Beginner’s guide to wild swimming

A person out swimming at sunrise on a river

Where can you legally go wild swimming? How do you find the best spots? And how can I avoid getting into trouble? Follow our expert’s advice to find out. By Daniel Start

Finding a swimming spot

There are a wide range of wild swimming guidebooks, plus several wild swimming maps online, often crowd-sourced, but to find your own piece of swimming heaven, use the OS Explorer maps (1:25,000) and locate place where public footpaths or open access land intersect with the river at footbridges, fords and banks.

  • Smaller rivers - looks for weirs (marked by a straight line across the river) which create deep section above, and pools below, in in rivers otherwise too shallow for swimming.
  • Medium size rivers - examine the bends of rivers, where the inside often creates a beach while the outside deepens into a deep pool.
  • Larger rivers - those with locks and boats should be deep enough to swim anywhere, but wider section will be safer as there is less chance of being hit. They usually have excellent towpath access.

In upland terrain, waterfalls and gorges will be marked. Bridges are often built where the river naturally narrows into a gorge, and these can make excellent plunge pools, and bridge jumping. Orange CROW ‘access land’ is free right to roam. Lakes and rivers in these areas are often wilder and perfect for a dip, as you can get right up to the bank or shore (though the legislation does not expressly permit swimming).

While mountain areas will often be dramatic with waterfalls, gorges and tarns and the cleanest of waters, the water will be cold, good for short and exhilarating plunges only. Lowland areas will have warmer winding rivers and lakes, better for a longer swim, but with a greater possibility of bugs and beasties. Check the ‘historic river water quality’ using the Environment Agency online maps.

A woman swimming in a river

But is it legal?

The new Countryside Code launched this April made headlines for including wild swimming, but also suggesting seeking permission first, a nod to the complexities of the question (see for the full low down). In Scotland, swimmers can swim freely in open spaces as part of their right to roam responsibly. The situation is less clear and often disputed in England and Wales, but there are many places with a legal right of access to swim, many more where there are very strong arguments that the right exists, and lots of other places where swimming is accepted. But here’s an overview of the situation:

  • All coastal waters and the tidal parts of estuaries have a clear right to navigate and swim, and usually have pretty good footpath access too. Inland waters have a more complex legal history.
  • Water in upland areas, particularly the Lake District, Wales and Dartmoor tend to have much better access than lowland lake, which tend to be private and are closely guarded by fishing clubs.
  • The nation’s 500 reservoirs should have rights to swim, under their duty to provide recreational facilities, which was part of the privatisation deal in 1984, but sadly ‘No Swimming’ signs are still prolific. Compare this to France or Spain, whose reservoirs are all open to swimming.
  • Our biggest rivers, and these include the Avon (Warwickshire, Hampshire and Somerset), the Severn, Thames, Wey, Tees, Ouse, Wye, Ribble, enjoy a statutory ‘right of navigation’ and swimming.
  • Thousands of other smaller rivers and streams enjoy only informal rights, evolved from long use. However, a growing body of evidence argues that the right to bathe in rivers has existed since the Magna Carta, and that that the controversial privatisation of riparian rights under Henry VIII does not exclude access by other users, simply precludes interference with the fishery.

If you are asked to leave private land or the river by the land or riparian owner, or their agent, express your views calmly, and then leave politely. Fishing lobbies have now incredible amounts to protect and enhance our rivers. Conflict helps no-one, and we have more to gain by working in partnership with riparian owners and our fishing friends.

A man splashing water from a stream

Ten ways to be wild and safe

  1. Never swim alone and keep a constant watch on weaker swimmers. Stay close to the shore and know your limits.
  2. Never jump into water you have not thoroughly checked for depth and obstructions
  3. Always make sure you know how you will get out of a water body before you get in
  4. Avoid strong currents – rips tides on beaches during high surf and undercurrents beneath large weirs and waterfalls
  5. Enter cold water slowly to avoid ‘cold-shock’. Get out and warm up if you start shivering – the first sign of hypothermia.
  6. Wear footwear if you can
  7. Watch out for boats on any navigable river. Wear a coloured swim hat so you can be seen
  8. Never swim in canals, urban rivers or flood water and be cautious of water quality during droughts
  9. Keep cuts and wounds covered with waterproof plasters to prevent Weil’s disease. If you develop flu symptoms after swimming in dirty water, tell a doctor
  10. Avoid contact with blue–green algae

Daniel Start is an award-winning writer and photographer, author of Wild Swimming and Hidden Beaches, and editor of the Wild guide series.

More information

This article is a follow up to Taking the plunge, our Masterclass feature on wild swimming published in walk magazine

Magazine of the Ramblers