THE WILD SWIMMING BROTHERS - OPEN WATER SWIMMERS AND CONSERVATIONISTS
Born and raised in a small village called Langwathby in the Lake District, the Hudson brothers spent their childhood summers exploring the Cumbrian countryside and swimming in the River Eden, which flowed past the bottom of the garden of their family home. When their mother sold the cherished house in 2014, Robbie, Calum and Jack wanted to do something special to say goodbye to the river that had been the source of so many happy childhood memories and highlight the natural beauty of Cumbria. Swimming the entire length of the river seemed like the perfect way to bid farewell. On 23 August 2015 the brothers clambered on to the banks of The Solway Firth completely exhausted after swimming 90 miles over 9 days but safe in the knowledge that they had accomplished their dream of becoming the first people to swim the entire length of the River Eden. I speak to Calum, the middle brother, about growing up in rural Cumbria, the River Eden challenge, conquering the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the brothers’ interest in nature and conservation and their plans for 2016.
The Hudson brothers’ passion for wild swimming and nature stems from their upbringing in rural Cumbria. All the children in their village, from a very young age, would spend the summer months roaming the countryside on their bicycles looking for exciting swimming and rock jumping spots. “We were wild swimming before we knew it was a thing or it even had a name,” Calum tells me. As they got older, the brothers would go on kayaking adventures down the river, stopping off at little beaches to go swimming or fishing. They were just like the children you read about in the Swallows and Amazons novels. The brothers’ love of the outdoors was also inspired by their childhood trips to see their grandmother in the Scottish highlands. She lived in an eco friendly house with a grass roof in the middle of the Scottish wilderness and lived on oatcakes and cheese. Up to the age of 85, she roamed up and down the Scottish hills “hacking at bracken with a machete.” The brothers would join their grandma on her long hill walks and swims in stunning highland lochs. “It gave us this feeling that there is nothing to fear from nature, I can’t imagine growing up and not being outside all of the time”, Calum says.
They always find it bizarre when people ask for advice about how to get into wild swimming. “You just go swimming in a lake or river and you are a wild swimmer”, Calum says. Part of the reason the Hudson brothers love wild swimming so much is because it is accessible to anyone. They also think it is the “most immersive outdoor sport.” “The immersive nature of wild swimming gets under your skin, it totally shuts off all your senses, you are not focusing on anything else but nature”, Calum explains. I can see where he is coming from. When wild swimming, you are directly in the environment, you can smell and taste the water and come face to face with the river’s wildlife. “There is no closer way to feel nature”, Calum concludes. He likens the experience to a walking safari; as soon as you remove the barrier of a car or bike, you are truly in nature’s environment, on its own terms, and that is a “humbling experience.”
The brothers feel very proud that they are inspiring people to reconnect with the natural world. All manner of different people were captivated by the Eden challenge. Local school kids brought them a tin of beans while they were camping, an elderly woman who has swam in the Eden for 65 years joined them for a leg and farmers would wave them by or give them a pint of milk. Through their swimming adventures, the brothers ultimately want to show people that it is incredibly easy to “re-wild” themselves. Calum says the key is to change people’s perspectives – a river is something that can change your life, not just something you drive over in your car.
As well as being the perfect way to reconnect with nature, wild swimming has a number of health benefits, which have been recognised for centuries. Cold water bathing and swimming as a form of medical treatment was particularly popular in the Victoria era. Benjamin Britten, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were all famous advocates of regular cold water swims and baths to strengthen the mental constitution and physical state. The benefits of cold water treatment were also recognised in more exotic climes. In 2009, Robbie travelled to Damascus, Syria, and visited one of the earliest mental institutions in the world, where the sound of moving water was used as treatment for patients suffering from varying types of mental illness. Modern day studies also support the view that cold water swimming benefits our health. For instance recent research from NASA concluded that repeated cold swimming leads to substantial bodily changes known as ‘cold adaptation’. These bring down blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce fat disposition, inhibit blood clotting and increase fertility and libido in both men and women.
