A refreshing way to experience Norfolk’s waters

Boasting 90 miles of coastline and an abundance of tranquil lakes and winding rivers, Norfolk is the perfect place to embrace the UK’s growing trend of outdoor swimming

As we enter a brand-new year, the days and months ahead are ripe with potential. From starting afresh to fulfilling resolutions or undertaking new challenges, January is truly an inspiring time to feel motivated and positive. It’s why so many of us take up a new hobby or rediscover an old passion, and in Norfolk there’s no shortage of opportunities.

One recreational activity that has become popular across the county is outdoor swimming. Reminiscent of the days when Victorians would enjoy dips in the bracing sea, this simple joy has been rediscovered. 

Today, what’s known as cold water swimming is usually undertaken in lakes, rivers and oceans and involves dipping and swimming short distances. This type of swimming is often done for its fantastic health benefits. There’s also open water swimming, which is where bathers swim for longer distances in natural bodies of water that are regulated by authorities. Wild water swimming is more or less the same as open water swimming, but the natural bodies of water are unsupervised.

“There’s a lot of terminology that can be used,” says keen outdoor swimmer, Maureen Wolfe. “For me, I tend to break it down into the categories of dipping, wild swimming, endurance and long-distance swimming. I enjoy year-round dipping in the sea in just a swimming costume with gloves, socks and a hat when particularly chilly. I also do distance swimming in lakes, which I would normally wear a wetsuit for depending on the water temperature.”

Having acquired a taste for outdoor swimming after competing in triathlons, Maureen has experienced an array of Norfolk’s delightful waters, from quaint rivers and lakes to invigorating coastal spots. For sea swimming, which is tide dependent, Maureen joins organised meets arranged by the Hunstanton and Heacham Swimmers group. 

“We’re a cold water swimming group at heart,” she says. “We welcome all abilities and go into the sea all year round. It’s a great challenge, especially in the winter. You feel the burn in your legs when you first get in, but your body adjusts and it’s totally worth it.”

Boasting over 300 members, the Hunstanton and Heacham Swimmers are an enthusiastic bunch with a zest for life and a penchant for the sensations of the sea. “Our group is very relaxed,” says fellow member Zena Penty. “We don’t time ourselves like some clubs do, we’re just there to have fun with a bunch of like-minded individuals.

“We meet as regularly as we can throughout the year, often at the RNLI lifeboat station at Old Hunstanton, and there’s usually around ten of us at each session,” she continues. “We are naturally beholden to the tides; the water is easier to access if it’s around six metres, so the times can vary. We also have to be mindful of the weather and the temperature; we do swim in winter as well as summer, the amount of time we are in the water just decreases. In October, for instance, the water temperature can average 12 degrees so we might stay in for 20 minutes. In January we might only be in the water for three minutes before getting out.”

While you have to learn to love the cold to be an outdoor swimmer, you also have to be aware of the risks, swim responsibly, and follow relevant safety guidelines. The Outdoor Swimming Society offers advice on all aspects of outdoor swimming from how to get started to staying safe and well, understanding wind and rain, staying mindful of dangers like Weil’s disease, what to wear and more. 

“Safety is important in outdoor swimming,” says Maureen. “When the water is cold you must get in gradually to acclimatise to avoid cold water shock. You also need to dress sensibly according to your sensitivity; don’t copy what others are wearing as people differ in their body’s reaction to the low water temperature. When getting out of the water, layers of clothing and a hot drink help to warm you up gradually and avoid ‘after-drop’. We all wear woolly hats in our group and neoprene gloves and shoes to keep our extremities warm – you can’t miss us!”

“When I first started outdoor swimming, my husband couldn’t believe it as it used to take me half an hour to get in the pool on holiday,” says Zena. “But I love it! It’s a challenge, it takes me out of my comfort zone and it’s exciting. You can’t help but laugh and enjoy the present, particularly as you are doing it with other people.”

With cold water swimming also known to help release endorphins (otherwise known as ‘the happy hormone’), improve circulation and boost the immune system, it’s no wonder that more and more people are turning to outdoor swimming. So as 2024 begins, be sure to embrace Norfolk’s stunning waters. 

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