1 Denham Bridge, River Tavy, Dartmoor
The Dart is the most famous river for swimming on Dartmoor, but why not avoid the summer crowds and explore the River Tavy? Its southwest-facing valley warms up nicely in summer, and it flows through the secluded western edge of the moors. At Denham Bridge, a 40ft-deep pool awaits the brave, and downstream through the woods, you’ll find more pools and a pebble beach with rapids for tubing. Upstream, there’s a ruined mill and a waterfall weir.
Find it: park near the bridge, on one of the surrounding narrow lanes. For the weir, follow the lane uphill towards Buckland Monachorum for 300yd, then take the footpath on the left. For the exact spot, type the following co-ordinates into Google Maps: 50.4899, -4.1481.
2 Woody Bay, Exmoor
Beneath high cliffs on the Exmoor coast, this wild, rocky cove has a magical little tidal pool, a waterfall and some fascinating ruins. The site was once the dream of a Victorian resort developer: the pier was washed away by storms in 1902, but you can still see its remains. At low tide only, a quarter of a mile’s scramble east over rocks brings you to Crook Points Sands. You can also reach it from the coast path, via a hedge tunnel and a series of ropes.
Find it: head east from Martinhoe, then turn left at the sign for Woody Bay to find parking. Or approach from the east, through the Valley of the Rocks and Lynton (51.2248, -3.8949).
The tidal pool at Woody Bay, on Exmoor3 Stair Hole, Lulworth Cove, Dorset
You might have heard of Durdle Door, the famous rock arch that you can swim through, but perhaps not of Stair Hole, a mile to the east. This extraordinary inland lagoon was formed when a sea cave collapsed, leaving a network of cave tunnels that lead out to sea. There are contorted rock formations in the cliffs, and fossils galore. Jump from the ledges or swim into the “blue grotto” and snorkel through its chambers. For high tide and calm seas only.
Find it: it’s just 200yd from the main Lulworth Cove car park. Bear right on the track by the coastguard hut, behind the visitor centre. Scramble down carefully or canoe round from Lulworth Cove (50.6180, -2.2524).
4 Lacock Abbey, river Avon, Wiltshire
Lacock village is so idyllic, it was used as a backdrop for the Harry Potter films. But explore beyond the gift shops and tourist sights and you will find a little-known meadow with a river beach and a view back to the glorious abbey, once home to the photographic pioneer Henry Fox Talbot. Further along is a leaning tree with rungs up its trunk to help you ascend before you jump into the pool below. Check the depth first.
Find it: from the main National Trust car park, turn right onto a lane and continue 500yd to find a footpath on the left, between the two bridges (51.4146, -2.1150).
5 Kelmscott, River Thames, Oxfordshire
West of Oxford, the Thames Valley winds through some of the most undeveloped countryside in southern England. Here you’ll find kingfishers and otters, and mile upon mile of open fields and meadow. The hamlet of Kelmscott is a tiny place, lost in time, with a pub and an elegant manor house where William Morris — leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement — once lived. This is a lovely place for a secret swim from the reedy banks, and only a mile upstream is the pool at Buscot, where there are several tree swings.
Find it Kelmscott is three miles east of Lechlade. There is parking in the field near the Plough Inn. Follow the track that goes beyond the manor to the river (51.6857, -1.6303).
Fresh or salt? Welford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire6 St Catherine’s Hill, River Wey, Surrey
This golden hill of sand plunges right down into the waters of the Wey. The tiny chapel ruin is the clue that this was once a key fording point on the Pilgrims’ Way, and the colour of the sand gave adjacent Guildford its Saxon name, “golden ford”. It’s still a serene place to cool off, and it’s lovely to feel the sand between your toes as you ease yourself into the cool waters. Upstream, the river has split and braided, so it’s easy to find your own secret pool. There are cycle paths from Guildford and Shalford railway stations.
Find it: head north from Shalford station (the cycle path is opposite the water fountain) or approach from a mile south of Guildford on Godalming Road (A3100). There is limited parking on Ferry Lane, near Ye Olde Ship Inn (51.2243, -0.5772).
7 Hoe mill Bridge, River Chelmer, Essex
Few know about the county’s best swimming river, the Chelmer. Its smooth waters and grassy bankside footpaths weave all the way from Chelmsford to the pretty harbour town of Maldon, on the east coast, with miles of opportunities for splashing about on a hot summer’s day. The highlight is Hoe Mill Bridge, from which you can walk upstream to swim opposite the charming riverside church of Ulting. Or perhaps explore downstream and lose yourself in the open meadows. If you’re looking for a car-free escape from London, there’s even a cycle route from Chelmsford station.
Find it: from the A12, Hatfield Peverel, follow the B1019, then turn right — signed Nounsley/Ulting. Park at the bridge and lock (51.7485, 0.6081).
