Meet the Woodbridge couple wild swimming every weekend to raise money for Parkinsons UK
PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 September 2020
Sarah Lucy Brown
Ben Davies and Bella Bryson are braving the waters of the River Deben and the North Sea to raise money in memory of Ben’s grandfather. Read how you can help them.
As birthday treats go, there are, perhaps, more inviting ways to spend the day than plunging into the 4°C waters of the River Deben. But that was how Ben Davies started his birthday in March 2018 – and he’s been doing it ever since.
It was Ben’s partner, Bella Bryson, already a keen wild swimmer, who persuaded him to take a dip at Waldringfield, close to Woodbridge where the couple live.
“It was a beautiful sunny day, I just fell in love with it,” he says. So much so that since that first toe in the water, Ben and Bella have been wild swimming together regularly in the Deben and the North Sea and have now set a fundraising swimming challenge.
“It was New Year last year and we wanted a challenge,” says Ben. “So we decided we would each swim a kilometre every weekend outdoors, for Parkinsons UK.” They set up a Justgiving account where people can donate to the charity, chosen in memory of Ben’s grandfather who had Parkinsons for more than 30 years.
“He was a keen sailor, a really outdoors man so it’s good to something like this for him,” says Ben.
They also set up an Instagram account so friends and family could follow their venture and others could join them in their weekly swims. They swim in true cold water tradition, whatever the weather and with no wet suits.
“You feel the benefits more without a wetsuit,” says Bella, who has been cold water swimming for three years and started it as a way to improve her wellbeing. “It frees you of stress and clears your mind. You’re focused only on what you’re doing at the time, on survival in the water.”
The benefits of cold water swimming are now well-known. It’s boosts the immune system as it increases the white blood cell count when the body is forced to react to changing conditions. Over time, the body becomes better at activating its defences.
It reduces stress, making us calmers, and provides a natural high because it activates endorphins, the chemical produced in the brain that makes us feel good, but also when we’re we’re in pain to help us cope with it.
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It improves circulation, flushing the blood vessels and forcing blood to the surface, helping to warm our extremities. Repeated exposure adapts us to the cold. In fact dedicated fans of cold water swimming may attempt the Ice Mile swim, a one-mile swim under International Ice Swimming Association rules in water temperature of 5°C or less, wearing just a standard costume, goggles and one swim hat.
For Ben and Bella there have certainly been some icy swims in the coldest months of February and March, when the water can dip as low as 2°C, but this time of the year – September and October – the water is at its warmest after summer.
“The winter months are definitely the hardest part,” says Ben, “but it doesn’t stop us.” Timing the tide is crucial, of course, at their favourite spots of Waldringfield and Ramsholt, although at Shingle Street the shingle forms a natural lagoon and swimming is possible pretty well all the time.
Ben admits that his first few swims mounted to very brief, five-minute dips as he braved the chill, but it wasn’t long before he adjusted and could enjoy longer, leisurely swims, enouraged by Bella, of course.
“I found myself returning to a passion for swimming that I’d always had,” he says. In fact he’s no stranger to swimming and has swum competitively since a child, including for his home nation of Wales and in Woodbridge where he went to school from the age of 11. Last year he entered the Great East Swim 10k at Alton Water and came fourth with a time of 2hrs 36 mins. Bella also completed the race in a respectable 3hrs 46 mins.
Currently Ben and Bella have raised just over £800 and almost halfway to their fundraising goal. They were slowed by the lockdown when they were unable to swim for eight weeks, but are planning a catch-up with a ‘dip-a-day’ challenge in December.
Throughout summer they’ve enjoyed sunrise swims, getting up at 3.30am, although returning to work – Ben as a sports publicist and Bella as a physiotherapist – makes that a bit harder.
Their open water swimming has also led them to get involved with We Swim Wild, which organises wild swim tours and retreats, with the aim of educating and campaigning about protecting wild waters, and undertakes scientific research by testing for micro plastics.
So, for those who fancy giving it a go, but can’t get past that bone chilling walk into the waves, what’s their tip?
“Don’t panic!” says Bella. “A lot of people start gasping for air as soon as the cold hits them, but breathe deeply and normally and you’ll be OK.”
Find Ben and Bella on Instagram benellaswim and at justgiving.com/fundraising/benella-swims