Wild Swimming is a fantastic way to have a micro-adventure close to home – low on hassle and high in adrenaline and fun. Daniel, author of the Wild Swimming and Wild Guides was speaking at the fundraiser Night of Adventure organised by Alastair Humphreys and the brilliant charity Hope and Homes. He tells us about his own journey into wild swimming, and his favourite places around the UK for adventure.
When you slip into the waters of a shimmering ocean, swim along a willow-lined river or plunge into a mountain waterfall, you are doing more than just enjoying one of nature’s greatest and healthiest highs. You are opening up a whole new world of magical adventures – adventures that are abundant in in our wet and seabound country, and bring on a whole new way of exploring our landscape without masses of kit of clutter.
My own wild swimming adventures began in a Huckleberry Finn kind of way, growing up on the River Wye in Herefordshire, learning to swim in the river, building rafts and rope swings and camping out on the river bank. But we moved to London when I was 10 and somehow, by the time I was 30, I was working 9-5 in a tower block for the local council.
It took the hottest summer in 100 years before I finally throw it all in. I resigned and I set off to rediscover the swimming holes of my childhood memories, to find the most amazing places in the UK and write a book about them.
In this short talk I want to share some of my favourites and some highlights of the years I have spent seeking the perfect bathing place.
I think, waterfalls are my favourite natural place to start, a place where nature is at its most powerful, sculpting and carving incredible jacuzzi pools for jumping and diving. In a way it all started here, in the Waterfall Woods of the Brecon Beacons, where we used to sometimes come as children. This is a sensational network of natural forest lidos and waterfalls – some you can even swim and explore behind – and there are caves too, for the intrepid.
I love waterfall also because they have mystical qualities. To our pagan and Christian forefathers to be immersed in water, to enter a pool, was to cross a threshold, and enter the spirit world. Here at mystical St Nectan Kieve, a double fall in a wooded Cornish gorge with a chapel built into the rocks, King Arthur brought the Knights of the Templar to be baptised before they set off for their crusades. It’s a beautiful, spiritual place with a tiny chapel in the rocks and prayer flags.
Waterfalls quickly merge into gorges and canyons, and these are some of the most exciting place to seek out, though don’t enter them if heavy rain is expected. Aptly named Hell Gill in the Yorkshire Dales is one of Britain’s best ‘slot’ canyons, you can descend into its deep dark terrifying bowels via jumps and slides, like Jonnah inside the whale, before eventually emerging to daylight and freedom.
But it’s not just natural pools that can be awe inspiring. Our man-made waters, particularly our quarries, can be beautiful, often with old tunnels and caverns, now returned to nature and filled with spring water. They are often an amazing blue from the fine particles of blue mica, and there are many such ‘Blue Lagoons’ across Wales in particular, such at this amazing old slate quarry near the Horeshoe Pass Llangollen [UPDATE: THIS POOL HAS NOW BEEN FILLED IN. TRY THE BLUE POOL INSTEAD].
Quarries are no more dangerous than any natural lake and often great places for jumping and snorkelling. Here at the ‘Blue Pool’ in Pembrokeshire you can jump from the remains of the old winching tower, and Red Bull run cliff diving competitions, but you have to be a bit careful because the quarry has been breached by the sea and the depths varies according to the tide – watch out at spring low tides!
In my journey around the UK I wanted to seek out the highest and wildest mountain wild swimming places too. Of all I swam my favourite was Wastwater, also Britain’s deepest lake, under its highest mountain. The beaches are made of white quartz and it has the clearest water in the whole Lake District. Trek up the mountain to Lamb Dub, Britain’s highest tarn.
The mountains provide some of the remotest and wildest pools, in wonderfully isolated corners of Britain. You can wild camp and skinny dip to your heart’s content. Indeed these day I don’t really feel camping is camping unless it is by water, and sometimes swimming doesn’t feel like swimming unless it’s skinny dipping. This wonderful pool in the Cairngorms, where you can wild camp, wake in the morning with a plunge.
