If you love open water swimming, you’ve probably heard of Lindsey Cole, whose joyous Instagram feed has been filled with photos documenting her six-month #dippingbritain journey of cycling to wild swimming spots around Britain. It’s a journey which started out as a two-week adventure to reach the Scottish Cold Water Swimming Championships, but morphed into a six-month wild swimming extravaganza – something she’ll be speaking about at the Dryrobe Outdoor Swimming Session at the Kendal Mountain Festival on Sunday 17 November (tickets here).
Prior to #dippingbritain, Lindsey swam the length of the Thames with a mermaid tale to highlight the plastic pandemic. However, her adventures have spanned more than watery pursuits, and include a 3-month walk along Western Australia’s 1000-mile Rabbit-Proof Fence, tracing the journey three young aborigine children made alone in the 1930s in an attempt to be reunited with the parents they were separated from. All in all, Lindsey is (to coin her own phrase) a ‘She-Ra’ of magnificent proportions.
Tell me about your background – have you always been outdoorsy and adventurous?
I grew up pool swimming and cross country running, but I was distinctly average at both. I was also quite fond of lying in in the mornings and hanging out on the couch. My first kick up the bum to get outside more was when I suddenly lost my dad when I was 24. I cycled to Paris to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, then cycled the length of Britain and cycled the length of Africa the following year to get to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Challenges spurred me on and accomplishing them with no budget made them more of an achievement. It then became very much a part of me to turn seeing friends or time off from work into an adventure. I’d run across Britain to catch up with a friend, or roller-skate to Bude in a nude suit because it rhymed if I had a spare week in between jobs. I sort of became addicted to conjuring up weird and fun journeys.
Three years ago you walked Western Australia’s 1000-mile Rabbit-Proof Fence. What inspired the trip?
I broke my leg whilst backpacking in Oz in 2007. I had to recline for three months and watched films and read books for entertainment. One of them was Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. A few months later, my dad suddenly died. I came straight home, was really lost and devastated and took it out on my arm to deal with the grief. An accident led me to hospital and gave me the necessary wake-up call to stop self-harming. I then thought about the girls in the book that I had read just before I lost my dad, and they put everything into perspective. So whatever hurdle or challenge I faced afterwards, I always thought about them and wanted to return to Oz to pay homage to their journey.
I didn’t know if it would be possible, if the fence was still erected or if it would be deemed culturally insensitive. But I couldn’t get my answers in England, so I decided to go to Perth to research it and try and give it a go, and said if it got too difficult then I’d pull out. Standing in front of the church at Moore River Native Settlement, where the girls ran away from, and finding the fence two weeks later, were particularly poignant moments.
Was it an emotional journey following the journey of Molly, Daisy and Grace?
It was an emotional journey for many reasons. I kept surpassing my expectations of my capabilities, each next day was a bonus as I kept nearing Jigalong. I named my walking trolley Trevor, after my dad, and it got me to the end with no problems. I met three Trevors along the way and walked into Jigalong on the 7th anniversary of losing dad (unintentionally). Molly’s daughter met me outside of Jigalong and walked into the community with me. I met Daisy, who made the journey 86 years beforehand, and held her hand whilst her grandson told her about my own journey.
It was such a wonderful moving journey that I couldn’t bring myself to go back to England, so I circumnavigated Australia with truck drivers.
Switching to swimming now, tell me about your love of open water. When did this start?
Whilst diving in Bali I cut my hand on a piece of plastic. I was looking for my next adventure to do after walking the Fence. I grew up as a competitive swimmer, although I wasn’t actually very competitive, and had never done a swimming adventure. So I decided to swim the length of the River Thames as a mermaid to raise awareness about the plastic pandemic. People appeared along the riverside and asked to join me. Then they met me at the end as I mermaided into Teddington.
This was my introduction to the wonderful outdoor swimming community and I LOVED them. I then received messages from swimmers inviting me to join me wherever they were based. Then, when I saw there was a Cold Water Swimming Champs in Scotland, I decided to cycle there and drop in with swimming communities en route. By the time I got to Scotland two weeks later, I was high on adrenaline and decided to carry on.
Wherever I received an invite, I’d cycle there and swim. I just kept going because swimming with people who liked swimming too was so wonderful. I’ve moved around so much in the last 15 years that I’ve never really had a community and in the last few years I’ve really yearned for one. Even though I’ve spent this year moving around Britain I discovered that I have my own community in the swimming world and they’re wonderful.
Is there a technique to swimming with a mermaid tail?!
