Best wild swimming spots in Britain
Explore the UK's most beautiful waters with our guide to the best places to go for a wild swim
From the Isle of Skye to the wilds of Dartmoor, cool off in magical rivers, lochs and glacial lakes with our guide to the best wild swimming spots in Britain, chosen by Wild Swimming author Daniel Start and the Countryfile Magazine team.
Best places for wild swimming in England
Embleton Bay is vast, with a huge, long sweep of white sand, guarded on its southern end by the atmospheric ruins of 14th-century Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s a perfect place for paddling in the shallows and spotting inquisitive grey seals popping up to observe the action, as well as the occasional dolphin frolicking in the waves. If you choose to swim, brace yourself for the brisk waters of the North Sea, which remain zingingly cold year round. Warm up afterward with a beautiful 45-minute coastal walk past the castle to Piper’s Pitch in the Craster Quarry Car Park, for a traditional hot kipper roll.
St Anthony's Well, Littledean, Forest of Dean
Fed by natural spring waters, this ancient well sits deep in the Forest of Dean, guarded by venerable oak and beech trees. The cathedral of trees produces a mystical air, where in summer, a fiery sun is soothed by the lush canopy and, in winter, translucent light trickles through spindly bare branches. The spring feeds into a rectangular stone basin, which is about three feet deep, with a few steps down for ease of entry. The spring is considered a sacred site, with votives and tributes left at the source, and the fresh, pure water is icy cold, as it comes straight from the earth, making it popular as drinking water. Legend has it that the water can cure eye ailments and skin conditions, provided you visit nine times at sunrise in the month of May. Regardless of its curative powers, this is a delightful forest dip.
Clevedon Marine Lake, Somerset
One of the great things about Clevedon Marine Lake, in this time of increased water pollution, is that the water is tested and the lake kept in safe order. So for those swimmers of a more hesitant disposition, it is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in sea water without risking unknown hazards. This large tidal pool is filled with sea water from the Bristol Channel every spring tide. It’s free and it’s open almost always, excepting occasional maintenance work or adverse weather or water conditions. Strike out across the refreshing water to the central pontoon, from which you can dive back in, or get your head down for a series of laps, as the occasional paddleboard or canoe drifts around. And make sure you admire the view from this vast infinity pool across the expanse of the Severn Estuary, often grey but always atmospheric, with the spindly 19th-century pier to the north and the rising wooded cliffs leading south-west.
River Dart, Devon
The River Dart, in Dartmoor National Park, Devon, is the setting for Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. And with its sandy bays, oak gorges and deep pools, this is one of the most beautiful wild swimming rivers in the UK. Several miles up a twisted path from Newbridge, in the forest halfway to Dartmeet, you can lie on flat hot rocks by a gurgling river and feel a world away from civilisation. Dense woodland tumbles down the side of the moor, a light spray lifts off the water and the forest murmurs with birdsong. This is a place made for lazy picnics and a swim on sunny afternoons.
Swim around the wild curve of the Dart by Sharpham House, a wonderful stretch overflowing with lush vegetation and thick woodland. From the small wharf beneath the old Sharpham vineyard, swim around to the Bath House and beyond, to Point Field campsite if you have the energy, before swimming back. Spot great white egrets swooping overhead and hear the hoot of barn owls at dusk. Check the tide times before swimming to avoid a muddy experience at low tide. A stay at Sharpham House is highly recommended.
Alternatively, 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.
Granchester Meadows, Cambridgeshire
Take tea in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, and enjoy a length of the River Cam that has changed little since Edwardian times. It was here that Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolfe and other creative minds gathered to camp, picnic and swim naked. On a hot summer day, the languid mile-long stretch of river is still dotted with dons drinking Pimm’s. Punts and canoes glide by, some heading downstream towards Cambridge’s famous Backs, others upstream to the delightful Orchard Tea Gardens. Anywhere along the meadows is good for swimming, particularly on the outside of the bends where the river deepens, often to more than 1.8m (6ft).
River Avon, Claverton weir
There is a 100m long weir in a wonderful valley off the Avon with long deep water stretches and shallow paddling areas above. The water is clean and the spot is surrounded by meadow with play areas under the weir, near the bank. To reach it, continue 3km on the A36 Claverton hamlet and then turn left down Ferry Lane. Walk to the bottom and cross into the big field and the weir will be on your right.
