Wild Swimming the Severn
Wild swimming in the Severn gets ever more popular as temperatures rise, but obviously you need to know what you are doing. We talk to Shrewsbury Masters swimmer Alison Biddulph
- how did you get involved in outdoor swimming?
I’ve always been a bit of a water baby, and loved to swim when near the coast or on holiday. I have swum indoors with Shrewsbury Masters off and on for the last 20 years. About two years ago, I asked one of my friends if I could go along with them when they went on one of their regular training swims in the River Severn, and that was where it all began. I loved it and kept finding more places to go, things to do and people to swim with.
- how do you know when it's safe to swim?
What is safe is very much dependant on the individual. What is safe for one person on a given day could be dangerous for another person. Generally I look for good entry and exit points, and where I could get out in an emergency. It’s safer to get to know a new stretch of water with someone else especially if you don’t have experience or know how to read the water. The Severn has a varied flow and can have strong eddies and currents. I also swim with a bright coloured hat and a tow float for visibility.
I also take into account what the temperature and the weather are likely to be doing before, during and after the swim and how I’m feeling myself. For me, the biggest issue is the water quality. Sewage and storm water is released into rivers in periods of heavy rain to prevent sewers backing up.
- where do you get in and out?
The easiest is from the Frankwell car park. I walk upstream where there are a few beaches to walk in from, and often get out at the jetties used by the kayaks and boats at the car park. There are three or four informal groups who train from Frankwell on Sunday mornings. I also train with a few friends from the steps above the weir and head upstream to the English Bridge and back.
- are you part of a club? Can anyone join in?
No I’m not part of a club. The lovely thing about swimming in nature is that it is simple and informal to do. I am a member of a number of Facebook and WhatsApp groups locally and around the country that enable people to find swim-buddies and share information on conditions. The Outdoor Swimming Society is a brilliant group and source of knowledge and advice.
- is it legal?!
Yes it is legal to swim in the river. I did have a concerned citizen call the police one day in the summer (before Covid) when I was swimming with my brother and his children. I had a very nice conversation with the police – they confirmed that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, which I already knew. Everyone should make their own decisions and understand the risks that they are taking.
- what are your favourite spots to swim from?
There are lots of lovely spots in lakes, meres and rivers in Shropshire. In the summer months I like nothing better than to swim the full river loop from Frankwell down to the weir, but that is not for the inexperienced as it’s 2.5 miles long. I also enjoy swimming with Trismart at Ellesmere on a Tuesday evening – they are a really lovely group of people with an inclusive, relaxed but very safety-conscious attitude. I also occasionally go to Alderford which has a lovely café for post-swim and in the reservoir at Carding Mill Valley.
- where would you avoid?
I avoid places on private land. Apart from that I swim most places! I love the sea, mountain lakes, even streams in certain conditions.
- what do you enjoy about it?
I enjoy how natural it is. The lack of chlorine, being right in nature with swans landing over you in the river, kingfishers flying past. I also love the swoosh of a river – on training sessions it’s great to swim a few miles upstream against the flow and then turn round and float back on the current. I also enjoy how people are often surprised to see people in the river. Times have changed so much – our parents all learnt to swim in the river, now it is seen as trendy or adventurous.
- did you continue throughout Covid?
Yes. However it was tricky finding places to go while staying local. My usual swim-buddy lives 20 minutes away so I haven’t swum with her at all in lockdown three. The river has not been in good condition, so living in Shrewsbury, it’s been much more limited.
- do you swim all year round and if so, how do you acclimatise for winter?
I do swim all year round, and because of that I don’t need to specifically acclimatise as each swim it gets slightly cooler. Acclimatisation is only really required if you haven’t regularly been swimming in the cooling water and then it’s wise to start very gradually and not swim alone if you’re not used to the cold.
- what's the longest swim you have done?
My longest swim so far was 13.5km down the River Wye. I’ve also done a similar distance up the Dyfi estuary in Wales which was tidal assisted. My longest swim without flow or tides assisting was 10km in Llyn Padarn at the foot of Snowdon. I used to think people were extreme doing such distances, but I’ve discovered that I love long distances as well as little dips.
- what is your day job and how do you fit swimming around this?
These days I manage rental properties for my work, so for me it’s easy to fit it in. But I love twilight and sunrise swims, so even if I was working full time I would definitely find the time!