Making the most of our natural health service

Pauline Barker, the woman behind a poster campaign to encourage people to enjoy being healthy outdoors

Posted on: 17 June 2016

Meet the woman behind a poster campaign to encourage people to enjoy being healthy outdoors.

May was Naturally Healthy Month in Devon, and a wide range of organisations across Devon, under the Devon Local Nature Partnership, promoted some inspiring and innovative ways to get naturally healthy, from ‘bug walks’ to tai chi sessions.  The campaign featured real life Devon examples of ways to get ‘naturally healthy’.

Pauline Barker is an exceptional role model for those of us who want to stay a bit younger, feel a bit healthier and have a more positive approach to life.  At 52, Pauline is the picture of health, and doesn’t even pay expensive gym memberships or need a personal trainer.  Pauline is one of an increasing number of people to discover the joy of wild swimming, and, through the Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming group she has set up, is encouraging others to follow suit.

We talked to Pauline about her passion, and what keeps her so full of vitality.

How long have you been wild swimming, and what inspired you to do it in the first place?

I started swimming again about six years ago. I used to be a marathon runner but completing 17 marathons in nine years was enough, and so I turned back to my ‘go to’ sport of swimming. I very quickly got bored in the pool so looked around the internet for other types of swimming and happened across a small event in Cornwall where a swim was being organised across the River Fowey from Fowey to Polruan and back. I got a late entry as the swim was that weekend and that was the start of it.

I absolutely loved the feeling of swimming outdoors without the concrete confines of the pool, and from that swim I looked around for others.  Back then organised outdoor swims were few and far between, but I found the Devon Air Ambulance Swim which was a mile swim at Goodrington beach in Paignton and also another at Roadford Reservoir. I took part it both and by then I was hooked and looking for swim buddies so I could swim outdoors more often without having to rely on organised events.

By this time there were five of us with the same new-found love of outdoor swimming, so I set up a Facebook group to see if anyone else was interested and that has now grown enormously in popularity, and there are now lots and lots of swimmers and swims all over Devon and Cornwall.


Pauline Barker, the woman behind a poster campaign to encourage people to enjoy being healthy outdoors

What are the benefits of wild swimming?

It’s bit like pressing the ‘reset’ button. You can guarantee that whatever stresses and strains and worries are going on in your life, the feeling of being in the water and part of the whole outdoors elements will wash it away. I always feel better after a swim.  The camaraderie of swimming with a group of Wild Swimmers is incredible.

You don’t have to be a great swimmer or a fast swimmer to enjoy being in the water – it’s all about the sensation of being part of the water and relishing the embrace of the elements. It can also be very calming to go for a solo swim and just lie back and look at the sky or invigorating to put your head down and swim for ages.

What is your #whendidyoulast message for Naturally Healthy Month?

Try something new.

If there’s something you’ve been thinking, ‘I wish I could do that’, or ‘I’d like to give that a go’, then do it. It can take a lot of courage to get off the sofa and take yourself out of your comfort zone, but it’s worth it.

I often have new swimmers coming along to the social swims that I run at Tinside in Plymouth and a many have been watching us swim for ages either via our Facebook group or by standing at the top of the cliff looking down on the swimmers for a few weeks, before plucking up the nerve to come along. Once newbies make contact with us saying they’d like to join in or by just turning up with their cossie, then they are made very welcome and we keep an eye on them to make sure they know the ropes.

So whether it be swimming, running, horse riding, surfing – anything goes, just take that first step – find a like-minded friend or two if you can, and enjoy the adventure.


Celebrating swimming down the river from Aveton Gifford to Bantham. Photo by James Vickery

What makes you proud of Devon, and what is your favourite wild swimming location in Devon?

I love swimming at Tinside because it has been a swimming spot there for decades. There used to be separate ladies and gentleman bathing areas and the old bath houses are still there although they have fallen into a state of disrepair so it gives a real feeling of history about the area.

There are also lots of pools and lakes and rivers on Dartmoor that are swimmable and Spitchwick Common has a lovely swim spot where you can take a picnic.

How would someone get started, who’s never done it before?

Firstly make sure you’re safe. The water can be dangerous, especially if you don’t know how to read the currents and tides so I would always recommend swimming with a group of experienced swimmers until you learn what you need to look out for. Come and join Devon Wild Swimmers on one of our social swims or swim at a lifeguarded beach and make sure you stay within your depth until you’re confident.

What is special about Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming, and what are your aspirations for it?

The people make this group special. We have swimmers of all ages and abilities. Some like to come along for a social swim and bob and chat – others have swum the English Channel and other great swims. We are inclusive of everybody and we don’t charge a fee to join the group or swim with us. We are just a bunch of people who like to swim and get together. You don’t need to spend money on a lot of kit or a wetsuit – you just need a cossie to start with and then add in a hat and goggles and you have the basics.

Pauline swimming the English Channel in 2015

Pauline swimming the English Channel in 2015

The group has evolved greatly over the last five years and we now have active teams in East Devon, North Devon and Torquay swimming regularly. We also have a lot of visitors join us who are in Devon on holiday. There is also a very active Cornwall side.

There are similar groups to Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming all over the country although I think we are the largest and we are starting to attract swimmers from further afield coming to Devon purposefully to swim with us.

My aspirations are simple – I am very enthusiastic about swimming and encouraging others to take part and providing the opportunity for people of all ages and abilities to take up the sport. Enthusiasm, encouragement and opportunity brings new swimmers and helps others to achieve their ambitions.

Pauline celebrates after a wild swin

Just a few of the Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming Group

Thank you Pauline!

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Posted in: Health and Wellbeing