Wild swimming through the lens of Vivienne Rickman-Poole
staring down at the empty expanse of nothingness below me, I guess I am ever searching for the ultimate abyss in every swim
A few months ago my brother sent me an email titled: “Saw this and thought of you!” Following the link, I found myself lost amongst stunning images of the Llyn’s and lakes of Snowdonia, all taken by artist, educator and outdoor swimmer Vivienne Rickman-Poole.
Having lived in this part of Wales all my life, and swam many a time in a hidden Llyn, it’s only recently that I’ve come to crave the clarity and pure aliveness that comes with swimming in a remote and isolated body of water. Hence why it was such a joy to discover someone who has so beautifully captured all this and more.
What started as a hobby, to document the 250 lakes of Snowdonia, turned into a much more ambitious undertaking: to discover and experience 400 permanent bodies of water. Here Vivienne shares her experiences with us…
When did you first start outdoor swimming?
I started swimming outdoors as a child, 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.
What inspired you to embark on Swim Snowdonia?
A friend of mine does #30daysofbiking every April, it’s a ‘thing’. When she was telling me about it, I felt a bit enthused, but I didn’t own a bike, I wondered if I could swim alongside her somehow and #30daysofswimming was born. I have been doing it ever since and it has taken on many forms, but very quickly I realised I couldn’t swim in the same lake for 30 days, I would go crazy. I am one of those people who love change, (maybe a bit too much sometimes!). So, I had this idea to look at the map and find other lakes to swim in, and declared “I’m going to see how many I can swim in before the first snow falls”. Well, the snow came and went and #SwimSnowdonia was born before I dipped my toes in the first new lake, it’s since taken over completely and become a life’s work!
How do you select your lakes?
Although I know I will visit all the lakes, my next lake has to be special, there has to be a reason for visiting. It could be a recommendation from someone, or that it is particularly good at a certain time of year. I love local folklore, so many of the mountain lakes have tales attached to them so sometimes I visit because a story has caught my attention, or perhaps it’s just an interesting shape on the map, or a navigational challenge to reach (never tell me I can’t get there!).
Did you mind the fact that it was a solo endeavour?
For me, time spent alone is really important. Making my own decisions is something that I truly value, whether the decisions I make are right or wrong, it’s having the courage to live with those choices I make that I find liberating. I sound like a real loner, I absolutely love sharing these adventures with others, and I have a little group of amazing women I sometimes go with too, the experience with them is different, I enjoy both, but nothing beats the happiness I feel with being truly alone.
How do you overcome the initial anxiety of ‘getting in’?
I think the anxiety is a bit of a ritual with a new lake, the unknown, a nervous anticipation in your tummy, where you absolutely know you are are going in. Part excitement, part fear. I’m not sure I do overcome it, it disappears quite quickly once I get in. It may come as a surprise but I used to be very anxious about all sorts of things in the water, fish and weeds particularly. However, I have come to realise that besides my huge magnified body, the most frightening thing in the water is my imagination!
whether the decisions I make are right or wrong, it’s having the courage to live with those choices I make that I find liberating
What are you seeking to gain from each swim?
I am unconcerned with distances, times and temperatures and swim for my creativity, for time and space away from distractions and for the clarity of thought, the water gives me. I enjoy the zen-like qualities I get from swimming, staring down at the empty expanse of nothingness below me, I guess I am ever searching for the ultimate abyss in every swim.
Could you describe a favourite moment from one of your recent swims?
I have been spending quite a bit of time in the sea lately, interested in how the moon, the geology of the seabed, the currents and tides affect the decisions I need to make. It feels like a minefield, quite literally, one that I have so little understanding of. I have shared a couple of swims recently with some people who have a far greater knowledge than I of the sea, I have really enjoyed sharing their confidence and abilities. I love the lakes of Snowdonia on a feisty stormy day, swimming in some big waves on the South Coast felt similar. That feeling of being tiny in the world, floating on the surface of something that holds so much power is quite a feeling. However, nothing felt as good as being unable to pass the first mirror like Llyn in the mountains after returning from that trip away. The balmy autumnal temperatures I had left a few weeks previously had dropped and with it, the water was starting to return to it’s crisp, clarity that I love so much about winter in the mountains. It was indulgent, I was alone, and felt truly selfish to have this moment all to myself.
Your Instagram account (which is beautiful by the way) is very much a place where you craft a narrative to sit alongside these swims. How important is this aspect of the project for you?
Thank you! The element of sharing is an important one for me, and I find Instagram a great community in which to do be reciprocal. It’s a place for positivity and aspiration, and I enjoy telling the story of my swims whether they have been a joy or a misery. Three years ago I injured my back severely midway through some crazy swimming challenge I’d set myself. I had no idea how bad it was at the time (I needed spinal surgery) but I completed the #30lakes30days I’d set myself purely on the support and love I received on Instagram. It gave me something to stop feeling miserable about, to get up and get moving for, to stay mobile and smile about. I have made some great friends while telling my stories and listening to theirs, it’s a good thing.
the water was starting to return to it’s crisp, clarity that I love so much about winter in the mountains
In terms of social media, how do you manage the anxieties that come with having to maintain this?
I’m not sure I ever feel anxious about it, I guess keeping on top of it all has become part of the job of being self-employed. Spending plenty of time outdoors is a leveller, a reminder of what is life is really about, I think it’s really healthy to put all the gadgets down and step away from screens regularly. The world doesn’t fall apart with a few days off and it’s good to return feeling ready to share your stories again.
How would you advise people prepare for a wild swim?
Check the weather – and be aware of how the weather affects different bodies of water. The wind can whip up waves on lakes which may look like nothing on the banks but might drain your energy quickly in the middle of a chilly mountain lake. Rainfall can dramatically affect the levels and speed that rivers flow.
Wetsuit, swimsuit, birthday suit – Who really cares what you wear?
Do it for the sheer joy it brings to you, no-one else.
What would you say are the benefits of outdoor swimming?
For me personally, it makes me feels truly alive inside, I get a similar feeling from running in the hills (a relatively new runner it has to be said). That feeling intensifies in winter as the water gets colder. It’s quite hard to describe, swims are shorter but the ‘alive’ feeling is greater, lasts longer, and why wouldn’t you want to have a smile on your face all day long. For me outdoor swimming is also highly beneficial for my creative practice, I absolutely see a connection between the time I spent in the water and my creative output.
And finally, out of the 400, do you have a favourite body of water?
Llyn Du’r Arddu so far takes that accolade. Crystal clear and turquoise blue on a summer day, dark, foreboding and nearly always partially frozen in the winter months, it’s nestled in the Cwm below the incredible dark cliffs of Clogwyn ar’ Ddu.
Despite being steeped in local stories of exorcised goblins and fairies I have to say in glorious summer sunshine it never looks anything but the most beautiful, 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!
Share a day of conversation, creativity and fresh air with Vivienne on one of her Guided Swim Days.