Meet Amy Liptrot, author and journalist.
Why You Should Know Her
If you haven’t read Amy’s multi-award winning book The Outrun, you should. It is a brilliantly honest account of her journey as a recovering alcoholic, and her return to Orkney after 10 years of life in London.
As an islander with often conflicted feelings about my identity, about living in a small rural space and the push-me-pull-you of north isles life, her book spoke to me so much. It is beautiful and inspiring, and I was absolutely delighted and honoured to chat to her about sea swimming, something I’ve done a bit of this year and which I’d thoroughly recommend.
December may seem a funny time of year to share this interview but actually, it’s as good as any – getting outside and being physically active in winter is so good for you, and can help banish the winter gloom.
Sea swimming featured quite a bit in your book. For anyone that hasn’t read it, where did the motivation to start sea swimming come from?
A few years ago, I returned home to Orkney where I grew up, and was looking for new things to fill my time. I joined the Orkney Polar Bear Club, a bunch of fun and interesting people who swam in the sea every Saturday morning at a different places around the Orkney coastline. At that point, I was rather shaky: I was newly sober (I’d been in rehab in London a few months before) and unemployed, and was looking for things to help me feel better and appreciate the place where I’d grown up.
What was that first swim like?
My first winter swim was actually a charity event called the Boxing Day Dip. I found that unlike other people who just ran in and out of the sea, I wanted to get right in swimming despite the cold and found it a real buzz! This encouraged me to try it more and seek out the Polar Bears.
How long have you been sea swimming now?
I swam in the sea as a kid – in the summer at rockpools by my family’s farm in Orkney. But I’ve been doing it regularly and year-round as an adult for about five years.
What is it about it that you enjoy?
I love the all-encompassing physical sensation of cold water and the endorphin high I get afterwards. When I’m in the sea, I’m not thinking about anything else, and I definitely feel more relaxed when I get out. Swimming outdoors allows me to experience and understand the changing seasons, sea conditions, see birds and wildlife up close and visit different parts of the coast. Also it’s a way of having a good laugh with friends. Also it provides excellent social media content.
I’ve been sea swimming a few times in Shetland this year, and have a friend here who does it regularly. They sometimes get negative comments about it being unsafe or have people thinking they’re mad – did you experience anything like that in Orkney? How did you deal with that if so?
Yes certainly. Sea swimming is not really part of Orcadian culture and there are good reasons for that. In 2017 we have good kit and car heaters and hot showers but they didn’t in the past. The sea needs to be treated with caution and respect and I would emphasise to anyone the safety measures I take. I go at sheltered places in calm conditions and don’t stay in for too long. I tell people that there is a growing community of outdoor swimmers and it has been shown to have huge physical and mental health benefits.
I often see Instagram posts of your latest swim. Do you try and go wherever in the world you are? How often do you go?
Yes! I’ve done a lot of travelling for book events in the last couple of years and I usually try to find an outdoor swimming spot wherever I end up – beaches, rivers, lakes, reservoirs or lidos. On average I swim once a week, maybe more when the sun is out or less if I feel off-colour (it’s important to listen to your body: I don’t swim if I am sick or too tired).
What are your favourite places to swim?
In Orkney I like to swim at rockpools on the west coast and also a couple of beaches where it’s possible to swim out to shipwrecks! I am also fond of swimming off the Old Pier on the small island of Papa Westray. However, I’m currently living in West Yorkshire where my favourite swimming spot is a hill-top reservoir on the moors.
Do you prefer swimming on your own or with company?
Both! Some people only swim outdoors in groups due to safety concerns but when I am alone I am highly cautious and don’t go very far out. I love the jokes and shared adventure that I have with the Polar Bear Club or when I take friends out, but I also enjoy the peace and contemplation of swimming alone. I often have ideas for my writing when swimming, or on the walk there or back!
Do you have a best-swim-experiences, or any that are particularly memorable?
I remember one July swim at the beach on Papay when it was raining. I tucked my clothes under a rock and ran into the water. In the fog, sea and sky were indistinct. All was hazy apart from the sharp black shapes of tysties (black guillemots) on the water. As I swam, arctic terns were flying above me and diving a little further out. I saw two lions mane jellyfish and a bull seal rearing right up. Raindrops bent the water’s surface and silky thongweed brushed around my legs and I was calm.
I tucked my clothes under a rock and ran into the water. In the fog, sea and sky were indistinct. … Raindrops bent the water’s surface and silky thongweed brushed around my legs and I was calm.
In The Outrun, you describe sea swimming as having a cleansing effect on you: of shocking your body and brain into different ways of new thought processes and habits. Do you still feel that way, or do you enjoy it for other reasons now?
I certainly feel that outdoor swimming has come to fill many of the same functions for me that alcohol used to: stress relief, fun, celebration. Although it’s often hard to get myself out of the house and into the cold water, I never regret a swim and always feel refreshed and re-set after.
Do you have any tips for anyone tempted to do it?
Late summer is the ideal time to start as the sea will be as warm as it is all year (around 15 degrees C in Orkney and Shetland). If you start then and keep going regularly, you will be able to build up some ‘cold water adaption’ and swim into the winter. I would recommend trying to find other swimmers in your area. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a great website with lots of safety advice and a Facebook community. I don’t wear a wetsuit but I do wear neoprene boots and gloves which I find invaluable.
For me, it’s not about swimming athletically for long times or distances, more about having an enjoyable experience. Think about where you will get out before you get in. Start by paddling or a two minute dip and see how you feel! Good luck!
Amy Liptrot is currently working on her second book. You can read more about her book – The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller, Winner of the 2017 Pen Ackerley Prize, and Winner of the 2016 Wainwright Prize – The Outrun, here.