Swimming with a mermaid tail is HARD! I first used my tail from Alcatraz to San Francisco Bay. It was about 2-miles and took me over an hour. It was hard, but I was OK as I could then chill-out and breathe. Enduring more than that is a big strain on your core and your lower back. I wore two wetsuits when I swam the Thames, as it was November and 7°c in the water, so I was immensely buoyant. I often let my tail drag and just used my arms, and sometimes I took the tail off to kick when my back hurt. I was swimming 10km+ a day.
Swimming with a tail when you’ve got no destination to get to is definitely fun though! Especially if the water is warmer and you can hang out with fish underwater.
What’s this about you finding a cow during your Thames swim?
Ha, yes the cow. We were collecting litter and waste along the way. My friend canoed beside me as I swam. She saw a giant plastic white bag caught in a tree. As she got closer to fish it out, she realised that it wasn’t actually a plastic bag but a cow. She had fallen into the river over the course of the night and was totally submerged up to her chin, which she rested on a branch. We called the police and RSPCA who sent six firemen to haul her out. The next day an Oxford journalist asked us what we’d found in the river. We mentioned all the plastic and then the cow. The next day it was on page 3 of The Sun.
You recently finished your 6-month long #dippingbritain swim and cycle. What was your experience like and which was your most memorable swim of the trip?
This was one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve been on. It was so organic. It was only meant to be two weeks, but I kept extending and finished six months later, purely because I was having such a wonderful time. I have a few memorable swims – in the Peak District’s River Derwent, 10 girls were dancing in the water wearing woolly hats, as mist hung on the river and Kim played her native Indian flute and Andy sat on the bank playing his drum. Passing dog walkers looked particularly bemused. I swam for 20 minutes in the dark in the Yorkshire Dales, looking for the Mermaid Rock to sit on, whilst naked. I swam in Shetland as 16 seals looked on at me from the water, making the Selkie folkstories seem very real.
You took part in the Scottish Cold Water Swimming Championships (SCWSC). Have you found your temperature limit?
I definitely do feel the cold in the water. The coldest I’ve swum in is just under 5°c. I did 50m Ice butterfly at the Scottish Cold Water Swimming Championship. I considered doing the 450m, but that would definitely entail training to be used to that distance in that temperature. I know when I’ve had my limit and need to get out. That’s what I like about swimming in the cold too – it makes me disciplined. I don’t have any discipline ordinarily in my life. A lot of people I now know have done an ice mile, which I’d be keen to do one day.
What do you love about open water swimming?
I love the camaraderie; the community is very much like a family. I now know I can go anywhere In the UK and have someone to swim with and possibly a bed for the night. It’s not competitive. Everyone is so supportive of each other. I love the feeling of getting my head under and squealing with life when I return to the surface. Every cell in my body awakens and I feel like I can take on the world. If I’m feeling groggy then it makes me feel better. If I’m already feeling OK then it makes me super-high.
Do you always feel totally up for an open water swim or sometimes do you have to persuade yourself to get in?
I always have to persuade myself. Some days I’m more of a wimp than others and think I’d be better off back in bed. BUT – once I run in, holding someone’s hand, and dunk my head under, I feel invincible and buzz all day.
You’ve swum all over the UK and Ireland. Which has been your favourite swim spot so far?
The most northern beach in Britain’s most northern island in Shetland. It was so remote, rugged and raw. I was really proud to have swum there.
I know you travel light, but do you have any ‘essentials’ for your swimming adventures?
I just take a swimsuit, swim socks (if it’s cold), thermals and warm clothes. I didn’t actually even take a towel on my journey as it would be so heavy. Sometimes people would lend me one, or I’d just chuck on my thermals and towel off that way. I’m quite disorganised and messy, so for me the less stuff I have the better. Less stuff to lose, isn’t it?
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’ve been writing a book about my journey walking the Rabbit Proof Fence and why I did it, for a couple of years. I’m too emotionally attached to it, so I’ve put it in a drawer for a while. A few people have encouraged me to write a book about this year swimming with strangers, dipping around Britain, so I’m gonna try and focus on that. For me, crossing deserts or continents on my own is easy. It’s the sitting down in one place that I find the biggest challenge.
I’m at this year’s Kendal Mountain Festival talking about my journey this year cycling around Britain connecting with swimmers. Come and say hello.
**To hear more from Lindsey and other incredible adventurers, check out the Dryrobe Outdoor Swimming Session on Sunday 19 November at Kendal Mountain Festival. More info and tickets can be found here.**
Held between 14-17 November, Kendal Mountain Festival is the UK’s largest and longest-running gathering of the outdoor community. From tales of human endurance and breathtaking environments to soul-stirring journeys, it has a packed four-day programme of events sharing and celebrating the best stories from the world of adventure.