top of page

Many of us are familiar with the health benefits of a few laps in the local pool, but what about open water swimming? While the thought of icy temperatures and a mouthful of pond weed may not seem inviting, for some, the idea of taking a dip in a lake or river is pure heaven. Mally Harvey meets swimmer Caroline Smithson to explore the unique health benefits of outdoor swimming.




  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Diving into an icy lake on a chilly morning is Caroline Smithson’s idea of a perfect Sunday. Caroline is an open water swimmer, which means she eschews the comforts of a heated pool and heads into lakes, rivers and seas all over Yorkshire and the rest of the UK. Most weekends, Caroline is to be found at St Aidan’s Nature Reserve, taking a dip alongside other hardy swimmers. Mally Harvey often sees the group whilst walking her dog and she was curious to find out more. Mally meets Caroline Smithson to discover the health benefits of open water swimming.

Have you always enjoyed being physically active?

Yes, but not in a sporty way. I was never the one that got picked at school. In fact I was the one that wasn’t picked - although I have always had a physical job. I am always about being outside doing physical stuff because that’s how I am. It goes with my mindset really, I have just got to be outside. Whether its doing something physical or just being in the fresh air. I have never taken part in any sport - well I was in a rounders team - but I am not a sporty person.


How did you get involved in outdoor swimming?

When we were children, we used to swim outdoors all the time. On a Sunday, our family used to go down to places like Knaresborough, or some of the swimming spots I go to now, like Boston Spa. I remember we’d just go for a swim. On holidays we would go to the sea - we didn’t have wetsuits then. In the 60s we didn’t go abroad and I loved the sea. I’ve always been a water baby. My mum would take a costume everywhere because wherever we went and there was water, I would end up in the water. Once I fell in water in a white dress and it came out black.

In the summer holidays my friends mother looked after me while mum was at work and she used to take us to Wetherby. She would sit on the steps and knit, and we’d go in the water. She used to save some coupons up. She would get train tickets when they were on offer and she would take us to Scarborough - we’d spend all day on the beach. What she did for us was amazing. It was normal then to go swimming wherever there was water. Water has been a significant part of my life. Maybe the provision of leisure centres changed peoples’ habits, so swimming in lakes and rivers sort of tailed off? I remember when I lived in Garforth, the swimming pool at Kippax opened and my friend and I were maybe 10 or a bit older, walked from Garforth to Kippax to swim. They were giving out bracelets because you could only stay in for an hour as it was so busy and popular when it first opened. There weren’t many public places open then, although there was the International Pool in Leeds. My friends mum and dad used to take us there for swimming lessons because my mum was working. I can’t say I was ever a good swimmer.


Did you continue to swim as you got older?
I started work in 1980, so less opportunity. But I did go up to the Lake District once or twice a year, so I continued to swim there. When you are working everything takes over. I never lost that love of water. About 15 or so years ago, during one very hot summer, I came out of the supermarket, and I was so hot. I was dripping and all I could think of was that I needed to swim. I need to find some water somewhere. By this time I had forgotten all the places I used to go swimming, but I remembered there was somewhere near Wetherby. I went home to get some kit and went to Wetherby and I walked down the river from the sports centre. I didn’t know where to get in - there were notices forbidding swimming. I thought I was going to get told off. I don’t like conflict, so I walked a long way until I reached a beach and I got in. It was absolutely glorious. I swam down the river. I noticed there were some fence posts that had fallen into the river where the bank had given way. They had concrete bases and I thought to myself, “I must swim near them on the way back.” I swam back and what did I do? I swam straight into one of these posts, a got a big splinter of wood in my leg. I didn’t notice it at the time. I was so cold I couldn’t feel it. I went back to the car and patched myself up. It could have been nasty, you don’t know what’s in the river. Any open cut, especially in water, is potentially serious. I’ve always been lucky, always looked after myself. I got away with it.

