Ship-Shaped and Bristol’s Flapping: A big girl’s maiden wild swim
Like most kids growing up in rural areas in the mid-70s, my first experience of open water (beyond the bathtub and sink) was being dunked in a pool in a river just big enough to be taught how not to drown in. When I got to high school, in a nearby town, I learnt that PE lessons were sometimes to be held in the ‘Pool’ which was a council run Leisure Centre. Puberty had well and truly taken hold of me by eleven years of age and the ‘puppy fat’ I had been told I might just grow out of, was clearly here for the duration and to add to this I was now developing what was to become a size 44E chest. The horror of open changing rooms and being pretty nautically inept meant I played the ‘I’m on my period Miss’ for most pool visits over the next 5 years and mostly just looked forward to the vending machine hot chocolate.
As a result of the above, I don’t think I owned a swimming costume for 25 years. I bought a ‘swim-dress’ to go away to a holiday cottage which had a hot-tub a few years ago - the swim dress inflated in the jets and almost throttled me. My hope that I might, from the neck up at least, look quite glamorous once I had heaved my ample self over the edge into the tub, was ruined by the reality of my closer resemblance to a hysterical jellyfish.
Therefore, when my sister Laura took up wild swimming a few years ago, I listened to her stories and viewed her photos and social media posts with interest and admiration, but with the sort of dissociation I might feel whilst fleetingly watching steeple-chasing. She kept telling me ‘you’d love it’, ‘you should try it’ and I kept nodding the way you might as someone tells you how brilliant colonic irrigation is. Why? Well, probably like most things in life, despite people telling you you’d love them, you kind of just accept that as a ‘Big Girl’ they are not for you.
Prior to a recent visit, Laura mentioned, as usual, that she meant to get me swimming, to which I of course laughed. Then she added that Jamima wanted me to try out a prototype swimming poncho which she was developing for larger sizes. I don’t know whether this was an elaborate pincer movement they had constructed, but it worked. I felt so pleased that Jamima was bothering to try and cater of bigger people and that she genuinely wanted to make sure it was fit for purpose. Most larger people will know that in shopping for ‘Plus Size’ clothes, the most you can hope for is that they don’t cost twice as much as regular sizes and that whoever scaled them up got their maths right.
With only a week to prepare until Laura arrived, I dipped my toe into the unknown world of swimwear. Like I said, I’d not owned proper costume for over 30 years. I started out with the plus size clothing companies I was familiar with – all of which offered yet more murderous swim dresses and the type of takini/bikini type affairs I might wear when holidaying in Rio, if I had also suffered a blow to the head and could afford such holidays. I then happened upon a one-piece suit, which had thigh length legs – I ordered it, with a ‘that might do’ tap of the ‘place order’ button. When it arrived, I realised that the size I order in clothes which are mostly bought to cover up as much as me as possible, a bit like a tent, is completely the wrong size to order swimwear in. I guess I should have taken more note of the sizing guide, but when you’re a size 28, you don’t willingly engage with a tape measure. Nevertheless, it was going to have to do.
By complete coincidence, I was telling my neighbour Hannah about my Laura’s plan to get me swimming and her face lit up. She said she’d been wondering about asking me to go wild swimming with her as her sister in-law had recently gotten into it. When the day finally came, Laura and I scooped up Hannah and popped down to the Nature Reserve at the bottom of Cadair Idris. Not the most private of places, but with a very accessible and deep enough pool in the river that runs through it. I hadn’t really thought about the getting changed scenario until we arrived in the busy car park. I suddenly realised that I was going to have to get into my swimsuit on the side of the path currently being used by lots of very fit people, all clad in lycra and using walking poles! But before long, as the three of us were purposefully marching towards the river – Laura with her Turtleback Bag on her back and Hannah and I with that determined attitude you often approach things you are a little bit, ok, a lot scared of – the nerves turned to excitement and giggling. Very soon, we were down on the river bank and contemplating changing. Strangely, out there in the open, even in front of passing ramblers, the idea of disrobing didn’t feel that scary. Perhaps out in nature, no matter your size, you feel part of something, like you belong in the grand scheme of things – the grand scheme that produced you after all. Also, the slight look of astonishment on people’s faces also spurs you on!
