I technically began my cold water journey a few years ago in the shower. Going from 5 seconds at its coldest (accompanied with a squeal), to 10 seconds, to 30 seconds, to 1 minute and so on. A very accessible starting point and one that doesn’t cause too much discomfort (the average cold tap in London where I live is about 15 degrees which is manageable).
Beyond that I had done the odd cold plunge, bath and sea swim but I felt like I wanted to take it to the next level, to preach what I practice and take myself out of my comfort zone.
So I was invited to start swimming in Hyde Park’s Serpentine in January with a group of similar cold water junkies known as the Dirtea Tribe, one of many down there. The temperature I was facing was around 7 degrees so a step up from what now seemed like the warmth of my cold showers.
But I immediately fell in love with it. The routine of cycling up there at 7am, lots of hugs and smiles as everyone arrived, doing our dips and swims together and then finishing off with a coffee and a chat in the cafe opposite. At least once a week a bigger number turn up, enveloping the lakeside ‘changing rooms’ in a bubble of giggles and gossip (and hopefully no shits).
There’s something quite magical about the experience and the people who do it. You’re all there for one purpose yet the reasons you want to be there go beyond that. It creates such a warm environment adequately juxtaposed with the conditions we submerge ourselves in.
It’s an opportunity to meet people who can be so different from you and at the same time to whom you feel an immediate connection, potentially due to clinging onto them for safety on your first dip. Learning about the different routines, the various approaches to good health and the passion with which anyone may enlighten others about makes it impossible not to feel the urge to try something you had never previously heard about, returning with the yays or nays of that experience (for me it was a yay to Hapé, courtesy of the Dirtea man himself).
You almost forget that you had just been putting your body through quite extreme temperatures until the shivers start and remind you you aren’t quite immune to it yet, unlike the hardy Serpentine Club Swimmers who find the 100m swim isn’t enough to satisfy their hunger for the cold and decide to make it a Tour de Serpentine each morning. A few more years until one of our ranks reaches that stage (although not sure it’s many for some…).
The dopamine rush, the brown fat activation, the increase in noradrenaline, the list goes on and it all happens without you having to do more than swim (or stay) in the water for a few minutes. This may be undermining the effort it takes to get yourself down there and into the water but I know I speak for many of the Tribe when I say the rewards hugely outweigh the pain or discomfort you have to momentarily endure.
Off to work and the hardest thing is done, yet the rewards will likely outlast any subsequent activities you will complete that day. By the time evening comes, and it’s worn off, all you’re thinking is I want, no, need that feeling again, a perfect reason to get on WhatsApp and present the question everyone is waiting for, ‘Who’s in for a dip tomorrow??’.
Come rain (ok maybe not always) or shine, light or dark, water or ice, there’s always some representation from the Tribe and it seems fitting that it continues to expand much like the confidence of our group when we hear the water temperature is into the double digits. This is then quickly shattered when we try and get dressed while having shaking fits struggling to put our socks on.
They say Community is one of the most effective forms of therapy, prevention or healing, for our health. As someone who has tried and tested a lot of different forms of improving mine, I can confidently agree with that, given how much my levels of happiness and belonging have gone up since my first swim.
It seems the Dirtea Tribe is here for the long run, our numbers only growing and cementing that camaraderie, leaving no one behind in our wake.