Photographs by Paul McCambridge & Alasdair McBroom

Paul McCambridge is a photographer and a wild swimmer. Here he shares some of the insightful thoughts and beautiful photographs taken whilst working on his book, ‘Wild Swimming in Ireland’.

Water Log

The Northern Irish have long had a great affinity with the water and despite it being perhaps a tad colder than most of the UK, ours is a strong tradition of outdoor swimming. In every corner of the country there are generations of folk who swim in all weathers and seasons, keeping the old swim haunts alive and thriving.

The phenomenon of Wild Swimming has taken the populous by storm since Kate Rew coined the phrase in 2008. She was carrying on from Roger Deakin’s book Water Log, which had stirred the imagination a decade before. Open water, outdoor or wild swimming, all these titles describe the activity which for some has been an ongoing part of their lives since childhood. For many of our grandparents the sea, lakes and rivers were indeed the only places to swim

Prosperity brought about the building of many chlorinated indoor swimming pools and now the modern obsession of having everything organised for us, having a purpose to even our leisure time, has pressed us more indoors. For many this has taken away a sense of adventure and play. Wild swimmers rebuff that and in the past few years more and more folk have felt the draw to return outdoors.

I love to be outdoors, to walk, to cycle, to kayak and especially to swim. There is something very satisfying and grounding about being in the elements away from the trappings of this busy digital age and so all there is to do is pack the car, fling a map into the passenger footwell and go.

Wild & Rugged

To tour in one’s own country has a certain ease with it. Along with the beauty of our wild and rugged landscape, it is a pleasure to re-acquaint oneself with half-remembered legends.

In the West the newly branded Wild Atlantic Way provides a route to follow. The great joy of which is to veer off and explore the side roads leading to the shore, where we have some of the most beautiful, unspoilt beaches within easy reach. The Tir Saile in Mayo remembers the Children Of Lir in one of many sculptures on the trail, most of which are placed to give amazing views along the coastline and not far from yet another beach or cove.

Swimming outdoors has a rich history in drawing artists and poets; “The mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, was a regular swimmer in his local river, the Cam, and even swam the Hellespont; the four mile stretch separating Europe from Asia, which in Greek mythology Leander swam every night to visit his lover Hero, who would light a lamp to guide him. In the winter storms the lamp was blown out and Leander lost his way and drowned.

Writer Virginia Woolf along with other artists swam naked in Byron’s Pool under moonlight. Dublin’s James Joyce enjoyed the sea around the famous ‘Forty Foot’ in Dun Laoghaire and even refers to it in Ulysses; “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” These days artists such as Neil Shawcross also feel that draw to the sea.

“The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.”

Pleasures of the Sea

Writer Maureen McCoy and I embarked on a journey around Ireland to discover as many wild places to swim as we could. Our book ‘Wild Swimming in Ireland’, was published by Collins Press in 2016. The book takes the reader on a journey “Exploring Ireland’s countryside and coast, searching for hidden gems and forgotten treasures; swim under Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge on the North Coast… Circumnavigate Devenish Island in the fresh waters of Lough Erne Waterways…”

“Northern Ireland has much varied swimming to offer. Whether you are a keen swimmer, a curious observer or an armchair swimmer, one of the growing number of triathletes and long-distance swimmers or a grandparent introducing grand-children to the pleasures of the sea.”

Into the Wild

If you can swim, you can swim outdoors. You simply need to start gently and build up slowly towards your goal. Safety first; remember outdoor swimming is rather different to swimming in the pool. There are no lines to guide you, no lane ropes to keep you on course and no signs to say where the deep end is. In fact you may at one moment be happily wading in the shallows to suddenly find that you drop into very deep water with just one step. The banks of rivers are generally not great for holding on to if you are feeling like a rest, the way you may have clung to the side of the pool getting your breath back. And to top it all, it is considerably cooler than your average swimming pool.

A Time to Contemplate

Despite all these things and before you get scared off, the benefits and rewards are even greater than pool swimming. The invigorating effect of the cool water on your body, the sense of achievement, the thrill and the sheer joy of being immersed outdoors will draw you back to it time and again. Being literally immersed in the waterways gives us a new perspective of our surroundings and increases our awareness of the vulnerability of the environment.

Many people report that outdoor swimming has helped them with mild depression and anxiety. Others find it a way to wash away the day's pressures and focus entirely on the sensations of their own body. It is a time to contemplate. Most swimmers say that their immune system is boosted and they rarely get a cold, especially those who swim year round. Despite the reputation of being a wet and rainy country, Irish swimmers are not deterred.

When someone asks “Surely you don’t swim in the rain?” the reply is usually “Sure you’re wet anyway!

Recreation & Fitness

During the summer months we team up with Waterways Ireland to run a ‘Couch to 5k’ swim programme. We encourage participants to use the waterways for recreational and fitness swimming by promoting personal safety, awareness of other users and the environment. That helps promote a low impact "Leave no Trace" policy, building on the community sense of ownership and responsibility and respect for our natural surroundings and heritage. Coupled with the recent and vast improvement in water quality since the Clean Water Act 1972 and the rise in popularity of adventure sports and triathlon, we now have a massive surge of swimmers hitting the waterways.

Whichever it is, or whatever your reasons, when you start immersing yourself into the aquatic outdoors, you’ll certainly find most wild swimmers are happy, welcoming souls…know your limits, then you’ll enjoy and have fun!