Menu

Wild Swimming for beginners

DCIM101GOPRO

Why go ‘wild’ swimming

There is something slightly naughty, a little bit scary and wonderfully invigorating about leaving your wetsuit at home, and entering open water with just your skin (and perhaps a swimming costume) between you and the elements.
Freed from the thermal and neoprene protection of a wetsuit, cold water immersion provides a sense of elation and relaxation, soothes muscle aches, relieves depression and boosts the immune system. It’s also a fantastically convenient way to explore the countryside, with no kit to lug around.
The health and psychological benefits of dipping in natural waters have been long known. George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Britten, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were all advocates of regular cold baths to strengthen the mental constitution and physical state. And all wild-dippers know the natural endorphin high that raises mood, elates the senses and creates an addictive urge to dive back in, and sets the day off to a fantastic start. The vaso dilation in the extremities also pumps out toxin, and the cold water starts a process of cold adaptation, which quickly builds your cold tolerance, make cold water feel more comfortable, and your body more healthy.

Health benefits of wild swimming

The health and psychological benefits of dipping in natural waters have long been known, as our many spa towns are testament to. Florence Nightingale and Charles Dicken both claimed to have been cured by these traditional forms of ‘hydrotherapy’. There are quite a few different physiological and health effects: First, a one off dunk creates intense vasodilation, pumping out muscle lactates, and bringing fresh blood to the extremities. The Turks ad Romans understood this with their hot-cold plunge pools, and so does Paula Radcliffe, who always takes a cold shower before a race. Second, a cold dip also provides a psychological kick start too. A powerful endorphin shot is released and this natural high bringing on intense feelings of well being and an addictive urge to dive back in. Third, after regular swimming, a process known as cold adaptation kicks in. Not only does this reduce your body’s sensation of coldness (making even the coldest water quite pleasant), it is clinically proven to boost mode, libido and the immune system – as shown in NASA experiments from the 1980s. Coldwater swimming is also a sure-fire way to burn calories quickly and building muscle tone and graceful technique.
People also explain that wild swimming is a very good way to de-stress, and acts like a form of mindfulness or meditation, bringing them into the moment, focusing their mind on the physical sensations, and taking them away from their worries and concerns. In some ways it is the perfect digital detox.
Wild swimming appeals to a wide range of people, from local teenagers who have always enjoyed mucking about in the rivers, to octogenarians who find it keeps them healthy and alert. But there is also a growing cadre of more middle aged city dwellers who might have might have discovered it from books and newspaper about wild swimming, or from joining a triathlon.

Where to swim wild?

After a terrible time during the polluting and industrial decades of the 1950s and 1960s, our river and lakes are cleaner than they’ve been in living memory. Over 70 per cent of our rivers are now in good or excellent condition again. They are hidden havens for wildlife once more, secret corridors into forgotten corners of our countryside. Bobbing along with a frog-eye view these are place to commune with nature, seek inspiration, and be humbled by the immensity and wonder of the natural world.
Any footpath, ford, footbridge or ‘open-access’ land bordering a river or lake is a good place to start looking for a place to wild swim. River bends often create shallow beaches on the inside and deeper pools on the outside. Small weirs and waterfalls create pools in rivers that would be otherwise too shallow. Ordnance Survey maps provides much more information and can be viewed online (e.g. Bing.com). It is also worth asking locally where people swim in the summer, or asking older people where they used to swim as children. Or take at look at the map at www.wildswimming.co.uk

Your first dip

If it’s your first time in cold water without a wetsuit, arrive feeling really warm. Plan a good hearty walk to get you there, and put on lots of warm clothes before you arrive. Once you’re in the water it takes a few minutes before the cold feeling goes away, so persevere and you’ll feel great. In general, the more you swim in cold water the less you will feel the cold and the greater the health benefits. This called ‘cold adaptation’. Don’t stay in so long that you start to shiver, though, and definitely get out and warm up after 20 minutes. If you have footwear (e.g. old trainers, jelly beans etc) these are very useful for confidence and exploring. It is, of course, quite possible to swim even without any kit. Wear your undies or go naked if it is secluded. If you have no towel wipe most of the water off with your hands then sacrifice one item of clothing to dry yourself or travel with a small, light cotton sarong – it can double as a picnic blanket too!

10 ways to be wild and safe

1 Never swim in canals, urban rivers, stagnant lakes or reedy shallows
2 Never swim in flood water and be cautious of water quality during droughts
3 Keep cuts and wounds covered with waterproof plasters if you are concerned
4 Avoid contact with blue–green algae
5 Never swim alone and keep a constant watch on weak swimmers
6 Never jump into water you have not thoroughly checked for depth and obstructions
7 Always make sure you know how you will get out before you get in
8 Don’t get too cold – warm up with exercise and warm clothes before and after a swim
9 Wear footwear if you can
10 Watch out for boats on any navigable river. Wear a coloured swim hat so you can be seen

 

