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Ten of the best…British wild swimming spots

Rosie Spinks

19th August, 2011

Thought you couldn’t swim in the Thames? As Rosie Spinks discovered, London’s waterway is one of the UK’s top locations for a natural dip

Thanks to its northerly location and regular deluges, the UK isn’t exactly renowned for its balmy summers or bikini-worthy weather. But despite the chill, the frequent rainfall has made it a prime spot for wild swimming with plenty of lakes and rivers to choose from. According to Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming: 150 Hidden Dips in the Rivers Lakes Waterfalls of Britain (£14.95, Punk Publishing Ltd) there are more rivers, lakes and waterfalls per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. A habitual wild swimmer during childhood, Start got bored of reminiscing and set out to relive his memories, discovering a wild and unfrequented landscape in the process. ‘It’s [the UK] an oasis in Europe because of all this water,’ he says. ‘No we don’t have the hottest weather but we don’t suffer from droughts or floods either - it’s a consistent source of moisture’.

And his words are finally being listened to. Wild swimming is firmly in fashion at the moment with a bevy of resources - including websites, books, maps and even an Outdoor Swimming Society - available for people who want to jump in. Even Nick Clegg has been holding forth on his love for wild swimming this week, adding that he’s been teaching Foreign Secretary William Hague ‘to go for swims in the lake at Chevening.’ But don’t let the thought of Clegg and Hague in their undercrackers put you off: a wild dip in the UK is second to none. Whether it’s lochs, lakes or lagoons you fancy, there’s a wild swimming spot for you.

Rydal Beck, Cumbria
Part of the Lake District National Park in Cumbria, Rydal Beck is home to a bevy of waterfalls and deep pools. For bolder types, there are numerous ledges and rocks that can be used for a divebomb or two, although actual diving isn’t recommended. Post-swim, spend the rest of the day gorge-walking through the cliffs, climbing the various rock formations and exploring the pools. Nearby is Wastwater Lake, which at 76 metres, is the deepest natural lake in England, and a favourite of Outdoor Swimming Society founder Kate Rew.

Where to stay: Full Circle offers luxury yurts in the Lake District for a back-to-nature experience with local waterfalls within earshot. A 10 per cent discount is provided for guests who arrive via public transport. www.lake-district-yurts.co.uk

Get there: The closest station to Rydal is Windermere, which is served by the First TransPennine Express from Manchester. www.tpexpress.co.uk

For more information, go to www.visitcumbria.com

The Thames
The Thames might sound like the last place you’d want to take a dip but the river has cleaned up its act in recent years. However, after major efforts to clean up pollution, last year the Thames was awarded the International Theiss River prize for its clean-up efforts and is now home to more than 120 fish species. Thanks to strong currents and the presence of boaters, some stretches of the river aren’t the best choices for a casual and relaxing dip, and will appeal more to those looking for an aquatic workout. However Clifton Hampden, in Oxfordshire is a great calm stretch just before the river reaches London. There are also a number of good spots between Lechlade and Clifton Hampden on what Rew describes as a ‘swimming superhighway’.

Where to stay: The Green Gables Guest House is within walking distance of the Oxford train station and is mere yards from the Thames. The spot also has a garden and conservatory for guests and emphasises green business practices. www.greengablesoxford.co.uk

Get there: Take the train to Oxford and from there, take the X3 bus (which leaves every 20 minutes) to the Chatham Road stop close to Green Gables. www.southernrailway.com

For more information, go to www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye
For a swimming spot surrounded in myths and legends, you can’t do better than the spectacular Fairy Pools in the Isle of Skye. Because the water is runoff from snowfall in the Cuillin Mountains, it would be a bit of an understatement to say it’s cold, but what the pools lack in heat, they more than make up for in crystal clear waters and asperous surroundings. The water’s turquoise colour is due to mineral deposits in the rocks and waterfalls, which can be found in abundance in the mountains above. Make sure you wear a pair of sturdy shoes if you go, as trekking over the rocks is the only way to get there.

Where to stay: The luxurious Mungo’s Den Vintage Eco retreat – formerly a telephone exchange and post office - is located on the north west side of the island. The motto here is ‘rescue, restore, and revive’ so expect to be surrounded by refashioned gewgaws and offered a holistic, organic experience. www.mungosden.co.uk

Get there: Take the Caledonian sleeper train from London Euston to Inverness. Once there, change to a train heading to Kyle of Lochalsh and enjoy the splendid views en route. Once there, take a ferry (www.skyeferry.co.uk) to the Isle of Skye and head to Glen Brittle in the southern part of the isle, where you’ll find signs directing you to the pools. www.scotrail.co.uk

For more information, go to www.skye.co.uk

Durdle Door, Dorset
The amazing limestone arch might be privately owned but the beach on which it sits is open to the public. The appeal of swimming under the arch is obvious aquatically inclined visitors and its Jurassic coast location is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The neighbouring Lulworth cove - connected by footpath - has numerous grottos that come with Daniel Start’s recommendation for snorkelling. Don’t wait too long to plan a visit though – the arch is expected to eventually collapse in on itself, leaving the site looking similar to the rocky sea stacks that can be seen all along the Dorset and south Devonshire coastline.

Where to stay: Located close to the coast, the East Creech Farm and Campsite is a working family farm. Guests can stay in the farmhouse, the cottage, or for a truly outdoor experience, bunk up with the geese and cows and camp in the property’s two-acre grounds. www.eastcreechfarm.co.uk

Get there: Take the train to Wool railway station, which is just five miles away from Lulworth. Taxis and local buses are available from the station. www.southwesttrains.co.uk

For more information, go to www.visit-dorset.com

Spitchwick Common, Devon
Spitchwick Common is home to one of the best swimming spots on the River Dart and frequented by villagers and visitors alike. The water, which has an orangey brown hue thanks to Dartmoor’s peaty soil, is actually remarkably clean. The main pool is in a sunny clearing, a few minutes walk through the woods from the village, but if its too crowded for you, check out the Sharrah Pool, which is a little further away but hidden among the granite rocks and thick forest.

