Christmas Day swims: Who, when and why?

By Sue Paz
BBC News, South

Image source, North Norfolk Beach Runners
Image caption,
Cromer's Boxing Day Dip in Norfolk has been running for 27 years

Christmas is traditionally a time for turkey, presents and spending time with family but how about immersing yourself in icy water?

Festive swims take place across the length and breadth of England, from Weymouth in the south, to Redcar in the north, with many raising money for charity.

The costume choices are endless too, from traditional Santa hats and Christmas jumpers, to crowd-shockingly small swimming trunks and mankinis.

But where does the eccentric past time originate and who are those brave, or rather crazy, souls who take the cold plunge?

Some believe it is a great hangover cure while others like to think it burns off the pudding and mince pies.

Image source, Brighton Swimming Club
Image caption,
Brighton Swimming Club's Christmas Day swim is widely regarded as England's longest established festive dip

Widely regarded as England's longest established Christmas swim, Brighton Swimming Club's annual event began in 1860.

The club was founded by a small group of North Street tradesmen who first gathered on Albion Beach in 1858 and learned to swim.

"There weren't many pools around in those days so the sea was the only place to swim," said club president Margaret Tuppen.

"They'd probably go in everyday, so Christmas Day was no different. There are still members who go in every day, some at 7 o'clock in the morning - they're pretty hardy."

Over the years dozens have braced the English Channel for the event, but this year it has been cancelled due to safety concerns.

Image source, Outdoor Swimming Society
Image caption,
Lynne Roper from the Outdoor Swimming Society said an outdoor dip was "the antithesis of all the formalised stuff"

Although many festive swims are formally organised, many more are spontaneous, according to Lynne Roper from the Outdoor Swimming Society.

"It's a case of stripping off and doing it wherever you happen to be," she added.

"Hundreds take place on Christmas Day and Boxing Day - it's a recurring Christmas theme. It's the antithesis of all the formalised stuff we do and I guess people feel more compelled to do it at this time of year because of the festive spirit.

"Often though a Christmas dip can give them the bug and it encourages them to do it again and again."

Image source, Matt Newbury
Image caption,
Matt Newbury said he has been outdoor swimming in some "crazy places", including Lapland

"It's addictive," said Matt Newbury, from Teignmouth, Devon, who once swam outdoors for 500 consecutive days.

"On Christmas Day I was in Amsterdam so the nearest water was the canal, so I jumped in - I've been swimming in some crazy places," he said.

His outdoor swim antics have even seen him and two friends receive a "lifetime ban" from London's Trafalgar Square, after a dip in the fountains.

His regular festive swim spot is Torbay, where he usually dons a Santa hat and shorts.

Image source, Dave Cocks
Image caption,
"Dreaded mankinis" are a regular sight at Redcar's Boxing Day Dip

Christmas trees, Father Christmas and "those dreaded mankinis" are the staple attire at Redcar's Boxing Day Dip in Teesside, according to Dave Cocks, of Redcar RNLI.

"It's just as well the water's cold," he added. About 500 people take part and there are often about 5,000 spectators.

"About five years ago the then Mayor of Redcar and Cleveland lost their chain, falling over in the rush - a guy with a metal detector eventually found it," Mr Cocks said.

He described the event as "a fun way to burn off the Christmas pudding - more through shivering than from physical exertion though".

Image source, Dave Cocks
Image caption,
The Boxing Day Dip at Redcar starts from the RNLI lifeboat slipway
Image caption,
An array of fancy dress outfits have been seen at the Christmas Day Swim at Lowestoft in Suffolk

Dr Tim Morton, a regular swimmer in the Lowestoft Christmas Day charity swim in Suffolk, often dresses up as a female nurse "complete with fishnets and false eyelashes".

"I've seen clowns, superheroes and some people only wear their Speedos," he said.

He added the temperature of the water had varied "from reasonable to sub-Arctic".

"You're going to spend the rest of your day stuffing your face and probably drinking far too much, so it starts the day in the proper spirit," he said.

Image source, North Norfolk Beach Runners
Image caption,
The Boxing Day Dip in Cromer, Norfolk, attracts up to 300 entrants

The Boxing Day Dip in Cromer, Norfolk, was started 27 years ago by four beach runners and now attracts up to 300 entrants in costumes ranging from fairies to school girls.

"I expect they thought, 'that'll be a laugh'," said organiser Clive Hedges, of North Norfolk Beach Runners.

"You name it - anything goes - the only rule is you have to get your hair wet," he said.

Image source, Driftwood Spars
Image caption,
Lou Treseder usually opts for a bikini at the Trevaunance Cove Christmas Day Swim

It is a "strictly swimwear only" affair at Trevaunance Cove, in St Agnes, Cornwall.

Lou Treseder, who has been taking part in the Christmas Day swim for eight years, said she usually opted for a bikini and found the whole experience "exhilarating".

Miss Treseder, manager at the Driftwood Spars pub, said the tradition started with a dare issued by a previous landlady 18 years ago.

"She offered about five lads a free pint if they went in the sea with just their swim shorts on, and it's grown from there - a few hundred take part now," she said.

Image source, Weymouth and Portland Lions Club
Image caption,
This will be the 67th year Weymouth's Christmas Day Harbour Swim has taken place
Image source, Weymouth and Portland Lions Club
Image caption,
About 250 swimmers take part in the festive event at Weymouth in Dorset

Likewise, it was two pub landlords who started the event at Weymouth, in Dorset, in 1947, according to Richard Burgess, of Weymouth and Portland Lions Club, which organises it now.

"It was a bet and I expect the drink did most of the talking," he said.

This will be the 67th year the cross harbour Christmas Day swim, from Old Rooms Inn to the Royal Dorset Yacht Club, has taken place in the town.

However, it will be the first time Alison Hennessey, from Peckham in south London, has taken part.

Image source, Brockwell Lido
Image caption,
Alison Hennessey has been preparing for her Christmas Day dip in Weymouth with regular swims at Brockwell Lido

The novice has been preparing to take her big dip in the resort, which will raise money for mental health charity Mind, with regular outdoor swims at Brockwell lido in Herne Hill.

"It was 7.5 degrees in there the other day which was very exhilarating, and it's a strangely effective hangover cure," she said.

"The worst bit is watching the lifeguards wrapped up with hot water bottles."

Tips on outdoor immersion

  • Take the plunge: Much of the acclimatisation process is mental
  • Exhale as you get in: The ribcage contracts in cold water which leaves many swimmers feeling they cannot breathe
  • Wait 90 seconds: The pleasure of open water might not be immediate
  • Find a rock or tree to swim to: You will feel good once you get moving

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