Cold water swimming Swimming and mental health

P B Hughes: Courage from cold water

Episode transcript

Wild Swim Podcast 0:20
Welcome back to the Wild Swim Podcast. In this episode, I’m speaking to poet P B Hughes about her love of cold water swimming.

First though, a couple of things – I feel a bit like a newsreader saying that! – I need to apologise to P B that it’s taking me so long to edit this episode, you’ll hear from the warm temperatures that was recorded a couple of months ago. Life got in the way of it for me. I’ll probably put a little bit more about that on social media rather than take up time here.

Secondly, as we’re talking about cold water swimming in this episode, I feel like I need to start with a short health and safety message. I sense there’s a rising concern among the outdoor swimming community about people putting themselves at risk. Cold water swimming can be a wonderful thing. And that’s why people evangelised about it, but preparation and understanding your limits are key. So if you’re new to winter swimming before you throw yourself to the nearest freezing lake, please read up on things like signs of hypothermia, the effects of after drop, and how to warm up again safely. And please, please enjoy your swim safely.

Okay on with the episode! P B Hughes is a cold water swimmer who lives in London with her two children, but she also has a deep relationship with North Norfolk, having spent her childhood summers there. P B is also a poet. I’m so excited that she agreed to read a couple of her poems at the end of the episode. I love P B’s enthusiasm for cold water. She describes how it transforms her mood and helps her feel the connection to the universe, and I particularly like how she describes cold water immersion as needing courage and her observation that the courage is something she’s been able to take strength from during difficult times, as well as helping in her creative work. I also think P B’s dream swim will transport you into the water, something that I’m definitely craving during this second lockdown.

Hi P B and welcome to the wild swim podcast.

P B Hughes 2:07
Thank you, Jade for having me.

Wild Swim Podcast 2:09
So my first question is, what inspired you to start wild swimming?

P B Hughes 2:15
Well, I suppose nature, drew me to wild swimming. I grew up swimming in the North Sea in the summer. And in my 20s I swam in indoor pools. I didn’t really know about wild swimming at that time. Definitely I didn’t know about the Hampstead Ponds in London. And then when I was working at a company in Kentish Town that made the climbing film ‘Touching the Void’. I learnt about the Kenwood Ladies Pond and started swimming there in the summertime. And then I suppose it was in 2014 around then that I started swimming in the winter time, I think, which was the breakthrough for me.

I definitely enjoy cold water swimming, and the immense pleasures and benefits that it brings. At that time my then husband was struggling with alcoholism, and I was in huge amounts of denial and my energy levels were really low and my world was kind of shrinking, but I guess I didn’t really know what was going on I mean that’s that’s one of the problems with living with living with the illness.

But I, it’s funny I don’t actually think, because I was in this haze in a way, I don’t think it was that, which, which actually put me in in colder waters, I think, it was kind of, not so much response to it but it was almost in spite of, in spite of the difficulties I was having. I think in a way it was that part of me that told myself not to lose myself completely.

And I and a friend decided to try winter swimming. And together, we kind of – with fear and trepidation – went down the numbers so it would, you know, I remember it was 12 and then it was 10 and then we got into single figures, it was nine and that was a really big deal. And, yeah, I guess, I guess, we achieved a winter of cold water swimming and felt incredible for doing it. And I’ve been, I upped my swimming and been swimming through the winter ever since then.

Wild Swim Podcast 4:42
Oh well done for keeping going!

P B Hughes 4:43
Thank you!

Wild Swim Podcast 4:45
You touched on a bit about some of the other things that were going on in your life, and that swimming kind of happened alongside that. Has swimming had a positive effect, do you think or is it not really like that?

P B Hughes 4:59
Totally I think, I think, it’s funny every time I come out of the water, I feel changed, somehow, in a really really positive way. The other day I got in and I was so grumpy and I was talking to somebody, by the side. And she said, “Oh, I told the lifeguard this morning that you know they have the best job because no one gets out in a bad mood”. Now it was grumping away thinking, “That might be me today, I might buck that trend!”, but no. Every time you come out. You just feel reenergized, grateful I think, and kind of reset. So I think wild swimming kind of has made me the person I am today. Really.

