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Top 7 clean river swims in the UK

Wild swimming expert Daniel Start recommends the best clean upstream rivers around the UK

Published: June 1st, 2022 at 6:01 am
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Immerse yourself in the bright, clean waters of a beautiful upland river.

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Are UK rivers clean enough to swim in?

According to the Environment Agency, only 14% of our rivers meet the Good Ecological Status under the Water Framework Directive: a figure that has remained the same since 2009. There is no bacterial monitoring of river water and no public health standard for UK rivers. While some pollutants, such as ammonia and phosphates, have reduced in the past 25 years, the levels of raw sewage within rivers has increased within the past few years. Nitrates from agricultural run-off and slurry have risen in the past two years, causing some plants and algae to grow exponentially and take oxygen out of the water, killing other plants and wildlife.

How do I know if a river is clean enough to swim in?

As a general rule, if there is scum or algae visible in the water, it won't be clean enough to swim in. Plenty of flora, fauna and wildlife are good indicators that it's safe to take a dip.
Riverside plant
Flora and fauna, such as the common bulrush, are a good indicator of healthy water./Credit: Getty

Wild swimmer and author Daniel Start has picked out 7 great river spots around England, Scotland and Wales from his handy guidebook, Wild Swimming. Travel the length and breadth of the UK – from Glen Coe to Cornwall – with our handy guide to the best clean rivers to swim in.

For more inspiration, practical advice and wild swimming locations, see our wild swimming hub.


Top 7 clean river swims in the UK

Glen Coe: Long Canyon, River Etive

Beautiful landscape in Scotland. Buachaille Etive Mor, known in Gaelic as The Great Herdsman of Etive, a pyramid shaped mountain. Watefall formed by river Etive in the foreground. Beautiful sunset sky with Colourful clouds. Scotland - UK

Buachaille Etive Mor or The Great Herdsman of Etive/Credit: Getty ImagesGlen Coe is famous for its wild and dramatic scenery, but a little-known valley running to the south holds its most spectacular swimming pools and gorges. Glen Etive’s Long Canyon in one of the best spots, with high cliffs and deep water. From Eas An Fhir Mhoirnd, continue 1.25 miles past the Alltchaorunn bridge. On the left, there’s kink in the river, with a large river pool in the bend; the 150m-long canyon lies just downstream.

Follow our Glen Coe walking route

Lake District: Tongue Pot, Eskdale

Tongue Pot Eskale, Tintagel.

A magical series of pools leads up the Esk towards Scafell Pike; there is nowhere better to be on a hot day in the Lakes. Tongue Pot is the best, set beneath an ancient packhorse bridge. Many more pools lie 200-300m above, at Esk Waterfall and on Lingcove Becks. Park by the phone at the bottom of Hardknott Pass and follow the riverside path up for two miles to the confluence and bridge.

Find out what we picked as the best walks in the Lake District.

Cornwall: Rocky Valley, Tintagel

St Nectans Kieve waterfall in St Nectan's Glen valley in North Cornwall./Credit: Getty Images

In a hidden valley a few miles from the Arthurian castle of Tintagel, a path leads down beside a pretty stream to waterfall pools by sea. Look out for carvings of labyrinths, possibly 3,500 years old, behind the old mill. Park on the B3263, just east of Bossiney, at the lay-by next to the turn off to Halgabron. Follow the footpath opposite. If there is time, head upstream to St Nectan’s Glen, where a tall, slender waterfall falls into a perfectly round plunge pool. Entrance fee, £6.45 adult.

We included Tintagel as one of the best mythical locations to visit in the UK.

Follow our Tintagel 'Day Out' guide.

Devon – Dartmoor: Piles Copse, Erme

River Erme, Piles Copse

River Erme, Piles Copse./Credit: GettyWith river pools and sandy bays, the River Dart is one of the most beautiful swimming rivers in the UK. Piles Copse is a remnant of ancient oak woodland with an exquisite stream and waterfall. The quickest access is from the hamlet of Tor, near Cornwood. Follow the track that leads northeast up around waterworks and the hillside for one mile.

Yorkshire: Appletreewick, River Wharfe

This delightful stretch of Lower Wharfedale has two pubs and a pleasant lane that leads down through fields to a pretty river pool with a small island. Note – the water has submerged underwater rocks, which make diving dangerous. Appletreewick is two miles off the B6160 via Bolton Abbey and the A59 from Skipton. For the pool, take the footpath just before Mason Farm campsite (BD23 6DD).

Brecon Beacons: Lower Ddwli Falls, Nedd Fechan

Lower Sgwd Ddwli Falls, Nedd Fechan
Lower Sgwd Ddwli Falls, Nedd Fechan/Credit: Getty Images

You will not find a more impressive network of forest lidos and falling water anywhere in Wales than Coed-y-Rhaiadr (‘waterfall woods’). Lower Ddwli is a fantastic pool under a wide-arced cascade. Park at Pontneddfechan, off the A465 from Swansea. From the Angel Inn (SA11 5NR), follow the river on a good path up through the woods. At a junction pool with footbridges, bear right and follow the main stream a further mile, passing Horseshoe Falls.

Find out what we chose as the best hikes in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Northumberland: Sillmoor, River Coquet

River Coquet flows down Upper Coquetdale
River Coquet flows down Upper Coquetdale/Credit: Getty

To the north-east of Hadrian’s Wall lie the Cheviot Hills, where deep remote valleys are rich in river pools. At Sillmoor, a stretch of perfect river pools are bounded by grassy moorland and open meadows. There are also some rapids and a waterfall. From Rothbury, take the B6341 to Alwinton. Cross the river Coquet at Linbriggs farm and continue 0.75 miles to park by the river. If you have time, you can follow the river on another 10 beautiful miles to the Roman border fort of Chew Green high on the Cheviot ridge.

Follow our River Coquet 'Day Out' guide.

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Daniel Start’s 2022 edition of Wild Swimming (Wild Things Publishing, £16.99) contains 300 hidden dips in the lakes, waterfalls and rivers of Britain.

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