Come on in, the water’s lovely! Our top open water swimming spots

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By Jane Seymour

Swimming in open water is a literal immersion in our environment, and many of us find it regenerates us in mind and body. Jane Seymour asks fellow swimmers for their favourite spots to take a dip – and what the experience gives them.

For many of us, wild swimming is something we rediscover as we get older. Splashing around in the sea as children, maybe exercising in the local swimming baths as adults – and then a realisation that the pleasure of stretching our limbs in water becomes so much more when you’re out in nature. We explore just what the experience means for some swimmers, and where they best like to take the plunge.

Beccy in the Lake District

It was a small organised event one New Year’s Day in the Lake District that opened Beccy Rendle’s eyes the sheer joy of wild swimming. ‘I met up with 12 strangers and we ran laughing and squealing into Buttermere. We lasted about five minutes but I was hooked.’

'Once you’ve had a swim, all the rest of the day you feel as though you’re carrying around a secret present.'
Beccy Rendle

She’s now been swimming in lakes tarns and rivers throughout the year for the past seven years in all weathers. ‘I live in Kendal so have easy access to many great spots.

‘My favourite place is right in the middle where I feel I become part of the landscape. Ducks, geese, swans and fish swim around you unperturbed.

‘Swimming at night, swimming in the rain, swimming in the frost and snow, all physically enervating. Once you’ve had a swim, all the rest of the day you feel as though you’re carrying around a secret present.’

'My favourite place is right in the middle where I feel I become part of the landscape.'
Beccy Rendle

She recommends Miller Ground on the east side of Windermere as an excellent place to start. ‘There’s free parking for about eight cars and a short walk down next to a lovely waterfall. There are jetties and benches and a gravelly, gradual entry into Windermere.

‘There are boats to visit, buoys to swim to and often people about so you’re never alone. But a fluorescent swim buoy is a must in all the bigger lakes for visibility and for keeping your keys safe!’

There’s some great advice about swimming in the Lake District, including top spots and safety tips, on the Lake District National Park website.

Debbie and Graham at Crummock Water

A swimmer on a sunny day in a calm lake
Crummock water in the Lake District is a beautiful place to swim | Debbie and Graham Watson

Another recommendation for a spot in the Lakes is from regular swimmers Debbie and Graham Watson, who take a morning dip at the western end of Crummock Water.

'Each morning is different.'
Debbie Watson

‘It’s a beautiful spot,’ says Debbie. ‘It’s lovely to see the change of the seasons, yet each morning is different.

‘Today the surface was dotted with dry fallen leaves, orange and rust-coloured, very calm. Two days ago there were breakers on the beach and squalls of wind whipping up spray. ‘

Fancy a visit? Access to the west end of Crummock Water is a 10 min walk from the National Trust car park along a wide track. The beach there is wide – plenty of space for everyone.

Ally in Kent

Fresh water swimming has been a new discovery for many people in 2020 as a coastal trip has been out of reach during lockdown. CPRE staff member Ally Davies is a self-described ‘cold water coward’ but found the waters of the River Medway refreshing after months of lockdown.

‘A river dip isn’t something I’ve done since I was a kid, and I don’t remember finding the cold such a shock when I was small!

'To slide into those chilly waters just felt like a complete escape...'
Ally Davies

‘But to pop out of London to Kent as lockdown restrictions lifted, find a permitted spot along the river and to slide into those chilly waters just felt like a complete escape from the past few months.’

Two boys pretending to dive into river
Getting ready to dive | Ally Davies

And Ally’s river adventure was also a chance to make connections with loved ones, proving that outdoor swimming really is for all ages.

‘When we were finally able to see friends and family again, a river splash, stroll and picnic with my godson (Edward, 7) and his brother (Oliver, who’s 9) and their mum fit the bill perfectly.

‘The boys were nervous at first and we were all gasping and giggling with the cold – and, I must add, their mum abstained and ‘nobly’ took on the role of official photographer from the banks – but once we were all in and doggy-paddling about we had a whale of a time.

'We wrapped ourselves up in towels and had our biscuits and a thermos of hot tea ready.'
Ally Davies

‘There was a real sense of shared adventure afterwards, too. We wrapped ourselves up in towels and had our biscuits and a thermos of hot tea ready. We were all close to home but we felt like we’d achieved a great expedition that day!’

Ros in Oxford

For Ros Bayley, a regular wild swimmer in both sea and fresh water (and contributor to the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association’s Wild swimming walks: 28 lake, river and seaside days out by train from London), it’s the joy of being in water that provides regeneration wherever she is in the country.

‘The cold gives an electrifying sense of being alive,’ she says. ‘Being on eye level with ducklings or floating autumn leaves.

'The cold gives an electrifying sense of being alive.'
Ros Bayley

‘And I love the companionship that comes with such swims, whether you join up regularly with a group or the acknowledged fellowship of other individuals striking out from the shore.’

Boys diving off bridge into river on hot day with onlookers
Taking the plunge into the Thames near Port Meadow, Oxford | Sidney Bruere/StockimoNews/Alamy Live News

One of her regular haunts is the Thames in Oxford. ‘Recently, I slipped away to Port Meadow, floating on the bend of a warm, slow-moving Thames, a huge expanse of grass and sky stretching away from me, families pottering in the shallows, martins dipping over my head.

