“Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.”
If you’re a geriatric millennial like me, you might remember this jingle from a TV advert for a schnapps-based alcopop called Metz. In it, a sinister Jack Frost-like figure invites a commoner to indulge in the “deliciousness of judders”. Now, when I’m in a wood with a moon view, I think of him and get a bit scared.
Ever since lockdown, I’ve been swimming outdoors in a nearby lake – at night. Around it, a thicket of veteran oaks lean into each other like gothic trusses. The frisson is real: night-time in nature is when most animals wake up; there are strange noises (the Judderman, obviously) and stronger smells.
Like many of us during Covid, I was looking for something free to do that might help alleviate the anxiety of career death. At last count, the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) had over 170,000 members, up by more than a third since 2020. A recent society poll found that the overwhelming reason for swimming outdoors was “joy”; more than a third of those who responded are now taking a dip at night.
“A lot of people are finding real comfort in nature again,” says Kate Rew, author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook and founder of the OSS. “It’s a great way to feel part of the planet and embrace a wilder side of yourself.” Night swimming, she argues, gives folks an even stronger sense of the above. “Not only are you free from gravity, but one of your major senses is taken away. You sort of feel like an astronaut moving in space.”
Tonight, I’m back at the lake for more derring-do in my regular dressing-gown-flip-flop combo. A quick skip over the turnstyle and I’m walking slowly – eyes not yet adjusted – through the eerie copse towards a jetty. My favourite swans are back, too, resting on a purpose-built launch. As I approach, they sashay into the water, leaving me clear passage to the lake.
Diving through this shimmering sheet of obsidian has never stopped feeling like an act of faith
Diving through this shimmering sheet of obsidian has never stopped feeling like an act of faith. I take a minute. As my eyes wake up, I enjoy the view. A crescent moon pierces the sky, like a French manicure through navy tights. Swaying reeds susurrate at the water’s edge. On the hill behind, candlelit windows help to define the silhouette of a Jacobean mansion.
“It can take your eyes between 25 and 40 minutes to adapt to the dark,” says Rew. “To get the most out of a night swim, try to factor in some time away from artificial light before you go in. It’s amazing how much you can see when you give it time.”
The best time to go night swimming, contrary to my story, is on the eve of a full moon. “October is special because the moon rises after the sun has set, so you can see it emerge over the horizon,” says Rew. Obviously you’re going to need to swim somewhere the horizon is in view.
More important than that, says Rew, is to “swim in places you know really well – you need to know what it looks like to discern what it’s like at night”.
For newbies, finding a good spot can be difficult: public access in the UK is limited (97 per cent of inland water is out of bounds). One of Kate’s favourite spots is the Thames at South Stoke in Oxfordshire, which you can access via a footpath. “It’s a perfect spot for full-moon swims as it’s so open.”
Of course, the sea is available to all, but it’s important to exercise caution as the full moon coincides with the biggest tides and more movement in the sea. Join your local outdoor swimming Facebook group for advice, or buy Kate’s book: it has a chapter dedicated to night swimming.
As I’m gliding along, the water takes on a metallic varnish. Between chrome and shadow, amorphous blobs make me doubt depth and form
The best hour to go, Rew says, is at astronomical twilight, when the night begins in earnest and the twinkling firmament is at its brightest. You can easily find out what time it will be if you look online.
Splosh. The attack of cold water on body and mind hits hard, but soon subsides into a pleasurable pang, yanking me out of past and future worries and into the present moment. As I’m gliding along, the water takes on a metallic varnish. Between chrome and shadow, amorphous blobs make me doubt depth and form.
I’ve been using my eyes all day, looking at a screen. With this sense dimmed, smell, sound and touch lead the way. “There’s something transgressive about getting in at night,’’ says Rew. “It changes your experience of water. Deprived of your sight, it feels like your limbs somehow move in more dimensions.”
There’s also something deeply nostalgic about swimming at night. REM’s song “Nightswimming” sums it up: “The fear of getting caught/ Of recklessness and water/ They cannot see me naked/ These things, they go away/ Replaced by everyday”.
I look back at the woods and realise that this was the location for my first ever cigarette, 20 years ago. Probably my first bottle of Metz, too. I get out and shuffle back towards the car, shivering a little. “No need to be scared,” I say to myself. “You’re the Judderman now.”
Visit outdoorswimmingsociety.com; find more tips in The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook, Rider Books, £22