Gilly and her cold water swimming journey
22 February 2023
Words: Gilly McArthur, Elle Stephens
Gilly, much-loved in the cold water swimming community, visited our studio last week to meet the team and to see where all the magic happens! Thank you Gilly, it is so nice to meet a like minded friend in this industry, who understands and values our shared beliefs and goals. We are really excited for upcoming projects in the future.
We asked Gilly a series of questions on her cold water swimming journey :)
1. When did you start your cold water swimming journey and how did it start?
I moved to the Lake District nearly 9 years ago with my partner. We’d been living in Bristol and are both rock climbers, we moved to be nearer to mountains of Scotland and the glorious North (I’m from the North East of Scotland). After about 3 days of perpetual rain I realised I needed to find a pastime I could do in the rain! The weather here is actually no different from the south but with over 200 bodies of water the step to connect to this watery world was an easy one. I started swimming one late Autumn. I was alone on a shore with my surfing wetsuit on and met some women who were there in just swimming costumes. I honestly though they were going to die of hypothermia - that water was about 12°c and I was so cold - the rest is history! By that winter I had been invited to join 4 other winter swimmers and our small group formed. We’d meet every week and bake a cake and swim, in no wetsuits in all weathers. I fell in love with the freedom of it all - no kit, no faff, just a joy. That was when cold water skin swimmers were really seen as an odd bunch (certainly up on our shore line anyway). A lot has changed since then but the community is much the same > just bigger and in some cases noisier!
2. How often do you swim, and do you do both open water dipping and pool swimming?
Pool swimming I really don’t love unless there is no one there. In a year I’d say I swim in a pool 6 times (if that!) I swim outdoors at least 4 times a week in all weathers. It’s often a cold dip in a river or a deep clear pool and in summer I seek out quiet hidden spots found on maps.
3. What is the best cold water dipping adventure you have had, and where was your coldest swim experience!?
The best cold water adventures are always the ones seeking ice - it’s so elusive to find and a most memorable one (there have been so many!) was probably at the end of winter feb 2021.
I went with my partner and two friends up to a very high tarn (small hill Loch) to find ice, armed with safety kit, ice cutting tools and a lot of warm clothes we passed stunning icicles over 5ft long. To our absolute joy the body of water was thick with ice. Over the years I’ve learnt how to read ice and establish what’s thick enough to walk on - this was easily thick enough and so I made an ice hole and got in. There was not a breath of wind, the air was freezing and we were surrounded by snowy hills and a pink sky. Absolutely perfect.
4. What motivates you to continue cold water swimming and how do you get yourself into the water on days where you might not be feeling it.
There is a saying on the cold water community that we never regret a swim. It’s true! The cold is a powerful tool for growth, it’s a wonderful teacher and as the environment is ever changing its always a new experience. Hydration, sleep, fuel, what state my mind and body are like when I arrive at the water all factor in. I know I’ll enjoy it even on the days it’s rainy and wet and wild. It takes a bit of time to come to this realisation but it’s worth the effort.
5. How does swimming make you feel, what are the benefits you notice on your mental and physical wellbeing?
Ahh where to start. It’s hard to keep this brief but it’s essentially a golden balance of the community, the connection to the beauty of the unfolding seasons and the cold that make it powerful. It makes me feel happy, joyful, optimistic, grounded and peaceful. And a million other things too. I love how the cold water can be a place to be held and to switch off from the world, to be naked (or semi naked!) in nature. That’s cool.
6. Do you prefer to swim alone or swim with your cold water swimming community?
Ooh good question. I love both. I like to check in on what my mind needs - sometimes it’s a solo dip to float about or feel small in a huge body of water and sometimes it’s with friends or strangers. I prefer small groups - 4 or 6 at a push. I’m a bit of an introvert despite appearances and do love a quiet swim with the right sort of people ~ too much chatting in water is not really for me! In summer it’s nice to get up early and swim alone. It’s really special.
7. We also noticed you do a lot of climbing and are very involved in the climbing community. Do you find that meeting new people through climbing inspires you in your swim journey? Does swimming and climbing overlap a lot?
