Outdoor swimming in the UK is as much about finding a tribe as the act of immersion. Cold mornings, howling winds, frozen waters; the challenging conditions found along our coast, particularly through winter, bring together an incredibly diverse community of salt water swimmers.
Our stores have always been community hubs, so we linked up with our Bristol store manager, Laina, and her own tribe at Clevedon Marine Lake to explore their passion for outdoor swimming. Below Rowan Clarke and Laura Nesbitt talk us through the history of the lake, the incredible community which it has created and even walk us through some tips for beginners wanting to get in the water.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves...
Swimming in the sea, rivers and lakes is in my DNA. Both my parents grew up swimming outdoors and all our family holidays were centred around wild water. As I grew up and had my own family, swimming was just as important. I knew that I loved swimming outdoors, but when I started taking part in open water events I felt such incredible and unexpected mental health benefits and became a part of a warm and accepting outdoor swimming community. I wanted to share this with others, so, in 2018, I qualified as an open water swimming coach and I haven’t looked back. To be able to introduce people to outdoor swimming, help them gain confidence and refine their technique to reap the benefits of swimming in wild water is a true privilege.
Like Row, swimming and water sports runs in our family. My Dad learnt to swim outdoors with his dad in Bahrain and I learnt to swim outdoors with my Dad in Germany. I was a competitive teenage swimmer, who developed an eating disorder and during my recovery I discovered winter swimming, the cold water community and would consider myself a bit of an adventure swimmer.
I started my own inclusive coaching programme when I was 19 years old. I am now a swim coach with over 10 years of experience of teaching and coaching in England, Scotland and Australia. I wanted to redefine swimming success, without the relentlessness of training for hours in the pool. With that in mind I kept junior engagement high by introducing open water swimming in 2015. Training outside added a fun element to swimming that improved their health, fitness and added the challenge of learning new skills outdoors. I currently coach a mixture of sessions from beginners freestyle to elite open water at Clevedon Marine Lake and I am rebuilding a local swim team after covid.
What does Outdoor Swimming mean to you?
Outdoor swimming has changed me. That sounds melodramatic, but it has helped me gain new perspective and a better, kinder sense of self. On the surface (no pun intended!) it helps me keep fit and healthy and helps me cope with the stress of a busy life. I struggled with anxiety, body dysmorphia and disordered eating my whole adult life. Outdoor swimming changed that. Being a part of an accepting, warm, non-judgemental community of people of all sizes and backgrounds and having to trust them implicitly made me change the way I looked at my body. Doing incredible super-human things like swimming ten kilometres down a river or competing in a Winter Swimming World Championship in a pool cut out of ice helped me appreciate my body for what it can do rather than what it looks like. When I’m in the water I am at peace and I am myself. And I always say that there is no problem that’s bigger than the ocean.
Growing up, learning to swim outdoors and spending Saturdays in the rapids with my Dad shaped my love for the water. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK when I was 9 that swimming turned competitive. I got selected to swim for a junior performance programme when I was 12. For almost 4 years I would finish school, travel an hour to training, train for 2.5 hours and travel an hour back. When I hit puberty my performance plateaued and my education was suffering. It was time to leave swimming. The compounding effect of spending so much time travelling to training and spending weekends away competing had a huge impact on my academic progress. As a result of not living up to the ‘junior performance’ label and feeling like I was not achieving in either swimming or at school, I developed Bulimia Nervosa. For many years I fought with the feeling of not meeting my potential that lead to a destructive and unhealthy way of life.
My first experience of swimming outdoors was a sunrise at Warleigh Weir in 2010. Swimming outdoors quickly became a huge part of my recovery from Bulimia. The absolute freedom and weightlessness of swimming outdoors helped me to cope with how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin that had not only changed due to leaving competitive swimming but also the nature of my illness. The water did not judge me for my weight, size or the feelings of shame and guilt that I felt which encouraged the secrecy of my addiction. It was the best physical therapy I invested in. Every time I swam outdoors, I felt like the water was giving me a big hug and giving me permission to leave the water as a different person; a person more aligned with myself. Swimming now adds to my wellbeing, it no longer hinders it.
Rowan's Guide to Outdoor Swimming
"I used to joke in my youth, 'you do not choose this type of swimming, it chooses you'. This couldn’t be more true of swimming through the winter. It’s not a choice, it’s a calling." Laura Nesbitt
Both Rowan and Laura teach a variety of accessible swimming classes at Clevedon Marine Lake with a focus on physical and mental health, as well as stress reduction.
Find them on Instagram: @_finsandgoggles_ & @outlaurswimcoaching
What is the swimming community like at Clevedon Marine Lake, and how can people get involved if they want to?
Lake and sea swimming in Clevedon is unique and special. Perhaps it’s because the coastline here is so challenging to navigate, perhaps it’s because we can only swim in the sea at high tide, and perhaps it’s because we came together as a community to save our lake from dereliction. Whatever the reason, it’s the network of warm, non-judgemental, accepting, friendly swimmers that makes Clevedon such a special place to swim. We have free social groups every day of the week and the best way to get involved and find swimming buddies is through our Facebook page, Instagram or website.
I would encourage anyone and everyone to give it a go. You do not have to be a swimmer with a decorated history of medals to enjoy the benefits of outdoor, cold and winter swimming.
What I love about Clevedon and the swimming community is the inclusion and diversity of people, abilities, body shapes and swimming backgrounds that the sport welcomes and supports. There is an energy about training in the sea that is electric. I cannot describe it, you just have to try it. Sharing outdoor swimming with so many others has built a huge family at the lake. No swim is ever the same. Everyday you swim with the same people but it’s a different experience, this is what makes swimming outdoors all year around so refreshing and life changing.
What is 'Marlens', and how did that come about here in Clevedon?
Marlens is a charity – Mar(ine) L(ake) En(thusiast)s. It was set up in 2004 to renovate Clevedon Marine Lake, which was built in 1929 but had fallen into disrepair. The charity won a lottery grant to renovate the lake, and work was completed in 2015. Marlens is run by a board of trustees, and a team of wonderful, hardworking locals who clean, mend and maintain the lake every week. We are all volunteers. Each year, it costs around £10k just to keep the lake ticking over, and another £10k to improve it for the thousands of people who visit.
Fundraising and community are at the heart of what we do. You can help by donating every time you visit either online or by using the lakeside donation boxes which now have a QR code if you don’t have any cash. You can become a member of the lake, and you can also play our lottery. If you want to get hands on you can volunteer to help with the litter pick, cleaning and maintenance that happens every other Saturday.
If you would like to join the community at Clevedon Marine Lake as a volunteer you can email email@example.com or click the links below to get involved.