And it’s, it’s hard getting into really cold water. You have to confront your fear, and you’re almost doing something that seems unnatural that you shouldn’t be doing to get into really cold water. I mean, obviously we can’t stay in that long. But it’s going against your instincts, in a way, and I think yeah you need, you need courage to do that. And then also allows you to approach, other areas of your life with a similar courage.

And it’s given me strength of mind, and strength of body I suppose. I’m doing things with my body and my mind that I didn’t think was possible before I started cold water swimming. And it’s seen me through this period of transition from being married with two children, to being a single mother, to facing up to the disease of alcoholism which was affecting my family. And it’s really kind of brought me into myself, into consciousness. You know when you’re swimming you’re kind of fearless, fiercely in the present moment.

And I kind of think it’s the shortest and easiest way I know to enter a state of meditation, you know you just, you forget everything. You’re totally in touch with your surroundings. Judgement falls away, and in cold water the impulse is just to keep moving to survive and I think that has a really profound effect, not just in the moment but you carry that on afterwards.

Wild Swim Podcast 7:23
Yeah, I, I agree so much with everything that you just said. And when you were kind of going through those difficult times did you realise that swimming was something that was helping you and giving you that kind of that strength and that, you know that chance to maybe have some time to yourself or to get that sort of meditation space.

P B Hughes 7:43
I think at the beginning, I didn’t at all. You know my mind was at that time, everywhere. I was not fully conscious in myself, I was in huge amounts of denial about my ex husband’s drinking.

And I remember the me that was swimming in those times. I was very anxious. I would, I would kind of dash to the Pond, I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I would be in and out. I actually carried a huge level of stress with me to and from the Pond. And with recovery, with change you know it’s a very gradual process. And I think it wasn’t until I started to come out of this very difficult time. Or, or rather started to make the changes that we needed to face up to it, and, you know, deal with it head on which actually for me was asking my ex husband to attend rehab and leave the home while he did that.

It was it was only latterly, that I realised that cold water swimming was the thing that was holding me and giving me sense of a vague sense of myself as I’ve said, and the courage to change I think

Wild Swim Podcast 9:24
It’s amazing that it can have that kind of effect.

P B Hughes 9:27
Yeah I mean I think, I think cold water swimming, wild swimming is mainly a mental thing, you know it does have some incredible benefits of the physical it’s, it’s very stimulating for circulation, both while you’re swimming and then also afterwards, the process of warming up bringing yourself to a normal temperature is incredibly therapeutic.

I’ve heard that it’s incredibly good for the immune system, that sort of puts your body in into a state of shock and that prompts your body to produce more white blood cells, which is therefore better for you know getting over coughs and colds and, you know, an excellent thing to be doing at the time that we’re in at the moment. And, but I think, and emotionally I think it’s really euphoric. I think there’s a sense of incredible energy that comes with cold water and a sense of bliss, that you feel, you know, several minutes after getting into that, that continues sometime after you come out.

But I’ve also I’ve heard that it’s very good for depression and anxiety. I’ve met women at the Ponds who’ve told me their stories. And so I actually think, you know, one of the side effects, is you’re physically healthy, but for me it’s the mental side of it. That is the is the most important thing.

And it’s sort of. Yeah, it kind of brings a release, I think, a sense of relief, a sense of empowerment and water holds you immersing yourself in water is a very instinctive thing to do. We come from water we are water, and it’s a kind of, it’s a going back to something that feels very, very real and very true, I think.

Wild Swim Podcast 11:30
Yeah, definitely agree with that as well. And you kind of talked about some of the things that may be benefits, so that euphoria, that bliss, that maybe that sense of being held and sort of returning to something. Is there anything else, maybe about cold water in particular that makes it special or different?

P B Hughes 11:50
I think, swimming in cold water is a very different art or skill. The water is heavier when it’s cold. It’s harder to get your body to move through it, because I believe all the blood and heat is being directed to the internal organs.

And in the early days of cold water swimming I would swim out to a rope. And sometimes get a sort of fear of panic or a sense of panic that I couldn’t get back to the steps, because it takes so much more effort to do what you need to do. And you, and this quality of cold water, you know inspires a faith, and a trust in yourself to overcome what in warm water would be a very simple task if you can swim. So I think in that sense, it’s, it’s very different from warm water.

