Essex town sees surge in wild swimming popularity

Sam Russell, PA
·5-min read

An Essex town is experiencing an explosion in the popularity of cold water swimming.

One Facebook page for those wanting to swim in Leigh-on-Sea, started in mid-October, had reached almost 650 members within two months as numbers rocketed through lockdown 2.0.

Swimmers say that working from home has given people more time to enjoy simple things, and that the sea allows a moment to step away from normal life in uncertain times.

Project manager Jenny Bier is co-founder of the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Bluetits – an informal swimming movement started in Pembrokeshire in 2014, with more than 6,000 members worldwide.

Swimmers take their daily dip in the Thames estuary at Leigh-on Sea in Essex
A swimmer braves the cold in the Thames estuary at Leigh-on Sea in Essex (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Swimming at Leigh-on-Sea
Swimming at Leigh-on-Sea (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The 45-year-old first tried cold water swimming in September this year, stepping over the shingly sands and into the Thames Estuary.

“I went in up to my thighs and I thought: ‘That is absolutely awful,’ and it really, really hurt,” she said.

“I got out again.

“And then I gave myself a talking to and I went back in and it was just glorious.

“A boat had just come in with a load of cockles or fish or something and the bloke said to me: ‘You must be absolutely mental’, because it was also raining at the time.

“It was a really horrible day.

“This bloke said to me: ‘What are you doing, are you alright?’

“I was like: ‘This is the best thing ever.’

“I was so happy I’d done it, but it wasn’t an easy first one.

“I’ve tried to go in maybe three or four times per weeks ever since then whenever I can.”

Her friend Lisa Monger, 44, and also of Leigh-on-Sea, had also been trying cold water swimming and had heard of the Bluetits as there is a branch in Falmouth in Cornwall, where her daughter went to university.

Fitness coach Ms Monger decided to start a branch of the Bluetits (so named as “it’s quite funny, and it’s cold”) with Ms Bier.

They set up their Facebook page on October 19 and reached almost 650 members within two months.

While the group offers general advice and a way of connecting members, there are no fees, no formal training and people choose to swim when they like.

Swimmers take their daily dip in the Thames estuary at Thorpe Bay near Southend-on-Sea
Swimmers take their daily dip in the Thames estuary at Thorpe Bay near Southend-on-Sea (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Taking the plunge at Southend-on-Sea
Taking the plunge at Southend-on-Sea (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Now scores of swimmers and dippers – some in bikinis or swimming shorts, others in full wetsuits with hats, boots and gloves – can be seen in the tidal waters of the Essex riviera.

They range in age from children to a woman in her 70s, and include tax advisers, accountants, paramedics, police and people who work in theatre, Ms Monger said.

Ms Monger said: “This year has stripped back all the stuff that’s not important and has made people appreciate the simple things.

“That’s what’s drawn people to it, I think.

“Sometimes you might be feeling completely stressed and overwhelmed and it’s something that soothes you and washes away stress and really forces you to forget everything else because you’re so focused in the moment, of feeling everything as you walk into the water.

“Feeling how cold it is.

“Other times I’ll go there wanting the camaraderie and laughs and banter with other people who are on the beach.”

She added that working from home had given London commuters “maybe three hours back per day” and helped free up partners with childcare responsibilities.

Ms Monger said she has seen as many as 50 people in the water at 7am.

“The ones that surprise me are when it’s 11am and ordinarily people would be at work, and actually people are saying: ‘You know what – I’m going to take my lunch break when the tide’s there’.”

The group is for men and women (men are called Bluebells) and has become a community.

Braving the elements at Chalkwell Beach near Southend
Braving the elements at Chalkwell Beach near Southend (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Time for a selfie at Chalkwell
Time for a selfie at Chalkwell (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Ms Bier said she can go to the seafront on her own without making plans, and there are usually between five and 15 other swimmers there.

“It’s just been a lovely way to just connect with people in a very strange time really,” she said.

She said it has become so popular that “you can’t buy any wetsuits or gloves or anything for love nor money at the moment”.

Being in the water is “sort of stepping away from normal life, actually”, Ms Bier said.

“Once I get in the water, everything that exists outside of the water is completely irrelevant for that 10 or 15 minutes, and that’s a lovely feeling.”

Ms Monger added: “It’s just glorious.

“People just literally throw their clothes off.

“They’re so focused on wanting to get into the water they’re practically running down through the beach.”

Swimmers at Chalkwell in the Thames estuary
Swimmers at Chalkwell in the Thames estuary (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Sea swimming in the Thames Estuary
Time to warm up after a dip (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Fellow cold water swimmer Leanne Mariage has been taking advice from another group – Southend Seals – since completing a two-hour water safety course.

The 46-year-old, who works as a tutor, went swimming every day during lockdown 2.0

“There wasn’t really anything else to do,” she said.

“It was just to have a routine and a purpose every day.

“You have to really focus getting into really cold water.

“Your brain goes somewhere else, you feel somewhere different, in the sea you feel a bit disconnected from the world and connected to nature.

“It’s so cold it’s invigorating, it makes you feel really alive.”

She went on: “People think you’re mad.

“People walk along and take pictures or point at you and think you’re mad, but it’s not difficult and it’s good fun.”