'I care little for distance, times and temperatures. I have no interest in getting in the lake and swimming, I'll get in and stay for as long as I want or as little as I want. I like to feel the changes in the season in my skin. The water feels purer in winter, that's something that you feel inside.'
These words drew us into to Vivienne's world a few months ago. Recorded by Tommaso Di Paola and Jack Webber in a short film named Afterglow, we were intrigued and inspired by Vivienne's unique approach to wild-swimming, focusing on the sensory experience and the interest in developing a relationship with the water in which she swims. We had to find out more.
Words & Photography by Vivienne Rickman-Poole | @viviennerickmanpoole
You aren’t just a swimmer, firstly you are an artist and educator, you merge the two together very well. Swimming obviously feeds your creativity. What do you gain from swimming that inspires your art?
I swim foremost for the time and space it gives me, that clarity of thought away from the rest of my life. In the water I feel like I am me, in my purest sense, unaccompanied by buzzing gadgets, conversations, to do lists... it's a purely selfish indulgence I don't think nor feel for anyone else. For this reason, it has become a space where I have grown and developed, I have always been confident in the water as a swimmer but I have been able to explore through my creativity my confidence in myself as a woman and how I feel about my body, this has inspired my current work.
Can you tell us a bit about how and why you started swimming? Have you always loved the water?
I have always been a swimmer, since childhood. My mother was a hardy swimmer from the Orkney Islands at a time where swimming only took place outdoors in harbour pools or in the sea. She ensured I swam as soon as I was able to go in the water. Summers were spent in rivers, streams and gravel pits in the New Forest where I grew up or in the sea near Bournemouth. I was the child at school who went to swimming club five nights a week and went on to become a lifeguard at a local pool throughout my teenage and young adult life, but I fanatically turned to swimming outdoors about the time my mother passed away, inspired also by my next door neighbour who always looked so damn happy after a dip in the local river. There certainly was no conscious decision to obsessively swim outside in the way I do now, it has organically developed, and I certainly don't go to think about my mum. But, I often wonder what she would make of it all, and that stops me in my tracks for a second.
Can you describe the feeling you get from swimming under an open sky?
For me it's not so much the open sky as the huge expanse of nothingness below the surface. Nothing on this earth quite compares to that ultimate abyss of a deep, sometimes dark, mountain lake where there is absolutely nothing below you. That is what I am searching for in every single swim, the absolute reward for getting in. It's not always there, not all lakes are deep and crystal clear, but when it is that's the moment of zen, when I can swim and swim, when my whole body is in tune, my front crawl arms, legs, hips and breathing are perfect and my mind is empty. It is very much a present feeling and it perhaps enables me to reflect more after the swim (I always spend a few moments recording or writing after every swim).
Can you explain a bit more about the 'afterglow’ feeling?
Afterglow is an intense feeling that comes often to new swimmers. When you get out usually while getting changed, a flood of warm will engulf your entire body, it's an incredible warmth, I mean you will smile and bask in its fuzzy glow... followed shortly afterwards by a feeling of cold, that kind of cold to your bones inside. For me, and lots of swimmers the feelings are so intense that they become addictive. Unfortunately the more you swim, and the more you swim in colder water the less the Afterglow comes, I rarely get in anymore.
Is there a lot of physical and mental preparation for wild swimming?
I am laughing out loud a little while I compare the fear of going to the indoor pool with swimming outside (it can take me days to mentally prepare for a pool swim!) But yes, I once did have a terrible irrational fear of what lurked under the surface, frightened of my own shadow, let alone weeds and fish. But we all develop our own strategies for dealing with fears if we really want to do things. I am a fan of deep water for this reason and will seek out entry spots that put me into deep water as soon as possible. Time and confidence eventually help with this kind of preparation, but there is a great deal of thought that goes into location choices based on the weather, especially in the mountain environment, and with that managing my own expectations.
You have swum in some incredible places but has there been a standout moment in your swimming history?
Spending 4 hours chainsawing out my own pool in a frozen lake in Finland last year is a pretty memorable one. Not just for the swim but for the team of people that gave up their day to help me. It is no mean feat cutting through 70cm thick ice and the combined effort that day was overwhelming. Never has getting in a 2 by 3 metre hole in the ice been so amazing! The ice hole ended up becoming quite a project, it needed tending and swimming every day to keep the ice from freezing over, almost like some kind of icy swim pilgrimage. Experiencing it in changing weather conditions, monitoring how much ice had developed overnight, it became like an old friend, I like that intense exploration of one location.
Do you have a special place to wild swim that you can share with us?
Llyn Du’r Arddu on Snowdon always takes that spot for me. Nestled in the Cwm below the incredible dark cliffs of Clogwyn ar’ Ddu, it is always crystal clear, the most wonderful turquoise blue on a summer day, dark, foreboding and nearly always partially frozen in the winter months. The lake feeds the river that flows into my village so I feel connected to it, it’s a bit of a walk up so not somewhere to swim every day, so it stays special.
