Floating weightless in the lake, Rachel’s world is one of contrast. Drawn to cold water, she seeks balance for her overactive mind. Every day she heads for her daily swim, a ritual and journey that is short in distance and time, but immersed in meaning. Following the making of our film 'Balance', we took a moment with Rachel to learn more about her personal journey and to delve deeper into her experience whilst filming.
Words by Rachel Agnew
Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I grew up in Cumbria, it was difficult not to fall in love with the area. I'm now lucky enough to live and work in the Lake District.
Why do you wild swim?
I can't imagine not swimming in lakes. It's become such a big part of my life and who I am. When I'm wild swimming it's impossible not to live in the moment, it's probably the only time of the day where I truly switch off. Having that time completely separate from your day-to-day life feels liberating.
Do you have any rituals or routines when you swim?
I always wade up to my waist and hold my wrists under the water whilst running my fingers through it. This prepares my body for the shock of the cold water ahead, but it also gives me a quiet moment to contemplate how the water feels today.
What was the process like making your film?
Initially I did feel nervous. Making a film, particularly of such a personal story, was so far away from my previous experiences. The team at Millican were great to work with and I soon felt at home. Richard Stevenson, the underwater cameraman has enjoyed quite a unique career, his work and the stories he's gained along the way were fascinating. I spent all of my time in the water with Rich doing what I would usually do, but with a little more organisation and a few directions of where to be, so that the camera could see me. We were filming just after a particularly cold winter so the water temperatures were still quite low from the mountain snow melt. This meant that we had to make the most of each of my dips, as we didn't want to put me at risk of staying in longer than was safe. Whilst I love the feel of the cold water on my skin, like most wild swimmers I'm still a human being and not designed to be chilly for long periods of time! After each swim, there was a warm up break where I wore lots of clothes and had an endless supply of tea, chocolate biscuits and soup, courtesy of my Dad who had come along, partly out of curiosity and partly to support his daughter doing something a bit mad. With Sim Warren, the director, I'd exchanged emails prior to making the film which gave him an insight into why I love swimming, but it wasn't until I saw a sneak preview of the edited film that I really understood his vision for the piece. What struck me watching it for the first time was just how incredible the water looked, I'm very grateful to Sim because he's captured the beauty and the serenity of wild swimming in a way that transcends words. A huge thanks to all of the Millican team for enabling me to share my passion with other like-minded outdoor enthusiasts.
Passers-by and onlookers often think wild swimmers are brave and a little bit ‘wild’, how would you encourage people to start wild swimming?
It always makes me laugh when people call me 'brave', I'm not frightened of the open water but there's so much else that scares me. The best way to see if you'd enjoy wild swimming is to just give it a go! If you're new to it, I'd recommend starting in the summer with the aim of carrying on as far into the year as you enjoy it (you may surprise yourself). I found that I fell completely in love when the winter came around, I simply didn't want to give up swimming until the following spring. In this sense, I became one of those mad swimmers that cracks the ice at the edge of the lake in January completely by accident. As a beginner, it's good to take somebody with you for moral support, that initial dunk is chilly, even in the summertime. I have an amazing friend called Sam and we encouraged each other a lot in the early days when we were both new to wild swimming. We now go on swimming holidays together to experience different places, last year to the Isle of Skye. Most importantly it's about joy, I have friends who apologise for being 'fair weather' swimmers... I don't understand this, I get into freezing cold water because it makes me feel alive and incredible; comparatively, on the rare occasions I've attempted to climb a cliff face, I just feel terrified and get jelly legs. We're all different, but what is important is having that one part of your life that gives you a real buzz.
Living in the Lake District you’ve most likely swam in a lot of incredible lakes, which is your favourite, are there any hidden gems you’d recommend for people to go?
There's nothing better than discovering a new place to dip. Being based in Keswick my most frequent dips are in Derwentwater because it's easily accessible everyday. However, when I have more time I love Crummock and Ullswater for the depth, clarity of the water and the rugged aspect of the surrounding fells. Precious to me is a little spot down the Borrowdale Valley called Blackmoss Pot, where you'll find a deep, clear plunge pool surrounded by steep grey cliffs on either side. The jump into the cold water and then swimming surrounded by the rocks is a completely magical feeling and truly wonderful if you're lucky enough to have it to yourself. For a dip with a steep hike or if you wanted to wild camp, Sprinkling Tarn in the shadow of Scafell is amazing, it's a bit chilly because of the higher altitude, but it's incredible to swim surrounded by the peaks of such a majestic mountain range. In terms of safety, a few lakes such as Thirlmere aren't safe to swim in, so it's always worth having a quick look online if you're not familiar with the area.
Wild swimmers also have to be careful to fully wash and dry their kit between different bodies of water in the Lake District, certain lakes such as Derwentwater have an invasive species of New Zealand lake weed. As a Cumbrian and a wild swimmer, I'm passionate about preserving the pristine waters of the lakes and tarns, some of which contain very rare species of fish, for both environmental and more selfish reasons... I'm fairly young and hope that the beautiful waters I enjoy swimming in today are still unspoiled in my latter years.
And lastly, what does travel mean to you?
Travel is not something that can be measured in distance, or countries ticked off a list. It's about the richness of your experiences and what you learn, both about yourself and the world around you. Wherever your wanders take you remember to stop, breathe, and just be. It's in these small moments of pause where we gain the most.