Watch the short film ‘Swim Club’, and read about the cold-water swimmers of Penzance
Words by Lydia Paleschi
The Battery Rocks swimmers can be found every morning in Penzance, Cornwall. An assortment of people from all walks of life and a variety of ages – from those in their teens to those in their eighties – there are the full makings of a community. Many of them met by accident, or through obscure circumstances, but the bond they share is as if they’ve known one another for a lifetime. For four of the women that meet there – Kizzy, Jill, Jessie and Katie – they have their different reasons for becoming a member of the Battery Rocks crew. But for all of them, the unexpected sense of community they have found is a pivotal part of how they’ve come to love swimming in ways beyond which they ever could have imagined.
To the west of the rocks, Penzance Promenade stretches along the seafront for around a mile, before reaching the small seaside town and port of Newlyn. To the east lies Penzance Harbour, the first secure harbour and anchorage on the coast of the English Channel for those entering from the Atlantic Ocean. Below the water line, this area of the Cornish coastline is home to a diverse range of wildlife, which inhabit the rocky reefs that characterise the underwater landscape.
The group meets at Battery Rocks in the early hours throughout all weathers and seasons. They head to the water under the cover of darkness during the winter months, whilst the glow of the moon is still high in the sky. When adverse weather conditions roll in, they swim unperturbed, seeking out shelter behind the harbour wall. In the summer months, they meet at dawn, immersed in the cold embrace of the ocean as the sun begins to rise. They feel the first rays of the sun on their faces as it peeps above the horizon line, to light up the oceanic landscape in a blend of lilac and bluish hues.
I decided to meet up with Kizzy, Jill, Jessie and Katie to find out more about why they swim and what it means to them. Each conversation began with a discussion on the swims they’d had that morning – or in Jessie’s case, that she was deeply missing being a part of whilst working in Italy. It was clear that cold water swimming is much more than a hobby for each of these women – it is a lifestyle choice, part of their identity and that the people they meet there are their chosen family.
Kizzy grew up in Newlyn and first began cold water swimming all year round two years ago. Prior to this she was a seasonal swimmer. After being diagnosed with a life altering illness in 2016, Kizzy was forced her to reassess her life and rediscover who she is. Since then, cold water swimming has been a way for her to overcome adversity, manage her life and find connection with the people and world around her. She also enjoys practicing backflips into the water.
When I ask Kizzy why it was swimming she turned to, she explains, “People realised in lockdown they needed to be out and connecting with their natural environment. It’s the same reason why I started swimming. I wanted to do something because a lot of the time I would be confined to the house.” She continues, describing why it’s cold water in particular that she’s drawn to, “The cold water is an escapism from the physical symptoms of my illness and it reminds me that I’m still alive. I’m not thinking about the nausea, the pain, all these awful symptoms that I live with. They’re all taken away.” For Kizzy, it’s not just the cold and the swimming that draws her in, it’s the weather, the elements and the changing moods of the ocean, “I craved the weather and being able to go outside and feel the elements on my skin – the rain, the sun, the sea. All of these things a healthy person can take for granted and admittedly I did. I’ve always liked getting out in the open and in nature, but living with chronic pain really makes you appreciate it.”
After stumbling upon the Battery Rocks swimmers whilst on a solo dip one morning, Kizzy has been joining them ever since. When I ask her if swimming as part of a group has made a difference, she describes how meeting them has added another level of confidence and happiness to her life. “Even if I’m not physically any better, mentally I definitely am. It’s great to be a part of something so lovely and a community and family that extends to other parts of your life too. Whenever I’m ill and can’t leave the house, there’s always someone from Battery Rocks who offers to help.” When I ask Kizzy what it means to start her day with the Battery Rocks community, she smiles and says, “Being part of a community, you’re much stronger. You come away feeling elated and excited for the day ahead and you’ve probably had the best time of your life before other people have gotten out of bed.”
Originally from near London, Jill has had an attachment to Cornwall since first visiting as a child. “It’s always felt like a special place for me and one to which I’ve been trying to return to ever since”. When she lost her dad in 2017, Jill decided to make the move. She explains, “It sounds like a cliché, but when you lose someone you love too soon, it makes you reflect on how short life really is. My Dad was a big believer in seizing the day and I started to wonder why I was waiting to do all of the things I love as part of my daily life.” Now, Jill is fully committed to swimming every day, to making the most of living in the place she adores and feels drawn to waking up and experiencing the early mornings.
