Dreamer | Meet Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan
Hi Anna and Vicky. Your book, Taking the Plunge: The Healing Powers Of Wild Swimming For Mind, Body And Soul, is a collection of delicious wild swimming stories. How did you both meet?
Vicky: A mutual friend introduced us. She said, “Anna, you like wild swimming. Vicky you do too. Maybe you should write a book. You even look a bit like each other.” Anna’s a photographer and had already started a project photographing and interviewing wild swimmers in Scotland. We then developed it into our book. I was really fascinated by the fact that so many people were talking about quite pronounced physical and mental health benefits. I also became interested in how people were taking their grief to the water, as I had done that too. When my brother died a few years earlier, my one comfort that summer was time spent bobbing around in the water of an Irish lough.
Is that a big part of the reason for writing the book - to look into the relationship between swimming and mental health?
Anna: We wanted to explore some of the reasons people feel wild swimming has helped them overcome things, from mental health issues, to chronic pain, a bereavement, loneliness, body confidence issues and so on. In each chapter we meet wonderful wild swimmers who tell us their stories, and we also interview experts for their advice, including cold water experts, doctors, psychiatrists, adventurers, swim instructors. It is essentially a great handbook for anyone wanting to get started, feel inspired, read some amazing real life stories of healing and joy.
What got you into wild swimming?
Anna: I’ve always enjoyed swimming outdoors, but I’m not a strong swimmer and I’m super cautious so I hooked up with a local swimming group at a little beach near me - that was when I really started doing it regularly. It helped enormously with my stress and anxiety, as well as helping calm my painful joints.
Vicky: Since I was a kid, wherever I went, I would always want to jump into the sea or a loch, no matter what temperature it was. But I never thought of it as wild swimming until a couple of years ago. That was when I got into what I think of as wild swimming culture. A friend had lost her mum and, knowing I liked a dip, asked me if I would join her regular Monday morning wild swimming group. I was so up for it as I’d been lurking on the wider group’s Facebook page for a while.
Which swimming experiences have most inspired you?
Anna: Scotland is amazing. We have smashed ice, swum in hidden waterfalls in the mountains, in snowstorms, in secret healing lochs, jumped into rivers, reservoirs and quarries. I just love the exhilaration of finding somewhere new.
Vicky: I remember one swim across Loch Arkaig with channel swimmer, Morag Hughes, where I looked at the distance and thought I couldn’t do it – but I just took it slowly and it was lovely. Also, jumping into pools at the bottom of waterfalls. Once, with our swim guide, a woman and I were standing there at the edge discussing whether we really thought it was wise to do it, then we just jumped in! But beyond that, one of my favourite memories from last year was a swim on my own at night – with my husband watching from the beach, where our friends had a campfire – and all I could see was my own pale arms ahead of me pushing through sparkling water.
You have built a real community around wild swimming, bringing hundreds of women together - in freezing conditions - to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), for example. How was that?
Anna: It was such an extraordinary and amazing experience to swim with over 300 women at the crack of dawn. We all donated money to our local Edinburgh Women’s Aid charity and also swam simultaneously with 85 other swim groups across the world, who were fundraising for their local women’s centres. It came about after we organised a much smaller IWD sunrise swim last year, which had around 80 women on our local beach. It was so much fun we decided to do it again but make it bigger and better, encourage other groups to do the same and use the opportunity to raise as much money as we could for women’s charities.
Your advice for women who haven’t tried wild swimming?
Vicky: It’s a good time of year to start as you’ve got all the way until October of relatively warm waters and by then you might be converted enough to want to try going through the winter. My biggest advice is to find a local swimming group – it’s fun, social and it means you’re all looking after each other. You can usually find these groups either on Facebook or through the Outdoor Swimming Society. We tend to swim in just bathing costumes, but many people do swim in wetsuits. Actually, we know people who swim all the way through the winter in skimpy costumes – they enjoy the whole journey of the cold water shock! One cold water physiologist told me that the health benefits are greater without a wetsuit – but put on a wetsuit in summer because that’s when the jellyfish arrive!
In a world where many women are feeling stretched, do you have any tips for switching off?
Anna: The older I get the more I realise that when I overstretch myself I’m no good to anyone who relies on me. I love to go out for a run, a wild swim or a long walk every day and always enjoy a bubble bath and some yoga stretching before bed – these things help me sleep so much better, making me more focused and ready for the next day. I think we could all do with making a little time for ourselves and not feeling guilt about it; even just a few minutes a day can totally revive you.
Vicky: I’m actually not very good at this, which is why wild swimming is so great for me. There’s something about getting into cold water. It freezes your mind. Your body is in such shock that you just can’t think about anything else other than what you’re feeling and the environment you’re in. It’s great for a busy head.
The other thing about wild swimming is that I’m menopausal and sometimes suffer from insomnia, some of it triggered by hot flushes in the night. I found that one of the things I loved about cold water swimming at this stage in my life was that I would get in there and think, wow, I feel cold. I would get out and think, I still feel cold. And later in the day I would notice that I wasn’t so bothered by hot flushes. Right now I’m working on a book about the menopause, Still Hot, and thinking a lot about this.
But also, I think almost everyone I know who wild swims says they sleep much better following a day where they have swum. I find that too, with one exception: if I take a late night swim, I’m so buzzing from the thrill of it I find it impossible to get to sleep.
Where in the world makes you feel most happy and relaxed?
Anna: The Cairngorms in the Highlands of Scotland is a particularly special place for me. The quiet pine forests, the endless lochs and the snow capped mountains all give me a profound sense of peace and joy.
Vicky: Being in nature – the sea, woodland, a garden. It doesn’t really matter too much where. And, actually, our next book, For The Love Of Trees (out in October), was triggered by our shared love of the woods.
Quick fire questions:
Top of your summer reading list?
Anna: I’m really looking forward to Caitlin Moran’s new book More Than A Woman, and I have just bought Nan Shepherd’s A Living Mountain which is a classic book about nature in the Cairngorms that I can’t believe I haven’t read yet.
Vicky: Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need The Wild by Lucy Jones, an incredible examination of our physiological connection with nature. Surfacing by Katherine Jamie. Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke.
Anna: I’m stuck in a bit of an indie throwback loop at the moment, reliving my youth, maybe? Pixies, Beastie Boys, The Stone Roses, Portishead etc.
Vicky: I love the folk group The Unthanks. And my pop addiction is Billie Eilish – always putting on Bad Guy and Everything I Wanted to dance around the kitchen. And Neneh Cherry is a total force.
Anna: Feel Better, Live More with Dr Ranghan Chatterjee – an amazing selection of podcasts about health, really inspiring!
Vicky: Invisibilia – so many fascinating stories examining our attitudes to pain, fear, race and many other aspects of life. I’m also a fan of Unlocking Us by Brene Brown, and the wild swimming podcast which helped us through lockdown, Downstream, created by Outdoor Swimmer magazine.
Pyjamas or nightshirts?
Anna: Pyjamas EVERY time, and if they have pockets it is a double win. I absolutely love changing into my pyjamas after a long day and getting cosy.
Vicky: PJs – though I get so hot at night these days I always end up stripping them off.
Nightcap or night cream?
Anna: Night cream, I love a bit of a pamper.
Vicky: Nightcap, definitely. I’ve never been very good on night-time beauty regimes.