British writer Alexandra Heminsley discovered the joy of the open sea just as wild swimming was having a renaissance. She has never looked back, and now she’s coming to West Cork
‘PEOPLE are so burdened by their fears,’ says author Alexandra Heminsley, a great exponent of the old adage of facing your fear and doing it anyway.
Having conquered the challenge of marathon running, chronicling the journey in the best-selling Running like a Girl, she then turned her attention to the ocean.
‘It’s very different. If you run in the park, the path will always be the same. But the sea never is,’ she notes.
Getting ready for her first trip to Cork, Alexandra is savouring the idea of leading a group of like-minded souls into a dip in Bantry Bay, part of the West Cork Literary Festival.
Earlier that day, she will host a ‘coffee and chat’ event, to talk about her latest book, Leap In.
She said she thought she knew how to swim before, but she was wrong. ‘I moved to Brighton in 2010. My Dad was from Cornwall and my mum from Trinidad, so we had always seaside “forces” but we moved around a lot,’ she explains.
She started out writing a book comparing ballet to boxing, but also started swimming around this time and thought about writing about it. ‘After six to nine months, I realised the more interesting book was the swimming one.’
She embraced swimming because she had been undergoing IVF and was looking for some solace after the emotional rollercoaster of the treatment.
‘It is a great sport to take up if you have been sick, or injured,’ she says, explaining that a lot of other sports don’t facilitate rehabilitation in the same way.
She admits that she appears to have discovered the benefits of the phenomenon called ‘wild swimming’ at the same time as it had become a major trend, in both sport and writing circles.
‘We are all spending more time on screens and people want to connect more with the outdoors now and be reassured by nature,’ she believes.
Swimming has so many psychological benefits, and its pushes out your boundaries, while also being a ‘kind’ sport, by being almost gentle, says Alexandra.
Although she does giggle that if you get it wrong, it can be very dangerous, so you should never lose sight of the danger.
Alexandra came to swimming by means of a 10-month course she took in 2014, which introduced her to other like-minded souls near her home. Those people now comprise some of her core of year-round wild swimmers, and they have a Whats App group to swap stories and suggestions.
‘We are constantly honing our craft,’ she says, and adds that you can always pick up tips on handling rough water or tidal changes, or unexpected obstacles like jellyfish.
But there is no attraction in it, if there is no risk, she admits. ‘You can’t ever really know what is in the water, but then you don’t know you won’t be knocked down by a bus when you leave your office. I have swam in rough seas and over pike in the Lake District, but that is probably another reason I do it – we all like a bit of risk.’
She delights in the recent renaissance of public baths around Britain and Ireland, like the Clontarf Baths in Dublin and the Thames Lido in London, adding that it is, however, a pity they are largely the result of either private enterprise or community fund-raising, and not government intervention.
She says is also keen to see her little boy Linus learn to swim, and she loves the confidence that comes with the innocence of youth. ‘People are so burdened by their fears, and yet little children have so much water awareness, and a lack of self-consciousness.’
• Alexandra Heminsley will lead the West Cork Literary Festival Swim from Abbey Strand in Bantry at 11.30am on Wednesday, July 18th. Earlier that morning, at 10am in Bantry House Tearoom, she will host a Coffee & Chat event. See westcorkmusic.ie for more.