As far as perfect afternoons go, I can think of little better than easing myself into the clear peaty water of the River Wharfe, with the majestic ruins of Yorkshire’s Bolton Abbey looming large overhead. For me wild swimming means freedom, a chance to slip into idyllic bodies of water and become part of nature, rather than simply standing and looking at it. And I’m not alone.
Google searches for wild swimming continue to grow (a Google search for "what is wild swimming" tells it is the practice of swimming for pleasure in natural waters, typically rivers and lakes). The UK’s Outdoor Swimming Society (founded in 2006) has over 100,000 members after a large increase in interest during the Covid-19 pandemic, when close-to-home adventures became all important.
My love of taking a dip stems from regular swims in London’s Hampstead Ponds and an obsession with Waterlog, the late naturalist Roger Deakin’s classic book about the joys of wild swimming. My own book, Floating: A Life Regained, retraced Deakin’s seminal text, and took me across the UK in a search for invigorating swims and a chance to feel the cool, calming effect of the water for hours after I’d dried off and headed home.
Whether it’s your first time braving the waves or you’re a pond-dipping pro, here are some of my favourite outdoor swimming spots to take the plunge in the UK.
River Waveney at Geldeston Locks, Norfolk
Marking the border between the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Waveney flows lazily through water meadows towards this idyllic swimming hole close to The Geldeston Locks pub. A favourite spot of Waterlog author Roger Deakin, tresses of weed sweep on the current just beneath the surface and the surrounding thickets of tall poplar trees sway in the breeze.
Swimmers can drop in from a boat launching post or leave their kit on a handy bench and slide in where the bank slopes gently towards the river.
Make it happen: The Locks are an 18-mile drive from the city of Norwich.
Loch An Eilein, Scotland
Set within the beautiful Rothiemurchus Forest in the Cairngorms National Park, Loch An Eilein is a swimmer’s dream. A small island, with a ruined castle that's home to a parliament of rooks, is within easy swimming-distance of the footpath on its western shore.
Once in the water, the frog’s-eye views across to the mountains of the UK’s wildest region are spectacular – just make sure you have a hot drink to help you warm up afterwards.
Make it happen: The famous resort of Aviemore is a 5-mile drive away. Aviemore is a 30-mile drive southeast from Inverness.
Treyarnon Tidal Pool, Cornwall
Set within the rocks overlooking the sandy beach of Treyarnon Bay, this perfect pool is filled by the outgoing tide, leaving a natural swimming hole that’s ripe for summer fun. Deep enough for jumping on the cliff-side and long enough for swimming lengths, it offers sensational views across the wild Atlantic Ocean. Bring goggles and you might even catch a glimpse of a starfish. Don’t be tempted to get in when the tide is rising and the pool starts to disappear between the waves. It’s only safe to swim here at low tide.
Make it happen: Treyarnon Bay is a ten-mile drive north of the resort town of Newquay.
Bryher, Isles of Scilly, England
Sweeping white sandy beaches and azure water are not something you tend to associate with the UK. But these features are a mainstay on the Isles of Scilly. Located 25 miles off the coast of Land’s End, all of Scilly’s islands are stunning. But Bryher, just 2.5 miles-long and half-a-mile wide, has the best swimming.
The water is icy cool, so pull on a wetsuit and swim out to the kelp forests which sway just beneath the surface. A sunset dip here is unbeatable.
Make it happen: Bryher is a short boat ride from the main island of St Mary’s. The latter can be reached via ferry from Penzance or a light aircraft from various airfields across Cornwall.
Loch Tarbert, Jura, Scotland
Not to be confused with the loch of the same name on the Scottish mainland, Jura’s Loch Tarbert almost cuts this wonderfully-secluded Hebridean island in two. The best swimming is found in its sheltered eastern end, accessible by a wide footpath which snakes down from the island’s only road.
The water here is pleasingly wild, with deer stalking across the tussocky hills and the Paps, Jura’s famous trio of peaks, looming on the horizon on a clear day.
Make it happen: Take a ferry to the neighbouring island of Islay from the mainland port at Kennacraig (two hours west of Glasgow), before hopping on the "wee ferry" across to Jura. Be aware that ferry times vary throughout the year.
River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, England
Where the River Wharfe meanders close to the ruins of Bolton Abbey – destroyed by Henry VII during the dissolution of the monasteries – sits the perfect river beach.
The water here is peat-rich, clear and fresh thanks to the fact it flows straight off the nearby hills. On summer days it can get busy, but come when it’s cloudy and it will just be you, the water and the medieval abbey.
Make it happen: Bolton Abbey is a 7-mile drive from the village of Skipton, which is a 27-mile drive from Leeds.
Llyn Cwm Bychan, Wales
At the end of a winding road that follows the crashing, white water of Afon Artro, Llyn Cwm Bychan is a Welsh wild-swimming gem. Its remoteness means you’re unlikely to be sharing its refreshing depths.
The eastern end of the lake is shallow, with a soft bed, making it easy to wade out and get views from the heart of the lake without feeling in danger. It's best enjoyed on a wet afternoon, with the hills shrouded in mist adding a mystical feel to proceedings.
Make it happen: Head to the village of Harlech, which is an 84-mile drive southwest from Liverpool in the Snowdonia National Park. From there, it’s a 6-mile drive east along narrow roads.
Torrin Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Close to Glenbrittle, Skye’s famous fairy pools are beautiful, but can become inundated with visitors during the summer. Further south, just off the narrow road from Broadford to Elgol on the eastern shore of Loch Slapin, these pools near the village of Torrin are a worthy, peaceful alternative.
The icy water flows straight off the hills and over slabs of glistening marble, meaning dips here are always refreshing and brief. The views across to the summit Bla Bheinn and the wild landscape make the long journey here well worth the effort.
Make it happen: Torrin is a 5.5 mile drive along a narrow road from the town of Broadford, on the east of Skye. Skye is 80 miles northeast of Fort William.
Easedale Tarn, Lake District, England
The Lake District is blessed with a lifetime’s worth of swimming holes. But away from its larger lakes and its hidden becks and streams, Easedale Tarn is the area’s ideal dip.
Enough of a hike from the village of Grasmere to make sliding into its cool waters feel rewarding, its shelving beaches and shallow centre make it a swimmer’s paradise. While walkers trail up into the fells, feel the cool water on your back and enjoy different angles on the scenery that you’ll never get on dry land.
Make it happen: Easedale Tarn is a 2.5 mile uphill walk from the village of Grasmere, which is a short drive from the towns of Ambleside and Keswick.
Port Meadow, Oxford, England
Within easy walking distance of the centre of Oxford, Port Meadow is a bucolic gem, the River Thames meandering in languid fashion through lush pasture. There are ample beaches for wading in, but the most famous spot is where the Thames meets Castle Mill stream at Medley Footbridge. Take a picnic and lounge in the shade beneath the trees, or float along with the current and watch the world go by. It can get busy in summer, but all the better for meeting like-minded wild swimmers.
Make it happen: Port Meadow is a 20-minute walk from Oxford train station. Trains from London to Oxford take an hour and run from Marylebone and Paddington in the centre of the city.
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