The popularity of wild swimming enjoyed an unprecedented wave of popularity over the pandemic, especially when leisure centres closed and people were looking for other ways to keep fit. While outdoor swimming was already on an upward trend before COVID, it has been staggering to watch the sheer number of people taking to the waters of Torbay where I live, even throughout the winter months. I only wish I’d bought some shares in the Dryrobe company at the start of 2020.
Such was the growth in popularity of wild swimming during the early lockdowns, that on 01 June 2020, the Outdoor Swimming Society decided to take down the swim map at wildswim.com “in support of local communities being overwhelmed during lockdown.” Swimming is now at its most popular since the late Victorian era when Agatha Christie bathed off my local beaches as a child.
At that time, swimming was very much associated with health, so it’s great to see the activity again making a splash in the world of wellness. It’s been suggested that swimming over the winter months can boost your circulation and improve your immunity, as well as aiding weight loss – although my group of friends seem to successfully counteract that with the large amounts of cake we eat following a dip. It’s all to do with the rush of endorphins our body releases when dealing with the cold. It’s also supposed to be good for your libido, but you’ll have to try that for yourself.
Sea swimming is also supposed to be very good for the mind, which following the last couple of years is more important than ever. Experts suggest that wild swimming can reduce stress, improve mental health and boost our happiness. Of course, whether wild swimming makes you happier or if the activity just attracts happier people, is certainly up for debate. A friend of mine always says “you never regret a swim” and I think she’s right. As long as going for a swim was intentional…
The question I get asked more than any other, is “Why is it called wild swimming? Back in my day, we just called it swimming.” The phrase “wild swimming” was coined by writer, filmmaker and environmentalist, Roger Deakin in his eccentric masterpiece Waterlog. In the book, he travels the length and breadth of the British Isles, finding amazing places to swim and describing the nature around him in the most evocative and enchanting detail.
He inspired people to once again seek out places to swim in the wild, rather than swimming pools. To swim in rock pools and lagoons, rivers and streams, ponds, waterfalls and flooded quarries. To reconnect with nature, whilst having a keen interest in the natural history around you. And that’s what wild swimming means to me. It’s about having adventures and exploring around the next corner. It’s about respecting our natural environment and seeing the word from a “fish eye” perspective. And more than anything else, it’s about friendship and having fun.
It’s impossible to know the historical origins of swimming and when people first entered the water deliberately, instead of jumping in to avoid being eater by a sabre-toothed tiger. And as LGBTQ+ history doesn’t stretch back that far, we’ll never know if groups of gay cavemen used to hang out on the river banks in some fetching leopard skin. We need to jump forward to Roman times where according to the book Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson Roman emperor Elagabalus would swim in pools “strewn with roses amongst young boys” while emperor Tiberius would swim in the waters off Capri where he trained boys to “chase him while he was swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him.” The Roman Baths became the haunts to homosexuals and voyeurs like Caligula, who was unable to swim. “Those who were genitally well-endowed were said to have evoked applause in the Baths, and in the reign of Elagabalus advanced to high honours.”
The perceived tolerance of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Rome towards homosexuality would go on to inspire artists to romanticise this 900-year period of classical antiquity in the creation of homoerotic artworks. This included scenes of bathing and sporting activities. Many of these artworks involved swimming and water, with riverbanks and seashores as meeting place for Uranians, a term for homosexuals that became popular amongst arty types during the Victorian era.
As well as poetry expounding the voyeuristic pleasure of watching young men swim, artists like American realist painter Thomas Eakins also created homoerotic artworks of nude boys and virile male athletes that seemed culturally acceptable thanks to their guise as pseudo-Grecian fine art. His most famous work, The Swimming Hole, represents Eakins and five of his students and friends all naked in a creek near Philadelphia. It was shown at the Academy’s annual exhibition in 1885, before offending Victorian proprietary and only being exhibited once more in his lifetime.
On this side of the Atlantic, one of the most famous of these artists to pay tribute to the gay utopia of Ancient Greece was Henry Scott Tuke, a hugely respected member of the Newlyn Art Group, who also painted intimate and sensual male nudes enjoying the Cornish waters. Although his work went out of fashion towards the end of his lifetime, he became an icon of the LGBTQ+ community during the 1970s gay rights movement. Elton John is a big collector of his work and was even given a Tuke painting by Freddy Mercury as a dying gift.
The apparent relaxed attitudes of the Greco-Roman world towards homosexuality would go on to inspire bathhouses and gay saunas across the world, with faux-columns and plastic ivy adorning the edges of countless pools and hot tubs. Riverbanks and swimming holes have also been cruising grounds and meeting places for hundreds of years, while many seaside resorts have always boasted strong LGBT+ populations, along with the other wonderful flotsam and jetson that washes up on their shores.
Over the years, swimming scenes have bobbed up in endless films, TV series and LGBTQ+ works of fiction. Swimming scenes are often symbols of sexual awakening, sexuality, hedonism and fantasy and are often used as a way of showing off some glistening flesh. Check out the 2020 novel Swimming in the Dark by Polish writer Tomasz Jedrowski, or the Oscar-nominated, The Power of the Dog for some of the most recent examples.
Today, the sport of swimming is one of the most open and welcoming, with at least ten out swimmers competing at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. To coincide with the Olympics, British Swimming also launched Pride in Water, “a new network to support LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches, officials, support staff and all involved in aquatic sports who are passionate about inclusion within the disciplines.” There are also a number of LGBTQ+ swim clubs across the UK, including Out to Swim (London, Brighton and Bristol), Northern Wave (Manchester) and Mosley Shoals (Birmingham). The trans community is also represented by TAGS (London), Marlin (Manchester) and Trans Swimmers (Brighton). Visit pridesports.org.uk/lgbt-club-finder to find a club near you – or why not start one?
While there are literally hundreds of clubs for wild swimming, there aren’t any that I have come across that are exclusively dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. But that’s because wild swimming is one of the most inclusive sports you will ever try and welcomes people come from literally every demographic you can imagine. The sport is also one of the most democratic you will ever come across, as there really is no cost involved. It’s free to go in rivers, lakes and the sea and all you need is a swimming costume – and you don’t actually even need that…
I would recommend joining a group when you first try wild swimming, though. More experienced people will be able to advise you about health and safety, the best places to go and share some of the best post-swim cakes you are ever likely to try. And some of the clubs have fantastic names like the Mersey Mermaids, the Dales Dippers, The Barrybados Bathers, Swim and Tonic, The Blue Balls and the Bluetits. Visit outdoorswimmingsociety.com/uk-wild-swimming-groups for a full list of clubs across the UK. Wild swimming is almost the most fun you can have with barely any clothes on and I couldn’t recommend it enough. I look forward to seeing you in the water.
Matt Newbury is the co-author of Wild Swimming Walks: Dartmoor and South Devon, Wild Swimming Walks: Cornwall and the brand-new Wild Swimming Walks: Dorset and East Devon. You can buy these books and many more from wildthingspublishing.com