A bracing wind is blowing and a pair of dog-walkers hustle their charges briskly along the water’s edge, pausing only to observe a small group of people undressing on a grassy verge that hugs Hanmer Mere in Wales. Down to their swimming costumes they strip, revealing skin puckered by the cold.
People often wonder what we’re doing,’ says Dianne Parrish, fitting her silicone swimming cap over her blonde hair. The cap reads, ‘Yes! It’s freezing!’ – a fitting response to quizzical glances. She snaps it over her scalp, hangs her goggles around her neck and walks to the water’s edge to check the lake’s temperature. Her gauge reads 7.7 degrees, which, she says, is pretty warm for February.
Dianne relays the message to her swimming comrades, Emma Hegenbarth, Denise Lee and Matt Davenport, who are all part of the Chester Frosties – a collective of open-water swimmers that heads out to local lakes, rivers and seas 365 days a year, regardless of the weather.
We’ve driven up to meet Dianne in the all-new Audi A5 Sportback to join her and the Chester Frosties in the water. Dianne started the group in 2013 with the aim of bringing together similarly intrepid swimmers to share the open-water experience. The launch and growth of the Chester Frosties – its Facebook group has 468 members – has coincided with an increase in popularity of the sport.
For Dianne, the decision to swim in open water sprang from a New Year’s Eve epiphany when, as the clock struck midnight, she realised that she needed a new goal in her life. ‘I decided that in the next few years I was going to get myself fit and healthy, and have the focus to eventually swim across the English Channel. That moment has changed my life totally,’ she says.
The group does a quick swimming kit check: ear plugs, goggles, swimming caps plus footwear to walk to the water’s edge. ‘When we’re ready to go, there’s a point of no return,’ Dianne says, removing her towelling robe. ‘People have different techniques of getting into the water. I tend to go in up to my knees and splash my pulse points and under my arms. I’d never recommend just ploughing straight in. It’s too much of a shock. You need to remember to exhale, too, so you don’t hyperventilate.’ She turns to the others. ‘Ready?’ They shiver the affirmative and wade gingerly into the water to surrender slowly to its chilly embrace.
‘I can get into a Zen-like state when I’m in the water,’ says Dianne, settling into a steady breaststroke. ‘I’m suspended in the water and it becomes totally effortless and it’s amazing. You’re almost suspended from the pull of gravity, so you can actually get that sense of pure freedom and I just find it incredibly therapeutic. It puts everything in perspective.’
Written by Helene Dancer. Photographs by Andre Silva.