So what next?
That was about 20 years ago. I carried on swimming. I joined Facebook and there was a Northern area swim group, but it didn’t come to much in the end. I met one lady called Patience from Liverpool who was quite keen. With her husband and my husband, we all met up at North Landing, near Filey. Although that’s not an ideal place to swim. Then the groups started up. At some point I walked past St. Aidan’s - this was before the RSPB took over the management. I noticed a hole in the fence. I knew there was a big lake there and I just thought to myself, “Oh! There’s a hole in the fence, inviting me in. That looks interesting.” A couple of weeks later I sneaked in and had a look round. I realised that if you got down the bank near the edge of the water no one could see you. And I started swimming in Bowyers Lake. Rather than having to drive to Wetherby, this was on my doorstep. Rivers are okay most of the time, but you have to be careful because they are unpredictable and subject to currents. And nowadays you are worried about pollution. So a lake was perfect. I’ve been swimming at St, Aidan’s over 13 years. I wasn’t trespassing. Trespass is a massive grey area for swimmers. Maybe I was being a bit naughty - but there were no signs. It was a big lake that was empty and no one was using it. When I first went in, I did a big snorkel circuit round it and because it was a new lake there was nothing in it. The landscape had all been changed and it had a clay bottom. I was worried there may have been objects in there that you might get caught up in, but there wasn’t. I found a plastic bag, there was no weed and no life, and nothing else. It was really safe.

How did you contact other swimmers?
It was through Facebook really and the group have been swimming there for 13 or 14 years. I have photos from the early days. Groups have formed and collapsed as other groups came along and it became more and more popular. One lady set up the FLOWS (Fabulous Leeds Open Water Swimmers) Facebook group. FLOWS were using lots of venues round Leeds, but St. Aidan’s was popular because you could always use it if the rivers were too high. And at one time you could get out all the way round because it’s shallow at the edges. There are lots of reeds now but you can still stand near the edge if you lose confidence or if you get in a little bit of bother. It’s much safer than going in the sea or in a river.


What are the benefits of open water swimming?
We swim in a little group and it becomes really social. Our main core group is a mix of men and women. The demographics of open water swimmers show it’s mainly women of a certain age. It becomes totally addictive; some come 2 or 3 times a week. Our group swim through the winter as well, its never stopped. We swim on a Sunday morning, a bit like going to church! We used to go to different places but we have got stuck at St. Aidan’s. It means everyone knows where they can find everyone on a Sunday morning. What I get out of it personally? It’s not about the swimming. I’m not a particularly good swimmer. It’s about being outside, hearing the birds, seeing the dragonflies on the water, feeling the air and then entering the water and being submerged. Then you are in the water and the water reflects the sky in all its different moods. It’s different every day. As you get older, there aren’t many new experiences ahead of you. The water is putting you in a situation which is potentially life threatening, but you have all these sensations that you wouldn’t normally experience. It’s different every time and that’s part of it. I can’t quote the science, but its completely uplifting. When you get out your body is screaming - and alive. It’s a massive buzz. So it stimulates not only your body but your mind. If you speak to any open water swimmers, I think they would all say that when you come out, you’re a totally different person. It completely resets you, it totally shifts your mind into a better place. I don’t know what that’s about but it does. It definitely improves self-confidence.
A few days ago I met a man who told me that open water swimming helped with his depression. Does that chime with you?
It doesn’t surprise me. You find that amongst people who come for the first time, 98% of them come again. And they don’t just want to do it occasionally. That’s why the groups have got bigger and bigger. There were only a few of us but now there are 15,000 members of FLOWS! What happened when Covid came is that people couldn’t go swimming due to the travel restrictions. Once they were lifted, everyone started swimming - because of the mental health benefits. It just took off and became fashionable. It’s been on various TV programmes.

