I’ve always loved the sea. I grew up in Cornwall and my grandparents, who we’d stay with several times a year, lived along the coast of the Gower peninsula, in Wales. I felt lucky, spending summer weekends by the beach and winter months on coastal walks along some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in Britain.
But I didn’t just love looking out to sea, I loved being in it too. I didn’t think about it too much back then, it was just the way it was and I assumed everyone felt the same. My Dad would take me to the beach and teach me how to dive into the oncoming waves, respecting but enjoying the power of the ocean along Cornwall’s Atlantic coast. And as I grew older, I continued to gravitate to the coast. My university choice was Bournemouth, lying on the equally beautiful, but rather busier, Dorset coastline. And then a few years later, life led me to live on a big freshwater lake – Garda, in Northern Italy.
Water is in my blood, there’s no doubt about it. Anything to do with swimming in the sea, lake, or a river excites me. I love vintage sea bathing scenes depicted in posters and photography. I love the recent surge in refurbing old worn out lidos. Locations which tap into this culture call out to me. Margate is one, playing host to a beautiful brand called Haekels which uses sustainable methods to gather seaweed to produce wonderful natural skincare. I adored their Kickstarter campaign to build an old-fashioned sea bathing machine –those incredible looking huts-on-wheels that Victorian ladies used to get changed in. Haekels is the perfect example of a beautiful business built on ethics and driven by a passion for the sea.
Selsey comes a-calling
For the past 17 years, despite spending most of my time in, or just outside London, I’ve had my sea fixes from Selsey, a little seaside town near Chichester, West Sussex. Selsey is often overlooked by its neighbours, which I’m quite pleased about in a way. Crowds queue for hours to get to nearby West Wittering and pass by this little gem of a place without a second glance. Yet not only does Selsey have a rich fishing heritage, described recently in a wonderful film called Seas The Day, it’s surrounded on two sides (almost four) by exceedingly good quality water. So good in fact, that Selsey Bill and The Hounds has just been made a Marine Conservation Zone. This is due to its high biodiversity and species richness which come in the form of kelp forests and the Short Snouted Sea Horses, who make it their home.
So, it’s always struck me as odd that I’m usually the only one taking a dip at Selsey. I wake up and look out to sea - the sparkling water, little fishing boats bobbing up and down and an incredible view of the Isle of Wight just makes me want to dive right in. The views are to die for, but on top of that, Selsey is flanked by not one, but two RSPB nature reserves. The sea is generally pretty swimmable - if West Beach is too rough, there is always East Beach. In a relatively small area, we’re totally spoilt for choice.
Difficult times lead to beautiful things
Then, a year and a half ago I broke almost everything possible in my knee. The pebbly shores of Selsey were too much to manage in my vulnerable state and for once, the sea scared me. So, I stayed alongside it; always near it, but not in it. And during that time, I found myself in conversations with others who, like me, longed to dive in, but for various reasons could not. Those reasons turned out to be “I’m a bit scared on my own” or “I’ve lost my confidence”, or “I’d like to, but I’ve got no one to go with”.
And so last November, and by this time back in the sea, an idea began to take shape.
I wanted to create a small society for people who are passionate about the sea but have either stopped swimming because they don’t enjoy going in alone, or those who had lost their confidence, or those who just felt the need for a bit of encouragement. The idea began with celebrating the environment, but at the heart of it all actually lay community. What I've realised it that it's in sharing a love of the sea where joy truly manifests itself.
And then one day, by chance, I saw an article in the local paper advertising for people to come forward with ideas to win funding from the local council for projects which benefitted the local community. Bingo. This would give me the structure I needed to get my idea off the starting block. But there was a problem – there was one day to go until the closing date and I was off on holiday the following morning.
When fate takes over
There are times, as you’ve no doubt experienced yourself, when something else just seems to just take over. It’s almost as if you’re being guided towards achieving what you most long for. I managed to get the application in on time and on my return, pestered the council enough (but not too much) to get the Selsey Sea Bathing Society project live on their crowdfunding project page. Then, I got in touch with a local councillor to explain the idea with the hope of getting her support - an important ingredient. You’ve got to get into full PR mode, as well as funding mode and before long, with a little financial support from my own business, friends and family, locals and a few others far and wide who’d heard about it, began financially supporting the campaign. I didn’t ask for much, but enough people chipped in to mean that the council’s fund pretty much matched the donations.
Marketing and more PR began at that point. Planning and designing flyers to put all around the town. Dropping them into any high street shop that would support us, chatting to locals, writing for the local magazine, giving talks to the local WI groups, visiting the Town Council and readily offering support for their existing initiatives. And of course, building the website, blog and Instagram pages.
Why it means so much to me
Fast forward six months and the Selsey Sea Bathing Society is flourishing. It has no lofty objectives and asks little of anyone. It just is. And each month around 30 people turn up knowing they’ll have a few hours of laughter, joy and usually a dip in the sea. And despite the initial pain it always, always, leaves them feeling a million times better than before. The format remains simple. We gather, I give a quick overview of what’s happening and any updates and then we head off to the sea for a bathe. And if anyone doesn’t feel up to it, they either paddle or watch. We always laugh and we encourage and help those into the sea who may find it challenging that day, for whatever reason. People stay in for as little or long as they like and then drift back to the house where tea and home-made cake (made by members of the group) awaits. We don’t charge, it’s free for anyone coming along, but we do put a pot out for small donations which we’ll eventually decide on a suitable local charity to invest it in.
In the winter months, for the first time ever, I’ve personally decided to try and keep bathing going throughout the year. This wouldn’t have happened without the enthusiasm of others in the group and I’m sure our mental, as well as physical health, will benefit as a result. But for those who understandably find that a bit much, we're arranging talks and walks and sea-related film showings to keep the community thriving throughout the winter months.
Why community is so important
There’s so much happening in the world right now to be anxious about. Protestors who bring London to a standstill, to raise awareness for causes they know we can’t afford to ignore, ignite both passion and fury. Fake news and mis-sold political promises. A Parliament who can’t work together to make their minds up. A gradual collective waking up in the knowledge that our environmental future, which even an optimist can see, looks bleak, and the move as a nation, towards individuality and away from collective decision-making. Whatever your views, we can all agree on one thing - it’s an unsettling period in British, world and human history.
Yet this little community, which continues to flourish on simplicity, seems to me a brief shelter from the world. It’s a genuine and authentic place because of that simplicity. Right from the outset the Selsey Sea Bathing Society has attracted the most wonderful people. People with an open, warm and encouraging mindset. We gather for ourselves, for what we each personally need, but in equal measure we are also there for each other – which is exactly the way it should be. People arrive with new ideas, with a smile and above all they arrive with warmth.
I ask myself sometimes, maybe I should do more? Push this further and reach out more. But the answer comes back as no, it’s just not necessary. I’ve spent my life pushing, doing, striving, yearning to do things better and achieve more. What I love about it, is that it bobs along in its own momentum, just like we do in the sea together. Content in itself, content that it is doing all that it should, and that, is enough.
Oh, and the lessons that offers us all! In that elegantly simple approach, we learn the secret of life. In it, we take respite from the relentless treadmill of competition and consumption and instead, if just for a few hours, we experience a life that puts ecological integrity, social equity and personal tranquillity and happiness at the centre of everything. And what could be better than that?
Selsey Sea Bathing Society https://www.selseyseabathingsociety.com/
Spacehive - funding platform for ideas that bring local places to life https://www.spacehive.com/
Haekels Sea Bathing Machine https://haeckels.co.uk/journal/kickstarting-a-bathing-machine/
Seas The Day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT6xdZH41DI