Wild swimming has become increasingly popular in recent years. Our expert shares his top tips for combining a warm summer walk with a cool dip in a natural setting.
Words and Photography by Daniel Start
More than 4.1 million people swim outdoors every year in rivers, lakes or the sea, according to Sport England. It’s a trend that has been steadily increasing over the past few years and surging during the pandemic, when pools closed across the country.
In March this year, environment minister Rebecca Pow announced that bathing sites would now be monitored year-round, and a stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, has been declared England’s first designated bathing site. Combining a warm summer walk with a refreshing dip in a natural lake, river or the sea is a great way to discover some of our best spots for a wild swim or paddle. Here’s some top advice for beginners.
Lower Ddwli Falls
The health and psychological benefits of bathing in natural waters have long been recognised; our spa towns are a testament to the practice. Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens both claimed to have enjoyed traditional forms of ‘hydrotherapy’ and the resulting health benefits, including better sleep, improved circulation, boosted immune function and increased happiness. It also provides a psychological reboot – a rush of endorphins boosting the mood, elating the senses and generating euphoria. Roger Deakin, the father of modern wild swimming, used to call these ‘the endolphins’. It can also create intense vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels), pumping out muscle lactates, and bringing fresh blood to the extremities. The Turks and Romans understood this physical fix with their hot-cold plunge pools, and athletes, such as record-breaking runner Paula Radcliffe, have often been known to take a post-race ice bath to aid recovery.
Regular immersion initiates a process known as cold adaptation. This reduces your body’s sensation of coldness (making even the coldest water quite pleasant) and is clinically proven to boost mood, libido, and the immune system – as shown in NASA experiments from the 1980s. More recent studies of year-round swimmers show increased immunity from colds and flu, plus the ability to treat depression, anxiety and even chronic fatigue.
Appleford, River Thames
What to take
One of the joys of wild swimming in summer is how little you need in the way of kit – which makes it a perfect accompaniment to a walk. A minimalist ‘just-in-case’ walkers-wild-swimming kit could include swimming costume/trunks, a small plastic bag for wet things and a thin cotton sarong, which can double as a towel, skirt, scarf, picnic blanket or carry sack. An additional simple rubber swimming cap can conserve a huge amount of heat – and add to your visibility – in the water. And those with a little more space in their packs could bring some lightweight aqua shoes (old trainers work fine). If you’re really brave, skinny-dipping in remote areas away from onlookers, can be acceptable, too. For a longer session, or if you are heading into unknown territory (particularly the sea), you will need a wetsuit, but this could just be a top during the summer.
Finding a swimming spot
If you swim in a body of water you need to make your own judgement and undertake your own research about whether it is legal. There is a wide range of wild swimming guidebooks, plus several maps online, often crowd-sourced, to help find your own piece of swimming heaven. 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.
The new Countryside Code launched this April made headlines for including wild swimming (see Front Foot, p9), but also suggested seeking permission first – a nod to the complexities of the legalities around this pastime (see wildswimming.co.uk/access-and-law).
It’s good to be as warm as possible before swimming, so put on an extra layer or pick up the pace and build up a head of steam before you arrive. Avoid swimming alone and don’t jump into water until it’s been carefully checked for depth and obstructions. While cold water has many health benefits, it also reduces swimming range. Beginners tend to be able to swim about a tenth of the distance in cold water as they can in a pool, so stay close to the shore and avoid heading out into the middle of large lakes or the ocean. Don’t stay in so long that shivering starts – that’s the first stage of hypothermia. After the swim, layer up and keep moving or walking to warm up.
(Right) Higher Glen Etive Pools
Other health hazards can include blue-green algae, sometimes found in lowland lakes in hot summers (best avoided as it can create a rash); swimmer’s itch, if you spend a lot of time wading through pond weed where snails breed; and, in extremely rare cases, Weil’s disease. Transmitted through rat urine, mostly around urban waterways, it enters the skin through open cuts and wounds. Protect cuts with waterproof plasters and see your doctor if you develop a flu-like fever within a week of wild swimming.
Currents can be disorientating and may take you out into deeper water or close to an obstruction. Even shallow, fast-moving water can sweep you off your feet. Always consider what to do if you do lose your footing or get swept downstream, particularly in rivers with a strong current. Always plan your emergency exit.
In the sea, don’t swim from headlands unless you understand tidal currents, and don’t swim in high surf conditions –offshore rip currents can form around cove edges and along sandy beaches, in between the surf breaks, and they can carry swimmers out to behind the surf line. If this happens, exit the current by swimming parallel to the shore, and come back in on the surf. The same is true if you are caught in a fast river – swim to the shore or bank where the water will be calmer.
If it all seems a bit daunting, there are plenty of groups that enable novices to sample the delights of wild swimming in the company of experienced swimmers.
Find out more at outdoorswimmingsociety.com
‘I love going wild swimming whenever I can. It’s incredible for health and wellbeing, and you feel the buzz for hours afterwards – even after a short swim. There are really special places to swim all over Great Britain, where you’re surrounded by nature, close to many walking routes. I’d highly recommend a dip as part of your next walk; it’s a magical experience you won’t forget.’ Tanne Spielman, the Ramblers’ communications & brand manager
Five scenic swimming spots
Higher Glen Etive Pools, near Glencoe, Highlands
A dramatic glen with many wonderful pink-rock river pools. Plunge into the first set of pools or take a walk down to the deep-gorge section.
Lower Ddwli Falls, Nedd Fechan River, Neath Port Talbot
Part of a series of stunning natural ‘forest lidos’ on beautiful trails through the ‘Waterfall Woods’ in the Brecon Beacons.
Farleigh Hungerford, River Frome, Somerset
Farleigh & District Swimming Club was founded in 1933 and could be the oldest river swimming club in Britain. It is situated above a small weir.
Grantchester Meadows, River Cam, Cambridgeshire
Over two miles of meadows and swimming from Sheep’s Green down to the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester.
Overbeck Bridge, Wastwater, Cumbria
England’s deepest lake under the dramatic backdrop of England’s tallest mountain. Quartz-white beaches lead into clear waters.
Money-saving books offer
Daniel Start is author of Wild Swimming: 300 Hidden Dips in the Rivers, Lakes and Waterfalls of Britain and Hidden Beaches: Explore the Secret Coast of Britain (RRP £16.99 each). Walk readers can enjoy a 20% discount and free P&P.
Visit wildthingspublishing.com and use code ‘walk21’.