2021’s fastest growing hobby is a hit here on the estate. We speak with wild swimming pro Sophie Hellyer to learn a bit more about it
We’re a little late to the party, really. Our Scandi friends have known about and enjoyed the myriad benefits of cold-water swimming for years. Why then have us Brits taken so long to come round? And why now are we finally seeing the light?
Various lockdowns and an increased awareness around mental well-being have surely got something to do with it. Either way, we love it here at Wilderness Reserve. It’s accessible, inclusive, quick – and it’s a fun bonding ritual. But the best bit? No skills required, just a little courage!
Outdoors activities are a central part of the experience here at Wilderness Reserve and Chuck, our head ranger, is always keen to suggest a dip in the lake, no matter what the season. “The colder the better!” he says.
Much has been said about the benefits of being in cold-water, surrounded by nature, and there seem to be many. A positive influence on your circulation and immune system are where your body will thank you for braving the plunge, but enthusiasts are also said to enjoy an increased sense of alertness and a reduction of stress and anxiety.
It’s worth noting that all of these effects are, as it stands, based on anecdotal evidence, but we feel it won’t be long until the scientists corroborate what everyone who has tried it is saying: done safely, cold-water swimming out in nature is good for you.
It’s not all about being virtuous, though: a swim in cold water with friends is really fun and that’s exactly how we like to do it here at Wilderness Reserve. You can do it at either of our beautiful lakes: one is in front of Sibton Park, our beautiful 18th-century manor house; the other, close to Chapel Barn, our recently renovated 15th-century luxury barn.
Here at Wilderness Reserve we’re as happy to organise a fun wild swimming session as we are something a little more still in the form of a mindful cold-water immersion experience. Think of it as meditation, but in cold water, while surrounded by nature. If you’re favouring something a little more active, ask about our stand-up paddling boarding lessons.
While you can do it at any time of day or night, we advise either first thing in the morning or at dusk. It’ll be wellies on before picking you up in a Series 1 Landrover and head down to one of the lakes. Of course, we can always walk or pootle down on the estate’s Pashley bicycles.
Towels and bathrobes will be there waiting for you, as will an array of hot drinks and breakfast or snacking options. And this isn’t just any old snack. We’re talking quality, local, seasonal food prepared by our esteemed chefs at the Estate Kitchen. We’ll make sure it fortifies and warms you up after you session in the water.
If you’re most attracted to the idea of doing things as the sunsets, then we’ll set up a fun fire pit and have some giant marshmallows ready for the kids – and the adults. Either option works brilliantly well and there’ll always be a friendly ranger on hand to make sure everyone stays safe and that you’re making the absolute most of the experience.
Once that’s done, you might want to retire to your ‘spa house’ property? Our seven-bed Grange, which is close to Chapel Barn lake, comes immediately to mind, with its hot tub, pool, steam and sauna. Though, there are a variety of spa house options to suit different group sizes, so do give us a call and ask what’s on offer.
Well, Sophie Hellyer, a former surfing champion turned cold-water swimming, says that she struggles to put how it all feels into words. “You just have to get in the water and feel it,” she says. “The first part is the difficult bit: you can’t really focus on anything else in that moment other than your breathing.”
But that means all of life’s daily stresses are left on the side of the lake as you dive in. “You’re thinking about not much at all. It’s a mindfulness exercise too. For those who struggle with meditation like me, this is a good way to be in the moment and connect with your breath,” she says.
But perhaps the most appealing part is how connected you feel with nature. Floating around in natural water, with a view in every direction of the breathtaking greenery Wilderness Reserve has to offer. There’s also the wildlife: if you go at dusk or dawn, you must just see a beautiful barn owl flying over – or perhaps a drift of curious swans.
First thing’s first: always go in a group. It’s safer and a lot more fun. How long you should stay in is entirely dependent on how you feel. “If you’re really shivering when you get out, you’ve probably been in for too long – in winter, a couple of minutes is plenty.” says Sophie. Wilderness Reserve guests needn’t worry though because our rangers will ensure that everyone stays safe.
What’s interesting and important to know is what Sophie calls the ‘after drop’. “When you get out you tend to not feel particularly cold, but then after 10 to 20 minutes all the blood that was keeping your core warm travels back to your extremities and you start to feel the chill.”
It’s important, therefore, to make sure your core is kept warm during the period immediately after getting out of the water. That’s where our fabulous Estate Kitchen comes in. Because there’s no better way of warming your core than with a cup of something soothing and a hot snack by the water. Our choice? A quality bacon butty, with a fresh coffee please. And maybe a splash of that Baileys in there too.
To book in for a few days of cold-water swimming or mindful immersion at Wilderness Reserve, speak with Tom via our ‘Chat now’ box on the bottom right-hand corner of your screen
Find out more about Sophie Hellyer and her company Rise Fierce – which offers wild swim and yoga retreats at Wilderness Reserve – at risefierce.com