How to: everything you need to know about wild swimming in the UK

Activity, Watersports, The Great British Outdoors

Posted by Ruth on 21st May 2021

Wild swimming

“Natural water has always held the magical power to cure.” – Roger Deakin, Waterlog

In 1996, 25 years ago, Roger Deakin published what has come to be known as the wild swimming bible: Waterlog. From salty estuaries in the South West to island whirlpools in the very north of Scotland, the book details Deakin’s watery travels through the British Isles.

Deakin brought to life the unexplored aquatic world of our island nation, capturing the intimacy of coming face to face with wildlife, the serenity of gliding silently through undisturbed waterscapes, and the sense of community within this unique subculture.

Of course, wild swimming has grown immensely since Waterlog was published and has become one of the most popular Great British water sports. Many people all around the country now take to the water for various reasons, and in various locations – from wild water swimming in whirlpools and eddies to more sedate dips in serene lakes. But all would likely agree with Deakin’s sentiment: water is good for what ails you!

If you’re looking to follow in Deakin’s footsteps and get into wild swimming in lakes and rivers this year, here’s everything you need to know.

Skip to the top wild swimming spots

Wild swimming

What is wild swimming?

According to the people behind the best-selling Wild Swimming guides, wild swimming is simply swimming outdoors in rivers, lakes and the sea.

In fact, it’s such an accessible water sport that, when surveyed by us, 83% of people said they had tried wild swimming in the UK.

On top of that, over 4 million people tried open water swimming between May 2019 and May 2020, according to Sport England’s Active Lives survey. And, with swimming pools closed during lockdown, this figure will have been boosted even further, as wild swimming offers a free alternative to keeping fit – all you need is a body of water to dip into!

Wild swimming

What are the benefits of wild swimming?

Natural water does indeed hold the magical power to cure; we know wild swimming has a whole host of benefits, from preventing ageing to relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety.

But to delve a little deeper, we asked Dr Ronan Foley, associate professor at Maynooth University, Ireland, and co-author of Blue Space, Health and Wellbeing: Hydrophilia Unbounded, to explain why wild swimming is just so good for you.

He said: “Swimming in blue space is very topical at the moment, especially for its benefits for physical and mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be measured in three ways:

Firstly, medical evidence shows improvements in muscle growth and improved respiratory health through better breathing, but also that cold water exercise stimulates the organs and parts of the brain. This applies especially to older people in keeping their bodies well maintained.

Psychologists measure the benefits of swimming in blue space in terms of nature-connection, attention-restoration and place attachment.

Finally, more everyday research talking to swimmers identifies the emotional value of swimming through socialisation, family histories, immersive meditative practice, and identity and belonging.

One should never ignore the fact that swimming, especially in choppy sea or lake waters, can also be risky, but most accounts would see the benefits as far outweighing the risks.

Wild swimming

Staying safe while wild swimming

As Dr Foley said, it would be foolish to ignore the risks when wild swimming; bodies of water can be changeable and unpredictable, with hazards including submerged objects, quick-changing weather conditions, and even effluent pollution.

But to shun wild swimming completely would mean also saying no to a whole host of health benefits. So, how can we stay safe while wild swimming?

Graeme Sutton runs Swim on the Wild Side, offering fully coached open-water swimming trips in the spectacular setting of the Lake District National Park. After almost 15 years of experience, he knows a thing or two about staying safe while wild swimming, and he’s shared his top tips with us:

1. Never swim alone; always have a buddy, even if this is someone at the water’s edge keeping an eye on you.

2. Look for safe entry and exit points – this is particularly important when it comes to rivers.

3. Assess the conditions prior to entry to ensure safe swimming. If unsure, don't go in. Throughout your swim, keep an eye out for changes in weather conditions.

4. Acclimatisation is key. Slowly enter the water, ensuring all parts of the body become used to the cold. This is especially important when it comes to the chest, where it's important that your breathing is normal before setting off.

5. Watch out for signs of hypothermia in your swim buddy, such as shivering, skin and lips turning blue, slurred speech, slow breathing and tiredness or confusion. If you spot any of these, get them out of the water quickly to safety.

Wild swimming in the UK

Where are the best wild swimming spots in the UK?