I’ve worked professionally in the outdoor rock climbing world for years and my partner and cousin have very impressive climbing CV’s. Sharing my love of the cold to this community has been a great journey! I’ve taken some of the best climbers in the world for their first cold swims and it’s always a joy to see how slowly they change from being sceptical toe dippers to seeking cold bodies of water on expeditions or climbing trips.
From my direct experience I can see the overlap is generous. Climbing outdoors and cold water swimming outdoors both demand a high level of personal risk assessing to stay safe, and this can be seen as slightly eccentric in our comfort obsessed society. Both have serious consequences if this risk assessment and personal check in isn’t listened to! The ability to share the experience and connect to the outdoors in a very tactile personal way is also really pronounced. Hands on rough rock, smelling the salt on a sea cliff with birds wheeling round over head or bodies in water, feeling the gentle pull of a tide with a full moon have this same quality of delivering a short moment of presence.
I think the world would be a better place if we all had more of this. I broke my back rock climbing a few years ago on a trip to the states and getting back into climbing after that was hard - and much like how people feel getting into cold icy water for the first time (…every atom in your body is saying “no”) but with a gentle word and a slow apprenticeship it eases and becomes brilliant!
8. What is the most important lesson you have learnt through your active lifestyle?
I’m so grateful to have health to have an active lifestyle, it’s helped me find patience and presence - and that’s been helpful for the moments I have not been active - when I’ve been injured or unable to get outside. There is still so much to be grateful for by just sitting on your doorstep getting daylight onto your eyes first thing in the morning - this can be classed as “being outdoors”.
We can all improve our health by stopping for a few moments each day to appreciate nature. Even in a big city there are plants pushing up through the concrete, birds in trees asking to be noticed and grass to be walked in on bare feet. I’d suggest just walking to work with no ear phones in! Bird song is so special at this time of year and our brains love nature sounds. Life is ever so short - so connecting to this rhythm of life helps me never take it for granted. We will all get to our winter eventually, but even in winter there is so much beauty under the skies.
9. Daily moment of joy?
My cold water swims, my wonderful husband, the first sip of good proper locally roasted coffee, finding moments to be playful and laugh at life, a good hug with literally anyone, and watching the Detectorists. I mean there is a lot but that’s a solid start!
10. How do you make time for swimming with your busy work and personal life, do you have to be disciplined with yourself?
I chose to take a massive pay cut and go freelance when I moved to Cumbria. I balance work and play far better nowadays and find giving a bit to myself and the community I work and live in is a greater reward.
11. What inspired you to set up your male swim club Blue Mind Men, and we would love to know the story behind the name as well!
The name is simply from the term Blue Mind that means the benefits that can be delivered to our brains from being in blue spaces. Every year I swim for the month of January in ice and cold water to raise funds for mental health charities. I’ve done it for a few years and last year I needed to change it up as it was getting a bit dull (for me!) The mainstream media is pretty good at showing how cold water is good for women but I wondered where the men were!
My friend (and then editor of Outdoor swimmer magazine) Jonny had moved to the area and had swum a lot in winters but never done a daily challenge so we partnered up and decided to swim every day with different men, capture their stories, raise cash for a suicide charity and start a swim club. Easy! (Turns out it was quite hard but that’s another story!)
12. Best cold water swimming kit. ( Also do you only swim in a swimsuit, or do you wear wetsuits from time to time, and if so what determines this?)
I really never wear a wet suit unless I have to (coaching or water safety work!) though last year I did on a trip out to the remote islands of St Kilda. We were in the water for a while exploring caves and islands swimming and being in a wet suite was far more comfortable, especially with the jellyfish! Maybe I will wear one more this year but so far it’s not for me.
13. How long do you spend in the water and how do you keep a calm mind when entering the cold.
Everywhere from 2 minutes to hours! Depends on what I’m doing, where, why, with who and the wind. The wind is a killer in the cold! My friend Katy says the wind is the worst weather and I must say I do agree. Give me rain or snow any day!
Gilly at Usual Objections!
Thank you Gilly, it was so lovely meeting you.
Excited for future projects!
All outdoor photos taken by:
Thank you for sharing.