The American neurologist Oliver Sacks knew a thing or two about swimming. “The mind can float free, become spellbound, in a state like a trance,” he wrote. “I have never known anything so powerfully, so healthily euphoriant”.
Sacks was spot on. Especially since the pandemic struck, swimming has become more important to me than almost any other part of my day. Municipal pools are fine but there’s nothing like getting out into proper water: rivers, lakes, even the sea. There are decent options in London – I’m a regular at the Serpentine – but the best swimming is to be found outside the capital.
At the start of the year I had a swim in the Derwent in Cumbria. It wasn’t the weekend for it: Storm Dennis was raging and the water was coursing by too quickly for it to be even vaguely safe. But on calm days, without weapons-grade storms to contend with, the Derwent makes for a lovely swim. At Cockermouth, the river is normally widely slung and laidback, and the water so crisp it feels bottle-ready.
Frensham Great Pond in Surrey isn’t to be missed either. The sandy beach can get crowded but if you go during the week, it’s a wonderful place to while away a day. The swimming section of the lake is segmented off from the rest of the water, but I strike out to the middle anyway, keeping an eye out for sailors, as boats sometimes wheel around. The water quality is excellent, though like many lakes, it gets its fair share of algae in the summer.
There’s a super swimming spot next to the Fordwich Arms pub (itself worth a visit, though check opening times). You can get into the Stour by a bench near the pub, then swim upstream to the bridge. It’s worth wearing goggles to catch sight of fish. Horlborough Lake is another good Kent option. Popular with triathletes and Channel swimmers, it’s a proper professional operation – newbies have to take an induction and book ahead; after that entry is £5.
I’m sure it would be possible to spend a lifetime of holidays in the Lake District and not visit the same swimming spot twice. Derwentwater in Keswick is a great starting point – there’s an island in the middle that you can swim to, though it’s probably best to rig yourself up to a buoy before setting off. Afterwards, warm up with a cup of tea at the nearby theatre cafe. Buttermere – meaning the lake by the dairy pastures – is a dreamier proposition.
The lake is tucked among mountains and is quite deep. Syke Farm is a great base camp – from there you can climb up to Scale Force, the tallest single drop waterfall in the Lake District. There’s a pool at the bottom, full of churning water, that makes for a dramatic dip. Ullswater is worth a visit too – there’s a road that runs along the side of it, so you can just pull over and sprint in. As you swim, look out for the snowy peaks of Helvellyn in the distance.
In Staffordshire, Mermaid’s Pool is worth seeking out. It’s said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who was drowned after spurning the advances of a local man. On a cloudy day the lake looks like a broken glass bowl, thrown into the green-brown Peak District hillside.
Moving coastward, the lagoon by Abereiddy beach in Wales is breathtaking. It used to be a slate quarry so the water is an Instagram-friendly shade of bright blue. It’s right by shore, but the water is glassy. Avoid peak times as the car park fills up. Another quarry worth its salt is Goldiggins in Cornwall. This water isn’t quite so photogenic but it’s still a great spot, and you can fling yourself in from the clifftops. While the quarry isn’t accessible by car, the walk across the moor is worth it (keep an eye out for a neolithic stone circle).
Another spot worth seeking out in Wales is Lady Falls in the Brecon Beacons. The waterfall drops over 30 feet into a plunge pool. There’s a pub nearby, the Angel Inn, which is ideal for a post-swim pint. If you’re more of a sea swimmer, Porth Wen in Anglesey is remarkable – the bay used to have a Victorian brickworks, now fallen to elegant ruin. Have a swim, then explore the chutes and eerie bee-hive kilns.
In Shropshire, the Carding Mill reservoir is a stunning spot for a swim. Park at the Chalet Pavilion, then walk ten minutes through the national park to the water. Trees on the shore bulge out over the reservoir, giving it a secretive feel and protecting swimmers from the wind. More enchanting still is the Sharrah Pool in Dartmoor. This part of the Dart is subdued, tucked into towering woodland. Further along, there’s another stretch of water known as the Lower Sharrah Pool – swim in both, after setting off from Newbridge by foot.
A good entry-level swim is the Wye in Gloucestershire. The water runs over some pretty unforgiving stone slabs, so tread carefully. You can start at Lower Lydbrook and swim nearly 2.6 miles to Yat Rock.
We are lucky in Britain to have so many places to swim in. Clearly, this list barely scratches the surface. There are plenty of Facebook groups worth plumbing too, based in different counties. Members of these groups tend to brim with local recommendations. And there are online maps to swimming locations across the country that I’ve found extremely helpful. Just remember to tell people where you’re going and to take a thermos of tea along to warm up after. Wherever you end up, you’re sure to have a great time. As the adage goes, no one ever regrets a swim.