Swim Wild

by Karen Shaw


As the world shut down and gyms closed their doors, many people turned to YouTube videos and Joe Wicks in an attempt to keep fit, but something about being couped up meant it wasn’t quite the same – mental health was suffering. Daily walks became dreary and monotonous and the yearn for a thrill became overbearing. Perhaps that’s why, as the weeks dragged on, more and more people have been donning dry bags and heading to the nearest lake, river, or reservoir, and nervously dipping a toe in.

“It’s such a buzz!” says Karen Clark as she bounds into Northern Life HQ on a snowy Tuesday morning in December. I’m wearing a coat that resembles a duvet, thick tights and am clutching a cup of hot beefy extract, Karen on the other hand is wearing orange ‘Daisy Dukes’ (short shorts) and smells of coconut.

“I’ve just been on the sunbed,” she explains when I question her tropical attire. It’s obvious that this lass is a tough nut or maybe just slightly nutty, but one thing’s for sure, Karen loves a challenge, so much so, that she’s decided to go alcohol free (for a short period) and committed to the Gold Polar Bear Challenge, a wild swimming challenge taking place over the winter months. To achieve the gold level, Karen must swim 1,000 metres each month for five months between November and March, with monies raised being donated to the Alzheimer’s Society.

This Lancashire lass definitely loves barging boundaries especially in her bikini and when she’s not exposing herself to icy waters she’s busy as a school governor, social media manager for Barnoldswick Town FC, oh yeah, and she also manages to run her own photography business, 5 Little Boys Media, named after, yes, you’ve guessed it, her five sons. Surely, she must be missing her G&Ts…

“You get such a natural high after you’ve done a swim,” grins Karen, “and it’s much cheaper than gin!” she laughs.

Karen lives near to Lake Burwain, near Colne and has often thought of taking up wild swimming, but after the tragic loss of local teenager James Goodship in 2014 was hesitant. James had been playing on a makeshift raft with friends when it drifted out into the middle of the lake. James had attempted to swim back to shore, but the distance was too great. “Because of what happened, my children have always been told – don’t go near. And then this summer, they’d got some friends round and they were jumping off the pontoon into the reservoir. My heart went in my mouth, I legged it down there and went absolutely ballistic at them.

“They were only little when James drowned so I needed them to understand why I was so distraught. I explained that you need to go in slowly because if not, your heart may go into shock. Then once you’ve acclimatised you’re safe to go in, and they did.

“I’d seen people wild swimming before, but was put off by the freezing temperatures of the water. I’m a wuss with cold water I really am. If I’m getting into a swimming pool in blazing sunshine and my boys start splashing me, I get really angry!”

However, when a friend invited Karen to take the plunge and try wild swimming early one morning in August, she dived in and accepted the challenge, “I couldn’t wuss out!” She laughs. With the encouragement, and pressure, of her friends, Karen took her first wild swim at Catrigg Force, a beautiful, secluded waterfall that plunges into a deep pool. “It was magical,” she smiles.

Since then, she’s been up and down the north, seeking isolated, spectacular spots for a dip. “The water at Thornton Quarry is crystal clear and there’s a place at Ribchester, which is just magical.

“When I last went it had rained and the river was high so I wasn’t sure about going in, then a guy came walking past with a dry bag (if you’re a wild swimmer then you’ll know!). He was a regular swimmer who showed me a safer location, it was more of a beach and easier to get in the river. Then these two other guys appeared and we got talking, they’d been there before with over 30 people in the river. I can’t think of anything worse, it’s the quietness I crave. I want that bit of solitude. It is mindfulness, it clears your head.”

Still, she’s happy to offer guidance for anyone who wants to get started. “You need to listen to your body. Walk in and walk out again, just splash about a bit, you do get used to the cold. There’s so many groups now – the Outdoor Swimming Society – they have a lot of advice; you definitely need to go with someone who’s gone before. If you’re worried about the cold, it may be best to don a wetsuit and woolly hat, rather than a bikini and don’t forget the warm Vimto!” grins Karen as she bids her farewell.

I’ll remember that the next time I slip into a steaming bubble bath with a hot toddy, that’s my kind of wild swimming!

If you want to sponsor Karen’s swims go to justgiving.com/fundraising/quitforabit-karenclark