Artist and wild swimming enthusiast, Juliet Turnbull, treats The Court Circular’s Lucy Donoughue to a trip in the Thames and shares her lifelong love of the water and how it helps her daily.
I have to confess that 24 hours before our interview, I tried to wriggle my way out of the planned Thames dip with Juliet Turnbull. “Shall we just meet for a coffee instead?” I emailed tentatively, after consulting the weather forecast and pre-emptively feeling the chill.
I’m very glad to say that Juliet was undeterred and persuaded me to join her, maybe just for five minutes she said, to get a feel for wild swimming – the practise that she’s so devoted to that she broke ice in January to continue her daily dip.
What followed the next day was possibly one of the most magical experiences of my life. Juliet’s warmth and genuine happiness about introducing me to swimming in our local stretch of the river, meant I felt instantly at ease with her. She explained how to safely enter the water, breathe and negotiate the shock of the cold temperature as it hit my torso. Less than five minutes later, we were both swimming happily by the bank of Hurst Meadows, chatting as if we’d met a million times before.
“I loved the water from a really young age,” Juliet shares as we bob along. “My Mum took me into the sea when I was about three years old and I swam straight away. It was just so natural for me.”
However, it wasn’t a linear journey from water baby to wild swimmer for Juliet. Up until twelve years ago, she managed pubs for a large UK brewery and was living in Central London. When her job in Fulham came to an end, she transferred to Ye Olde Swan in Thames Ditton, met her partner, moved onto his boat and returned to her former watery ways.
Juliet now lives in Thames Ditton, swims every day when she can and makes beautiful river inspired art. She’s been named the Thames Mermaid and is one of the admins of Surrey Outdoor Swimmers, a Facebook forum for other enthusiasts and is a passionate advocate of the mental and physical benefits of cold-water swimming.
Juliet’s smile is broad as she turns to face me in the Thames and tells me that her partner knows when she hasn’t been for a swim, as her mood is different. “It’s really great for the mind,” Juliet shares. “When you’re in the water, you’re really in that moment, focussing on the sensation and the movement and of course the environment around you.”
Taking in your surroundings, Juliet explains is about appreciating the natural beauty but also about keeping self-protection and the safety of others you’re swimming with at the forefront of your mind. “The wild element means that there’s a constant need to be aware of the flow of the water, debris, temperature and potential hazards, including boats and territorial wildlife,” she explains.
As if to illustrate the point, a large swan (who I’ve since found out is called Sid by local swimmers), shows an interest in me as I slowly cross his path. Juliet watches him and encourages me to keep swimming out of his line of sight. It’s only later when I see pictures of that moment that I realise how close he was. I’m supremely grateful to have had my wild swimming guide looking out for me!
By the time our exit point is in sight, I’m feeling pretty euphoric. The water has a beautiful silky softness to it, seeing the world from the river itself is nothing short of stunning and my body feels great. I’d been feeling creaky after too many hours in front of a computer prior to our dip, but the swim had the effect of limbering up my joints.
“Our bodies response to the drop in temperature, including producing adrenaline and a change in blood pressure has an anti-inflammatory effect,” Juliet says. “I had issues with joint pain and aches for a long time and regularly took pain relief tablets and now by swimming virtually every day, I rarely take medication.”
I can clearly see the many benefits of Juliet’s beloved practise, and how it inspires her work as a textile and embroidery artist too. She produces gorgeous pieces adorned with river scenes, swimmers, wildlife and nature, including wall art, lamp shades and cushions, swimwear, jewellery.
She’s had a tough time during lockdown, she admits, as she’s not been able to exhibit at the usual maker’s events, but the summer and the easing of restrictions has enabled her to start planning and creating again.
Our swim comes to an end and we take a water selfie together before drying off and going our separate ways. I have an urge to throw my arms around Juliet and thank her for a first-time experience I’ll never forget, but social distancing rules forbid me from doing so. I’m deeply grateful to our very own Thames Mermaid for her insights and generosity. I hope to see her in the water again, very soon.
Check out Juliet’s beautiful collections juliet-turnbull.com
For more about swimming locally visit @SurreyOutdoorSwimmers group on Facebook.
If you’d like to try wild swimming, we’d recommend that you join a group in the first instance, ensure you have the right visibility equipment and check out outdoorswimmingsociety.com for information about risks and safety.