The Christmas season is almost upon us and come Boxing Day, brave groups of people up and down the country will be plunging into the icy British seas. For some, this annual festive dip is a way to raise money for charity and have fun dressing up. For others, it’s simply a chance to cleanse the body and soul after all the excesses of Christmas.
This eccentric British tradition has been a part of the festive season (with dips taking place on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day) for over half a century. Here’s a look at how it all began.
The first Boxing Day Dip took place in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, south west Wales in 1970. The origins of the event dates back even further, to 1910, when a Yorkshireman named Arthur Dickinson settled in Tenby with his family. Dickinson was a keen year-round swimmer and he taught young people how to swim.
The tradition was passed down the generations as his son-in-law Ossie Morgan became a teacher and swimming instructor. His offspring went on to form the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA), which held an annual summer swimming gala. In 1970 Tenby’s publicity officer John Evans had the idea of organising a charity Boxing Day Swim.
The event has been held almost every year since, and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charities. 2022 saw the 50th anniversary of the swim, with a record breaking 800 entrants.
There are now dozens of similar events held around the UK coastline, from Dundee to Whitby to Folkestone to Felixstowe. The collective joy and sense of euphoria that taking part in a group event for charity can bring is intensified by the shock of plunging into the freezing cold water.
The shock of the cold causes the body to release endorphins that are a natural pain reliever, which is what causes that addictive high that some cold water swimmers report. Other physiological effects take place as well, such as ‘fight or flight’ response as the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated.
This speeds up the heart rate and delivers blood to the areas of the body that need more oxygen. This can help to ease inflammation and soreness in the muscles, which is why athletes often take an ice bath after an intense workout or competition. The stress hormone noradrenaline sharpens up our minds, making us more alert and better able to concentrate.
Some people even find that regular cold water dips help them to manage stress, because the body is better able to regulate stress hormones such as dopamine and cortisol.
However, you should be aware that cold water raises the blood pressure and can cause heart attacks and hypothermia. Those with serious health conditions should seek medical advice before taking the plunge. Cold water shock can cause hyperventilation and muscle cramping, so at the first signs you should get out of the water or signal for help.
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