Don’t get me wrong, I got an admirable collection of swimming badges when I was a kid that my mum subsequently stitched to my Mr Blobby towel (if only we knew then what we know now) which I then proceeded to wear with pride. However, I’m not really a swimmer as such: allow me to explain.
I’m not at all frightened of water, in fact I love floating around and enjoying the sea, river, lake, pool and more recently the hot tub. I am a competent swimmer in that I can do a few strokes for a finite amount of time, I can tread water and like testing how long I can hold my breath under the waves before the mild panic of potentially drowning but resurfacing just in time. But, I’ve never competed in swimming much like I don’t really compete at anything I do, save for that one moment of weakness last year. Swimming regularly isn’t a habit I’ve formed and not one I particularly care to form. I remember hearing some of my peers talking about how they’d been up since 4am to get their training in at the pool. It baffled me then but I can understand why swimmers do it now that I’m equally as passionate about other sports.
When I moved to the Peaks, I happened to live with some pretty adventurous people who have in turn introduced me to yet more complete nutters. It’s through Emma that I met Hetty, the key instigator of Chatsworth Plunge Club: a group of women who decide that freezing cold Peak District mornings make for perfect outdoor swimming conditions. I decided to join in one very brass morning and then another evening and again, a beautiful crisp morning.
At 6:00 my alarm goes off and I stumble out of bed, locate my bathers and put them on under a thermal layer or two. Not forgetting my beanie, I jump in the car and drive the 20 minutes it takes to get to Chatsworth. I’ve managed to borrow my housemate’s Dryrobe, which proves its worth in the walk to the river alone. We’re all giddy: nervous about the temperature of the water, how fast flowing it’ll be after the snow and how many minutes we’ll manage to stay in for.
Gradually, the layers come off to reveal our totally inappropriate swimwear for the task at hand. To the unplunged, we’re completely mental: we’re going into the River Derwent at 7am when the mercury has barely reached 0° at some godforsaken hour while the rest of the country just begins to stir.
As we gingerly approach the water from a muddy bank, we refine our balancing skills so that we don’t domino into the water due to one misplaced step. No matter how many times I get in the water, the first step in is the one that brings about a face only a mother could love. It’s a shock, it stings, the ripples of others’ lap my barely covered body. Deeper. My knees are in, then my thighs and suddenly I’m at waist height. Deeper. There’s a step down to bring the water up to my neck – this is the point at which I just have to go for it and imagine I’m on a tropical island at the peak of summer, rather in the middle of the Peak District in what’s supposed to be spring.
And then there are multiple bobbing beanies with deer looking on in curiosity as to who’d do such a thing. We would and it’s a habit. It’s cathartic and in these moments all I think about is how much the water stings my body but in the very same thought it’s the best idea I’ve ever had. I’m laughing with a bunch of women who have also somehow been roped into doing this. I’m craving the warmth of my future shower at the same time as relishing the fact I’m lucky enough to be here now. If you know, you know.
While our maximum time in the Derwent has yet to surpass five minutes, we’re confident that one day we’ll reach the other side. It’s a few short metres away but the river is too fast flowing and the threat of the weir downstream is enough to keep us closer to the bank for now.
For now, we keep paddling, pondering and proposing the next plunge date on the WhatsApp group.