Ten easy first time wild swimming locations

Sharrah Pool, River Dart, Dartmoor
Sharrah Pool is the largest and best pool on this wild and wonderful river stretch in the forested Dart Valley nature reserve. It’s also the birth place of Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, so not better place to return to your natural state. You might also explore Bellpool Island just downstream, and upstream are the Mel Pools, a range of smaller pools, including a few good chutes if you have an inner tube. Descend to river from Holne and bear L along a good path for 40 mins to find this long narrow pool. 40 mins, 50.5301, -3.8396

Outney, River Waveney, Suffolk
The River Waveney was the favourite river of Roger Deakin, forefather of the wild swimming movement. I love the 2 miles loop around Outney Common, starting and returning from Bungay. This town is one of Suffolk’s most independent little places, with quirky cafes, food stores and craft shops, so it’s the perfect place to stock on picnic supplies. It even has its own river meadows at the bottom of Bridge Street, perfect for a picnic and quick dip if you don’t fancy the walk. There’s also a riverside campsite with canoe hire (www.outneymeadow.co.uk, 01986 892338). 52.4572, 1.4413

Kelmscott, River Thames, Oxfordshire
Above Oxford the Thames valley winds through some of the most undeveloped countryside in southern England. Here you will find kingfishers and otters, and mile-upon-mile of open fields and meadow. The hamlet of Kelmscott is a lovely place for a secret swim from the reedy banks, and only a mile upstream is the fun pool at Buscot, where you will find several rope swings. Three miles east of Lechlade. There is parking in the field near Plough Inn (GL7 3HG, 01367 253 543). Follow the track to, and then beyond, Kelmscott Manor, to the river 51.6857, -1.6303

Claverton Weir, River Avon, Bath
This long curving weir makes a wonderful place to dive and play in the waterfalls. There are old ferryman’s steps down to the water and a long deep stretch above for those who like a longer swim. The parking is terrible so the only practical way is to reach it on the canal side cycle path from Bath, about 3 miles, a great way to build up a head of heat before your plunge. The weir originally powered an engine which kept the canal topped up with water. 51.3772, -2.3003

Anchor Inn, River Ouse, Sussex
This remote riverside pub, down a dead end lane, is in a bucolic position on the river Ouse. They have a fleet to rowing boats available for hire and you can swim and boat for up to 2 miles upstream through fields as far as Isfield. Continue to Barcombe village, turn right then right again, (Anchor Inn, BN8 5BS, 01273 400414) or walk upstream a mile from Barcombe Mills, another popular swimming spot. 50.9264, 0.0513

Galleny Force, Stonethwaite, Lake District
Two sets of pools and cascades, with grassy knolls and ancient rowan trees. Fun for plunging, snorkelling and picnics. Upstream is Blackmoss Pot a brilliant place for jumps. But the best bit is the wonderful Langstrath Country Inn (CA12 5XG, 01768 7 77239) where you can warm up with an open fire and superb food. 54.5069, -3.1226

Appletreewick, River Wharfe, Yorkshire Dales
There’s a pretty pool in the river with a small island and bay and rapids upstream. With a rope swing on the far side, and grassy banks and field for picnics, this is a great spot to while away summer days. Just upstream is Mason Farm camping (BD23 6DD, 01756 720275) a popular family site right by the river. Kids like to jump on their rubber rings and tube down the river. A fun activity for adults too! 54.0332, -1.9213

Lady Falls, Pontneddfechan, Brecon Beacons, Wales
Lady Falls falls occupy a giant amphitheatre rimmed with a lip of dark black gritstone above a woodbine and ragwort-draped glade. There are many more large pools to explore in these woods, and along the nearby Mellte river too. Pontneddfechan is off the A465 from Swansea. From the Angel Inn (SA11 5NR, 01639 722013) follow the river on a good path up through the woods, just over a mile, to arrive at a junction pool with footbridges. Cross first bridge and bear L to the falls, 300m. 25 mins, 51.7714, -3.6011

Blue Pool, Friog, Snowdonia
Hidden in the hills of North Wales, sheltered in a rocky amphitheatre, this azure pool is only accessible by a secret tunnel. This was once a small slate quarry, which has now filled with pure spring water. This is a remote place, but worth seeking out. The views out over Cardigan Bay are sublime and make this a wonderful adventure. 7 miles west of Dolgellau (A493, dir Tywyn), then 300m south of Friog. Park by Fairbourne church and turn left. Continue 500m to find a footpath on right. Head to top of quarry to locate the pool below. 52.6891, -4.0413

Glen Etive, Scotland
You could spend many days exploring Glen Etive, this hidden valley off Glen Coe. It’s a haven for climbers, wild campers and wild swimmers. The tiny road follows the river for over eight miles down to the sea loch of Etive. The pink granite has been scooped into deep smooth plunge pools and there are waterfalls, gorges and amazing plunge pools. It’s really a matter of stopping and dipping wherever you see something interesting, but the first set of waterfalls, two miles from the road junction, are as good as anything you will find in Britain. Heading north west on A82 (Glen Coe) turn left a mile after the Kings House Hotel (PH49 4HY, 01855 851259). 56.6252, -4.9052

More informaion

Wild Swimming: 300 hidden dips in the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Britain by Daniel Start is available from Wild Things Publishing priced £16.99.

Getting Started Magazine

Review are closed.