The shock of the cold

January 2, 2021 1 Comment

The year of Covid has changed many social habits, for good and ill.  Some habits are quite new and unexpected.  One of the most recent in our area has been the rise of cold-water sea bathing.

I tend to go running along the sea cliffs at roughly the same time – just after dawn at this time of year – twice a week.  Since Covid struck in March the number of fellow-runners has increased, by at least a half.  While some of the new runners may be refugees from shut-down gyms, the increase has been part of a longer-term trend, in part driven by a gradual rise in the number of women runners.  In the early 1990s, when I started running here, there was a small cohort of (male) regulars.  It’s now a surprise if I don’t meet, or get overtaken by, seven or eight other runners.

Winter sea-bathing, by contrast, burst on the scene very quickly, and has only attracted large numbers since September (possibly the first semi-organised group was the well-named Gower Bluetits).  What’s more, it’s become more and more fashionable as the temperature of the sea has dropped.  Many bathers prefer the same time to exercise as I do, first thing in the morning – interestingly, just when air and sea temperatures tend to be at their lowest.  It’s normally a social practice.  You do spot individual cold bathers, but they’re rarer.  Clusters gather – mostly middle-aged; both sexes, but most often women; no children – on or under the prom at Langland and Rotherslade.  You can recognise them straight away, by the bulging supermarket bags they use to carry their clothes in, and the ubiquitous Dryrobe changing capes they wear (there’s an alternative brand favoured by some, called Moonwrap).  The Dryrobe, it’s fair to say, is no fashion statement.  It transforms its wearer instantly into a tree trunk, and when the hood is worn a Dryrobe begins to look like a character from Star Wars.

There’s an element of ritual in this kind of bathing.  First there’s a gathering on the prom, and a socially distanced exchange of news.  Then, off with the Dryrobes and across the sand into the sea.  Wetsuits are not worn – the whole point is the direct encounter of warm flesh with cold sea – but loud yelling and laughter are fine.  Then, just as suddenly, out of the sea, on with the Dryrobe, and a quick march back to dryness and warmth.

There’s nothing new about sea bathing in Gower bays.  But in the past it was mainly an intermittent summer phenomenon, and you usually needed children with you as an excuse.  True, there were a few individuals or small groups who swam every day, whatever the weather, like the thin old man at Rotherslade who would emerge from the waves, his whole skin bright red, to hobble slowly up over the stones, or the small circle around Prof. Prys Morgan and the painter George Little at Caswell.  But they were so unusual that they aroused comment.

It’s true, too, that ‘wild swimming’ has made a comeback in recent decades, helped by the support of a ‘literary wing’, begun by Roger Deakin’s 1999 book Waterlog.  (In Wales, Siân Melangell Dafydd treated the subject in her 2009 novel Y trydydd peth.)

But nothing really prepared us for the march of the Dryrobes.

So what accounts for the sudden Dryrobe revolution?  Sea-bathing has the advantage of being an outdoor social activity, at a time when almost everyone understands that indoor congregation is very risky.  (Surfing, always popular in Gower, has also seen an increase in numbers during Covid lockdown, perhaps for the same reason.)  But could there be something more significant going on?

The British are notorious for their attachment to home and home life.  But Covid incarcerations have put this loyalty to severe test.  Indoor activities, especially when they’re chosen ‘under duress’, become trying.  Reading, binge-watching TV series, learning Spanish, virtual fitness regimes – they seem perfectly reasonable responses to lockdown.  But all of them begin to pall after several months, and for the same reason – they lack the rawness and excitement of direct contact between the human body and the natural world.  Mindfulness training while sitting on a rug in the spare bedroom is all well and good, but it fails to deliver the thrill of a crested wave crashing over your belly or the initial sharp pain of freezing water on skin.  What the Dryrobes are searching for, maybe, is an escape from the mind-forged manacles of Covid into a braver, more elemental, Lawrentian encounter with the overwhelming forces of nature.  What could be more elemental than the sea, especially in its extreme winter moods? 

Short of spiritual union with nature, bathers can still gain physical and mental health benefits from the winter sea, especially from that thrilling shock of the first immersion.  Angharad Penrhyn Jones, in a personal essay in O’r Pedwar Gwynt in 2019, recalls the variety of experience: a plunge into a freezing river near Mold, causing her to laugh uncontrollably, a muscle-relaxing dip in the Conwy at Betws-y-Coed after a sweaty climb up Snowdon, and defeating childhood car sickness by jumping into a lake in Sweden.  Sea swimming shocked Amy Liptrot, author of The outrun (2016), out of her dependence on alcohol.  Many claim that cold bathing can help reduce stress and relieve depression, and one study has even suggested that it might slow the onset of dementia.

Time will tell whether our local winter sea-bathers keep going through to the end of winter, or beyond the prison sentence of Covid, to create a lasting Dryrobe culture.  The only certainty is that I won’t giving up running to join them.  I’ve never been a fan of D.H. Lawrence.  I’ll just have to take the word of Angharad Penrhyn Jones about the electric after-effects of cold swimming:

Stepping out, I’m all a-shiver, my skin goose-pimpled from top to toe, a new-born.  Everything is burning, burning, and my veins have swelled dramatically, a map across my body, like a map of the rivers of Wales.  Impossible to describe the luxury of the towel.  The stones under my feet are so smooth, polished over millions of years – and out comes the sun now, like an old friend.  I’m entirely present in my body, nothing but blood and bones and flesh.  I’m aware of the heart’s tireless beating, the curious corvids cawing overhead, and I don’t worry about a thing.  I’m strong, I’m healthy, I’m alive. (My translation)

Afterword (July 2021)

Bathing ‘nymphs’ were spotted at Caswell Bay as early as 1797:

After passing a very rugged road, Caswell bay opens, where is the finest sandy beach I ever saw.  It is frequently visited by the neighbouring nymphs and their strephons; and here, favoured by the moon’s cool gleam, they trip it on the light fantastic toe the shrill pipe and spirit-stirring tabor; while the gentle gliding wave murmurs in mournful accompaniment.

Henry Wigstead, Remarks on a tour to north and south Wales in the year 1797, London, 1800, p.57.

Comments (1)

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  1. Alun Burge says:

    An unexplored avenue… are they refugees from book clubs, driven outside in the same way runners have been from gyms?

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