Wild swimming in Britain

There’s a never-ending procession of adrenalin sports aimed at travellers, but one seemingly old-fashioned activity is attracting more and more converts in Britain. Plunging into cold water and emerging, spirits soaring and body shivering, is a thrill, but it's also a great way to engage with the country's outdoors, whether you're in a city lido or a gorgeous national park.

The Men's Pond on Hampstead Heath, London. Image by Richard Newstead / Moment / Getty The Men's Pond on Hampstead Heath, London. Image by Richard Newstead / Moment / Getty

Outdoor swimming is nothing new and to many visitors from continental Europe there’s nothing unusual about taking a dip in your nearest lido, lake, river or stretch of attractive-looking coastline. But in the UK at least this gently eccentric pursuit fell out of favour for a generation or more. Package holidays whisked locals away to warmer climes and the idea of dipping into cooler water lost its appeal. Magnificent lidos, constructed in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, fell into disrepair and were closed.

Happily we seem to have entered a more enlightened era, where the joys of exploring Britain’s green corners and enthusiasm for the outdoors has resulted in a revival of outdoor swimming. Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society (outdoorswimmingsociety.com) and author of Wild Swim, is at the forefront of this movement. We asked her for a few tips on how best to get started.

'Outdoor swimming offers an eccentrically English day,' She explains. 'You can head into the country, have a dip and have a picnic. Once you get in the water you see the country in a new light'. Though river swimming is an ancient pastime, with a pool (see ukstudentlife.com) on the River Cam in Grantchester, near Cambridge named after Lord Byron, Kate also suggests that today’s swimmers are adding a pioneering element. If you’re by the water this summer, you might just see some intrepid-looking types in swimming kit looking for a good place to jump in.

Swimmers at dusk in Portobello, Edinburgh. Image by  andyreid1 / CC BY 2.0 Swimmers at dusk in Portobello, Edinburgh. Image by andyreid1 / CC BY 2.0

Swimming is, by nature, a simple sport. You don’t need masses of kit. 'You can go in wearing your pants,' notes Rew. The water probably won’t get much above 18 or 19ºC unless the weather is very warm, and it’s a good idea to swim with someone else. There’s not much need to worry about access: most water you can see you can swim in legally, though you do need to be wary about trespassing on land, rather than in the water. The OSS has a helpful, multi-coloured map (http://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com) of tried and tested locations. Take a jumper for when you get out, too, even in high summer.

Britain's waterways are cleaner now than they have been for generations, and swimming in cool, unchlorinated water is a vastly different and wilder experience than heading to your local indoor baths. It's also hugely invigorating, bringing the swimmer closer to nature and in tune with the elements.

If you’re still reading this you may be tempted to have a go. We asked Kate to recommend some suitable locations that visitors to the UK may pass close to. 'You’re spoilt for choice in London,' she says. 'The Serpentine, in the middle of Hyde Park, has some superb facilities, then there are lidos at Tooting in south London and Parliament Hill, so you have options in the south, north and centre of London.' For a more natural experience, the unique bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath (where Parliament Hill Lido is also located) offer swimming in ponds for men and women only, as well as a mixed pond. These eighteenth-century reservoirs are fed by water from the long-lost River Fleet, and you’ll be swimming with some of the capital’s bird and marine life under the watchful eye of lifeguards. On a sunny day there is no finer place to be in London, and nearby meadows offer ample opportunity for warming-up in the sun afterwards.

Outside of the capital you’ll find lakes and beaches all over the country that are safe for swimming: seek local advice if you’re not sure. While the often deep waters of its lakes are notoriously chilly, the Lake District can be a wonderfully scenic place for a dip, and elsewhere everything from disused quarries in Cornwall to remote lochs in the Scottish Highlands offer opportunities. The River Thames west of Teddington, where it ceases to be a tidal river, is one of Britain’s best swimming rivers, and passes through some wonderful rural scenery. The Thames Path, which follows the entire route, ensures you can get in and out whenever you please. Finding your own spots can be lots of fun, and you’ll be dipping your toe into local life as it’s been lived for centuries, with a dash of pioneering spirit that makes the whole thing incredible fun.

Ready then? Dive in.

This article was first published in June 2010 and updated by Sally Schafer in April 2015.