Last February, Cole noted, she had biked from Devon, in southern England, to Loch Tay, in central Scotland, for the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships. Along the way, she stopped to take dozens of dips with wild-swimming groups throughout England and Scotland. In Clevedon, near Bristol, she joined locals for a quick swim and then for what they called “the debrief”—a long chat over mulled wine in a pub. At dawn near Sheffield, she and a group of ten women waded in the River Derwent while another woman piped on a flute. One dark evening in Skipton, in Yorkshire, Cole skinny-dipped with a group of strangers. In Newcastle, she swam with a novice winter swimmer who hoped that the frigid sea might help her overcome her grief about her father’s recent death. Cole swam alongside a thousand swimmers as she zigzagged across Britain; in the Shetlands, at the northernmost beach in Scotland, she swam with seals as well.

Occasionally, Cole’s path overlapped with the route pioneered by Roger Deakin, two decades earlier. She ended her journey in the Isles of Scilly, off the western tip of Cornwall, which is where Deakin had begun. In “Waterlog,” he wrote of “marvelling at the brightness of everything” in the Scillies: the white sand, the rocks glittering gold with quartz and mica. With witty precision, he referred to the sound of seagulls as “nature’s bagpipes.”

Deakin’s journey across the U.K., and his fidelity to his own patch of blue space in Suffolk, had led him to reflect on the British tendency toward insularity. “What a moated people we are, suspicious of Europe, and not at all sure about the Channel Tunnel,” he wrote. But the people Cole encountered were not guarded but open. Anyone was welcome to join their community, provided that she could embrace the chill. They were wild swimmers but civil people, making the best of what we have: an island home surrounded by cold, daunting waters. Like Deakin, Cole had emerged with an acute appreciation of her country’s restrained, marginal beauty. “To get to Shetland, it was a pretty gnarly trek, but it was really romantic!” Cole said. “So raw and rugged. And Scilly—the sand in Scilly glitters. It sparkles. It’s really magical. The U.K. is pretty magical.” ♦