On New Year’s Day I went for a swim off Broad Haven beach in Pembrokeshire. The water was 10.3ºC: pretty good agony, but not as bad as the cold on the soles of my feet as I changed on the icy sand. Cold-water swimming is on the up — 700 people took part in the Boxing Day swim in nearby Tenby, the most in its 46-year history. I can see the attraction. A freezing sea is a tremendous hangover cure. Once back indoors you glow as the blood, which rushes to the core of your body to prevent heat loss underwater, races back to your skin. A cold swim is like a hair shirt. After the indulgence of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, self-inflicted pain is a fine mental corrective. The Romans understood this in their baths, where they entered the caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium, in that order; boiling, warm, freezing. Cold is the new hot.
Walking along the Pembrokeshire cliffs, I stumbled across one of the great sights of British nature. Guillemots lay their eggs and rear their young here from March to July and spend the rest of their lives at sea. But in occasional years, they return in midwinter. And here they were, squeezed on top of Stack Rocks — a pair of limestone skyscrapers 50 yards out to sea — squawking their heads off. It’s called the winter dance. The late Ronald Lockley, king of Pembrokeshire naturalists, thought it was a mating ritual brought on by ‘the general nervous stimulation of the breeding season’. I know humans who feel the same way. Guillemots don’t mate during the dance. And they stay for only a moment; by the time we’d retraced our steps they’d gone. I like to put their return down to homesickness. Or a ritual coinciding with the shortest days of the year: like Christmas, Saturnalia and swimming on New Year’s Day.
Over New Year, friends in Wales were discussing Christmas presents.