The start of 2019 found me at my lowest, my rock bottom lowest. I’d never experienced depression or anxiety before. I had friends who had and I came across these issues through work. I thought I knew enough that I would recognise any signs in myself before I’d “let” myself get ill. Well I was wrong, it crept up on me slowly, I retreated, pushed people away so gradually that they didn’t realise there was anything wrong. It was so easy to isolate myself from busy friends and family, to tell those closest to me that I was just tired or run down. I felt both numb and in anguish at the same time.
I was getting through each day on autopilot by the time a friend of mine suggested I join her and some friends for a swim, nothing unusual there you think, in a lake, in Snowdonia, on the 1st of February. Surprisingly I didn’t take much convincing, at that point I think I would have tried anything. So, the next day I found myself stood in nothing but my only very old swimming costume, some borrowed wet boots and gloves and a rather large winter hat, at the edge of a very cold lake. I’d brought my wetsuit but the thought of trying to get in it, or worse, out of it was enough to make me leave it in the boot of the car. I’d tried to read some safety tips online the night before but taking on new information had become harder of late, all I remembered was to go in slow, don’t stay too long, I figured I could get that right.
As I walked into the water, my mind went clear, not the numbness empty kind but a sharp, focused clarity. I could feel the cold water seeping into the boots, biting my toes, the deeper I went the more my body woke and with it my senses. I was feeling, really feeling, my body was talking to me, screaming at me “you’re alive, you’re alive”. My lungs filled, big gasping breath right into my belly. My skin felt electric, tiny sparks dancing up and down my arms and legs. I must have let out a scream but if I did, I didn’t hear it, I could only feel. It was truly amazing.
I rode that high for the rest of that day. I was invincible, and best of all I was smiling. I realised that I could feel that way whenever I liked, I had lakes, rivers, the sea, even waterfalls right on my doorstep. Soon I was swimming wherever and whenever I could, then shouting to the world of social media about how great it was. I started getting messages from friends who wanted to give it a go, some I hadn’t seen for ages, all looking for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. So I sent out a group message to 10 or so people from my phone book and before I knew it 5 ladies stood shivering in their costumes, most of them wondering what the hell they had signed up for, on a misty beach at 8pm, mid-March. It was a full moon, not that we could see it but it was nice to know it was there, and to top it off it was international day of happiness so really the stars were aligned for a magical evening. And it was magical, the smiling faces that emerged from the waves after perhaps one of our shortest swims were full of energy, glowing with pride and glistening with salty water.
A few days later 5 became 11, in one of Snowdonia’s many beautiful lakes there were more whoops and squeals of delight as we took the plunge. And back on dry land, as we stood around eating cake and trying to get the blood back into our fingers and toes, we agreed that this had to become a regular thing, we were invigorated, restored and renewed. Not only that but family and friends were now looking at us in awe and wonder at our greatness (ok, maybe it was concern for our sanity), we had kudos by the bucketful.
And so, from this core group, the Woolly Hatters were born, we set up our social media pages and started to spread the word about our newfound joy. Of course, it took more than a catchy name and a regular swim time, we had a fair bit of thinking to do in the early days. We weren’t really sure what we were, we knew we weren’t a club, or a fitness group, we didn’t want a membership list or to charge any fee, we just wanted to invite people to join us. That said, we did recognise that in starting this we had to promote safer swimming, not that we would be responsible for the group – we make it clear that people must only swim to their own ability and at their own risk – but we wanted to at least put some information out there for new swimmers joining us. So, our page has some safety posts, we use a buddy system on big swims where we pair up and keep an eye on one another until out of the water and we always have a couple of swimmers with bright tow floats for increased visibility. And of course, swimming with a group is always safer than on your own.
We’ve been overwhelmed by the numbers of people that have joined us on the beach or at the lake for our weekly swims. We have found a community where there is no judgement, no right or wrong way to be part of it, only love and support; with the Woolly Hatters, you #SwimYourWay. On the shore and in the water, we are all equal.
I still like to swim on my own every now and then but swimming with this group has brought a richness to my life that I could never have imagined. This year we hope to see our water community grow and look forward to many more swims, and many more cakes. So, if there isn’t a swimming group near you, I highly recommend starting one of your own.
@go_outside_betty one of the founders of Woolly Hatters
If you would like to contact the Woolly Hatters please click here where you can message them via Instagram.