While there are plenty of lakes and rivers to dip into in the UK, and plenty of good reasons to take to the water, it can be hard to know where you’re allowed to swim.

In Scotland, you can swim in any water as long as you abide by the Outdoor Access Code, however, the law about swimming outdoors in England and Wales is a little bit murkier.

According to the Outdoor Swimming Society, it is legal to swim in ‘navigable’ waters in England and Wales, meaning waterways that are open to boats. However, if you get to these rivers via private land, that constitutes trespassing, and while the landowners either side of the river own half the riverbed, they do not own the river itself.

To take the hassle out of finding your perfect swimming spot, we’ve rounded up the best wild swimming spots in the UK, where taking a dip is perfectly fine!

Lake District wild swimming

Wild swimming in the Lake District

The Lake District is a brilliant place to start if you’re looking to wild swim; in fact, there are only three lakes in which you cannot take a dip. All the rest of the bodies of water, including tarns and rivers too, are yours for the taking!

You can read more about the best lakes for wild swimming in our guide to the Lake District’s lakes.

There are so many great spots to choose from, but our top pick has to be Galleny Force. Set south-east of Borrowdale, this wild swimming spot combines impressive cascades with two crystal-clear pools around 1.2 metres deep. There’s plenty of scope for snorkelling, where you might even spot some fish. And if you’re in need of some hot food to warm up after, there’s a pub nearby too.

Wild swimming in Cornwall

Wild swimming in Devon and Cornwall

With so many beautiful rivers meandering their way through Devon and Cornwall, there are plenty of opportunities for a dip, whether you’re wanting to explore the wilds of Dartmoor, swim under magical waterfalls or follow the water from source to sea.

In fact, you can browse some of Devon’s most scenic rivers here to find some inspiration for your next swim.

Our favourite place to wild swim in Devon and Cornwall is Golitha Falls in Fowey. This wild swimming spot is close to the source of the River Fowey and surrounded by picturesque, ancient woodland on the fringe of Bodmin Moor. You can paddle in the shallow water or follow the river along until you reach a plunge pool at the bottom of the falls – it’s like something out of a fairy tale.

Wild swimming in Norfolk and Suffolk

Wild swimming in the East of England

The East of England was Roger Deakin’s home, so you’d be following in the footsteps (or ripples) of one of the fathers of wild swimming in the UK if you choose to swim here.

There are plenty of places to wild swim in the East of England, but your first port of call should be the River Waveney, close to where Deakin lived. This beautiful river separates the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, and has plenty of places where you can jump in for a dip.

Outney Common, near Bungay, is a great place to start; it’s rich in wildlife and the atmosphere is serene – unless your method of entry is via the rope swing!

Blue Lagoon, Wales

Wild swimming in Wales

With incredible national parks such as Eryri/Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and the Pembrokeshire Coast, Wales has no shortage of beautiful natural areas to tempt you in for a dip, offering some of the best wild swimming in the UK.

There are also a great many wonderful waterfalls in Wales, providing icy plunge pools to reinvigorate your body and mind. And that’s without mentioning rivers, such as the Wye and the Teifi, which wild swimmers flock to year after year.

However, our favourite place to wild swim in Wales is the Blue Lagoon in Pembrokeshire, which can be found above Abereiddy Beach. This crystal-clear blue lake is at the bottom of a former quarry and is a spectacular place to visit for a stroll, let alone for a dip. The sides are very steep, however, and the water very cold, so caution is advised.

Wild swimming in Scotland

Wild swimming in Scotland

With a variety of lochs, burns and waterfalls, Scotland is a wild swimmer’s paradise – if you can get over the chilly water! Plus, Scotland’s open access laws mean that these wild swimming spots are much easier to discover and enjoy.

We have dedicated a whole blog to wild swimming in Scotland, so if you’re looking for inspiration for your next holiday in the great outdoors, click the button below to read more.

Wild swimming in Scotland

Enjoy a wild swimming holiday

Whether you’re looking for wild river swimming or want to head to the lakes instead, we have a wide range of cottages where you can base yourself for a wild swimming holiday. If you’ve been inspired to swim in waters new, take a look at our collection of cottages in spectacular waterside locations, just perfect for your next restorative holiday.

Waterside cottages

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.