River Ouse, Yorkshire
The River Ouse, which winds through the Sussex Downs, is one of the most beautiful waterways in the south-east. Its grassy banks are a perfect place for swimming races, leapfrog and other riverside hijinx. You can picnic at Barcombe Mills in open meadows or head upstream to the remote riverside Anchor Inn. Here you can hire one of its fleet of blue paddle boats and row or swim for more than two miles through remote and beautiful countryside. The spire of Isfield church is the only building in sight for the whole journey.
Sillmor, River Coquet, Northumberland
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.
The Barle, Simonsbath, Exmoor National Park, Somerset
Follow the Barle up-river through Bluebell woods to find numerous clear, secluded pools. It provides good swimming from Tarr Steps, a prehistoric stone bridge. As a biological site of Special Scientific Interest, there is a wealth of rare flora and fauna to see, with good pubs nearby.
Tongue Pot, Eskdale, Cumbria
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.
Appletreewick, River Wharfe, Yorkshire
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).
Rocky Valley, Tintagel, Cornwall
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 layby next to the turn off to Halgabron. Follow the footpath opposite. If there is time, head upstream to St Nectan’s Kieve, where a tall, slender waterfall falls into a plunge pool. Now under private ownership, there's a visitor centre and café, but beware the hefty entry fees to the waterfall itself.
Best places for wild swimming in Scotland
Skye's faerie pools, Scotland
The Faerie Pools on the Isle of Skye lie serenely in a sheltered glade of red-berried rowans and lilac rock. The misty towers of the Black Cullin kingdom rise above like great Gaudi spires, the remnants of a huge volcano. Some of the pools are tinged with pinks and greens, and two are linked by an underwater arch. If you swim underneath, you’ll see the rock face is encrusted with pieces of quartz, and there is an almost phosphorescent emerald glow. In scenery as magical as this it’s not difficult to imagine faeries and nymphs.
Long Canyon, River Etive, Glen Coe
Glen 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.
West Beach, Berneray, Isles of Harris, Outer Hebrides
The clear turquoise waters of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides are reached by wandering through dunes and crossing fine, white sands. The island’s colourful landscape is covered in stone circles. With exquisite views, it is perhaps the most beautiful swimming beach in the UK; brace yourself for the cold water!
Best places for wild swimming in Wales
Snowdonia's stunning tarns
Tarns – or llyns as they’re known in Wales – are those magical high lakes that appear as you’re sweating your way to the top of the mountain. The Rhinog Range in Snowdonia has more of them per square mile than anywhere else in Wales. Swimming in them provides a total landscape immersion and an ultimate sense of the wild. Llyn Eiddew has a shallow side with grassy sheep-mown banks for picnics, perfect for wading in. There’s also a deep side with cliff ledges for sun lounging and jumping in. A backdrop of bracken and stone peaks completes the scene.
Lower Ddwli Falls in the Brecon Beacons
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.
Best places for wild swimming in Northern Ireland
Mourne Mountains, County Down
Lough Shannagh, County Down, is a wide open loch surrounded by the beautiful Mourne Mountains, but little visited. Half an hour’s walk from the road brings you to its bank, by which point you should be hot enough to want a dip. The lake is framed by several peaks, including Slieve Doan and Slieve Loughshannagh, and the landscape is blanketed with heather and gorse with the odd speckle of marsh cotton. The water is crystal blue and refreshingly cold, but if you’re feeling timid there is a stretch of sand on which to picnic, and from where you can dip your toe in.
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
Know someone who loves wild swimming? Check out our guide to the best wild swimming gifts you can buy online.
Maria Hodson is production editor at BBC Countryfile Magazine, alongside Margaret Bartlett. Since moving to Bristol in 2014, Maria has made every effort to escape into nature and loves all things wild and watery, from surfing and swimming to paddle-boarding and kayaking. Her adventure highlight in recent years was sea kayaking around remote St Kilda, off the coast north-west Scotland, in 2016. Most weekends, however, are spent exploring the great outdoors with her small child and doing accessible walks. Favourite family adventures are bird-watching at Slimbridge Wetland Centre and exploring the Forest of Dean, as well as an annual pilgrimage to see the starling murmuration on the Somerset Levels.
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