I also wanted to find the fun in wild swimming – and as I moved lower into lower lands again I discovered wonderful rivers in which you can use the natural current to assist you, if you have a trusty old inner tube or rubber ring. Here in the Dartmoor National Park you can follow the rapids and swooshes of a beautiful 5 mile stretch of River Dart through as it winds through a remote gorge of ancient oak forest downstream of Dartmeet.
Or here on the river Wharfe – a river made for river tubing and wild swimming fun. This is Ghaistrill’s Strid on the wonderful river Wharfe in Yorkshire where a narrow channel takes you on a wonderful whoosh downstream around several bends and then – plosh – into a deep pool. You can use a ring to guide you or free swim, using just your body, keeping flat like an otter and twisting and turning around the bends making sure to avoid the rocks. NB These are not places to play when the current is high, so use some common sense. If the water looks dangerously powerful, then don’t go in!
As you reach the true lowlands new adventures were waiting. The rivers were deep and still and teeming with kingfishers, dragonflies even the occasional otter. This is a place for a frog’s eye view of the natural world, where you can hang rope swings from the trees, swim to secret islands and dive in from high banks, such as here on the River Thames.
Lowland rivers are great for longer swims and it I have had some memorable ‘swimming safaris’, travelling downstream towing a wet bag with my gear and camera. The River Stour in Dorset is a lovely place to try this, near the Roman Ford at Pamhill, as it winds through rich pastoral countryside towards the sea…
And so our lowland rivers reach the sea, and here even more fun awaits. The Essex creeks around Hamford Water and Beaumont Quay, less than hour from London, but with a hidden network of tidal channels and islands, a place for tidal-assisted power swimming, wild camping on little islands and collecting oysters to cook up on the campfire.
After the freshwater wild swimming book was finished I felt a bit sad, until I realised there was a second journey to make, this time around the coast of Britain!
Endless wild swimming adventures were waiting on this second journey. There’s not much time to mention many, but I think of all places sea caves are my favourite, and you cannot find one more dramatic than at Fingal’s Cave in Scotland. Massive balsalt columns rise like organ pipes to the roof of this huge acoustic champber and the water is deep and clear.
Do also visit some of the incredible off shore islands of the Hebrides, for waters out of this world – though a little chilly. These pink granite coves on the south west edge of Mull (Fidden and further south) are rarely visited but have shell white sands, and the clearest, most translucent snorkelling, outside of the Seychelles. This is a place that I dream of on the hottest summer nights – and when we were there last summer during the heatwave the water was 18C – well the top layer of water at least (at other times you could always wear a wetsuit..)
And again Wales is a stunning location. I discovered incredible beaches all across Britain, but this is a favouirte, a little visited cove, Porth Iago, in North Wales on the Llyen Peninsula. Here we camped for a week, and met a skin fisherman who went out every afternoon to bring back salmon he had harpooned, and spider crabs collected from the deep crevices. We lived on seafood cooked on campfires and it was like a Robinson Crusoe existence.
In many ways Britain’s greatest wilderness is in fact its intertidal zone, a world washed clean twice a day by the ocean, of cliffs, beaches, rocks and caves. Here at Stairhole, just next to busy Lulworth Cove you can find blue grottoes and incredible sea caves as good as anywhere in Greece. So I think my message is: you don’t need to go far to find wild and beautiful places, if you let the blue lines on the map guide you there.
There is incredible adventure close to home, and if you are sensible with the risks you take, then the stats show that wild swimming is less dangerous than fishing, kayaking, sailing or even cycling. (This young gentleman at Kynance Cove checked the water levels first, by the way! Afterwards we went swimming around Asparagus Island).
So do make plans to go wild swimming this summer, to try a swim safari, some river tubing, or find a waterfall to jump in, a sea cave or blue lagoon to explore. But also be prepared for the spontaneous: our river, lakes and beaches are cleaner than at any time in living memory, and if you don’t have your costume then some discrete skinny dipping adds to the adventure (and you can always use a T short to dry yourself afterwards). And the more you swim the less cold you will feel – no excuses!
For more detailed guides to different parts of the county try our a ward-winning Wild Guides.