Wild Swim Podcast 12:58
I get what you mean about it, making things feel heavy. And I also think it makes you more aware of maybe parts of your body that you don’t always think about. So I don’t know generally day to day how much I think about my toes, or my fingers, but swimming in 15 degrees, that felt a lot colder this morning, I was very aware of my fingers and my toes and thinking about them quite a lot. I guess it just kind of makes you, there’s that physical side that makes you more aware and then you think about these things that you don’t normally consider.

P B Hughes 13:31
I totally agree. I think it’s the opposite of an anaesthetic! I think the closer to the body’s temperature the water is, you know, 36 point whatever it is that we function at, the less likely we are to feel our bodies. I think the colder, the water, the more we feel our bodies, and that’s a real blessing to be able to feel, feel the strength and beauty in in having this body that can do more amazing things than perhaps we’re always aware.

I mean it’s it’s interesting, I always get the neck thing going on, you know, so I tend not to put my head in to the water, when it’s very cold because I find warming up quite difficult. So you just get this dagger feeling across the neck, which which reminds you which bit of your body is submerged, and which bit isn’t. It also gives you a real sense of breath, I think, you know, coming out of cold water your breathing is much harder. It’s almost like sprinting, you know you need that amount of breath, to complete what is quite a slow, short, circular swim for example. And so your your forced quite deep inside your body, although a lot of the sensations are surface, you know your skin, I always come out with quite red skin, kind of, red in a positive way glowing, glowing skin.

But I think, I think it really puts you in touch with parts of your body that nothing else does. You know, your internal organs, the things that are really keeping us alive.

Wild Swim Podcast 15:31
So tell me a bit about how swimming has inspired you creatively?

P B Hughes 15:36
Well I think swimming, and any creative process, have a real natural synergy. I think they are similar in many ways. I’m a poet, and I feel that the Pond is a poem, its meaning shifts, according to how you meet it. On any given day.

And I sort of think the surface of the Pond say, where I swim is like a blank page. It’s frightening to meet it. But it draws you towards it, and invites you into a dialogue with it. It’s one of those activities swimming at least, where you are in dialogue, you’re in a relationship with the landscape.

And I guess the writing process, you’re in a dialogue with the world, and with language, in a very similar way, in that the marks maybe you make on the page correspond to the marks that you make into the in the water.

And, I guess, as a poet, you know, beginning a poem is always exciting but difficult, and you have to trust the first line, the opening image and write into the space, into the void. The unknown if you like, which is similar, especially with cold water swimming, where there’s that feeling of fear and anxiety. I always get nervous before I get in the pond in temperatures under 10 degrees. And you just have to trust, you have to trust those first few strokes, you know, which is difficult, and then it gets easier and it’s the same with writing. You know, you get the first image the first few lines, and you don’t quite know where you’re going, but you just have to trust it, trust the opening and keep going. And obviously, with poetry, it doesn’t always work. I mean I’ve been, I’ve got the first three lines of a poem at the moment, and perhaps I’m overthinking it but it’s not opening up for me right now.

So, I think both swimming and, and, and writing deepen the understanding of our relationship with the world. And our relationship with our body, with the processes of the body, whether that’s swimming or writing, and the space around us.

Wild Swim Podcast 18:19
I’ve heard of people going for walks, maybe when they’ve got, they’re trying to think of something more creative. Do you kind of go for a swim, as a place to come back feeling more inspired?

P B Hughes 18:30
It’s, it’s funny you say that because I think, walking, is quite thought provoking, but I would never have ideas about writing while I’m in the Pond. I think it acts in a, in quite a different way. I mean often I, you know, I’ve been inspired to write a few poems about swimming or about the places in which I swim. But for me the act of swimming is more restorative, it sort of recharges the imagination, a bit like sleep does. And it’s a it’s almost a pause from, from thought. So I see it, yeah I see it as a, as a recharging rather than a place, especially in cold water. You really can’t think about anything else apart from surviving and getting to the, you know, getting to the end.

