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  • Anette Frisch

Reclaim your swim spots!

Aktualisiert: 31. Aug. 2023

During the pandemic people in the UK started to reclaim places to swim although they were not official. Rivers, reservoirs or ponds are now all fair game and people can just go wherever they like. Sociologist Sasha Roseneil refers to it as a social movement on an online event on International Women’s Day 2021 hosted by the UCL Institute for Women’s Health. After I followed the discussion I wanted to know more about her thesis.

The photo is a portrait of sociologist Sasha Roseneil. It shows her on the beach at Brighton.
Sociologist and passionate open water swimmer Sasha Roseneil at Brighton. © Sasha Roseneil

Sasha, you said, that open water swimming is a social movement. Why do you think so?

Saying it's a social movement was a bit of a throwaway remark. I am a sociologist of social movements, but haven't done research on open water swimming as a social movement. But I do think that it has a very strongly politicized element, which is about people's right to access places to swim in, and about the water quality.

Please explain your thoughts.

Near where I lived there was a reservoir that had been open only for triathletes to swim in, and it would be open for only two hours on a Saturday morning. I often walked my dog around this reservoir and would think how amazing it would be to swim there. It would be perfect for swimming. Why don't they let everyone swim there? Then in March 2020 Britain went into lockdown. Suddenly there was no swimming anywhere. After a period, the organization that controls the reservoir decided to open the reservoir to everyone. Initially they said you had to have a wet suit to swim there. Then, very quickly, they said you don't need to have a wet suit. And there was a very strong demand during the pandemic, and people were coming to the reservoir, in a way that you might join a movement, and become enthused by it, passionate about it, and keen to spread the word, to get other people to join.

"People were reclaiming spaces to swim that were not official swimming places. "

They made up their minds and regulations because of public power?

Yes, I would say so. We were putting pressure on the organization that ran the reservoir to stay open in winter, and to grow their hours. We started talking to each other about it, there was a WhatsApp group of swimmers formed to make sure that we could. But there were also the connections I was making with others who loved to swim, but who lived elsewhere. I think I persuaded quite a few other friends who lived outside London to start swimming in their local reservoirs, which weren't organized by an organization. And there developed a huge network of people across the UK who had taken up open water swimming because of the pandemic and because the pools were closed. People were reclaiming spaces to swim that were not official swimming places. And now, all over the country there are people swimming extra-legally in unofficial swimming spots.

The pandemic had encouraged wild swimming?

Yes. It was bubbling away for many years and people were writing books about it. I think it was growing in popularity, but it was the pandemic that made it explode in the UK. There is this sense that rivers, reservoirs, ponds are now all fair game and you can just go and swim wherever you like. And then that has also become a kind of activism about public access to clean water in which to swim. One of the places where I have swum over the last couple of years is Ilkley in Yorkshire and the river Wharfe. My friend, who is in her 70s, swam there as a child. She has been part of a community group that is now testing the water and has been campaigning for water quality and safety standards in rivers and to have rivers designated as bathing rivers.

"Women who had not swum much before brought a very strong sense of community with them."

Was your friend successful?

Yes. That stretch of water in Ilkley now has been designated officially as a bathing space. That means that the water is tested, and the Local Water Authority has some responsibility for ensuring that. And I should probably emphasise that specially at the reservoir in London there were lot of middle-aged women who had not swum much before, but who brought a very strong sense of community with them, and who made the reservoir a very friendly and warm place to go to.

Why do you think that middle-aged women are discovering outdoor swimming?

I have done some research with Joyce Harper. Our hypothesis: cold water swimming can help women deal with menstrual and menopausal symptoms. We have not finished the analysis yet; therefore, I cannot say what the results are. But those of us doing the project had a strong sense that we thought that there was something from our own experience that it helps regulate hormonal states. But I am not saying that it is just a female thing, and whilst there might be something biological that is attractive for women about cold water swimming, there's also a sociability about it that appeals to people of all sexes and genders, but perhaps especially to middle aged and older women.

In how far are sociability and swimming related?

There is a lot of camaraderie and of friendliness amongst women who open-water swim. A lot of women go in small groups with friends. I very often go by myself, but there is always someone to chat to. And it is sort of space of convivial exchange and friendliness. At the reservoir where I swim when I am in London now, there are a lot of familiar faces because I have been swimming there for a long time. When I swim at the beach in Brighton, I do not know the people, but there is still a sense of solidarity. Especially in the winter!

Sasha Roseneil talked about swimming as a social movement at an online event during the pandemic. Her talk starts 4.45 minutes into the recording. The event was held on 8th March 2021 hosted by the Institute for Women’s Health, University College London for International Women’s Day 2021.

Talking to swimmers from the UK I got the feeling their passion for swimming has tradition.

That's interesting! I think there's a tradition in Germany of open air (if not open water) swimming. The reason I say this partly is because of my friend Judy Tucker, who is a painter. Her mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany and came to Britain in the 1930s. Judy has done a series of paintings about the open air swimming pools her mother swam as a child. Judy went back to Germany and visited these old swimming pools. So, in my imagining there is this whole culture of swimming in these amazing German open air pools. It's interesting how we both might be creating our imaginaries. You can easily build up a bit of an imaginary picture of something that is a bit out of proportion of the reality. There are millions of people in Britain who never go swimming, even in a swimming pool.

Hard for me to imagine …

I have many, many people who think I am completely mad. They would say the only time they would go swimming outdoors would be on holiday in Spain. That is Britain, too.

But the British developed the breaststroke for example, and you have the Godfather of swimming literature Roger Deakin.

I mean, yes, there is a culture, but you could exaggerate it. Deakin himself was trying to create something. By writing about it and bringing it into being. He has had a big influence and helped create this movement by telling us there was a history.

Has your relation to swimming have changed with the pandemic?

I'm still very enthusiastic. I am now living in Brighton, and I have not got my life set up and regularized yet. But I will be soon and then I will be swimming in the sea as many days as I possibly can. Swimming is so bound up with my wellbeing and I just love cold water swimming now. I just love the buzz, the feeling, the kind of energy of swimming in cold water.


A portrait of Sasha Roseneil.
First female VC of University of Sussex: Sasha Roseneil ©University of Sussex

Sasha Roseneil is not only a passionate cold-water swimmer, but a passionate academic, too. For more than 30 years Sasha rocks the academic world e.g. with her international reputation for her pioneering research on intimate relationships, citizenship, and social movements. She originally trained as a sociologist, and later as a group analyst and psychotherapist. In August 2022 Sasha became the ninth and the first female (sic!) Vice Chancellor and President of University of Sussex. The 57-year young talent lives in Brighton. If the sea is too rough, she books a lane at SeaLanes in Brighton, the UK’s first National Open Water Swimming Centre which has opened in June 2023.


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