Katie Tobin

Freya Bromley’s Hymn to the Sea

The Tidal Year, Freya BromleyCoronet, pp. 448, £16.99.


Firstly, how did you get into wild swimming? And how would you describe the process of being in the water and what it feels like for you?

That’s a great question. I first got into wild swimming and a friend said that she was going to be going to the Ladies Pond at Hampstead Heath in the New Year. My brother had recently died and I was feeling very lost and very lonely. And at that point it felt like something that kind of the women I wanted to be would do. It felt like almost something out of a movie, that I would go and swim in the Ladies Pond on the first day of the new year.

So I went, and it was amazing. I was totally hooked from that kind of first swim. I also think probably subconsciously that looking back, there was probably something around being around lots of women and that support of atmosphere of people handing each other a towel or asking if you were human enough or letting you have some of their mulled wine from that pond. I probably really needed as well at that point. I also needed a hug and I didn’t want to ask anyone for a hug. London’s quite a hard city to do that in when you’re at least at that time when I was young. So I kind of started swimming from there, 1st of January, and really kept it up.

And I think that just community and that sense of being able to turn up somewhere and there being other people that are going to talk to you was incredibly addictive. And also the feeling of it, I mean it’s if you’re a busy person and you’ve had, you’ve got anxiety, depression, grief and your head is foggy or busy or frenetic. Cold water just completely cuts through that. And you know I tried yoga and meditation. I tried also kind of things that weren’t quite as good for me like dating and drinking and swimming really gave me that hit of just clear mind.

I was hoping we could talk next a little bit about the writing process. So, I’m intrigued about how you actually kept track of all your visits and if there’s a way of kind of doing this style of life writing that particularly resonates with you.

So I started writing the book after I’d already been to a few of them. I was, me and my friend kind of decided to go on this adventure and swim in lots of these tidal pools but I didn’t really decide to write the book until we’d already done quite a few. Then, I suddenly had quite a lot of anxiety about keeping all of the notes and all of the dates and had I recorded enough about the wildflowers and the birds. But I think as the more of the writing process went on, I felt a lot less tied to what they say, accurately depicting everything. It felt a lot more about storytelling and actually the moment in which I decided to move things around that was when I really became, I think my writing really came into its own.

I remember having a discussion with my partner about what it meant to be truthful and you know, writing a story. And I remember to change that it was raining on one of the days when it hadn’t actually been raining. But to me that felt like it actually reflected a lot of the truth in the story and my grief and my feeling a lot better. And once I kind of decided what to me felt like fact and what felt like the truth and those things kind of maybe being indifferent, that was when I kind of became a bit more confident. I think there’s this Werner Herzog quote where he kind of talks about a static truth, about like the high truth of something being almost like more operatic and actually like whether in nature is a fantastic way in storytelling to kind of show and make something quite difficult to articulate like grief kind of helps really.

Relatedly, I’m interested about the process of translating landscapes, the page, whether there was sort of an impulse to repeat phrases, language and images when you’re talking about bodies of water and if so how you got around that.

So writing about water and writing about swimming is very hard and I feel like I wrote a whole book and still I’m still kind of thinking about it. I think as well I’m always really interested to try and use words that don’t feel like they match or belong with water or landscapes, thinking about describing things in different in very different ways. For example, talking about Hampstead Ponds like an amber spyglass, or a tidal pool in Cornwall being like a saucer of milk – thinking of things that resonate but feel unexpected.

I also try not to take pictures as I don’t want to look back at them as they can provide quite a flat, literal version of what something is. But when you actually are somewhere, there’s so many factors in how you feel, the weather, the people around you and it’s important to write off writing about that feeling rather than pictures. Why was it different that day than any other day? That’s kind of the special thing about travel writing.

2023 has seen a few really brilliant releases from female writers that explore the connection between self-love, solitude, and the sea. Jade Angeles Fritton’s Hermit, for example. But when I was reading The Tidal Year, I found myself making a lot of comparisons to Amy Key’s Arrangements in Blue – especially the way she talks about seeking romantic love and then finding solace in the sea, using it to anchor herself and her body. How has your relationship with your body and bodily process changed through swimming?

They’re two books that I absolutely love. I’m actually going to Lundy which is where lots of Hermit is set – it’s where lots of my next book is set – and I’m going in a couple of weeks so I’m very excited.

So my relationship with my body has changed hugely. Watching someone you love get very ill gave me a very different relationship with my body because, I think as young women, a lot of our relationship with our body is about performance and aesthetic and then it suddenly became about function. Even back at that first Hampstead Heath swim, you’re around so many different types of bodies and different types of ages that you don’t see that much. It reminds me to be very grateful to be able to swim or lap across a pool which I feel like I forget a lot of the time, like that’s what my body is supposed to do.

I also think that when you’re grieving, it can be very difficult to be so in your head. I felt so numb most of the time so it felt so good to be brought back into my body, and you feel your body so intensely when you’re in cold water. Of course, being held too. I mentioned why earlier that one of the reasons I love it so much was because I was around women and able to have that kind of support. And there’s something about water where you’re held and feel physically supported but for me, it’s mainly about being out of my head.

I think there’s something so busy about London, rushing to the office and not leaving much space to daydream or to embrace the quiet and being alone. There are lots of good ways to distract yourself from feeling anything that resembles discomfort, and I did that. Swimming was the start of feeling like maybe I could sit with the discomfort for a bit.

I also wonder if there’s something in the courage element of it. Every time I get in a pool there’s a physical discomfort there and then I feel amazing. I wonder if it’s sometime being reminded of that courage is something that I need.

And finally, where are your favourite tidal pools?

Dorset was just amazing, I think Dancing Ledge has to be one of my favourites. I think the sea there can be so intense and the waves crash into the cliffs – I think you’re just in this complete stillness and you don’t often get to experience the sea like that with riptides and currents. So, to be able to completely protected and to feel the intensity of the see is incredible. You really get the blood pumping after the hike and everything so the cold salt water after that feels amazing.

Also Scotland. The whole road trip experience was incredible, in the car, with my best friend, and the landscape there was unreal. We met some amazing people there too, the work people did to keep their communities thriving was so admirable. It often feels like there’s not a huge amount of community in the UK or that everybody is arguing or that the world’s on fire, and then you go to these small places where people really look out for each other and their nature and really have a connection to it. I’ve tried to take that back with me and do more with my local community, and I think that’s because of being on this journey. As well as the tidal pools, it was the people we met that made the whole experience for me.


Freya Bromley is a writer living in London. Her work explores love, loss and healing through nature and she’s written for publications including Apple Music, Lonely Planet, Financial Times and National Geographic Traveller. Freya’s first book The Tidal Year is published by Coronet. She’s currently on a book tour and has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live and spoken at bookshops and festivals around the UK.

Images © Liz Seabrook.

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