But yet that space that you give yourself opens up creativity at another time. I mean creativity is one of those funny things you, you know, writing is definitely craft, and it’s like a muscle you use, and you can become unfit as a writer, you know, if you don’t write regularly. And that has definitely happened to me during lockdown. I’m trying to sort of get get that fitness back now.

Yeah, but it’s a, it’s a, it’s a re energising, it’s a similar activity, one that goes alongside writing. I think it helps to have practices in our lives that give us joy and add meaning to our lives make me sense of them in a, in a way, and I think both writing and swimming do that.

Wild Swim Podcast 20:26
You’ve written some poems about swimming or about water. Were you sort of thinking about you know the words you might use or capturing that experience while you were swimming or was it something that came more sort of reflectively after when you were thinking about trying to capture it?

P B Hughes 20:46
It’s funny, I think, I think, the place where we swim can be metaphor in a way for something beyond what it is. I feel like to directly write about the swimming experience would be too reductive, in a way, I mean I might, there might be a poem that comes that’s, that’s just solely about swimming. I mean I wrote a poem this week, called ‘Brief Instructions to Loneliness’ and it was about thinking about loneliness, and the experience that many people have had in lockdown living alone. And the beginning image was of a lake, and a pontoon. And I remember going to Sweden, many, many years ago, and someone had just carved the word ‘lonely’ on the end of wood on the, on the end of the pontoon and this wooden plank. And that was the beginning of this poem for me, and I guess the theme of the poem was, you know, to, to dive, or jump into the water, as an act of being held. You know, to try and confront loneliness I suppose, I was thinking about how you know that lake in Sweden isn’t lonely, it’s held by the landscape. Obviously it’s, you know, as humans we have feelings and they’re complicated and different, but how swimming can be… It’s very many a solitary exercise for me. But I think it, it makes me feel a part of something that I can’t quite explain its nature but it’s something beyond nature. It makes it, it puts me in touch with you know being as very tiny part of this huge universe. And in that sense, we’re not alone.

Wild Swim Podcast 22:54
Yeah, I think especially the cold water swimming, when you do become a wet so aware of everything like not even just when you’re in the water and you’re sort of feeling that your hands are cold or sometimes I feel like the inside of my elbows are one of the places that gets the coldest for some reason. But then, afterwards, you’re still connecting to the world. So like today it was quite breezy, and so when I got out, I could really feel the wind on my skin in a way that I wouldn’t normally and it does make you kind of feel, I think you said earlier, sort of, euphoric and things like that, it does make you feel alive.

P B Hughes 23:32
I think these, these things that are rituals in a way that we do, like swimming. So you might have the same length of swim in the same place, but every time. It’s different. And I think that difference is heightened by the fact that, you know, or are becoming more aware of the process. The more you do it, the more you do it, and there’s a deepening to the experience and, you know, perhaps if you didn’t swim as much, you wouldn’t have noticed the wind on your skin. Because you’re noticing so much, you know, because it’s a new experience and so there is something quite, quite deep in, in doing something again and again, and going on a journey with it, in a way, it’s an endless journey. I think we’ll always be experiencing learning new things. When we swim and when we write.

Wild Swim Podcast 24:36
Yeah, I think just because you talked a bit about loneliness and that kind of feeling and over lockdown I realised how much the social part of swimming was really important to me, which is weird for a sport where a lot of the time your head’s in the water and you can’t actually speak to anyone! But one of the things I’m really missing is sort of getting to speak to people afterwards. What’s your experience with swimming through lockdown being like?

The Hampstead Ladies Pond closed for most of lockdown. I was actually spending lockdown in North Norfolk with my, with my children and there I swam daily in a creek. So I felt incredibly blessed to be able to continue swimming at a time that I found really difficult. I think there was not and still are lots of unknowns, high levels of anxiety, I think, you know, to be put in an artificial situation of of only being able to go outside, twice a day, and only see your family members, in essence, it’s not bad, it’s, it’s just taking away normality and a sense of choice. So I’m I swam through lockdown. It was a very solitary experience because there wasn’t any one around and the creek where I swim is, I think I’m the only person that swims there, and I really liked that.

