REFLECTIONS: Sarah Gerrish
From watching the sunrise atop the fells to the bonding power of communal cold-water swims, founder of Wonderful Wild Women (a Lake District collective that inspires and celebrates women from all walks of life in outdoor adventures), Sarah Gerrish, tells us what spending time in the wild means to her and the WWW community.
A few years ago, I lived for lazy summers, for those days so hot that all you can do is lie on the grass or sand and feel the sun’s rays bouncing off your skin. Then I found ‘the outdoors’. By opening myself up to new activities, I started to experience the elements in a new way.
I live in South Lakeland on the edge of The Lake District, and I’m fortunate to have incredible local trails on my doorstep. Whether it’s a pre-desk dip, a lunchtime run or a walk home from work, these daily rituals allow time to decompress and reset my mind.
I set up the Wonderful Wild Women community as a way of seeking something positive from a time when I was suffering from predominantly negative thoughts and feelings. It was impulsive and unplanned, and I never expected it to become anything other than a fleeting Instagram account for my own inspiration, focused on spending more time outdoors.
When the following started to grow, I could see potential in creating a community at a grassroots level to encourage women to come together – both virtually and physically – to support each other and network. We started with monthly walks in the Lake District, but, over the years, it has grown to include a whole variety of different activities from running to mountain biking, climbing, yoga and swimming. Through partnering with other local communities, guides and coaches, the women in our community have access to new experiences and opportunities which – for whatever reason – may not usually be available to them.
At WWW, we all have our individual qualities and strengths. But we’re passionate about supporting and encouraging each other, functioning as a collective rather than as competition.
The outdoors provides a neutral backdrop that enables open conversation. I have had some of the most honest discussions whilst out on the fells or in the water. Chats that have been so important for personal growth and acceptance. Chats that would never have happened if I’d been there alone. When you share an experience or outside space with another, it can form a bond through a mutual appreciation for where you are.
My perfect day would involve an early start to catch the sunrise on the fells. I love having a full day out on the hills, travelling light, covering lots of ground and taking in the views. Even better if there’s some time by or in the water along the way.
Growing up, I would never have considered myself a swimmer. But my relationship with water has evolved gradually. Joining a local triathlon club really helped as it gave me more confidence in accessing the water.
I used to fear the cold and purposely avoided anything that involved a sudden drop in temperature, but cold-water swimming has completely revolutionised my approach to the winter months. It’s allowed me to immerse myself in the elements all year round, and I now appreciate getting out there in all weathers. The more challenging the weather conditions, the more alive I feel!
Outdoor swimming activates all the senses and creates an instant feedback loop between your mind and body in a way it’s hard to recreate with any other activity.
Every swimming location is different, from the feel and temperature of the water to its colour, the landscape around it and the plants and animals that live there. By swimming regularly all year round, you become deeply connected to a landscape as you see it moving through the seasons day by day, week by week. It’s really very special.
Winter swimming isn’t easy – it can become quite relentless during the darkest and wettest months. There have been years when I’ve questioned why I was doing it. In the early days, it felt like I had something to prove…I’m not sure who to! But more recently, I try not to be so hard on myself and listen to my body. At certain points in my cycle, the last thing I want to do is get into cold water or swim, and at those times I’ve learned it’s important to take a step back.
The Lake District is like a natural playground. There so much of it to explore, and it provides constant opportunities for learning and growth; from the landscape to the changing weather, the history, the moments we get to share with friends, the activities we can try. It’s also a place that the WWW community is so passionate about and wants to protect.
During the week, WWW swimming meets often happen before work. We have a couple of easy-access swimming locations, one of them being Millerground on Windermere, which is a popular spot. It’s been amazing to watch our swimming population grow.
At weekends, I like to venture further afield when I can and find new places to swim. These are special tarns in the hills that never seem to get any warmer but have the most beautiful crystal-clear water.
It doesn’t surprise me that outdoor swimming is so popular amongst women. Women are often self-conscious about their bodies through a lifetime of conditioning, but in the water, there is no judgement. Add to this the physical benefits that the cold water brings, and you have a perfect combination.
I find the backdrop of a lake or tarn is a real leveller. You are literally stripping away the layers and standing half naked at a water’s edge with someone, bearing all. But when you enter the water, you transition into an almost anonymous body. You are covered and protected.
I’m actually a massive introvert and I like my own company, so I spend a lot of time alone in nature. It gives me that quiet time to process life. Between work, family, the WWW community and everything else, it can be hard to switch off.
This past year I’ve got into gardening and started an allotment. So, as well as my more active hobbies, it’s refreshing to have that peaceful space at home and to be able to nip out into the garden and dig around in the mud or water the plants. Taking a moment to be still and listen to the sounds around me is so relaxing.
Our weekly virtual runs over lockdown were popular and it was great to see people from all over getting involved, but it wasn’t the same as being physically out on the trails chatting and sharing in that experience together. For me, a large part of being out in nature is about stimulating all the senses and I just don’t think you can get that through a screen.
I love hearing about women who’ve formed a close bond after meeting through WWW. Stories like that are really special to me, to know that the community has facilitated those kinds of friendships, which can be life-changing for people.
It’s important to me that the WWW community isn’t just one voice. I want WWW to be diverse; to encompass a variety of skills and interests. I hope the wider WWW community can see themselves in the WWW contributors and team, and that as a result, they feel more comfortable stepping a little out of their comfort zone.
Part of what has made the community a success, I think, is its natural, organic growth. We like to be open to the opportunities that come along and be able to adapt as required. But, after this past year, it’s enough to just get back out there together and be able to connect again.