‘You can swim from either bank, though the easiest places to get in the water are on the west side of the river. Safest to stick to head up breaststroke though, especially after rain, as the Thames water quality is not always great.’

'... a huge expanse of grass and sky stretching away from me ...'
Ros Bayley

For her partner, channel swimmer Frank Chalmers, it’s the colours of the ‘coal coast’ that he recommends for an inspiring swim.

‘A walk through the dense green woods of Hawthorn Dene, near Easington, Co. Durham, brings you under a magnificent Victorian viaduct onto a long beach known as Hawthorn Hive. The area was once part of England’s ‘coal coast’, and the sands are golden brown rather than silver.

Waves rushing back over golden sand under blue sky with pebbles in foreground
Hawthorn Hive beach, County Durham | curved light/Alamy

‘Small green jewel-like pieces of sea glass can sometimes be found along the pebbled shoreline – all worn smooth by a century of washing in and out with the tide.

‘The waves can be a bit wild, but that makes the swimming more rewarding.’

You can see more about Frank’s swimming adventures here.

Jane in Norfolk

If you’re not ready for too ‘wild’, the broad sand beaches of north Norfolk and a calm day might make for the perfect starting point. There you’ll find Jane Walker, a long-time swimmer who really appreciated living close to the sea during the 2020 lockdown.

'I can't bear the thought of stopping.'
Jane Walker

‘I’ve been swimming twice a day here, once at high tide in the creek near me and then at low tide walking out to Deadmans Hole and Scolt Head Island.

‘It’s been a lifesaver during lockdown – I’ve been swimming since April and hoping to carry on as long as I can till the end of the year. I can’t bear the thought of stopping.’

Boat full of people approaches beach on sunny day
The ferry approaches Scolt Head Island at high tide | David Burton/Alamy Stock Photo

Do check the tides if you’re going to Scolt Head Island, it’s only walkable at low tide although there’s a ferry from Burnham Overy Staithe Harbour around high tide in summer. The less attractively named Deadmans Hole is walkable from Burnham Overy Harbour, but, again, keep checking the tides.

Jane in Sussex and Dorset

Having a gently sloping sandy beach is great for starting out, as you can run in quickly without risk of losing your footing. Some of my favourites are along the Jurassic Coast – Charmouth for example – where you can relax and enjoy the long view of the cliffs and wheeling seabirds.

The Witterings in Sussex, just south of Chichester, are well known for their sandy beaches but, if you’re not ready for rolling waves, just inside Chichester Harbour can be an easier spot to start off, at the west end of the West Wittering car park.

Pippa in Cornwall

For Pippa Best in Cornwall, sea swimming has been also been truly life-changing physically, mentally and in giving her the self-belief and inspiration to set up her nature mindfulness business, Sea Soul Blessings.

‘Sea swimming has changed my life for the better in so many ways. It’s made me stronger and fitter and deepened my sense of connection to the natural world. It’s helped me to manage the inflammation and pain of arthritis, weakened joints, and a broken foot.

'It's made me stronger and fitter and deepened my sense of connection to the natural world.'
Pippa Best

‘Time in the sea – swimming past our plastic pollution problem – has also encouraged me to protect and preserve the wild that so inspires and supports us all.

‘In the water, I immediately come into the present – I’m aware of the water around me, the sounds and sensations. Here, nothing else matters for a while. I’m more mindful, more able to manage my fears, and to find greater self-compassion and self-belief.‘

'Here, nothing else matters for a while.'
Pippa Best

Mount’s Bay is her favourite place to swim and it’s where she swims most mornings as it’s close to her Penzance home. ‘It’s a beautiful stretch of water from Mousehole in Penwith all the way to the Lizard Peninsula.

Woman walking from sea onto beach
Pippa Best enjoys a daily swim at Mount’s Bay, Cornwall | Pippa Best

‘Our pebbled promenade beach may not be the prettiest of Cornish beaches – head to Marazion if you’re looking for a long sandy beach with a view – but I love everything about it … the sounds of the oystercatchers, turnstones, cormorants and swans flying by, the seals that pop up occasionally and give me a shock – and if we’re lucky, a porpoise on the horizon once or twice a year.

'I always leave the water reminded to stay curious, fluid and connected to it all.'
Pippa Best

‘I love how at low tide in spring and summer, I can swim over glittering shoals of sand eels and lose myself in watching mullet darting in and out of tiny forests of kelp … I always leave the water reminded to stay curious, fluid and connected to it all.’

Dive in!

Feeling inspired? September can be an ideal time to venture in as the sea, in particular, takes a while to lose its summer temperatures. The impact of the cold water is what drives many wild swimmers – but a wet suit or just a rash vest can make it easier for you to start off and gain confidence.

And if you’re swimming later in the year and want to make sure you have time to absorb the nature around you, a wet suit, hat and neoprene gloves and boots, can make all the difference.

Safe swimming

Check local websites for tides or river flow and tips on safe entry points to water and water quality. Don’t go out of your depth if you’re not a confident swimmer – and do take a friend, especially if you’re swimming in an unfamiliar spot or where there are unlikely to be other people around.

'Take the time to take in your surroundings and feel the regeneration.'

But, most importantly, get in that water – and take the time to take in your surroundings and feel the regeneration. Our waterways and coasts can provide all we need for great, and small, escapes.

See more on the benefits of wild swimming.

Swimmers out in a bright sea with a boat further out
Swimmers in Mounts Bay, Penzance Pippa Best