Wild-swimming expert Joe Minihane grabs his Thermos and selects the best open water spots in the UK
Fetid showers, slippery floors, floating plasters; let’s face it, your local pool isn’t the best place for a dip. And in recent years, more and more people have realised it’s better to get your swimming fix outside than in a breeding ground for verrucas. Wild swimming, essentially anywhere outdoors, is on the rise thanks to cleaner water, the post-2012 boom in triathlons and outdoor fitness events, and studies outlining health benefits such as improved circulation. But it’s not just a case of jumping into your nearest body of water. From public ponds to hardcore lochs, this is our guide to the best places to (legally) dive in for a buzz that you won’t get doing lengths in a crowded public baths. Goggles at the ready...
Henleaze Swimming Club, Bristol
This is a member’s only affair, but the waiting list isn’t too long and once you’ve signed up you’ll never visit the hellish municipal pool again. Henleaze, formerly a quarry, is divided into two parts: the far end for fishing; the near for swimming. It’s a triathlete’s paradise due to the long stretch of water from the clubhouse, but there’s also space for less serious swimmers. Diving boards are dotted about and you can still belly flop from the 7m platform, while benches and manicured gardens evoke outdoor swimming’s golden days.
Fowey Harbour, Cornwall
To cross Fowey Harbour you’ll need a boat escort and the skill to dodge the harbourmaster. Wild swimming forefather Roger Deakin managed it with the help of a few locals, but try it now and you’ll likely be hauled out after a few hundred metres, shivering, embarrassed and facing prosecution. There is a better way. Each August, 100 people take part in the Fowey Harbour Swim, tacking out across the cold waters at slack tide. All abilities are welcome but they’ll fish you out if you can’t manage the 1km in an hour.
Loch Tarbert, Jura, Scotland
This sea loch almost slices Jura in two, but is accessible from the only road that runs north to south on the Hebridean island. Walk a kilometre down to the boat house and you’ll find an easy entry point to a sheltered bay with views back towards the famous Paps. Even in summer, this is a cold proposition, so take a full wetsuit, boots and gloves if you want to be in for more than 30 seconds. Basic outdoor rules apply: tell someone where you’re going and ideally have a mildly embarrassed friend or partner holding the towels. For hardcore wild swimmers only.
Hampstead Ponds, London
London’s premier bathing ponds are the perfect place to leave you gasping on your first wild swim. There are three to choose from. The mixed pond, open from May to September, is a popular choice for locals and exchange students looking to impress female company. The men’s and ladies’ ponds, on the east side of Hampstead Heath, are a year-round option. Hardy souls break the ice on New Year’s Day for the briefest of dips. You’ll need to join the Winter Swimming Club if you want to brave the chill.
Bryher, Isles of Scilly
When you dock in the Scillies, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had in fact crossed the entire Atlantic and wound up in the Caribbean. And not just because the boat takes the best part of two and a half hours to reach the islands from Penzance. The water here is absurdly clear and glows turquoise in every cove. Take the small boat to the island of Bryher and swim across any one of its bays and you’ll be able to see to the bottom, even at high tide. Great Popplestones Bay, where you’ll find water sheltered from the crash of the ocean, is great for powering out to distant rocks. The water in this part of the world is freezing, though, so fully rubber up.
River Bure, Aylsham, Norfolk
About a 10-minute drive from the market town of Aylsham, you’ll find a perfect mill pool, deep enough for swimming and easy enough to wade into from the shelved bank. There’s even a handy open barn next to the water where you can drop your keks without being spotted by a local farmer. This is a surprisingly good spot for some serious swimming. Pull yourself out into the pool and swim against the white water that races from underneath the old mill. It’s like a water treadmill. You won’t go anywhere, but your body will ache after an intense workout.
Farleigh & District Swimming Club, River Frome, Wiltshire
England’s last river swimming club is basic and all the better for it. Dating to 1933, it costs £1 to visit; go 30 times and you’ll be a member. There’s an old wooden diving board that gives off a hearty thunk when you jump off. It’s not supervised, so first-timers should drop in off the weir while someone keeps a watchful eye. It closes in October, so hurry if you want to test the waters. Carb-load afterwards with a cream tea at nearby Stowford Manor Farm.
Portobello Beach, Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s famous Portobello Beach is a sandy stretch that’s long been a favourite of anyone who enjoys the benefits of a ‘constitutional’. A real winner in the summer months for those after a paddle, this is also one for serious swimmers too. The Edinburgh Road Club cyclists use it as a triathlon training spot from May to October. As always, don’t go gallivanting about in the icy cold if you’re not used to it, and don’t let your body trick you into thinking that these Scottish waters are keeping you warm. Chances are you’ve just stayed in too long.
Rhossili Bay, Gower Peninsula, South Wales
Voted by TripAdvisor in 2014 as the best beach in the UK and regularly cited as one of the finest in Europe, Rhossili Bay is perfect for a lengthy sea swim. The 5km sandy stretch offers acres of space for those looking to push out beyond the breakers or simply get battered by the surf. Tides can be vicious, however, and when there’s a big swell a rip occasionally forms. It’s simple really: if the sea is churned up and the wind is relentless, then keep your trunks in your bag.
Joe Minihane is the author of cult wild swimming blog Waterlog Reswum; waterlogreswum.com