According to Jill, once you make that commitment and realise that there’s something to be gained from swimming in all conditions, you never look back. “Once you’ve gone through a really bad weather day, or swimming in the dark, and overcome those things which you think might make you not want to swim, your mindset changes. You carry on because you love it so much, because you gain confidence and if you don’t do it, you really miss it.” Now, Jill finds it hard to skip a morning and has begun to take photographs from the water. “I love being in the water at dawn and watching how the seascape changes – whether it’s the light, the waves or the water clarity. I find that when you’re taking photographs of it, you’re always trying to capture that essence and beauty. Then you’re drawn to go back to see how it’s changed the next day, and the next.”
It’s not only the landscape that motivates Jill to head to the ocean each morning, but the people too. “I don’t know if I would do it as much if I was doing it on my own. There’s definitely that motivating force that you want to see everyone”. She continues to explain that there are a whole plethora of reasons. “It’s magnetic. Just the sea on an elemental level and then the sensation of it. You feel so much better once you’ve been for a swim. You’ve had such a laugh, seen so many beautiful things and then there’s the community as well. On so many levels it’s great. They all combine to form this complete experience that you just want to keep doing.”
Jessie grew up in Penzance and has been swimming in the ocean for as long as she can remember. Now a passionate sailor who works on cruise ships, she has always been drawn to blue spaces. “My dad has always been into boats so as a kid I was always around boats or in the sea, or around water. It wasn’t one thing that made me take to the water, it’s just always been there for me and I love it.” When I assume that Jessie must be able to swim in places all around the world through her work, she corrects me, pointing out that it’s one of the things she misses the most. “Whilst working on cruise ships I’m always near the sea but I never really get the chance to go in it. When we’re cruising, even if it’s in Iceland and Norway, my priority is to swim. I just need to get into the water.” I ask why it’s being immersed in the water that she craves, and Jessie explains that it’s the sense of peacefulness it provides her with. “Being on it is not enough. Getting into the cold water, it’s like a factory reset. A hard reset.” She smiles and begins to explain more, “It’s exhilaration, but it’s also the calm you get as well. Even if it’s rough and choppy you can find peace in it. I love floating there, or to hold my breath and go under the water. Even if you’re on a beach and there’s swell and you duck under a wave it’s peaceful under there.”
Whilst we speak, Jessie is away in Italy working and it’s clear that she misses not only being able to swim in cold water, but also the community that she’s come to know and love. “It’s more than just a swim group and people going for a swim. The connection you get from anything like that is really special.” I ask her how she became a part of the Battery Rocks crew and she explains “We all just sort of found each other. It was never planned, we all just sort of fell together which is quite funny and it just works. There’s no pressure for anyone to go down every day, or to wear a certain thing, or do a certain thing, or swim a certain stroke. We’re all just there for each other and very lucky to have found each other in that way.” Even whilst away working, Jessie is in regular contact with them. “It’s amazing how even now out here if I have a rough time, I know they’ll be there for me. I’m still a part of it via the WhatsApp group and I’m still there in spirit.”
Katie, also from Penzance, was the first of the four women to start swimming at Battery Rocks. Like Kizzy, it was through poor health that she initially started swimming. In more recent years, her love of the sea has grown, so that she spends much of her time fascinated by the wildlife that inhabits her local coastline. Katie is now known fondly by the rest of the group as ‘Katie Attenborough’.
Five years ago, Katie stumbled upon the swimmers at Battery Rocks whilst struggling with her mental health. “I was thinking I was doing all of the right things by keeping really busy, but all of a sudden I became really tired and exhausted, with horrific fatigue.” Soon, Katie found herself in a position where she was suffering from extreme burnout. “I got so exhausted that even at nighttime I couldn’t rest because my muscles were jumping.” Feeling out of control, unable to sleep and unsure of what to do, Katie ended up walking the coastline in the early mornings taking pictures of the sunrise. After bumping into the Battery Rocks swimmers they took her under their wing and supported Katie on the start of her journey as a cold water swimmer. Slowly but surely, Katie’s confidence grew, her health improved and now she swims with them most mornings. “Getting poorly through depression, anxiety, panic and sleep loss took away my confidence and the sea brought it back. You get in, it’s freezing cold. You get this real rush that you’re doing something out of the ordinary and it really energises you. It makes you feel like you’re proud of yourself because you think you’re doing something brave. It made me feel brave again.”
Since then, Katie has played a pivotal role in welcoming Kizzy, Jill and Jessie into the group. A teacher, mother and naturally kind person, she now works to support local environmental groups in the area and shares her photography of local wildlife online. Katie is now also a member of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, working as a volunteer to support stranded and injured marine life such as whales, seals and dolphins. It’s clear that this drive to help others is part of the reason that Katie heads to the ocean each morning. “If I don’t get in the sea on a particular day I feel flat, lethargic and a little less motivated. A bit like my sparkle has been taken away. I just don’t feel the same. I always feel like the sea is calling me back in, because it replenishes the part of me that allows me to give my best to other people.”