Winter water wonders: Shaftesbury Lido turns icy conditions into a hub of cold water swimming camaraderie and ambition, says Rachael Rowe
‘There was ice on the pool cover this morning!’
As one of the highest towns in England, standing at 750 feet above sea level, Shaftesbury is known as one of the coldest places in North Dorset.
With frost on the ground, most people are trying to keep warm – the last place I’d expect to find anyone on a January morning is an open air swimming pool. Unexpectedly, Shaftesbury Lido was full of people.
The lido began offering cold water swimming in November 2023 as a trial, and it has proved very popular. There’s a real sense of community at the poolside, with smiling faces encouraging some to take the plunge and supporting swimmers as they get out of the chilly water. Some were happy to take a dip in a full wetsuit, but others had significantly more experience with cold water swimming. New manager Harriet Green is an aquavit instructor and lifeguard as well as a swimming instructor and cold-water and open-water coach. She is also experienced in teaching people how to swim safely in cold water. She says: ’I love the variety you get with cold water swimming, it really opens the eyes of those who come for a dip. And there’s a whole new side with ice swimming. We have 16 places available here, and we’re fully booked.
‘I got into it myself when I was swimming the River Dart 10km. I had just suffered a trauma, and when I got in the water it was so very cold but it really focused my mind as I relaxed. It took all that [trauma] away. I realised cold water swimming could help me.’
Harriet has just qualified as an International Ice Swimming Association Official Observer, so she can participate in IISA events and ice mile qualifying swims. With the water at a bracing four degrees conditions were ideal for her first observed swimmer to take the plunge in Shaftesbury.
No jumping, no diving
An ice mile is a technical term rather than simply a slang phrase for a chilly swim – a one-mile swim under International Ice Swimming Association rules in a water temperature of five degrees Celsius or less, without stopping or putting a foot down, wearing just a standard costume, goggles and one swim hat.
Only 450 people have completed the challenge globally – it is not to be taken lightly. Ice miles are not a stag weekend activity or a dare. Rather, they require very serious preparation.
As with all cold water swimming, ice miles must always be done with other people. Swimmers have to be in good health and it can take several winter seasons to build their stamina. Medical checks, including an ECG, are required before undertaking an ice mile.
Elizabeth Mills from Corfe Mullen was about to attempt her qualifying swim for the ice mile. ‘I’ve built up my strength over about five seasons. You really have to build it up.’
Elizabeth is also a mermaid swimming coach and has previously swum the length of Lake Windermere in a mermaid tail! She’s hoping to be one of four qualifiers to go to Cheltenham in February to swim an actual ice mile. Shaftesbury cannot be used as an ice mile pool – even though the temperature is optimal, the length needs to be 25 metres, and Shaftesbury is only 25 yards. However, it can be used to train and also to get that crucial qualifying swim.
Successful ice mile swimmers have to get the swim properly ratified. They then become part of a very exclusive community and get to own a coveted Ice Mile Red Jacket.
There is, of course, a lot of publicity about the dangers of swimming in cold water, especially jumping in. So what is the team doing that is different? Harriet explained the importance of coaching for anyone interested in cold water swimming.
‘We do a lot just to help people get into the water properly. During lockdown, all the pools were closed and people took to open water. However, they were just jumping in, and that can be really dangerous. The shock of the cold water makes people inhale, and they can take in pints of water. That’s how people drown. Even the tombstoners on Durdle Door are at risk from cold water inhalation.’
With the water temperature at an average of 4.1 degrees, Elizabeth is ready to enter the water for her qualifying one kilometre swim – 44 lengths. Around the pool, all eyes are on her as she carefully steps into the pool, splashing water on herself to try and get used to the cold.
Then she’s away, slowly but deftly gliding through the water. An ice mile typically takes 20 per cent longer than a normal swim because of the strain on your body. From the pool edge, Watching from the pool edge, Elizabeth’s swim looks effortless but all around me the team is vigilant for any sign of a problem. Someone is monitoring the number of lengths she has to swim, and Harriet times each length, focusing on Elizabeth the entire time.
Halfway through, Harriet asks Elizabeth a question to ensure she is still orientated. Then, after 15 minutes and 49 seconds, Elizabeth reaches the finish. She did it! There’s a quick cheer from friends and she’s rapidly bundled off to the changing room, where she has to be dried, changed, and she’s enjoying a warm drink within ten minutes.
An ice mile is not over until the ‘after drop’. During the swim, blood travels from the extremities to the body’s core to protect vital organs. After the swim, there’s a critical ten-minute window before the blood starts flowing back to the rest of the body again, and that cold blood can shock the system. Extreme shivering can occur, and you are often colder than you are in the water. Elizabeth recovers quickly, and is soon wrapped in warm clothes with an essential hot chocolate. ‘It was fun,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t actually feel my hands. I wasn’t sure if my hands were touching the water.’
Harriet nods in recognition as she recognises the feeling: ‘When I swam, my hands felt like glass.’
Not all about the ice
You don’t have to be an ice miler to enjoy Shaftesbury Lido, though there are cold water sessions where you can learn the techniques. In summer the pool opens to schools as well as for naturist swims, aquafit and paddleboard yoga.
New ideas and suggestions from the public are always welcome.
- A four-person team from Shaftesbury Lido aims to complete ice miles in Cheltenham in February. We wish them the very best of luck.