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Pastimes: Chi Onwurah extols the delights of wild swimming


4 min read

In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Chi Onwurah extols the delights of wild swimming.

During the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020, Chi Onwurah went to Cresswell Beach, just north of her Newcastle constituency, for a swim. “I got called into the sea by these two women in their 60s who were swimming in their undies and called themselves ‘wild women’,” she recalls. 

“You weren’t allowed to touch people at the time, but we could swim near each other. There was an incredible sense of freedom, and of equality. That’s the thing about the sea – anyone who can swim and stand the cold can get in there.”

It’s vital to tune your mind to something other than Westminster gossip

When at home in Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Onwurah, 57, mostly braves the chilly North Sea, but while in London she heads to the ponds at Hampstead Heath. “I’ll swim in any body of water,” she says. “I’ve swam as far north as St Monans in Scotland, in Portugal and Turkey in the sea, and in lakes in France, Vermont and elsewhere in the United States.” 

She first learnt to swim aged 10 as the comprehensive school she later attended had a summer swimming programme. “It was free so someone like me – growing up on benefits – could afford to learn,” she explains. She made the school team. 

She doesn’t use the term “wild swimming” – “we just call it outdoor swimming in the North East” – but there’s a romanticism to how she describes her time between the waves. “It’s a cliché, but there’s the feeling of being at one with nature.” 

“There’s no chlorine, and you don’t have to turn after 20m or 50m – you have the expanse. Then there’s the sounds of the sea – seagulls, the wind. It’s well-known that nature brings mental health benefits, and I think swimming in it raises that exponentially.” 

Last year she broke her foot and swimming enabled her to feel weightless again: “There was this great contrast between hobbling around [on land] and then getting into the water and being free.” 
Onwurah finds the cold “invigorating” and doesn’t wear a wetsuit, although she doesn’t swim all year round, stopping in November and restarting in March. “I cope with the cold by being a Geordie,” she laughs. 

“Generally, I scream when getting into the water – you expel your air to get rid of the shock. I remember swimming in the North Sea when everyone was in wetsuits and people were virtually clapping from the coast.”

Her hobby has made Onwurah, the shadow minister for science, research and digital, passionate about keeping our waters clean. During the pandemic, she looked into swimming in the River Tyne, and became very concerned by the use of rivers as sewage overflows: “It’s stomach-curdling, the idea that you are swimming next to sewage.” 

When she attended the Hay Festival in June, she was shocked to be told by the local Conservative MP that it wasn’t safe to swim in the River Wye because of pollution. “On a human level, it is outrageous, and then there’s the effect on wildlife,” she says, noting that data from The Rivers Trust shows there have been more than 1.2m sewage spills in the past six years. She wants tougher regulations to improve water quality, including forcing investment in water infrastructure and unlimited fines for water companies to make bosses accountable. 

Onwurah is a big believer that MPs need lives outside Westminster to inform their policy-making. “My inbox was crammed with constituents offended by the idea that the Tyne was being polluted – and swimming helped me understand the importance of that,” she says. “It’s vital to tune your mind to something other than Westminster gossip.”


Rosamund Irwin is a journalist with The Sunday Times.

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Read the most recent article written by Rosamund Urwin - Pastimes: To the theatre with Margaret Hodge