Gilly McArthur, 49, from the Lake District, fell in love with wild swimming in the summer of 2014. But it was cold water swimming through winter that changed her life…

By Kim Willis (Photography by James Kirby)

‘I’ve never been a competitive swimmer, but growing up in Aberdeen I was used to splashing about in lochs. Seven years ago, my husband Charlie and I moved to the Lake District but, it rains a lot and I needed a sport I could do when it rained.

‘One September morning I headed to Windermere, kitted out in a thick wetsuit. I watched in awe as a small group of women took to the water in swimsuits. I expected them to cover themselves in goose fat to keep warm, but they had no need.

‘They swam, dried off, warmed up, shared hot drinks, buzzing from the thrill of the cold while I stumbled about in my wetsuit. They assured me I didn’t need a wetsuit, that swimming without one meant less time in the water, but a more powerful experience.

‘The next day, I returned to the lake and swam again, this time in a swimsuit. Feeling the cold water rush
over me was transformative. But by November, as the temperature dropped, I thought it was too cold to carry on. It wasn’t until the following year I swam through winter, noticing every degree in temperature drop.

‘I started to notice subtle ways my body reacted to the cold on different days. If I had my period, was tired, dehydrated or stressed, it would be a different experience. Some swimmers can tolerate the cold better than others. I get Raynaud’s disease in my fingers so need to be careful, but the more you swim, the more your body and mind learns to accept feeling cold.

‘You needn’t to stay in for long to soak up all benefits and it’s not about striving to out-swim anyone else or yourself. It’s about just being. It takes you away from the churning thoughts and noise of life and forces you to focus entirely on the present.’

cold water swimming

Making friends through cold water swimming

A few years ago, my friend and fellow swim coach Katie and I launched Blue Mind Swim, a free once-a-month introduction to the world of water on Windermere. Cold water swimming is adventurous, but can be risky. Cold water can cause hypothermia, so it’s important to encourage new swimmers to dip safely.

‘We’ve taken hundreds of people for their first swim and I love seeing water give them the joy it gives me. Swimming with others provides an incredible sense of community, too. There’s something special about stripping off on a lake shore, sharing an extreme experience.

‘We’re all here for the same reason, which boils down to the simple fact that life needs cold water swimming. There’s solidarity in the water; you’re stepping out of your comfort zone together.’

Ice swimming for charity

‘Four years ago, I took a swim on New Year’s Day, then swam again the following day. By the third day of the year, I’d decided to swim every day of the month, raising money for mental health charity, Mind. Since then, I’ve swam every day of January every year to raise money for Mind.

‘The winter of 2019 was so mild there was no ice, but last winter was exceptionally cold, the coldest we’d had in a decade. It was also the fi rst winter Charlie joined me in the water and after so many years he finally saw why I love it so much.

‘It was lovely to find icy places to dip together, going on long hikes through the hills looking for places where the sun hadn’t melted the ice. I use a lump hammer I picked up in the mystery aisle of Lidl to break through the ice and know about safe entry points and water depths.

‘Swimming encourages me to notice the changing seasons, as the trees around the lakes take on autumnal colours and the lakes fill with winter rain. It’s wonderful to witness the hidden rhythm to life.’

cold water ice swimming wild winter

Liquid meditation

‘Every swim starts with a feeling of anticipation, excited for the adventure ahead. While I’m in the water, my mind can’t be anywhere else. I observe my breath, the sound of geese overhead, the way the water feels on my fingertips, the ripples moving away from me. It’s liquid meditation, leaving me feeling calm, yet strong.

‘Last winter, when so much of our freedom was taken away, the cold water gave swimmers a way to take back a little control. It’s a magical elixir, which has given so many people a gift. After every morning swim, a surge of happy hormones floods through me and I feel superhuman for the day ahead.’

Follow Gilly’s adventures at Mental Health Swims is a UK-wide community offering peer-led swims. Find one at

Click here for our beginner’s guide to wild swimming!