The Cold Fix: An Interview with Author Sara Barnes
Sara Barnes has been swimming since she was a child, but truly unlocked the restorative powers of cold water more recently. After being diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis, she discovered that wild swimming in the lakes and river pools around her home in the Lake District not only eased the tension in her mind, but numbed the pain she felt in her legs, too.
Sara also opened herself up to the wonderful community of swimmers, hidden all over the UK. Her most recent book, The Cold Fix, tells the story of her own cold water swimming journey, plus those of others she’s met along the way.
We spoke to Sara about her swimming habits, any must-have essentials, the wild dipping community, and why she’s addicted to the irresistible effects of cold water.
Do you swim every day? How do you incorporate this into your daily routine?
I try to swim or dip every day, whatever the weather. I usually start the day with an immersion in my Japanese bath tub [a short, deep bath tub with a seat inside], just outside my bedroom. I take a cup of tea and sit in it watching and listening to the world wake up; traffic on the A66, birds, the bin lorry reversing, tractors etc. It is a way to set my intentions for the day ahead and guarantees that I have immersed in cold water that day. The second dip of the day is more flexible and therefore I feel under less pressure, which allows me to incorporate it into other plans, other people and unexpected happenings or commitments. Often I plan this one while sitting at my laptop working: today it is wet and windy, so I know that one of the best places to go will be Dead Sheep Beach, at the northern end of Crummock Water. It will be wild and although I don’t feel wild today, by the time I’ve hoiked myself out of my cosy house and cast off my clothes, my mood will be matching the environment around me. But, it is not easy to do the hoiking, and I delay it as long as possible!
Can you tell us a bit about your before and after swimming routine? Any breath work, must-have bits of kit and warm-up hacks?
I do zero breath work before my tub or my wild dips. I do focus my mind on how I feel emotionally and physically though, and what I feel I need from my immersion; what I need to let go of, motivate myself to do, summon up the courage to talk about with someone. My must have pieces of kit, summer or winter, are a thermos of hot drink (usually Earl Grey tea), a sit mat and a hat. I also need something easy to pull on after my swim, usually a pair of Apres Plunge fleece dungarees, which I can also dry myself with. Layers of clothes go on top of these, plus a good rainproof, windproof coat, which might be a specific swim cloak, or a gilet. I try to keep my kit very simple and tailored to the environment I’m going to be in. Sometimes, if I am driving back from somewhere I do a spontaneous dip, and then I really only require myself, nothing else. I literally strip off, dip and then get dressed again and turn the heating on in the car and go home to a hot shower. It can be as simple as that. To warm up, I move. If I have the hot drink that starts the process from my core.
Did you first start cold swimming when you were diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis or did you swim before this?
I have always enjoyed dunking in mountain rivers in the north of England; from a child in the Peak District to an adult in the Lake District. I lived in the West Indies until I was 6 so I swam from a very early age, almost before learning to walk. On weekends we used to go to the workplace of my father, where there was an outdoor pool, or the beach.
But, it was when I lost the ability to go up into the mountains on my bike or on foot that it occurred to me to try swimming specifically to be back outdoors, and I also realised the cold water numbed the pain I still had in my legs. It was like a key to unlocking so much that had been imprisoned within me.
How does cold water swimming make you feel?
It releases tension; emotional, mental and physical. It can alter my mood in an instant. I don’t even need to swim - just the thought of preparing and planning a dip can begin the process of change. Once I submerge in the water I feel a lightness in my head and a clarity in my thoughts. I don’t even notice the cold physically any more apart from the first point of entry. It has become so much more than a physical activity. I enjoy the sensations afterwards as the cold sinks in deeper, like a rush of cold up my back, a few shakes, but not shivers, excitement and a buzz, which I know from experience will transform later into a warm, sleepy feeling because I’ve used a good deal of energy to deal with the cold.
Can you tell us a bit about the community you’ve discovered through cold water dipping?
