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 Wild Swimming

Image by Sacha T'Sas

 Wild Swimming

Isabelle McNeill, Kate Mitchell

‘When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water […] You see and experience things when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different from any other. You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete way than on dry land, and your sense of the present is overwhelming. In wild water you are on equal terms with the animal world around you: in every sense, on the same level.’

Roger Deakin, Waterlog, (2000), p.3-4


Responding to ecological catastrophe requires a paradigm shift in the way we, as human animals, conceive of and interact with the rest of the natural world. Grounded in the practice and experience of wild swimming, this module follows Deakin’s suggestion that wild swimming has the power to shift the way we understand our bodies in their relationality. More so than moving on land, it changes what Kathleen Jamie has called our ‘sightlines’ (2012) so that we are immersed in, a part of, and on a level with the ‘animal world’.

The idea of a hierarchy, man’s dominion over animals (as though we were all men, as though we were not also animals) has led to a model of exploitation. We think of nature in terms of yields and resources – even as we admire it. Standing apart from nature as a separate observer contributes to this catastrophic model.

As we swim, noticing the sensations in our bodies as well as our vision, and as we read, watch, talk, and create, we will rethink and reshape our relationship to the non-human. We will make use of the approaches that Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter (2010: 13-15) draws from Adorno in reconsidering ‘things’, namely:

-          Paying attention critically to our own processes of conceptualisation

-          Senory hyper-attentiveness

-          Exercising a utopian imagination

-          Admitting a ‘playful element’ into our thinking, being willing to play the fool

We will welcome pleasure, delight and enjoyment in our swimming. We will reflect upon our minds as well as our bodies, considering emerging evidence that wild swimming has immense benefits for human mental health. At the same time, we will resist understanding individual human mental health as separate from a wider web of connections between people, animals and matter.

Our reading, viewing and listening will help us to consider some of the ways wild water has been encountered, thought about and represented, and we will think about the role of art and writing in contributing to the changes brought about by swimming.

Where circumstances permit, the seminar will include a group swimming outing. Regular, self-organised wild swimming is expected from all participants, weather/season permitting.[1] All participants will keep an ongoing log of their swims, along with a descriptive record of each experience (which may include audio/visual input as well as text), to include personal impressions, thoughts and encounters. A critical creative reflection will be invited at the end of the year, based on these records as well as the reading and group discussions: this may take any form - text, video essay, zine etc - but should make clear the personal impact of the seminar.


Bennett, Jane (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham & London: Duke University Press

Chen, Mel Y. (2012) Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect, Durham & London: Duke University Press

Deakin, Roger (2000) Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain, London: Vintage Books

Hughes, Ted (1983) River.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline (2020) Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, AK Press

Jamie, Kathleen (2012) Sightlines, London: Sort Of Books

Kingsley, Charles (1863) The Water Babies

Laing, Olivia. (2011) To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface. London: Canongate Books.

Mavor, Carol (2020) Like A Lake: A Story of Uneasy Love and Photography

McLeod, Janine et al. (eds). 2013. Thinking with Water. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Neimanis, Astrida (2017) Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London: Bloomsbury.

Oliver, Mary (2019) Upstream: Collected Essays. Penguin Random House.

Oliver, Mary (2005) Why I Wake Early: New Poems. Penguin Random House.

Oswald, Alice (2010) Dart.

Wardley, Tessa (2017) The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming: Reflections for Zen Seekers, Brighton: Leaping Hare Press.



Cobham, David (1979) Tarka the Otter

Miyazaki, Hayao (2008) Ponyo

Simpson, Andy Mark (2018) Waterbabies (short film)

Teichmann, Esther (2012) In Search of Lightning (5-minute single monitor video installation, looped)

Vigo, Jean (1934) L’Atalante



Flynn, Johnny and Laura Marling. 2010. ‘The River’ (Been Listening).


Online Resources:

UK Map of Wild Swimming:

Introduction to Wild Swimming:

Outdoor Swimming Society:

Thyrve - where to go wild swimming:

[1] Always make your safety a priority! See the general and safety advice here:

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