“Comfort must not be expected by folks that go a pleasuring,” wrote Lord Byron, the person widely credited as pioneering the craze for wild swimming. He goes onto wax - not exactly - lyrically about his epic swim across the Tagus Estuary, and we daresay you’ll find more romantic odes to the activity than his on your Instagram feed.
Where once wild swimming signified wading in treacherous waters, it now refers to the absolute pleasure of jumping into a body of water, pretty much wherever and whenever you feel like it. To the uninitiated this may sound like madness, but to the growing raft of wild swimmers, it’s the ultimate expression of liberation and oneness with nature.
“Wild swimming is not just an action or an exercise, it touches on my happiness, my job, the environment and my social life,” says wild swim enthusiast Fay Preene, from Wonderful Wild Women. “During the moments that I am in the lake it is an escape. An escape from anything that is going on in my life, be that good or bad. I am in the moment alone with my feelings.”
While the spirit of it remains the freedom to immerse oneself in any pond, river or lake that takes your liking (despite the UK’s ‘right to roam’ law you can’t jump in just anywhere), it’s now become less the journey of one person going full Byron in the moonstruck wilderness, to a shared experience within a vibrant community.
“There are many of us who roam now,” says Nick Kearne, from The Outdoor Swimming Society, “free spirits who share these spaces, build friendships around them, and we don’t need much, we share advice, information, support each other, come together to swim as a group at times. We are not an army, not incorporated, and we don’t really need organising, or accounting for.”
That’s not to say such wild abandon comes free of the need to take precautions. Natural waters can harbour water-borne diseases, insect infestations, leeches or ticks. Plus, the water generally being, let’s face it, freezing, there’s always the risk of contracting hypothermia (much as the romantic vision sees you skinny dipping, experts recommend being kitted out in a wetsuit and goggles). Depth of water, strong currents, hidden rocks or branches are also factors that may not be immediately obvious until you dip in. To be on the safe side, check the list of guidance provided by the Royal Life Saving Society UK.
For those new to the idea of wild swimming, we’ve pin-pointed some of the safest and most satisfying places in the UK and beyond for you to tread the waters in, or to go right ahead and take the ice-cool plunge.
One of the attractions of wild swimming among city dwellers is the instant release it gives from a day otherwise cluttered with noise, regulation and the sheer monotony of routine. The ability to get out of the office and into the wetsuit in serene surroundings in just a few tube stops is a heavenly thing. Set amid a hilly heath and surrounded by densely-packed woods, this 250-year-old reservoir is sectioned into three different areas – men’s, women’s and mixed bathing – with a wade in here feeling like a million miles away from the Big Smoke. The lifeguards and changing room facilities make this an ideal option for absolute beginners.
Between the Derwent and the Greta rivers, there are countless little beaches and islands, hidden waterfalls, plunge pools, mountain-side tarns and ice-carved corries, with good entry points and untroubled crystal clear waters. If you want to take part in a spot of competitive wild swimming or hire a guide for a solo swim, companies like Chill Swim and Swim The Lakes organise special events and swim runs in and around Derwentwater. The nearby market town of Keswick has spotted the rise in wild swimmers in the area and several outlets now offer all the gear you need, making it ideal for those who want to turn up packing light.
The waters are never going to warm in Scotland, but the vivid blue with the feel of the Seychelles at least makes this series of splash-pools and gullies in the Isle of Sky feel like it might be. It isn’t, but that doesn’t stop the never-ending string of hikers and paddlers from heading here (many to marvel at wild swimmers, which can be daunting for those who don’t like to make an exhibition of themselves, although there are plenty of routes away from the masses). That said, swimming under the archway and into the waterfall ranks high in the list of must-dos of many-a wild swimmer, whether anyone’s watching or not.
Swimmers who travel this far out are in no mood for crowds, and if there’s one place that’s popular enough to be considered safe for newbies yet can guarantee magic and serenity, this is it. The breath-taking aquamarine Andalucian freshwater lake at the foot of Mount Jabalcón and part of the protected natural parks of Sierra de Baza and Sierra de Castril does attract tourists and locals alike, but there’s not much for them to do other than take in the view of the lake and rugged cliffs beyond it before moving on, leaving swimmers with all the time and space to get lost in. The swim can be rounded off nicely with a trip beyond the lake to have a completely un-wild therapeutic soak in the thermal springs at Banos de Zújar.
It’s fitting that our search should lead us to the place named after the poet (well, James Cook actually named it after Byron’s grandfather, but let’s not spoil the poetry). While Wategos beach is the one everyone will recommend, it’s more popular with surfers, and you’ll find Little Wategos, further along from the hustle and bustle, that ranks amongst the most peaceful spot for wild swimmers to dive into. At just 150m in length and accessible only by foot, dotted with rock pools and lined by a natural rock wall, this is considered the best hidden gem by dedicated wild swimmers. Also regarded highly are Lake Ainsworth, Belongil Beach Creek, Killens Falls and Whites Beach – all in Byron Bay. We like to think our eponymous poet would find that most comforting.
Main image credit: Darran Shen on Unsplash