The first community I came across sadly turned out to be clique, so for many months I swam on my own, which built up my resilience and courage, and enabled me to plan my own swim adventures out in the mountains as I became stronger, which is something this particular group would never have done. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and by doing this met a whole new circle of like-minded people, both in real life and online. I have gone out of my way to travel to meet up with swimmers in the UK and abroad, even before starting to write The Cold Fix. Generally, other swimmers are extremely non-judgemental, welcoming, caring and emotionally intelligent people. I feel no concern about contacting ‘strangers’ through social media and then arranging to meet for a swim. I recently put a story on Instagram saying I was going to be in Ireland and would anyone like to meet for a swim. The response was immediate and lovely. I got to Ireland and headed in my hire car from the airport to the beach, where I spent a few hours with a small group of Dublin Dippers. The next day we met for a sunrise swim at the iconic Greystones, followed by breakfast then lunch with them all. In Galway I met up with another swimmer who took me to her favourite swim spot and recommended other places to swim from. I’m not sure there is another ‘sporting’ community quite like this!
Where is your favourite swimming spot, and why?
I have many but I think, whatever my mood, I always hanker after a dip in a place I call Whisky Pool. It is a tiny, perfectly formed, pool in a mountain beck near Crummock Water. The water is crystal clear and when the sunlight hits it you could believe you were in the Caribbean, maybe it reconnects me to my tropical early childhood? A tiny waterfall graces its mossy sides and it is just chest deep. It’s a fairly tricky scramble to get to and I never share its exact location because I fear it would be spoilt if visited by too many people at once. There are plenty of other river pools in the Lake District and I found this one by exploring, which is partly why it is so special to me. When I go there I usually leave feeling completely happy.
Are there any other activities you partake in that make you feel similar?
No. I have tried cycling, on road and mountain biking, trail running and rock climbing. None of them have had the simplicity that wild swimming has, although plenty have had the thrill. It is a quiet, soulful thing to do and the Lake District has to be one of the best places to indulge in it because of the variety of possibilities often at your fingertips.
Where did the idea for your new book, The Cold Fix, originate?
I knew I wanted to tell my story of using the cold water to overcome my loss of mobility. I wanted other people who have had to start all over again after injury or surgery to feel inspired, and have hope of a physical future, albeit different to the one they had expected.
It took me a few years to work out the best way to present my story. It was on the long drive up to west coast of Scotland with my son in my camper van that the idea popped into my head - the cold, that’s the thing that links everything and all of us together. The idea of travel at that point was a challenge because we were just coming out of lockdown, but I knew that many people were desperate for human connection and fed up of online encounters and conversations. It was important to me to meet people in real life and actually share their water and listen to their story. So many people had found innovative ways of embracing the cold water during lockdown, from wheelie bins to ice baths and freezers, it seemed to me everyone could access it if they wanted. I wanted my book to be relatable and completely different to the fairly macho Wim Hof type books. For me, The Cold Fix is a quiet practice and I discovered it is the same for all the people I interviewed. It is a way of life, a non-negotiable.
Can you tell us what it is about cold water that proves irresistible to an increasing number of people? Or do we need to read the book?!
The people I interviewed for my book all have a different reason for cold water immersion and I suspect that if I interviewed 16 more their reasons would be different again. To me, I think what is irresistible to so many people is that it is an extremely powerful form of self care and in this fast paced world we often forget to look after our core beings. Through daily immersion in cold water we STOP and look inward and regroup our minds and thoughts. It is that quality time for ourselves that is just not found anywhere else. Because the cold is painful, it is a barrier that needs to be worked through to get to the other side. You have to give it your focus and once through you are locked into yourself for a few minutes. But I would recommend reading the book and seeing if you can identify with one or a few of the characters.
Do you have any advice for people looking to start cold water swimming?
Yes, don’t be afraid of the cold. Respect it and learn from other more experienced people where to swim safely. When you first start it is best to go with someone else who has more experience than you. It is easy to find groups on, for example, the Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook page either in your local area or an area you are planning to visit. Always listen to your body and don’t be tempted to stay in for longer or swim out further than you are comfortable with. Be self-sufficient in terms of your travel arrangements, your kit and taking a hot drink and snacks. Always think to yourself: if I can get into the water, can I get myself back out? If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Don’t be put off by the plethora of swim kit being sold to you. Choose a reliable brand that suits your budget. Keep it simple and build up your gear as you get more experienced and have worked out where you prefer to swim and therefore what equipment is more appropriate. All you need to start with is a swimsuit, some water shoes to protect your feet from sharp objects, a thermos and enamel mug, dry, warm layers and a good quality, waterproof and windproof top layer or changing robe.
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