WHY I SWIM - Rosanne Robertson
After art school and about 7 or so Canal Street and Queer scene Manchester years, the city had battered me in all the usual and wonderful ways, and I felt the urge to get out of it rather than going for another spin. I looked for somewhere to go, close enough to get to on the train but far enough away to be different from where I had been and what I had been doing. I found Todmorden and Gaddings Dam and cold-water swimming was the thing I had been looking for. I had a kind of idea of what Hebden Bridge and Todmorden were like due to the (awful) Manchester based tales of it being the place where ‘lesbians go to die’. But when I got up to Gaddings Dam it felt like the opposite of dying to me.
We were Manchester townies with unsuitable clothing and a disposable BBQ the first time we went up (We = me and my partner Elv Sharp (AKA Debbie, Elvis, Sharp) and I hadn’t climbed up a hill since family holidays in the Lake District and we walked up the wrong way and ended up stomping up and over big tufts of moorland with too many bags of unnecessary things and I was a bit scared and out of place but once up there I felt that peaceful kind of joy. It was July so I now know the water would have been a pleasant temperature but back then it was freezing to me and it really hurt my feet, so I didn’t stay in long. But I had caught the bug right away for sure and I thought to myself- imagine living here and being able to come up here whenever you wanted. I hadn’t swum since picking up the basics as a teenager in the school pool and so I was pretty unequipped, early ‘swims’ were a case of getting in and daring myself to stay in. I got out because of the pain, very quickly, quite a few times.
We moved to Todmorden, I began to walk, and I began to visit Gaddings Dam regularly. I think it took a year or maybe longer before I got in the water and stayed in and swam, properly. The combination of overcoming the anxiety related to the initial pain of the cold water and the aftereffects of my body feeling rebooted after a swim was a revelation to me. It has been the main factor in my recovery, living with mental health conditions and being happy. I always felt better after a cold-water swim, it was always worth the time, the hike, the changing, the rain, the cold, the anxiety about getting in. The connection with the water and the land brought a spiritual connection to my life that had been missing, once I’ve had a cold-water swim, I feel reconnected, to everything.
Each swim at Gaddings Dam was completely different- there was always something I hadn’t seen before, the colours were different each day, the weather was sometimes different every ten minutes, what I thought was bad weather was good weather. There is a certain acknowledgement between swimmers who have the same relationship with the water that I can now recognise- in a nod, a smile, a chat or quietly sharing the same space for a moment.
I feel strong in the water. I feel I am overcoming something within myself each time I swim. I used to shiver uncontrollably with the mild hyperthermia but then it calmed down. Everything calmed down.
I can’t remember which year it was that I swam right through the winter, but I was very pleased with myself. I used a wet suit a few times in January but generally I don’t like swimming in a wetsuit and prefer a woolly hat and neoprene socks and gloves combo. I remember one particular swim in a hailstorm when the temperature must have been very low as one of the most invigorating things I’ve ever experienced. It was just a wall of freezing grey and I could only see a few icy grey waves in front of me. Other times I’ve been the only person up at Gaddings with the cows and the cloud clears and the sun comes out and it’s just crystal clear.
Swimming at Gaddings Dam enabled me to swim at other places more confidently. I swim in the sea at Roker beach now when I go back up to Sunderland where I am from. We love our swims at the Women’s pond at Hampstead Heath when in London. I also used to go in regularly at Lumb Falls along from Hardcastle Craggs at Hebden. We started swimming wherever we went, if possible.
I now live in Cornwall and have been swimming in the sea between Newlyn where we live and Penzance. We’ve been visiting tidal pools like the one at Priest’s Cove, Cape Cornwall and at Porthtowan. A favourite spot is natural pools at Godrevy Point- between 1-2 hours after low tide. Swimming in the sea is a different kettle of fish than swimming at Gaddings Dam, there’s a lot to learn and new things to be scared of! I’m working on my breathing and have recently taught myself the front crawl and bilateral breathing so that I can swim in more choppy conditions. I continue to swim through the winter, in Penzance there is always somewhere to swim regardless of conditions or tide times between the beach, Battery Rocks, the harbour and Jubilee Pool. I swim at Jubilee Pool when I just want a cold swim and want to keep acclimatised and practice my technique. Jubilee Pool is a beautiful art deco sea water lido which now has a geothermal pool. I have begun to swim from Battery rocks which is a popular spot out the back of Jubilee. I am swimming back and forth to the first buoy before attempting to go further out across the open sea. The ‘Penzance Swimmers Buoys’ are placed out to see by a group of Penzance swimmers between May-Sept to help swimmers challenge themselves and each is colourfully decorated with mermaids and sea creatures.
I am an artist and I am currently working on a public sculpture commission; I am making a steel sculpture dedicated to the female ship builders who worked in Sunderland during WW2. The sculpture will be situated overlooking the River Wear where the shipyards were situated with a view of the mouth of the river where it meets the North Sea. During the process of researching and planning I have been acutely aware of how some people get to access water and the power of sea and some do not. The women who worked building ships in Sunderland worked on the river, lived on the coast and built ships that were launched out to sea to the rest of the world, the water was part of their fabric and yet they were not allowed on the ships or to work at sea and travel. My sculpture pairs the energy and power of the sea with the fabric of the female shipbuilders and the two cannot truly be separated.
I hope to never be separated from the water again, because it is a real joy.
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