Perhaps one of the country's best-kept secrets until only a few years ago, wild swimming – taking a dip in natural bodies of water – is fast becoming popular among those who wouldn't usually class themselves as swimmers. So much so that wild swimming is booming in the UK.
The desire to experience something new, be closer to nature and improve both physical and mental health has got many of us dipping into rivers and lakes for the very first time. In fact, it’s the fastest growing sport in the world with a 325% year-on-year increase in participants.
A decade ago Jo Brand filmed her Big Splash TV show with Bill Bailey, revealing the beauties of wild swimming. Since then the likes of Ferne Cotton, Prue Leith, Ed Sheeran and Dolly Alderton have all enjoyed the thrill of cold natural water on their bare skin. Even David Cameron got in on the craze, dunking into a Northern Irish lough.
The wild swimming community is diverse and welcoming. It is passionate about the landscape and exploring the beautiful countryside the UK has to offer. And it is also sensitive to the natural ecology that plays host to some of the best wild swimming spots in the world.
Personal health benefits go hand-in-hand with the environmental health of the ecosystem you swim in. So, if you're wondering how you can try wild swimming, read on for tips on safety and legality, along with the health benefits associated with dipping into fresh water.
Is wild swimming legal?
Wild swimming is legal in parts of the UK although there are some bylaws that may prevent swimming in some areas. Scotland's Land Reform Act of 2003 grants wild swimmers the right to roam responsibly and swim freely in open spaces. However, laws in both England and Wales are less 'free' than north of the border.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a right to swim in waters where there are public navigation rights, as well as tidal rivers and open seas. However, legislation becomes more complicated as this only covers around three percent of all waters in the country.
When it comes to swimming in rivers and lakes, permission from landowners may be required – although people can claim the right of use in some historic wild swimming spots.
According to the River and Lake Swimming Association, 'whether you can swim in a lake or river depends upon the willingness of the riparian land owner or occupier of the site'. If the land owner doesn't approve then you could be trespassing. Equally, bodies of waters in country parks have no public access for swimming unless the local authority allows people to do so.
In short, before swimming somewhere it's always worth checking you have the right to do so.
Is wild swimming safe?
Every lake, loch and river is different, and safety precautions are not always on show. Like any activity, there are dangers to wild swimming you should be aware of.
Whether you're a newcomer or an experienced wild swimmer, here are some tips you should adhere to:
Swim with an instructor on your first wild swim. They can teach you how to prepare your body for swimming in cold water, and how to respect the ecology of your surroundings
Never swim alone. Always swim with a companion who can help you if you get into trouble, and keep a close eye on weak swimmers
Do not jump into water unless you have checked the depth and potential obstructions
Check the strength of river currents and plot some viable exit points. In general, don’t swim in currents
Never swim in urban rivers, canals, reedy shallows or stagnant lakes as the water could be toxic
Disinfect your clothes and wash before swimming, as you could cross contaminate lakes and rivers from other waters
Do not swim in flood water. It is incredibly dangerous
Be wary of reservoir swimming as undercurrents pose a serious risk
Warm up with exercise before entering the water and come out if you get too cold
Wear suitable swimming footwear if you can (there may be sharp objects on the river or lake floor)
Wear a brightly-coloured swim hat and watch out for boats if you are swimming in navigable water
Cover up any cuts and wounds with waterproof plasters
Avoid all contact with blue-green algae
Don’t drink alcohol before or during wild swimming
If you're new to swimming outdoors it's also advised to join an outdoor swimming society or one of the country’s popular swimming groups. Here, the community will be able to help you find ideal swimming spots for beginners and support you with any issues you may encounter.
What are the benefits of wild swimming?
It wasn't so long ago that the British aristocracy regularly travelled to spa towns across Europe in order to sample the delights of wild swimming, take in the fresh air and recover from various rheumatic diseases. But you don’t need to jet to Budapest or Rimini to enjoy the benefits of wild swimming, including:
Increasing stress tolerance. Plunging into cold water increases the stress hormone cortisol and raises your heart rate. Your fight or flight mechanism kicks in. But over time, regularly dipping into cold water calms the severity of stress reaction, which is then replicated in other stressful situations you may encounter
Improving mindfulness. When in cold water your brain is overloaded with signals from your nervous system, so it needs to focus. There isn't space to worry about other aspects of life in this instance, and so is perfect for training your mind to focus on the here and now
Reducing inflammation. Athletes use ice baths after performing in order to reduce inflammation in their joints and muscles – and wild water swimming acts in the same way. Cold water reduces the blood flow in your body and thus decreases inflammation, allowing your body to recover quicker
Improving your immune system. Studies show short-term exposure to cold water can 'improve the activity of the immune system'. Long-term exposure, however, may have the opposite impact, so planning the amount of time you spend in the water is advisable, as is ensuring you have warm clothes with you
And if you can handle the colder waters, there are even more benefits to sild swimming beyond thew summer months. A recent study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reveals that, 'swimming in ice-cold water has also been shown to have a positive effect on the mental side of humans and can even be anti-depressive. Regular winter swimming led to an improvement in general well-being in swimmers who suffered from rheumatism, fibromyalgia, or asthma.'
Mike Tipton, director of research at the Laboratory of Extreme Environments at the University of Portsmouth, recently told the BBC: 'As you get used to cold water stress and can handle it better physiologically and at the cellular level, you also reduce the inflammatory response to other stresses that may underlie things like depression.'