The brothers have travelled the world in search of inspiring wild swimming spots. They have swam in the shallows of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, in view of the stunning white palace of the Maharana, which stands like an apparition in the middle of the lake. They have jumped from the famous Stari Most in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a magnificent bridge with a unique pale stone arch designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin. They have also swan dived into the turquoise blue Adriatic Sea from the cliffs of Dubrovnik and into crystal clear lagoons in Indonesia. Despite having swam in some of the most iconic locations on the planet, the brothers’ most memorable swimming adventure is conquering The Corryvreckan or Coire Bhreacain whirlpool, which lies between Jura and Scarba off the west coast of Scotland. The “cauldron of the speckled seas” was a formidable challenge; it is the third largest whirlpool in the world and a swirling frenzy of currents that can reach over 10 knots in strength. According to legend, the whirlpool is named after the Norse King Bhrechan who anchored his boat in it with three ropes (one made from hemp, one from wool and one from virgins’ hair) to prove his courage to a princess he hoped to marry. On the third day, the final rope, the virgins’ hair, gave way because the maiden had been unfaithful and King Brechan was lost to sea. Swimming the Corryvreckan was an incredible achievement, fewer than 100 people have ever accomplished the feat, and there are countless stories of swimmers and sailors who have succumbed to its power. For instance George Orwell, who wrote 1984 on Jura, needed to be rescued after his boat was shipwrecked trying to cross the whirlpool in 1947. Calum says the Corryvreckan adventure gave the brothers the self-belief that they could swim The River Eden. “It was an intimidating experience”, he says. “You take this long lonely boat trip off the coast of Scotland and we got there on a day when the whirlpool was running at the highest level our experienced boat captain had seen in 10 years.” While the currents and swell are frighteningly strong, the landscape is “absolutely beautiful” and Calum would recommend the challenge to anyone. I doubt Calum’s mother shares his enthusiasm. She had a week of sleepless nights worrying that her three sons were going to disappear down a plughole.
Robbie, Calum and Jack occasionally go on swimming adventures without each other. For instance Calum has swam in Central America where they have “amazing underground sinkholes” called cinotes and in the River Nile, the mecca for open water swimmers. He has also swam in Venezuela having been inspired to travel there after reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle and came face-to-face with giant Oronoco Crocodiles, electric eels, piranhas and bull sharks. It was a “new level of fear”, Calum says; on the Eden you might get a few grumpy otters or swans that follow you for a few days but you struggle to find any animals that will hurt you. After watching My Neighbour Totoroby the famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Jack was inspired to travel to Morzine and swim in the pristine lakes of the Alps and, in 2012, Robbie, the oldest brother, swan the entire 7.5 mile length of Lake Ullswater in Cumbria. He was subsequently inspired to create a series of artworks that represented the Lake and the surrounding landscape. Robbie’s approach to his art reminds me of the famous British artist J.M.W. Turner who once insisted on being tied to the mast of a ship during a storm before painting the Snowstorm steam-boat off a harbour mouth.
The Hudson brothers have certainly been on some incredible individual swims, however the adventures they enjoy the most are the ones when they are together. Calum says the big appeal of the River Eden challenge for him was that he was doing it with his brothers. Everything else, the endurance challenge, reconnecting with nature, the record, bled into that. When you are outside of an official race environment you need people you trust around you, and there is no one Calum trusts more than Jack and Robbie. The brothers have swum in some of the most magnificent rivers and lakes in the world however their favorite places to swim remain the “beautiful” lakes and rivers they swam in as young boys. The Lake District has captivated people for centuries, including some of England’s best-known writers. For instance the Romantic poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century such as William Wordsworth and Thomas de Quincey, were hugely affected by the natural beauty of the Lake District.
So what is next for Robbie, Calum and Jack? Unsurprisingly they have ambitious plans for 2016 and are aiming to swim across the world’s biggest whirlpool, the Moskstraumen. Located in Norway, above the Arctic circle, the scenery is “unbelievably” beautiful, however this does not mask the fact that the Moskstraumen is an unforgiving beast, much more powerful than the Corryvreckan. Over the centuries, the Moskstraumen, which translates into English as maelstrom, has claimed the lives of countless sailors. For this reason it has captured the imagination of many famous writers. It was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s short story A Descent into the Maelström, features in the climax of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and is mentioned by Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. There are also some less extreme swims on the brothers’ bucket list for 2016, including a 10 mile swim down the River Spey with their mother. The Spey is not only Scotland’s second-longest river and a key spawning ground for salmon, it is one of the country’s whisky-making heartlands.
The Hudson brothers have all flown the nest now; Robbie lives in Berlin, Jack in Newcastle and Calum in London. I wonder if they enjoy living in big cities, after all, it is a far cry from the small Cumbrian village they were brought up in. Calum says they all struggle because they “love being outside and in nature and always have this pull to be outdoors.” Indeed he is dreaming of the day when he can retire and go back to the Lake District where he plans to live a simple life in a log cabin on the lakeside, swimming and fishing every morning.
All photos credited to www.thewildswimmingbrothers.com