Summer is upon us, and for many that means hitting the beach. But if you don’t live near the coast, are you missing out on a stunning location closer to home? The newly updated Wild Swim map from the Outdoor Swimming Society shows all the most scenic (and safe) outdoor locations to just dive in. And as one travel writer recently discovered, wild swimming can be an exhilarating and even therapeutic experience – as much about changing your mindset as it is getting away from doing lengths in the leisure centre.
Scenic sink or swim
“For me it’s all about survival,” Joe explains. “Swimming is elemental: if you don’t kick your legs and move your arms, you’re going to sink. There’s nothing else that matters at that particular moment. You can get better at it, but at its core, swimming is best when you’re in that moment, thoughts put to one side.”
Joe came to wild swimming only recently, when a rare British heatwave led him to a cultural icon of the London landscape, Hampstead Heath. “It was a searing hot day in London and my wife convinced me to try going for a dip there,” he explains.
“We’d been talking about it for some time, but I was pretty reticent. That all changed as soon as I stepped down the metal ladder and into the cool, green water. I was buoyed up and loved being around other swimmers, people all enjoying a chance to get away from the city heat. It was at that moment I got hooked.”
From that moment, Joe sought out other outdoor locations. “I spent that summer swimming outdoors as often as I could.” He was soon travelling much further afield, descending into remote caves in the Yorkshire Dales and racking up stamps on his passport to swim in idyllic spots like Casco Bay in Maine, the ancient Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard in Provence, France, and even the waterfall pools in the Costa Rican cloud forests.
Joe says that wild swimming it not defined by exclusivity or risk, however. Anyone can do it, almost anywhere. “To me, wild swimming is the act of getting into ‘wild water’,” he explains. “My way of looking at it is this: swimming outdoors is a way of enjoying the water in a less strict fashion than going to a local indoor pool. So that can be swimming the sea, a river, a lake, a pond. It means joy, it means freedom.”
Good for body and soul
Joe’s pursuit of new locations soon led him to Waterlog, travel writer Roger Deakin’s 1996 classic book describing his journey across Britain’s swimming holes. To his surprise, he found Waterlog spoke to him on a deep level. “I fell in love with Roger’s sense of possibility, his joie de vivre,” he says.
Part of that was the sense of tranquility he found whenever he waded in, no matter how cold the water. “I loved the feeling of nowness, the serenity it gave me, a break from feeling anxious all of the time.”
Joe’s own book recounts his travels retracing Deakin’s footsteps, whilst also exploring how the journey addressed his own issues with anxiety.
“I’m loath to say I was a mess when I started wild swimming, but I certainly had issues with anxiety that I hadn’t admitted or faced up to,” he confesses. “What I found when I was swimming was that I didn’t feel stressed or worried, whether it was about day to day life, the state of the world or my place in it. Everything was in that moment, there was nothing before and nothing after. That feeling is addictive and I found it only in cold water.”
Joe says others may find a feeling similar in wild swimming – or other active pursuits. “It’s about what works for you,” he says. “I’ve spoken to plenty of other people who’ve found their cure in running, yoga, cycling and myriad other physical activities. But if you try it, you might just find it works wonders.”
How you can dive in
So, how can you get involved, and where? Joe says that for those just starting out, summer is best. “It’s easier to get in and stay in for longer. The water tends to be busier, but that’s no bad thing if you’re nervous. Seeing others doing it adds to the sense of community and camaraderie too.”
Once you’ve adjusted to the cooler temperature – and the currents – there’s no reason you can’t swim outdoors 12 months of the year. Joe, who recently moved to Brighton on England’s south coast, started swimming in the channel last winter without a wetsuit.
“There’s something so appealing about winter swimming,” he say. “The high is insane from the shortest of dips. But it’s worth remembering it takes a long time to get used to this kind of cold, months of daily swimming, so first timers should be careful.”
Joe also advises beginners to start out in areas with lifeguards, and to swim with others. “Never venture into water that looks unsafe. Read up on tides and currents and remember not to stay in for too long. There are no awards for the person who braves the cold the longest.” You should also check water cleanliness with landowners and local government, and whether a river or water body crosses private ground.
And as to where? Joe can’t pick the one must visit location. There’s just too many. “Where to begin? I love Bryher on the Isles of Scilly. Its beaches can all be covered in a day and it’s some of the purest bathing in Britain. The River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey is a popular and stunning spot in summer...” The list goes on, but our time runs out. Our main takeaway: better start exploring.
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