Last summer I volunteered to become a Mental Health Swims (MHS) host at our local beach. We’ve experienced tempestuous times in my family over the past few years following unexpected and traumatic life changes. I don’t want to spend too long covering the detail of what happened other than to say it involved a breakdown followed by a month-long stay in the Priory Hospital and we are still rebuilding now several years on. As keen sea swimmers it seemed obvious that we should get involved with MHS and over the past year we have enjoyed introducing the health benefits of dipping to newcomers while enjoying the head-clearing cold water buzz for ourselves.
MHS, based originally in Swansea, has expanded with groups now meeting up regularly across the country. Fellow Milford-on-Sea sea swimmer, Sam Dale recently caught up with founder Rachel Ashe in a Sporting Heads interview:
“You can come for a paddle, splash in the water or a dip. After the swim we get warm and have a hot drink, usually some cake and chat while we get changed. There’s no pressure on you to talk but there is lots of empathy if you want to. We have people from all walks of life joining us. Some people have a diagnosed mental illness and others are there to boost their mental health. From the feedback I’ve had, we are very welcoming and friendly. People certainly keep coming back. We are not about serious open water swimming. If you want to be outdoors with others and know that there will be people there to welcome you and ask how you’re doing and really mean it then our meets are for you.”
At the Milford-on-Sea MHS we have been impressed with the benefits that cold water immersion therapy has brought, not only to us but to the many others who have joined us in the water. Here’s what a few have said:
“Dipping in the sea in February with like-minded people is perhaps the most empowering thing I have ever done”
“When I’m floating about in the water I experience calm and the storm in my head is quiet for a time”
“I feel the most incredible positive rush afterwards, I guess it must be the endorphins”
The outdoor swimming community around the New Forest seaside village of Milford-on-Sea has grown rapidly over the past year with the group now split into two sections: the cold water enthusiasts, and the swimmers. Each group has over sixty members and the people are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. The enthusiasm for dipping reflects a national trend with cold water immersion offering a rare opportunity to escape from the drudgery of life under Covid.
Bathers enjoying a winter dip at Hordle Cliff
Iconic Swims is now working with the New Forest NHS Primary Care Network, local therapists and yoga teachers to offer people a safe and guided introduction to bathing in the sea for health. We’re also planning an NHS-backed academic study into the positive benefits of CWI compared to other therapies, which we hope to start once the Covid wave has receded.
The monthly Milford Mental Health Swims are a good place to come and give it a try. These informal and friendly meetings will always be free to attend and all are welcome. They take place at 11:00am on the last Sunday of every month at Hordle Cliff, Milford-on-Sea. Remember to check the Iconic Swims social media before leaving home in the morning just to make sure everything is going ahead as sometimes the weather alters the plans. There is no lifeguard cover provided and people must understand that they enter the water at their own risk. If you can’t make the Milford MHS then you’ll find other swims being hosted nearby. The closest are at Avon Beach, Christchurch and at Calshot near Southampton.
For a more comprehensive approach to sea dipping we are running Sea Bathing for Health courses, also in Milford, which work out at £10 for each one-hour session; the charge covers the cost of lifeguard support and swim tuition with a qualified expert. In a group of ten we’ll guide you carefully through the important first steps in cold water swimming, help you build confidence in the water, teach you how to read the beach and the conditions and make sure you have warmed up properly afterwards. Sessions include both a theory and a practical element and will equip you with the basic knowledge required to plan your own dipping adventures with your friends.