I popped the poncho over my head and was delighted to find that it came down way passed my knees (although, again, I am pretty short!) and was so roomy, a bit like a furry blue tent! The first test was whether I could get my arms around my back to undo my bra – check! No problem. I could bend over, take off my trousers, underwear and step into and pull up my swimming costume, all without so much a flash of buttock or glimpse of nether areas. I kept the poncho on right to the river’s edge – it was warm and comforting. There was a moment when I thought, ‘OK, I’ve done what was needed, I’ve tried out the poncho, I don’t actually have to get in’, and then I looked at Hannah and she took my hand and in we waded. I took off the poncho when I was deep enough, to the sound of my sister squealing ‘look at you two beauties’. When deep enough again and on the count of three, we plunged our ample behinds into the water to gasps and splutters! Baps in next and we were soon neck deep in the crisp, cool welsh water. Huge smiles and lots of laughter. Hannah, a strong swimmer, said to just try a few strokes. Not confident that in the not so deep water I would be able to lever myself upright on ouchy knees, I told her I she would have to catch me and stand me up – so, she stood a little way away, I inched myself down into a hugely elaborate diving pose and set off! I did remember how to swim it seems and I headed towards Hannah, smiling and cheering and she caught me under my arms and pulled me upright. I clung on to her so tightly, with excitement, happiness, relief and joy. We did it again and again…
As the cold started to set in we decided it was time to get changed so I headed back towards my poncho from the other side of the bridge. Momentarily, there I was, on the path, in just my swimming costume, soaking wet – ramblers approaching. And I didn’t much care. I had just been swimming with my sister, my friend and my dog for the first time in years and years. I was high on adrenaline, laughter and shrieks still rang in my ears and I felt great. However, I was a bit relieved to pull the lovely fluffy and soft poncho back over my head – plenty of room beneath it to wrangle with a wet costume and enough volume of material to use as a towel for the most hard to reach areas! Within a few moments I was dry and warm with my clothes back on!
So, that’s wild swimming. I realise now it’s less about swimming ability, precision of strokes and ‘kit’ than it is about friendship, laughter and being out in nature and part of it. Water doesn’t care what size you are – it makes room for you and holds you up no matter your shape or how much you weigh. Your friends don’t give a monkies what you look like, they are just pleased you are there with them. And a big girl shrieking in a forest as her bits hit cold water sounds the same as any girl doing the same. But a simple piece of kit, like the poncho, gently takes away some of the niggling insecurities that can erode an experience like that – it envelopes you and makes changing and drying something that is secondary to the whole thing, not the pivotal hang up in can be. Put simply, the poncho made this possible for me on a number of levels.
Following an obligatory facebook post about the above, I started to receive lots of messages from other women – asking where I had got my swimsuit from, where could they buy the poncho and when was I going again. Women of all ages and all sizes. And that’s when it struck me that the beauty of wild swimming is that it is for everyone, open to everyone. Yes, in terms of access, some level of physical mobility is beneficial – however, as you’ll see from the photos, I walk with a walking stick and have awful arthritis in my knees – find yourself a deep enough tract of water, not far from a car park and take friends you know will catch you. You don’t have to be swimming the channel, just get in as far as you can manage, swim if you want to, just bob about it you don’t and you’ve done it and you’ll want to do it again. Wear what makes you feel comfortable – if you feel easier with more on, look at Modli, Curvy Swimmers, or even Habib Swimwear lines – however, please remember, no one else cares but you – as my mum used to say when we presented her with some ‘horrendous physical defect’ like a spot, ‘who’s going to get off a galloping horse to look at that’. The Swim Feral poncho will ensure your modesty is taken care of at all times, you just need to make sure you remember to have fun.
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