Wild swimming: Documentary about Gaddings Dam gets UK premiere at Kendal Mountain Festival

Just a few years ago, wild water swimming in the dead of winter seemed to be one of those past times that was the preserve of eccentrics. Now, thrill-seekers all over swear by the restorative benefits of taking a frosty dip into nature.

Gaddings Dam, in Calderdale, has become one such special place for people seeking refuge from the life’s stresses.

Documentary maker Ben Davis, of Mytholmroyd, is among those who flock to the reservoir, which is obscured in the moors at 780 feet above sea level – and he realised there was a story to be told.

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“I was up there a long time ago, about seven years ago, on a nice summer’s day, we went for a picnic in the evening,” says Ben, 55. “And it was like being in Italy. The sun was dropping, our son was there, he was very young. We were like, this is amazing. All sorts of people were coming and going. There were two old boys who were training for a triathlon, there was an old couple who had the farm over the back, and it just registered. I thought, actually, it was a real community here.

Gaddings Dam visitors enjoying a January Daily Dip in Wild Water.Gaddings Dam visitors enjoying a January Daily Dip in Wild Water.
Gaddings Dam visitors enjoying a January Daily Dip in Wild Water.

"I suppose in my head, I’m always thinking of stories. And that percolated and then I started cold water swimming, and that just kind of built on the realisation there's this whole community that revolves around Gaddings Dam.”

That community became the heart of Wild Water, Ben’s new film with producer Pete Jenkinson, which will have its UK premiere at the Kendal Mountain Festival this week and be released more widely next year.

It was shot through the seasons over a period of 16 months to explore the landscape and its band of pilgrims, immersing themselves in cold water to improve their mental health, regain a sense identity and simply enjoy nature. The hills – steeped in the poetry and prose Ted Hughes and the Brontës – are themselves like a character, alongside the swimmers, tourists, walkers, bikers and runners.

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Gaddings is an 1833 embankment dam between Todmorden and Walsden, originally constructed to supply water to the mills of Lumbutts. There is no road access, so to experience its charms requires a steep, uphill hike on a rough footpath.

Aerial footage from Wild Water.Aerial footage from Wild Water.
Aerial footage from Wild Water.

Cold water swimming, though, has become an Instagram-friendly activity and is seen as a tonic for mental health problems, but as Ben agrees, “obviously, it's far more complicated than that”.

And the film is also “so much more than that,” says Ben, who is husband to wife Jules.

“Mental health is a big portion of it, but also it is the joy of swimming, the joy of geography, the joy of community, the joy of friendship. It's all those, it's not just ‘I go cold water swimming and now I’m fine’.”

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The documentary follows the likes of the Saturday morning group, who like to start their weekends with a dip in nature; a woman who has struggled to have children; another who experienced an “awakening” and travelled the world before ending up in Hebden Bridge.

Gaddings Dam in Calderdale.Gaddings Dam in Calderdale.
Gaddings Dam in Calderdale.

There are locals such as Vicky King, who says: “I love Gaddings for the exercise, to hike up the hateful hill – my name for it – to be around mindful, nature-loving active people.

"The raw Pennine beauty, a refreshing swim that leaves you feeling alive and recharged, your mind and body at one with nature, at peace with yourself.”

It is also a family affair as Ben’s son, Sam, 10, is seen in the film.

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Coming after Northern Disco Lights, Ben and Pete’s debut film about the Norweigan dance music scene, Wild Water has already represented Yorkshire on an international level. It was part of the official selection at the Toronto Documentary Feature and Short Film Festival this year, where it had its world premiere, and was a semi-finalist at the Hawaii International Film Awards in August.

Clive played banjo at Gaddings Dam in Wild Water.Clive played banjo at Gaddings Dam in Wild Water.
Clive played banjo at Gaddings Dam in Wild Water.

It is being released in partnership with Crisis, a national charity for the homeless.

Ben, who also has music producer, DJ and record label owner on his CV, says the film is bookended by the January Daily Dip, when locals swim every day that month, with the documentary starting on first and the ending on last day of it. “They do that for Crisis UK, so it was a perfect fit,” he says.

The director, who in another guise is artist and musician Flash Atkins, wrote and performed six compositions for the film with producer Tom Lonsborough (2 Billion Beats and BOM).

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The score is complemented with licensed music from local Clive Green – director of the Gaddings Dam Preservation Company - David Connally (also known as Daco), and singer-songwriter Kate Stables, who goes under the alias This Is the Kit.

It also features two pieces composed and performed by Charlie Sinclair of the art rock band Sylvette.

Hebden Bridge-based Geoff Brokate, meanwhile, was cinematographer.

Ultimately, says Ben, participants’ stories is where he found the “real interesting stuff – what happens in people's lives and how they deal with it”.

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Jamima Latimer, another swimmer seen in the film, adds: “Gaddings is the place I go to put everything into perspective - its vast, bleak and beautiful, it somehow makes me the right size in the world. No matter how rubbish I might feel on the way up the hill to the dam I always feel so much better on the way down.

"Wild Water was made with a lot of sensitivity and respect to the dam and the people who use it and love it. It was great to be part of that and to know that bit of history has been documented in such a truthful way.”

The documentary, presented by Paper Vision Films, is on at Kendal Mountain Festival on Thursday. For more information, visit: www.kendalmountainfestival.com