When the children of the future read their history books and come to the third decade of the 21st century, the title of that chapter will be obvious. Words and phrases like “pandemic”, “unprecedented”, “social distancing” and “follow the science”, will infect the pages like the disease that ran rampant across the globe in that fateful period. “The way we lived changed forever” they will say and wise people with futuristic cardigans will nod sagely about the colossal impact on us all by that invisible enemy. That is, I suppose, the job of history books – to tell future generations what happened to people. What may not feature so vividly, however, are the stories of what people actually did.
2020 was the year a social phenomenon took place. The ocean became a part of nature to get involved with more often and by more people of all ages and flavours, than ever before. This was not a new thing. People had been skirting our shorelines for decades, but this time it seemed different. People weren’t waiting for July. In all weathers, at all times of day, they were talking to the seas in ever increasing numbers for reasons as broad as the personalities of those who did so.
For some, it was personal. A tonic against the restrictions that were imposed on society in order to protect us all. For others, it was a chance to come together in one of the few ways that were permitted for so much of that time. The benefits were spoken of and bonds were formed between apparent strangers as the community of Wild Swimmers emerged from the gloom the world of Coronavirus forced upon us.
As with all communities, there were leaders. Figureheads of the movement. In the West Country at least, many of these leaders were women. Pauline Barker, founder of Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming is considered by many local swimmers to be the doyen of the movement at the pointy end of the country. A Newquay native, Pauline now lives in Plymouth and runs a website dedicated to the pastime. She has led and continues to lead a very active life. Distance running took her all over the world until issues with her knees made her look at other forms of exercise. 10 years ago, she took the plunge into Plymouth Sound and the rest is history. Pauline can often be found in the sea and set up her various connections as far back as 2010. With the rise of Facebook, she was able to be in touch with the steadily growing numbers of people who wanted to get involved. “So many people that are interested in joining in, in coming along and what I do is I encourage them”.
Notwithstanding Pauline’s natural gifts for social administration, the intention was never to get others involved. By her own admission, she started swimming because it was what she wanted to do. However, it became apparent that her own encouragement of others was just the motivation that some people needed to take those first formative steps into the sea. By sharing news among a small group about an upcoming swim, Pauline found that many more swimmers would arrive at the same time with the often nervous request, “Can I join in, too?”. Thereafter, it seems the dam had broken, a website was born and hundreds of Plymothians began leaping, bobbing, and plunging into the water in and around the harbour.
Meanwhile, in another part of the West Country, a different story was being played out. Katie Maggs, a College teacher from Penzance, first found herself at the edge of the Atlantic in 2015. The challenges and strains of family, career and life in general had caught up with her and she gazed out from Battery Rocks near the Jubilee Pool and cried. This particular site has long been popular with the few hardy souls that braved the ocean waters at dawn and by chance, Katie found some comfort among their number. This was not an advertised group. There was no programme or scheme for her to join. Nor was it her intention to cure herself by diving into the frigid water. A simple conversation with one of the assembled number encouraged Katie to put down her camera and join the swim. It took a year of dawn rises, but the cold, the wet, the natural environment began to take effect and gradually Katie was “able to feel like me again”.
As is beautifully chronicled by Jonathan J. Scott is his award-winning documentary short film, Tonic of the Sea, the wild swimming experience that Katie underwent was transformational. The physical manifestations of her exhaustion were slowly but steadily decreasing – a phenomenon which Katie credits not to chemical reactions or magic, but nature itself. Of being a part of it, immersed in it. Totally at the mercy of the huge welcoming expanse of water that can just as easily swallow you up and let you float on its surface. The sense of vulnerability and smallness she speaks of is a reminder that examples can come from many quarters.
Rather than being an organiser of people, showing the way with support networks and helpful guidance, like Pauline, Katie is the example. Both women embrace the role they have within this ever-growing movement and both have different stories to tell. They share a love for the experience they have had in the open water and recognise the nourishment it can provide to all people. It is not a matter of mental wellbeing versus physical health. Nor is it a case of either one trying to garner personal glory. It is a demonstration of the different ways that examples are set, followed and ultimately woven into the fabric of society that may not be in the history books of generations to follow. This is two women, leading by example, inspiring and nurturing and encouraging the community so that all those who choose to set a tentative toe into the sea can do so for their own ends, whatever they may be.
People all over the country are following this example. Their reasons all as individual as each other. For many, they were simply brave enough to ask the question so often asked of Pauline at the edge of the water in Bigbury, Crownhill Bay or Tinside East, “Can I join?”. Thanks to women like Pauline and Katie, the answer is a resounding, “Jump on in”!