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Cold Water Swimming St Ives

Cold Water Swimming, Wild Swimming, Open Water Swimming, Sea Swimming: the news is full of people talking about the benefits of immersing ourselves in the icy cool to support our hearts, bodies and mental health, particularly after this last 12 months. 

Eleven years I’ve lived down here and to me, the sea was for looking at, not going in. It’s freezing; people I know might see me do the wobble of shame in my swimsuit; and I’m a child of the 80s, I’ve seen Jaws! But for some reason, last July, I found myself yearning to get in the briny. I’d watch friends post on social media, shouting about how good it made them feel. And I’d see people on the beach, body and faces aglow after a good float off Porthminster, or in the harbour. I had this yearning, this deep desire to give it a go. But I couldn’t, could I? I refer you to my previous points: It’s cold. Swimsuit in public. Jaws.   

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Of course, two out of these three excuses are entirely irrational. To my knowledge, there are no confirmed sightings of Great White Sharks off the coast of Cornwall. Porthmeor Beach may feel a bit like Bondi on a scorching August day, but I promise you it’s not. Not least because it’s much quicker to get to Porthmeor from central Birmingham, than it is to get to Bondi. And yes, there are many women of all ages, shapes and sizes, who feel dread, shame or embarrassment (often all three) at the idea of putting on a swimsuit. In fact, I’m fairly sure there are a few men that struggle with the idea too, but trust me when I tell you, it’s actually not that bad! If you’re heading for the water, if anyone happens to be looking, it’s because they wish they had the confidence (!) to do the same thing. More likely, nobody’s looking because the rise of body positivity, or at the very least, body neutrality, has started to shift the narrative around bodies being beach ready. Let’s face it, if you have a body, you already are beach body ready. In fact, if I got a pound for the number of people who tell me I’m brave, as I strut (wobble) down to the water’s edge, (for getting in the sea, not getting in a cossie!), I could probably afford that flight to Bondi. Okay, if not Bondi, I could definitely fill my car and get as far as Devon. The point is, now, I don’t care. Because the third excuse has revolutionised my life, my relationship to my body, and my connection with my home town. Yes, it’s cold, but…

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On the 27th July, 2020, I decided to finally take the plunge. I’m a writer, I wanted to write about it. But how could I, if I’d never been in it? So, with butterflies in my stomach, and a large towel to cover up with until I’d got as close to the water as possible, I took my first dip, just off Porthgwidden Beach. And as the water lapped against my feet, my shins, my thighs, and eventually, crept up to my neck, what first took my breath away, became the very thing I craved, daily, ever since. That’s right, having not been in the water for the entire time I lived here, I now swim every day. Without fail. I even swam through February and believe me when I tell you, that was cold! And that’s the beauty of swimming in St Ives, no matter the wind direction, no matter the swell, no matter the tide times, and no matter the weather, there is pretty much always a beach to swim off. The harbour at high tide, Porthmeor when there’s no surf, Porthgwidden, Porthminster, maybe even Bamaluz – if you don’t mind sharing with the dogs – there is plenty of water that you can submerge in. And the gift you get for your time? A total reset. A moment where nothing else in your world, matters. A moment, no matter the time of year, where you can just be, suspended in our aquamarine waters, knowing that no matter how you felt when you got in, you will 100 per cent feel better, when you get out. And if you’re lucky, one of the local seals might let you say hello from a respectable distance. (Remember they’re wild animals, the sea is their home, please do enjoy the moment from that aforementioned distance). If the wind, swell and conditions suit, you might get a display from the dolphins out feeding in the bay. There are the birds that swoop, dive or catch thermals up above. There are the other swimmers who will give you a cheery wave as you exchange a knowing smile that says, yes, today, in getting in the sea, we made a good choice. There is that few minutes, when you float, atop glittering waters, the sun shining down on you, when you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world but there, in that moment, just being. 

There’s a reason cold water swimming has taken off like it has. There’s a reason some of us are a teensy bit evangelical about the benefits. If you’re heading to St Ives this year, I can promise you that if you decide to take the plunge, you are pretty much guaranteed not to regret it. And if you see me down there, please do give me a wave! 

Anna Mansell is the author of six novels and part of BBC Writers Room for Cornish Voices. You can follow her swimming antics on Instagram @AnnaMansellWriter 

Please respect the water, and the wildlife that call it home. Check tide times, be careful of the conditions, please don’t swim alone, and keep to beaches that are protected by lifeguards. 

Article info & credits

March 24, 2021
Written by Anna Mansell
Photography by Nik Read

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