There must be dangers though?
People talk about drowning but when you look at the figures two thirds of the people who drown do not voluntarily intend to enter the water. It’s people like walkers or joggers, or intoxicated people. Not open water swimmers. Swimming is quite safe because you intentionally enter the water, so you are prepared. It’s probably as safe as going for a walk. Swimmers are in the right mindset and properly equipped for the water. There is no panic or cold shock. We always say you swim at your own risk, you are responsible for yourself. It’s always advisable and sensible to swim with someone else, so you look out for each other. The bigger problem could be hypothermia, not drowning. If someone stops talking, you need to be aware and help. If someone gets into difficulties you can reassure them, tell them to get on their back and float. Cold shock is worth knowing about. If people want to try swimming, it would be sensible to start in the summer and acclimatise that way. It’s up to the individual to make their own risk analysis and assess the situation. When you get out you must have the appropriate clothing to dress quickly. Then there’s sewage – though we don’t have that problem in the lake. In the 70s I remember the outfall at Scarborough. You would just be swimming in sewage, before they cleaned it up. I think I probably have immunity now but I don’t tend put my head under.
What would you say to an older person who might be interested in open water swimming
The advice I would give wouldn’t be dependent on age. It would be the same for anyone who wanted to do it. I would tell them to look at themselves, factor in round their health, their mobility. Then talk to other swimmers, go down to see what it’s all about. I don’t think its different for older people, we all have our own blocks or issues. You must be able to float. Do whatever is comfortable for you - but do it!

The Benefits of Open Water Swimming


For some, the idea of plunging yourself into an icy lake might be their idea of a nightmare. But, as Caroline says, open water swimming can become addictive. David Beckham, Ed Sheeran and Bake Off judge Prue Leith are all said to be fans of wild swimming. Susannah Constantine (of Trinny and Susannah fame) is a big advocate of diving into open water. "Nothing better to lift the mood than a swim in October seas," she said recently. Perhaps this is just the latest celebrity trend? Either way, you certainly don’t have to be famous to have a go.


Whilst research isn’t absolutely conclusive, it’s clear that swimming in rivers, seas and lakes can have some benefits. And those benefits are often to do with how we think. A recent study consulted around 700 swimmers in Scotland - not traditionally a warm area of the UK. The study claimed that “open water swimming can uniquely benefit mental and physical wellbeing.” 90% of swimmers say it helps with their mental health. Another study from the Netherlands looked into cold water swimming and concluded that people who regularly immersed themselves in icy seas and lakes could, to some extent, influence their immune responses. So perhaps swimming in cold water can keep you healthy, both physically and mentally?


A lot of the evidence that indicates the benefits of open water swimming is anecdotal. But there are some rather surprising benefits. Dr Catherine Kelly is a geographer who loves to swim in the seas of the South Coast near where she works at the University of Brighton. She reports that open water swimming as “an enormous impact on my well-being.” Her interest is such that she has written a book about the subject. Blue Spaces: How & Why Water Can Make You Feel Better details the impact the swimming had on Catherine’s life – and encourages all of us to join her in seas, lakes and rivers. In a recent blog, Catherine talks about why she is so attracted to the water and makes some unexpected connections. “In the aftermath of grief,” she writes. When your mind and soul are numb and shocked, being by the sea can bring you back into your body.” Who knew water could help in the grieving process? Dr Kelly runs various organisations dedicated to helping children and adults to work through mental health issues (grief, trauma, stress etc) by getting into open water. Some studies also claim that open water swimming can have a positive effect for people living with dementia.


The most obvious benefit to open water swimming is the contribution it makes to your fitness. Obviously, you don’t have to dip a toe into the freezing sea at Bridlington for this – you can get the same effect down the local leisure centre. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that swimming is good for your body: any exercise increases our cardiovascular fitness and helps strengthen muscles and bones.


Whatever your attitude to open water swimming, there are plenty of people who swear by it. And as Caroline says, a lot of the people who love it are “women over a certain age.” Perhaps it’s time you gave it a try?

If trying open water swimming for the first time, always go with someone else or join a group. It’s safer that way! Search for FLOWS (Fabulous Leeds Outdoor Wild Swimming) on Facebook. for more information.


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
bottom of page