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Wild swimming in Oxford: ready to take the plunge?

Reuben Meadows discusses the benefits of wild swimming in Oxford.

‘Wait, here in the river – the Isis?’ When I tell people I’ve just been out swimming this is usually the first question I hear. Assumptions of a gentle Iffley Sports Centre swim are soon broken and replaced by genuine concern. For most, jumping into the river is confined to a moment of fresher’s week craziness – a punting stroke gone wrong, or a drunken hurrah into the Cherwell. Come Trinity, some may venture into Hinksey’s welcoming waters. But in dreary Hilary? Well, that’s just insane.

But there’s something addictive about doing something crazy.

I’ve swam in lakes and rivers for as long as I can remember but began swimming in Oxford almost a year ago in Hilary. While less than affectionately known as Hellary, a trip to Port Meadow can be a  momentary respite from the library doom and gloom. It breaks up the endless rhythm of essays and tute sheets. You arrive early at Port Meadow. A morning chorus is building. Sunlight filters through the thin mist covering the fields. It feels like a  magical place, and a far cry from the High Street hustle and bustle. An escape. 

On entering the water, you’re shocked awake from the early-morning delirium in which you had convinced yourself this was a good idea. And it is a good idea – but perhaps the romanticised charm of these riverside pastures was a little too powerful. Too late now, you’re standing waist deep and committed to the plunge! Adrenaline is surging. You imagine yourself somewhere tropical (southern Spain perhaps?) until a duck floating past reminds you of the cold-water plunge you’re undertaking. It’s 6 degrees, 8 am and most of a reading list is waiting for you back home. But the shock of the water helps put things in perspective. 

It’s an increasingly popular Oxford pursuit, and I’m glad to see more and more people heading out into the city’s watery back garden. Port Meadow offers the chance to take a break from the internet frenzy – although I wouldn’t blame you for sharing your open-water bravery with all your friends online! It’s too good to keep a secret. And it’s a great chance to make some like-minded friends: whilst sharing a moment of numb glee, I have met some of the most open people along the Isis. 

If you’re not ready to brave the winter swims, you can wait till Trinity to try Hinksey: a not-so-secret paradise. It’s now a well-known summer term destination. Oxford’s Miami Beach draws in crowds of students during some of the year’s hottest days, filling the grassy banks with the sounds of laughter, and the splash of an occasional tumble from the pontoon. Located on Abingdon Road, it might be a bit of a walk, but it’s worth it. Once a former gravel pit for the railway, natural springs have transformed the site into an Oxford oasis. You may see a red-crested pochard, or perhaps a lesser-spotted Engineering student.

If I’ve convinced you to give it a go, but you’re not sure where to start, Oxford University’s very own wild swimming society offers a great outdoor community and a safe way to start out. One of the most popular events is an 11 am swim on Saturday followed by brunch at St. Anne’s College. Truly unmissable – the hash browns (and company) are to die for.

For me, swimming in Oxford offers a chance to leave behind the stress of the Radcam rat race. While it certainly isn’t a cure-all, I have found it helps me balance my student life. Not to mention, it’s a fun way to surprise people. Standing on a silty bank of the river Thames as a cool rain begins to fall, I do sometimes question what I’ve got myself into. But I couldn’t go back. Whether you join us for an early Hilary dip or wait for a sunny afternoon in Trinity, do give it a go while you’re in Oxford – it would be great to see as many people as possible get out and enjoy Oxford’s amazing scenery. 

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