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The ponds in Hampstead Heath park in north London are perfect for a dip
The ponds in Hampstead Heath park in north London are perfect for a dip

UK's best wild swimming spots, from Hampstead Heath to the Isles of Scilly

Open-water swimming is making splashes. Joe Minihane explains how he became an obsessive and picks his favourite UK dips

Joe Minihane
Tuesday 10 July 2018 12:00
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Standing hunched in the frame of the millhouse’s first floor window, vertigo swirling as the River Avon glints below me in the midsummer sun, I realise my love of wild swimming is now an all-consuming passion.

I was 15 feet 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 brought 27,000 members to 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.

Joe Minihane decided to follow in ‘Waterlog’ author Roger Deakin’s footsteps

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 backdoor 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

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 sunbathers and swimmers alike. Arrive early or on a wet day, though. 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 are home to swaying seaweed and gin-clear waters. It’s worth wearing a wetsuit – compared to Cornwall, the water here is icy, even in high summer.

Popplestones Bay on Bryher in the Scilly Isles offers sheltered, clear waters

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.

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 practice cannonballs and hardcore swimmers tack out lengths at rapid pace.

Sandford Parks Lido in Cheltenham is pick of the pools

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, £15) is out now

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