It is full of local stories of sinister fairy folk but it is the most welcoming water I have ever seen, even in winter darkness it still feels slightly welcoming, slightly less perhaps once you are in and your fingers hurt with the cold beyond belief! The water always has a great depth of clarity. In the shallows, you can spend ages watching tiny water beetles scurrying about up and down. In the depths the abyss of nothingness is just sublime, I often wonder if this is it, the ultimate, as good as it gets!
For anyone out there who wants to start wild swimming, do you have any tips on how to get started?
Always check the weather and be aware of how the weather affects different bodies of water. Rainfall can dramatically affect the levels and speeds that rivers flow. Wind can whip up waves on lakes which may look like nothing on the shore but will drain your energy fast in the middle of a chilly mountain lake!
Wetsuit, swimsuit, birthday suit - who really cares what you wear! Do it for the sheer joy it brings to you, no-one else.
I do swim alone, but I advise that you always swim with others or have someone with you.
Check out the Outdoor Swimming Society website outdoorswimmingsociety.com, they have great advice on access, kit, and even have a crowdsourced wild swim map (I am Ambassador for them).
Do you have any exciting projects involving your swimming that you'd like to share with us?
My #SwimSnowdonia project is a life’s work and ongoing at the moment. It started to visually document my attempt to swim/explore/dip my toes in every lake in Snowdonia and has since become much greater, extending it to all the permanent bodies of water in the National Park, which has included quarry and river pools, old sheep dips and more recently I have taken the project underground too.
I have just come back from a arts residency in Southern Ireland at Caragh Lake where I spent a week totally without human contact and created work based on the relationship that I developed with the lake. The weather was frankly horrific (98kmph winds) so there was a great deal of selfishness going on that week where I got in and out the lake in pretty daring conditions without a soul in the world knowing. Oddly I never felt anything but safe in the water, all part of the relationship building perhaps?
I am off to Nepal later this year, I have unfinished swimming aspirations out there after getting injured on my last trip 6 years ago and being unable to swim. So watch this space!
You know for a lot of the people we work with they’ve come to the UK and it’s not, not because they’ve chosen to but because their situation has meant that they’ve been forced to leave where they live and their family and friends and work and the life they have there and the connections they have. And suddenly they find themselves in a foreign place without those connections and without that community and having a bike will hopefully make it easier for them to forge a new community here.
The first few times that you swim, you get kind of like a, they call it afterglow. It can be so cold that when you get you’ll get almost a flood of warmth like a rush of warmth across you and it feels amazing.
But then it will go quite quickly, and then you’ll get almost like a cold to your bones inside feeling.
I don’t really like saying that swimming is a hobby because it has taken over everything you know. It’s your work, but I think something that you’re particularly passionate about does take over everything.
My mum was a great swimmer, she used to live in the Orkney Islands off the top of Scotland, and she’s the kind of swimmer from the 40s and 50s when, if you wanted to be a swimmer then you had to swim outside, there wasn’t, you know swimming pools back then. So, she made sure I swam from an early age and went as a baby, and then I was one of those people who had to swim five nights a week you know, I went to swimming club every night. And yeah, she was like my swimming inspiration I suppose.
I’ve always been quite an experimental photographer, you know making my own cameras and that kind of thing. It was always going to be that. At one point the cameras would eventually come with me and I’d be experimenting with them in the water I suppose.
It’s always questions like how far do you swim? How cold’s the water? It’s those kinds of questions, but I don’t, I care little for distance, times, temperatures, you know I have no interest in getting in the lake and swimming, I’ll get in and stay for as long as I want to, or as little time, you know.
I mean, I didn’t use to photograph myself in quite the same way, I became more and more interested in the female form underwater, because I don’t know, people don’t like having cameras shoved in their faces, but they don’t seem to mind having their, their body scantily clad photographed underwater, and I found it really interesting, and what it was, was the face has been removed.
It doesn’t seem to matter what shape or, or size you are, there’s some kind of graceful beauty in it, that I just found really interesting. I had spinal surgery this year, four months ago, so I’ve become really aware of how I move and how I feel and that’s sort of come into my work as well in the last kind of year that I’ve been injured if you like, the only time I’ve felt comfortable was in the water.
You know, I like to feel the changes in the season in my skin, you know, I don’t know, there’s something amazing about, it’s winter now, but as we come into sort of April, I don’t know, March, April, May, you’ll feel the warmth in the water change, and it’s almost it’s, it’s something inside, it’s not just on the surface of your skin but you feel that warmth come inside, and equally, as it starts to get colder in winter, you feel the warmth go, and, it’s almost like a freshness. Someone described it yesterday, as the water feels more pure as winter comes, and that’s something that you feel inside and I don’t think you can get that from a thermometer.
I’m a really big fan of deep water, and I suppose I’m always searching for that kind of ultimate abyss of nothingness, and it gives you a real clarity of thought as well when you’re out there, and it’s just you in the middle of a mountain lake.