Wild swimming can be done in lochs, lidos, canals, rivers or oceans / Joe Minihane

Joe Minihane likes wild swimming so much that he's written a book about it. The author explains how he became an open water obsessive and picks his favourite UK dips

Standing hunched in the frame of the mill house’s first floor window, vertigo swirling as the River Avon glinted below me in the midsummer sun, I realised my love of wild swimming had become an all-consuming passion.

I was 15ft up, staring down at one of England’s finest rivers, with a group of fellow swimmers egging me on to jump – and I was actually considering it. I counted to three, closed my eyes, flung myself from the window. The split seconds between jumping and crashing feet first into the green water felt like an eternity. But as I surfaced I found that familiar feeling – that rush of dopamine, endorphins zipping around my brain. I was exhilarated, but calm.

I was nine months into a personal mission which had led me to this exhilarating yet mad experience. The challenge? To try wild swimming in every river, lake, lido, bay and canal visited by the late naturalist and adventurer Roger Deakin in his 1999 cult classic Waterlog.

Wild swimming essentially means swimming outdoors. You can do it in the sea, in a lake, a river – even a canal if it takes your fancy. But that's not to say you can swim everywhere. Many stretches of water are private; some are dangerous. Gravel pit lakes, for example can often be hazardous, with sharp drops in depth meaning the temperature falls rapidly. But finding the perfect wild swimming spot is a hugely rewarding experience – one that has led over 27,000 open water enthusiasts to join the Outdoor Swimming Society

My own love affair with wild swimming started one heady summer, during which I spent my days swimming in the mixed pond at Hampstead Heath. Having first gone to Hampstead as a heads-out breast stroker who preferred the strictures of the indoor pool, I soon found myself steeped in its waters. And for one very good reason. When I pushed myself off from the concrete jetty, buoyed up by its depths, I felt an almost instant cure for the anxiety that had been nagging at my brain for years.

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Joe Minihane decided to follow in Roger Deakin's wild swimming footsteps (Joe Minihane)

Swimming, particularly wild swimming, held a simple appeal. Whenever I got in the water, I felt calmer, more present. This was mindfulness. My only focus was kicking my legs and moving my arms, making sure I survived in that moment.

I began craving different water, different places. And in Deakin I found my guide. Having fallen in love with his anti-authoritarian spirit and bucolic descriptions of the English countryside, Waterlog became my bible – and I followed its path religiously. 

My wild swimming journey took me to some of the most distant, hard-to-reach places in the UK. I snorkelled over kelp forests in the Isles of Scilly, dropped down a series of plunge pools into a dark, narrow gorge in the Yorkshire Dales, watched the waves whip over Loch Tarbert in Jura and finished my journey at Roger Deakin’s one-time home, swimming in the moat outside the back door of his Suffolk farmhouse.

Over a two and a half year mission, I learned how to take the calm stillness the water afforded me into everyday life. And, having explored some of the UK’s most beautiful waterways, I am utterly convinced that this country offers the best bathing in the world.

The UK’s best outdoor swims

Hampstead mixed pond, London

A short tube ride from central London, Hampstead mixed pond is an Arcadian dream that feels a million miles from the relentless buzz of the city streets. Open from May until September, its narrow banks draw for sunbathers and swimmers alike. Arrive early or on a wet day though, and the only company will be the lifeguards and coots busying themselves in the undergrowth.

 

Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Bryher might only be half a mile wide, but this tiny island is home to some of the most stunning bays and beaches in the UK. Great Popplestones Bay, in the west, has beautiful white sands, its sheltered waters home to swaying seaweed and gin-clear waters. It’s worth wearing a wetsuit – compared with Cornwall, the water here is icy, even in high summer. 

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Popplestones Bay on Bryher in the Scilly Isles offers sheltered, clear waters (Joe Minihane)

River Bure, Aylsham, Norfolk

Down a single track road west of the town of Aylsham sits a perfect wild swimming hole. Water rushes through a mill race into a deep pool, with a fast shelving beach making the perfect entry point. Swim against the current or let it carry you into the shallows. An open-sided barn on the river bank is the ideal spot for getting changed or having a post-dip picnic.

 

Sandford Parks Lido, Cheltenham

While there are many art deco gems around the UK that could easily make the cut, it’s hard to look beyond Cheltenham’s spectacular Sandford Parks Lido. Pass through the turnstiles, cross its manicured lawns and dive into a bright blue dream, where kids practise cannonballs and hardcore swimmers tack out lengths at rapid pace.

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Sandford Parks Lido in Cheltenham is pick of the pools (Joe Minihane)

Loch Tarbert, Jura, Scotland

Jura’s waters are warmed by the gulf stream, making them the perfect place for a Scottish summer swim. Loch Tarbert, which almost cuts the island in two, offers plenty of opportunities for long swims, especially at its sheltered eastern end. The views are relentless and made all the better by the native deer watching as you strip down and wade in.

Joe Minihane’s Floating: A Life Regained (Duckworth Overlook, £14.99) is out now

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