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What would possess people to forsake the warm sanctuary of their beds in order to go for an icy swim on Brighton seafront? Surely there are easier ways to wake up – alarm clocks, coffee, bracing showers spring to mind. Such thoughts may well have occurred to those watching the annual television footage of Brighton's Christmas Day swimmers. Still, that's just one day a year. What of the people who plunge into Brighton's waves on a daily basis, whatever the weather? What could possibly motivate them? Could it be the famed streak of eccentricity at the core of the British character, coupled with a perverse defiance of our country's unfortunate climate? Or is it perhaps a desire to test the capacities of the human body, in a tradition dating back over 140 years? The answers may lie in the past.

Brighton Swimming Club, Britain's oldest continually running swimming club, was founded in 1860 at a meeting convened at the Jolly Fisherman's Inn in Market Street. That first year there were thirteen members. The membership fee was a shilling, with a weekly subscription of 2d. The town's byelaws only permitted sea bathing between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., as it was then customary to swim in the nude. Swimming was perceived as a way of making the best of oneself and club members offered lessons to the youth of the town. David Sawyers, himself a descendant of one of the club's founder members, suggests that bathers had more reflective objectives, too: "Braving the waves at Brighton became . . . a vehicle providing the individual bather with insight into the workings of his mind."

While the seafront has changed beyond all recognition into a commercial leisure resort, the principles underpinning sea bathing today remain similar. "It's a natural way of getting a buzz," explains Andrew, a psychiatric nurse and regular bather. "It gets your natural endorphins going. It's the mixture of the cold and the exercise." These days, however, naked bathing is not encouraged, especially during winter when it is advisable to protect the body's extremities. "The best piece of advice I ever got," recounts one male bather, "was to wear two pairs of trunks in winter – otherwise you get willy burn." Despite this troubling prospect, all sea bathers are agreed upon the numerous benefits: a sense of freedom and closeness to nature, for starters. Surprisingly, all claim to suffer less frequently from colds since beginning this particular sport. And while each swimmer has faced moments of danger, the feeling of having survived is a vastly strengthening one. Indeed, if you can survive sea bathing, the world holds few fears for you. "It makes the winter a lot shorter," Marie insists, while Michelle succinctly defines the appeal of sea bathing thus: "It's like banging your head against a wall – it's nice when you stop."

We live today in an age of myriad leisure activities, worryingly close in some ways to the world of trivial pursuits predicted in Huxley's Brave New World. Before all recreation involves lazily reaching for the virtual reality joystick, it's perhaps reassuring that some people pursue a more testing activity. And some of the reflective quality of the club's founders remains. "When you come out you know you're alive," Andrew concludes. "Swimming in the morning heightens your perception – of sights, smells, sounds. Even if the whole moment is then ruined by Brighton Pier blasting out Abba's Dancing Queen."