If the pool is too expensive, try going for a wild swim

Jonathan Brown on how the time is right for a plunge in the great outdoors

Simply getting to the wild swimming place was an adventure in itself. The sat-nav gave up the ghost and a stubborn chicken refused to budge out of the way of my car even when poked with a golf club. By the time I arrived the sky was swirling with menace and the temperature had fallen sharply.

A brisk wind was blowing off Wensleydale's high fells and whipping ferociously across Semer Water, Yorkshire's largest natural lake, so that the slate grey surface was buffeted by white caps. A dip doesn't get much wilder than this.

With the exception of a couple of elderly motorists who were huddling in their vehicle under a tartan blanket, this shore is a desolate and deserted spot. Gingerly limping barefoot across the sharp cobbles and through the ring of brown scum that edged the lake, I began to yearn for the chlorinated safety of the council swimming pool.

But one of the first actions of the coalition Government was to cut short a commitment to free swimming for the under-16s and those over 60 in a bid to save £40m. After an analysis by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, it was argued that despite leading to 18 million free sessions the subsidy had failed to attract new swimmers.

The rapidly growing wild swimming movement hopes that, when charging is reintroduced, people will consider the free resources around them.

As my feet finally found soft mud beneath them and the peaty water became deep enough to strike out, thoughts of returning to the regulation indoor 25 metres soon evaporated. True, the water is cold, but there are benefits. A curious family of mallards came over to have a look and the sun broke through over the looming edifice of Addlebrough, said to have once been the home of a friendly giant who got in a fight with the Devil over ownership of the hill. An RAF Tornado enlivened proceedings when it swooped deafeningly overhead. By the time I got out, I felt chilled but exhilarated.

Experiences such as these, argues Daniel Start, author of the popular Wild Swimming guides and a consultant to the Rivers and Lakes Swimming Association, have led to the growth in the popularity of al fresco bathing. "Britain has more rivers and lakes and other surface water areas than any other country in Europe but we are barely allowed to go in any of them," he says. His guidebooks have sold 50,000 copies he gets 10,000 hits on his website each hot summer's day, leading him to estimates that one in 10 of us would be happy to swim in open water.

But many people are unaware that they have traditional usage rights often dating back centuries, he says. "Swimming in cooler water is much better for health. There is much less pollution than in an artificial environment and because we don't have to heat the water there is no CO2. And there are no allergic reactions to the chemicals in the water that can cause asthma or eczema.

People need to rise up and seize what is rightfully theirs, he says. "The countryside is hugely subsidised by our taxes. We have every right to go out there and enjoy it especially at a time when we should be using the assets we have more effectively." Later this summer, hundreds of thousands of Europeans will take a mass plunge in the continent's rivers and lakes to demand clean waterways.

But the authorities have always been ambivalent to bathing. Some historians date this to the 4th century when the Church condemned the practice, which was only to re-emerge in polite society after the Reformation.

The Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Byron and Coleridge, liked to strip down and immerse themselves. By the turn of the last century, bathing lakes in public parks were hugely popular. More than 25,000 swimmers took to the waters in east London's Victoria Park on a summer's morning. Open water swimmers such as Captain Matthew Webb became international celebrities. Nude bathing was the preserve of Bohemian set – Rupert Brooke and the Bloomsbury set did it at Grantchester – but after the Second World War more prosaic pursuits were at hand, and interest in open water swimming fell as rivers and lakes were polluted by intensive farming and factories.

Today, supporters of wild swimming argue that it is the pervasive health and safety culture which puts people off. Peter Cornall, the head of leisure safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, is charged with advising the public of the dangers. Some 300 people drown in our inland waters each year, he says, and deaths peak in the warm summer months. While some are linked to alcohol, most are not. Many victims are young. Only last week, a 15-year-old boy drowned at a lake in Rotherham.

Mr Cornall, a triathlete who has been open water swimming, says people must be aware of their limitations. While water can feel pleasantly warm on the surface, two feet down the temperature can drop to 10C. The difference between the warm air and the chill water can cause cold water shock and prove instantly fatal.

"When we are at the beach we tend to swim parallel to the shore. In a lake we often swim towards the middle – to an island or a moored boat. The cold starts to get you but it is fairly insidious. You loose co-ordination and it starts to sap you strength. Rather than swimming in a horizontal plane you become diagonal and then vertical. Then you sink," he says. Many teenagers are more likely to have swum in the warm Mediterranean than in British waters. The national curriculum's key stage two requirement of a 25-metre swim in a heated pool does little to prepare them for cold water. "I am not anti-swimming," he says. "But it is important we don't get confused between people who know what they are doing and the vulnerable. My advice is to go to a properly supervised site."

Safety tips

* Be informed: make sure that the place you are swimming is safe. Check out websites and do some research. Talk to local swimmers. Make sure that if you get into the water you know where you are going to get out.

* Remember that the water is colder than it feels. Temperatures below the surface can be more than 10C lower than at the surface. Cold water can kill instantly. Become acclimatised slowly.

* Do not over-estimate your ability. Swimming in cold water is tiring so do not overreach yourself.

* Do not jump into deep water unless you are sure it is safe.

* Do not swim in fast-moving currents especially in big rivers after heavy rain. If you are caught in a current swim diagonally across it. Check tides.

* In a lake, if you are unsure of your ability swim parallel to the shore.

* Never drink alcohol and swim.

* If in doubt always swim where there is a lifeguard or other swimmers.

Where to go

Scotland

Isle of on Skye: Faerie Pools near Glen Brittle.

Gruinard Bay - Wester Ross near Aultbea

St Mary’s Loch – Borders

River Tweed Near Kelso

Mugdock Country Park – A81 north of Glasgow

Loch Lomond

Loch Whinyeon near Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway

Greeto Falls, Largs, Ayrshire

Northumberland and North East

Ross Back Sands: Holy Island

River Allen: near Allen Banks

Yorkshire and Humberside

Semer Water, Wensleydale

River Swale near Richmond

Leven Quarry at Leven, East Yorkshire

Stainforth Force, River Ribble

River Wharfe at Grassington





North-West

Seathwaite Tarn, Cumbria

Ullswater, Cumbria

Kent Estuary Arnside, Cumbria

Salford Quays

Hatchmere Lake, Cheshire

Midlands

Three Shires Head – Peak District

River Derwent near Duffield

Hanmer Mere, Mere Shropshire

River Teme, Ludlow

River Thames near Lechlade



Wales

River Usk, near Llangynidr, Ebw Vale

River Tawe, nr Glyntawe

Morfa Dyffryn, near Llanbedr

Rosebush Quarry, Pembrokeshire



East

Old Hunstanton, Norfolk

River Waveney near Geldestone

Thames Estuary, Leigh-on-Sea

River Cam, near Grantchester

South-East England

Thames Beach near Pangbourne, Berkshire

Frensham Pond, Surrey

Dover Harbour, Kent

Brighton seafront



South-West England

River Itchen near Winchester

River Frome near Tellisford

River Teign beneath Castle Drogo

River Avon near Claverton

River Dart, Hembury Woods

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