Why wild swimmers are flocking from as far afield as London and Hertford to Redricks Lakes in Sawbridgeworth
Down a dirt track off a country lane on the edge of Sawbridgeworth lies Redricks Lakes, a little known spot even with some locals – but increasingly popular with a new breed of swimmer.
Kitted out with wetsuits, sports watches and hi-vis buoys, aficionados of open water swimming are flocking to Sawbridgeworth from as far afield as north London and Hertford.
The growing popularity of the sport formerly known as just 'swimming' is linked to the publication of best-selling books such as Wild Swimming by Daniel Start and the rise of the triathlon, which combines running and cycling with swimming.
"At first it was mostly the athletes, but now we get lots of people who do it just for pleasure," said Danielle Eagle, part of the family team who run the lakes.
The picturesque lake boasts a small beach which, on hot days, attracts plenty of bathers who are restricted by a rope to a small area of the lake.
Open water swimming takes place on the other side, offering a 750-metre circuit for those willing to share the water with the ducks, swans, fish and whatever other creatures lurk below the surface.
To swim in this area, you must have completed an induction, offered by coaches Phil Heath and Ross Clewlow for £12.
"You have to be aware that it's a natural environment, which means accepting that you're in there with the wildlife and the weeds and everything else," said Phil.
It's not just the creatures that makes open water swimming a very different experience from a chlorinated pool.
I took my first dip in May, when the water temperature was around 14 degrees. I don't mind the cold, but my face stung so much I switched to breaststroke until I acclimatised.
Unlike swimming in a pool, there are no tiled walls to push off or lean against, but there is a small island in the middle of the lake – handy for beginners in need of a rest. It's not visible from the surface, which can make it look like the wet-suited folk are walking on water.
There are also fewer physical boundaries, meaning it's quite easy to end up in the weeds if you don't take time to navigate. For me, the biggest issue was a feeling of sea sickness that I couldn't shake until I invested in a pair of earplugs.
I've met a few folks swimming for pleasure like myself, but a surprising number are training for triathlons – for whom the water isn't always a comfortable place. "90% of triathletes are coming from a running or a cycling background," said Phil. "Swimming is always the thing that's the hardest for them."
Jacqueline Simpson took up open water swimming in 2018 as part of her triathlon training. The 48-year old travels from Hertford because Redricks is the closest venue that offers tuition for beginners. "I couldn't swim more than a length five years ago. It's definitely my worst sport but I'm working on it."
Lois Garrold, 42, from Albury, is also training for a triathlon. She turned to sport as a way of coping with postnatal depression, something the lake experience has really helped with. "It's a bit like meditation: it stops my brain going round in circles," she said. "I love the realness of the lake."
Redricks has been a swimming venue since March 2011, since when facilities have improved. Whereas once you got changed by the side of the lake, there are now toilet facilities, hot showers and a café serving hot drinks and bacon sandwiches (other food and beverages are available).
The season runs from April/May until September/October, although a handful of hardcore swimmers continue through the winter months.
REDRICKS SWIM TIMES
Monday – 6am-11am (early bird session)
Tuesday – 4pm-8pm (4pm-7pm junior sessions, book with Ross)
Wednesday – 9am-12 noon (4pm-8pm inductions & coaching only; book with Phil for inductions and with Ross for coaching)
Thursday – 6am-11am (early bird session) and 4pm-8pm
Friday – 8am-11am
Saturday – 8am-1pm (9am-12 noon junior sessions, book with Ross)
Sunday – 8am-1pm (9am-12 noon inductions & coaching only; book with Phil for inductions and with Ross for coaching)
After signing in, you are given a wrist band which you return at the end of your swim so Danielle and her team know you're safe.
* Redricks Open Water Swimming Lakes has a Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/300489263370967/. For information on coaching, you can contact Phil Heath at www.swim-plus.com or Ross Clewlow at www.trainwithross.co.uk.