically rocky pools and waterfalls are going to be too difficult to access, but Semer Water just south of Bainbridge and Hawes, probably has the easiest access from waterside. It is a large naturally formed lake used for wild swimmers and a variety of water sports, it has also been listed in The Yorkshireman’s top wild swimming spots in the Dales.
In Simon Griffith’s Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors (2022), Sophie Etheridge who is a wheelchair user, explains the most important aspects of a wild swimming spot being the existence of disabled parking spots, information about the terrain, distance to the waterside, along with the availability of somewhere to change and leave your wheelchair or prosthetics. Sophie discusses the issue of feeling undignified when entering the water as a disabled person, however once in the water a sense of relief (from pain) and liberation can occur. Being in the water, swimming with others can feel like a great equaliser for those with physical disabilities.
(Sophie has a Facebook group Adaptive/Disabled Open Water Swimmers (ADOWS) where a community of disabled wild swimmers share advice and guidance).
Feeling undignified is an issue for many which can be a barrier to those who may think about taking up this activity. Body consciousness or the reluctance of people to change into swim wear/wetsuit at the waterside, can be a big deterrent for potential wild swimmers.
Access The Dales aspires to help a wide scope of people, from wheelchair users to those with hidden disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and a variety of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and those who are dealing with grief.
Whilst volunteering with Access The Dales, a group of Occupational Therapy Master’s students from Sheffield Hallam, were able to organise a wild swimming introductory session with Les Peebles, also known as The Dales Dipper! The session was organised due to Tom’s curiosity in exploring the idea of wild swimming as a meaningful occupation. Occupational Therapists focus on “occupation”, which refers to meaningful hobbies, routines, and regular activities that an individual may find life-affirming.
Tom, Ella and Ursula took a cold dip in the waters at Ingleton whilst discussing with The Dipper, the risks, benefits and the particular type of people who are willing to immerse themselves in cold water and swim surrounded by nature.
***A WORD OF CAUTION ***
Firstly, Les urged caution on anyone thinking about wild swimming. Cold water immersion is highly risky. We lose many people each year to cold water shock, where either by accident or intention some people enter the cold waters of rivers and lakes. The cold water can drain body heat 4 times quicker than cold air, quick immersion can cause rapid changes in breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. The sudden gasps taken in when hitting the water can lead to drowning. For further information on the risks of cold-water swimming, we recommend reading the Coping With Cold section (p27) of Simon Griffith’s Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors (2022). In this section he covers health risks such as Cold water shock, Autonomic conflict, Swim failure, hypothermia, Continued cooling, Raynaud’s, Non-freezing cold injury, hyperthermia & Swimming induced pulmonary oedema.
Tom discussed the following issues for Wild swimmers with Les (The Dales Dipper).
Do you have any safety advice or tips for those who wish to swim in the wild?
Always bring a towel & dry, warm layers of clothing to change into at poolside. Leave them in an accessible area for easy access when you get out. Bring a Warm drink to have after your swim and a sugary snack. Always ensure you have eaten before your swim, to avoid feeling faint or dizzy in the water or afterwards. Having calm conversation leading up to and during your swim helps everyone relax and can alleviate nervousness which can increase heart rate. Try to enter the water gradually, making effort to control your breathing as you do. Don’t spend too long in the water. The longer you spend in cold water the more likely your core will become cold which is bad news and can lead to hypothermia. After you are dried and layered up with a warm drink and snack inside you, have a steady walk to get the blood pumping around your body, which should help your body warm up again. Warming up gradually is essential. Avoid hot showers or baths afterwards. Most importantly, go swimming with other people, especially someone who is trained to guide you, and help if you struggle.
Who swims in cold water?
Many wild swimmers are groups of mature women. Men are coming through in dribs and drabs though. The social aspect is vital. People have created a community online and in the water. This gives people links to a wider sense of community where friends are made and swimming companions can be found. The social links are a key part of wild swimming. Social interaction is a rich seam that runs through the wild swimming community.
Why do people do it?
Many reasons! Personally Les described that since the first time he started, it was like an addiction, but one which reaps positive rewards. The whole experience, of suffering the cold sensation on the body, to the elation, exhilaration, and sustained feeling of being energised for the day, brings on a sense of “being present” and living “in the moment”. Les explained his cold-water experiences as “respite for a busy mind”. Many of the people who Les guides into cold water suffer from depression, anxiety, and grief.
So wild swimming is a sort of mindfulness?
You could say that. You certainly have no option but to be present and mindful when controlling your breathing and guiding steady immersion. People come back again and again to dip in rivers and lakes because that feeling of “being present“ can alleviate the worries of the mind. The shackles of daily life can be temporarily thrown off when in the water. Having a break from your mobile phone and being present in nature can ease tension in your mind.
Momentarily, when in the water with Les, the students are distracted by a sudden minor rockfall when a small bit of scree tumbled down the hillside into the water, nearby. A timely reminder of the many other risks that exist in this environment. In a split second after this, Les noticed a Nuthatch being quite vocal in a crooked little tree hanging just over the rocky pool they were all now sitting in. From the trickling and rushing of the waterfall, to the chirping of a Nuthatch and the laughter of a Green Woodpecker in the treetops above us, Les agreed that the sounds of nature are a key component of the wild swim.
Wild swimming could be described as a meaningful occupation, which is life affirming. A person occupies a liminal space in the water where they don’t feel entirely safe but do have a sense of exhilaration and living in the moment.
A wild swim could be regarded as providing a sense of eudamonic well-being. This was a term used in ancient Greece to describe a labour of love or an activity which a person finds fulfilment in, despite having to struggle to pursue it. When your body hits the cold water, you feel the stinging sensation of the cold on your skin, the numbness of your extremities and afterwards you endure the judders of your body as it reacts to being cold. Despite these trials, people do this routinely as the exhilaration felt seems to be worth the struggle.
Wild swimming is certainly a risky activity, but it can make people feel alive, giving respite from ruminating thoughts, and focusing the mind on what is happening in the present.
Many thanks to Les Peebles (The Dales Dipper) for guiding Tom, Ella and Ursula in an introduction to wild swimming. Les was a great guide, so calm and helpful. We thoroughly recommend contacting The Dales Dipper if you are interested in beginning your wild swimming journey in the Yorkshire Dales. Follow Les on Instagram or Facebook.
All photos credited to the students and Les Peebles, The Dales Dipper.
References: The Dales Dipper; Griffiths (2022) A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 Days a Year.
This article was produced by
Tom Peter Bone BA (Hons), MA, MSc Occupational Therapy student.