Of course, winter swimming in cold conditions does bring additional risks, with hypothermia a very real danger for those who begin cold water swimming without building up to it first.
'Around 80% of drownings come from cold water shock,' says wild swimmer Angela Jones. 'I watch people just go in quickly, jump in, going in at different times and then their friends are getting cold and they’re not taking any notice of them. It’s a minefield out there of people not appreciating their health.
'Wild swimming needs to complement your health – if you get into the water and get yourself too cold that puts stress on your body and your heart, which is the opposite to complementing your health.'
How to start wild swimming
The most important thing you can do before you start wild swimming is to find an instructor who can guide you through it. Angela, who runs Run Wild, is a wild swimming specialist who spends most of her time in the River Wye. With 35 years of experience, she tells UNITY how preparation is paramount for someone wild swimming for the first time.
'I would always say to go on an introduction course. I’ve been wild swimming for 35 years now and it's my work,' Angela says. 'Go with someone who is reputable and experienced. Because it’s one of the fastest growing sports people are just pinging up everywhere and setting up, so you need someone who actually knows the water space they’re in and has got experience with their wild swimming as well, rather than somebody who has just started up. It takes years to appreciate the safety of wild swimming.'
Indeed, safety for new wild swimmers is of deep concern to Angela, as is the environmental damage the sport can have on rivers and lakes if not undertaken with care.
'The environment can be a treacherous place and you have to give it respect,” says Angela, whose book Wild Swimming The River Wye explores her passion for the river. 'If I’m taking someone into the river first I would lower their heart rate and do some breathing exercises. I then gently introduce them to the water.
“It has to be somewhere with a gradual incline into the water, it shouldn’t have currents. You need to be doing it supervised to start with and you need to learn about yourself. Before I take someone in I teach them how to do their body temperature, about the difference between how they come out to when they get in. How to recover.
“I spend a lot of my time below the surface (and have been) monitoring the eels and salmon of the Wye for years. It’s what I do, it’s a total pleasure. But like any water space we have to respect the health of the river and in return it complements our health.”
What to take wild swimming
Perhaps the most important things to take wild swimming are swim shoes and gloves, which help protect the extremities of your body – the first to suffer reduced circulation in the cold. Shoes have the added benefit of protecting your feet against sharp objects that may be on the riverbed or lakebed, and provide grip.
Other items to take wild swimming include:
Warm clothes for both before and after your dip. It is important to get your body back to normal temperature, especially if you are cold water swimming
Food and water. It doesn’t have to be big but post-exercise nutrition is essential for improving your physical performance next time you swim
A friend. Don’t wild swim alone, especially if it’s your first time
A map or phone with a map app installed, so you can explore with freedom and find your way back
Best wild swimming spots in the UK
Nant Sere river, Pen-y-Fan, Brecon Beacons The Nant Sere runs down the north-east facing valley of Pen-y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons and is a secluded river with numerous waterfalls, pools and shallows to swim in. The hillside is covered in heath and pools go as deep as 1m.
Over Beck, Wastwater, Lake District Wastwater is a 5km stretch of lake that sits below Scafell Pike and features some of the most wonderful scenery in the Lake District. With stunning views of the mountains, this lake is ideal for longer-distance swimming, while the Over Beck river bank is the perfect spot to leave your towel.
Gaddings Dam, Todmorden, West Yorkshire If you want to add a summer holiday vibe to your wild swimming then Gaddings Dam on the border between West Yorkshire and Lancashire is officially Britain's highest beach. The sandy shore of this Victorian reservoir is only accessed via foot, walking from the Shepherd's Rest Inn.
Hampstead Ponds, London A hugely popular wild swimming area, you might struggle to find a secluded spot at Hampstead Ponds but it is the ideal place to try wild swimming for the first time. Shelter, changing areas and lifeguards are present, so there are a few home comforts. After a few dips here you may then want to explore further afield. There is also the ladies' pond at Kenwood and men's pond at Highgate.
Luss, Loch Lomond, Scotland Just an hour's drive from Glasgow, Luss is a small village on the shores of Loch Lomond where wild swimmers can navigate upstream to a waterfall. Swimming in Scotland may require a wetsuit if you’re outside the summer months. On the eastern side of the loch, Milarochy Bay is a campsite that provides perfect opportunities to swim too.
Environmental impact of wild swimming
While the physical health benefits of wild swimming are evident, people are less aware of the potential environmental impact.
'Cross contamination is an issue,' warns Angela. 'People will go from one water source to another. We have three major plagues in the Wye and other water sources at the moment because people go in from the sea straight to the river, without properly rinsing and sterilising their kit.
'It’s fast coming in with different chemicals like sun cream that kills off aquatic life. You have to be in tune with nature to respect it.'
Understanding the impact of wild swimming on the ecosystem is, therefore, paramount.
'In all my sessions – be they introductions to wild swimming or distance sessions – everyone gets to learn about the environment, how to protect it, how it can compliment your health and also the safety aspect,' adds Angela. 'Wild swimming especially in the Wye will embrace you but can also tell you who’s boss as well. You get all of that rolled into one.
'It’s hugely beneficial but we have to protect it as well. Rivers aren’t an open sewer. But most people don’t know it's going on – they take for their own health, not for the river’s health. There’s so many people guilty of that and they don’t realise they are, because they’ve never looked into it.'
The numerous, lasting health benefits of wild swimming, therefore, should only be obtained with respect for the waters in which you swim.