P B Hughes 26:18
But in other ways, obviously during lockdown, you know, the sense of community was a huge loss, and I think it’s been really nice returning to the pond to that community of women that I don’t know, but I know them because they’re appreciating something in a, in a very similar way. People are really chatty that there’s a strong sense of community and, you know, female solidarity I think there.

So yeah, so for me swimming is, is a kind of solitary experience, but whether it’s in nature, whether it’s through the community of women I, I feel that there’s a beyond, there’s a beyond which has a sense of belonging, I think, yeah.

Wild Swim Podcast 27:11
So tell me, what would your dream swim be like. Where is it? What’s the weather like? Are you with anyone or are you on your own?

P B Hughes 27:22
So, my dream swim would be in the Outer Hebrides. And the reason is the water there I think has a unique magical quality. I can’t quite explain it. It’s clear and cold and seems to hold light in a way that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. And I wouldn’t be wearing any clothes and there wouldn’t be anyone around, perhaps just my partner but, no one other than him. I would swim to an island, I think, yeah, there will be a destination in this swim. So I swim maybe 25 minutes to an island, and the weather would be hot, hotter than it ever could be in the Outer Hebrides so on getting out of this cold water. It would be about 12 or 13 degrees, which I think is my sort of perfect temperature between comfortable and uncomfortable. And on coming out, I would go and lie in some sand jeans and instantly, you know, warm up and not have to apply the five layers of thermals, really huge woolly socks and woolly hat that I normally have to put on to warm up. And then having warmed up, I would have the joy of knowing I’d have to swim back.

Wild Swim Podcast 29:04
Lovely! So is that somewhere that you have swum before?

P B Hughes 29:08
Yes I mean I was lucky enough to have a few swims with my partner in the Outer Hebrides this summer, on the off the island of Harris. The weather wasn’t, you know, wall to wall sunshine but you know that the swimming there is, is fantastic. Yeah, so there were there, they were, they were amazing so, one of which was in sort of pouring rain, which was sort of unbelievable cuz I didn’t know the other thing about what swimming is it doesn’t matter if it’s raining in fact it’s nice when it’s raining. You know the rain comes down to the surface and you can see it, you know, sort of tweaking or plucking the surface of the water and yeah, it’s a sort of double immersion in the rain and in the water itself. So maybe on the way back from that swim, there’d suddenly be a rain shower and then it would pass

Wild Swim Podcast 30:15
P B is now going to read a couple of her poems related to swimming or bodies of water. Firstly there’s ‘Source’, and secondly ‘Questions for a Lake’

P B Hughes 30:25

I keep coming back to you. Back to source. Like salmon. Although I hate the thought of its brash belly clap on water. Another leap with the grit of pestell in mortar. Plated scales that are impossible to grip. Salmon forget the sea’s rich taste. Its viscidity, noses origin. That much we have in common, but I’m not fish. Returning, I am humble, able to imagine how you shine in muscular light, like river smell of things rain touches – granite, peat, moss. I want to know, in which form are you happiest? Do you preface all earthly matter? I am merely the sum of my memories. I lack. I carry the imprint of a place to which I keep coming back.

Questions for a Lake

What is your scope and where are your boundaries? Did you ever get sick? Were invertebrates liable? What colour is your vision? Do trees shift in the darkness? Does silence exist? On which days you happiest? Is mist like a cataract? Do stones feel like punches? Does the moon tastes metallic? When do you feel hungry? Does ice produce panic? Are rainbows intrusive? Do reeds make you itchy? Have you suffered detritus? Did you feel like an outcast? Do you dream of piranhas? Is water like longing? Does human flesh frighten? Are divers an upset? Did your birth contain violence? Are you troubled by stasis? Do you value ambition? Where are your assets? Can you live without oxygen? How long is your memory? At what depth are your secrets? Have you ever felt love? Would you like to bear offspring? For what do you wait? The flight of a kingfisher?

Wild Swim Podcast 33:02
Thank you so much to P B for joining me in this episode, and giving those beautiful readings.

And thank you for joining me on another episode of Wild Swim Podcast, and until next time, happy swimming.

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