Where to stay: Dartmoor is home to hundreds of campsites but if sleeping outside isn’t for you, try the eco-friendly Beechwood B&B located in the heart of the moor near the pretty village of Postbridge. The B&B is also signed up to the Dartmoor Charter for Sustainable Tourism initiative run by park authorities. www.beechwood-dartmoor.co.uk

Get there: Take the train to Newton Abbot, which is less than 10 miles from the moor. Postbridge is served by local buses. www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk

For more information, go to www.discoverdartmoor.com

Loch Ness, Inverness
In addition to being home to the fabled monster, Loch Ness also holds the distinction of being the largest body of fresh water in the UK, holding almost double the volume of water in all the lakes of the rest combined. Because of its depth and northerly latitude, Loch Ness is always very cold (the mercury rarely gets above 10°C), making it a destination for more determined swimmers. Those who manage to swim the entire 23-mile length of the loch can say they’ve completed one of the toughest open water challenges in the world. Those who can only manage a quick dip will at least be able to confirm or deny the legend of Nessie.

Where to stay: One of the best choices is the Lovat Loch Ness, which makes carbon conscious donations for each room booked and offers a discount to guests using public transport. www.thelovat.com

Get there: Loch Ness is easily accessible by rail, with both Inverness and Fort William stations nearby. For those who really want a challenge, the 80-mile Great Glen Mountain Bike trail takes you to the shores of the loch. www.scotrail.co.uk

For more information, go to www.explore-inverness.com

Stainforth Force, Yorkshire Dales
That the Yorkshire Dales National Park is home to so many spectacular waterfalls is thanks to a burst of tectonic activity during the last ice age. Luckily for swimmers, things have warmed up considerably since then and one of the best is Stainforth Force (pronounced ‘foss’), located on the River Ribble. Stainforth is a favourite of Daniel Start, who describes the spot as ‘a beautiful cascade of deep pools and waterfall with high jumps for the brave,’ while the walk from the nearby Stainforth village takes in limestone ledges and a 17th century packhorse bridge. You’re unlikely to be disappointed by the plentiful pools but you’re likely to have company in the summer.

Where to stay: Dust off your Wallace and Gromit jokes for a stay in Inglenook and Craggley Cottages in the heart of Wensleydale. Both hold Green Tourism gold awards and offer panoramic views of the dales, along with nearby shops selling the local crumbly white cheese. www.cottageinthedales.co.uk

Get there: Take the train to Leeds, then hop on to the Morecambe or the Carlisle lines; both of which go through Wensleydale. www.eastcoast.co.uk

For more information, go to www.visittheyorkshiredales.co.uk

Serpentine Lido, London

Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lido isn’t entirely wild but does let you get your toes in Thames water without having to take the plunge (pardon the pun) into the river proper. Centrally located and easily accessible, for an after-work dip on a hot summer’s day, the Serpentine Lido is second to none. While it might not offer the off-the-beaten-track type of relaxation that rural spots provide (and also charges for entry), it’s good for beginners or those with children. The Lido will also feature in next year’s Olympic Games, when it will be used as the venue for the open water 10km swim and the swimming leg of the triathalon.

Where to stay: The Mayfair (www.themayfairhotel.co.uk) is located close to Hyde Park corner and is the holder of a Green Tourism Award. It’s not cheap though, so try The Howard with its Thames views and eco-friendly ethos, for something a little more affordable. www.swisshotel.com

Get there: Hyde Park Corner is the nearest Tube station. www.tfl.gov.uk

For more information, go to www.visitlondon.com

Coed y Rhaeadr, Brecon Beacons
Located in the southwestern part of the Brecon Beacons National Park is known locally as ‘waterfall country’, and has been designated an area of special scientific interest [SSI]. There you’ll find a series of cerulean lagoons and lidos, which Start describes as being ‘a fairyland of swimming.’ There are several pools and waterfalls to explore but Start suggests the Lady Falls; a 10-metre column of water cascading into a deep pool. Try swimming underneath the falls, climbing back up, then diving in again. When you’ve had enough of swimming, go gorge walking and enjoy panoramic views of the unique Coed y Rhaeadr landscape.

Where to stay: The Wern Horse and Rider B&B is located the pretty villiage of Llangorse with panoramic views of Llangorse Lake and the Black Mountains, and has a gold standard rating from the Green Tourism Business Scheme. www.bennettthewern.vispa.com

Get there: Take the train to Aberdare, which is located seven miles from the outskirts of the park. Onward transport can be arranged at the station. www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk, www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk

For more information, go to www.visit-brecon-beacons.co.uk

Outney Common, Suffolk
Popular with canoeists, the wildlife-rich River Waveney is on the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. Outney Common – a two-mile stretch set in a bucolic landscape of grazing cows and green meadows dotted with wildflowers – is the perfect spot for swimmers. The Waveney was also a favourite of late environmentalist and wild swimming enthusiast, Roger Deakin, who was fond of sailing his canoe, named Cigarette, along its meandering waterways while taking in the sights.

Where to stay: Earsham Park Farm is a luxury B&B with silver Green Tourism certification. Just two miles from Bungay, the house is set on a working farm and offers you the chance to stretch your legs on a wildlife walk. www.earsham-parkfarm.co.uk

Get there: Beccles is the closest station to Bungay. Local transport can be arranged from the station via coach. www.nationalexpresseastanglia.com

For more information, go to www.visitsuffolk.com

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