8 Botany Bay, Broadstairs, Kent
The Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary — a Palladian palace built in Margate in 1791 — started the Georgian craze for coastal swimming, and reminds us that a wild dip has long been considered a remedy for a range of maladies. Today, those in the know head east from Margate to Botany Bay, which lies at the bottom of plush garden suburbs on the road to Broadstairs. White sand stretches out beneath low chalk cliffs, and at low tide it’s possible to paddle round, through the coves, to the secret bay on the right. Here, you’ll likely have the long wild beach to yourself, or you can try to climb into the cliff chambers where smugglers once hid their booty. Continue down the coast for two miles to find Kingsgate Bay or Joss Bay, for surfing.
Find it: from Broadstairs, follow the B2052 north past Kingsgate Bay. Turn right after a mile and park at the bottom of Botany Road (51.3893, 1.4352).
Breaststroke at St Catherine’s Hill, in Surrey9 Nant Sere, Brecon Beacons
The ridge path along Pen-y-Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, is popular on a summer’s day, but few know about the string of magical cascades in the remote Nant Sere valley below. Hidden from view, these moss-covered pools are of varying depths, but all are wonderful for cooling off. After a hard walk up to the summits, there’s nothing better than to descend and dip in every one. There are patches of ancient oak woodland and grassy hummocks to sit on, too. The adventurous can trek into the western valley and take a longer swim in the mountain tarn of Cwm Llyn Llwch.
Find it: descend north from the ridge between Cribyn and Pen-y-Fan. To walk up, turn by St David’s Church, on Bailyhelig Road, in Brecon, and continue for 2½ miles to the road end (51.8936, -3.4195).
10 Welford-on-Avon, Warwickshire
Avon is an ancient word for “river”, so don’t confuse the Warwickshire Avon with those in Hampshire, Somerset or Devon. Sporting one of the tallest maypoles in England, and home to a lovely pub, Welford is a quaint village that sits in a loop of this beautiful river. A line of thatched cottages leads you down to a riverside path, with a weir and green banks upstream. From here, you can follow a path to Shakespeare’s Stratford, taking your pick of places for a dip.
Find it: Welford is four miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon. From the Bell Inn, pass the church, then follow Boat Lane (52.1679, -1.7910).
11 Felmersham, River Great Ouse, Bedfordshire
Don’t be put off by the name: the Great Ouse is one of our loveliest rivers. It meanders through some of the most peaceful corners of the country, bordered by willows and green pastures. There are so many places to stop off for a swim that you’re sure to find one to yourself. My favourites are the family-friendly beach at Felmersham bridge (which is also good for canoeing) and the secret stretch with rope swings just downstream at Pavenham.
Find it: park at Felmersham bridge on Hunts Lane. For Pavenham, pass the Cock pub, then turn left down Mill Lane (52.1868, -0.5570).
Dive in at Stair Hole, in Dorset12 Blue Pool, Friog, Snowdonia
Hidden in the hills of North Wales, this azure pool is accessible only via a secret tunnel. Once a small slate quarry, it is now filled with pure spring water. The minerals within the slate inhibit algae growth, giving the waters an ethereal blue hue that is further deepened under a blue summer sky. This is a remote place, but it’s worth seeking out — the views over Cardigan Bay are sublime.
Find it: drive seven miles southwest from Dolgellau on the A493 to Friog and turn left on to the dead-end lane Ffordd Panteinion. Continue 550yd to find a footpath on the right, then head to the top of the quarry to locate the pool below. You can also approach Blue Pool on the spectacular Cregennan Lakes road (52.6891, -4.0413).
13 Three Shires Head, River Dane, Peak District
High on Axe Edge Moor, at the source of the River Dane, there’s a riotous little creek that gushes down the hillside between narrow grassy banks before dropping into a series of wild, bubbling pools beneath two medieval packhorse bridges. Three Shires Head — so named because three counties have their boundaries here — was long a place for outlaws and counterfeiters, as no county sheriff had jurisdiction on the bridge itself. Today, it still feels like no man’s land, and the only company you’re likely to have in your natural spa is the occasional sheep or buzzard.
Find it: park in Flash, off the A53, then follow the footpath at Spring Head Farm for 1½ miles. A map is essential (53.2138, -1.9869).
14 Ingleby, River Trent, Derbyshire
These waterside grottoes were carved out of the soft sandstone cliffs by the river 10,000 years ago, then extended in the 6th century by hermits and monks. They added sleeping rooms and windows, and no doubt enjoyed bathing in the pool below, a safe little backwater of the Trent. Few people visit these days, making it a wonderfully secluded place for a wild swim: you can shelter and have a brew in the caves afterwards.
Find it: Ingleby hamlet is a few miles north of Ticknall, on the A514. Park in the village. From the bend in the road, follow the footpath for about a mile towards the river and crags to find the caves and pools below (52.8415, -1.4975).
Testing the waters at Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire15 Stiffkey Freshes, Norfolk
Green samphire fringes the salt marshes here, and in summer the sun shines under vast open skies. For Norfolk’s wildest swim, follow Patch Pit Creek as it snakes out over the sand flats and marshes. Soon, you will come to the main pool: on one side, there’s glorious mud, for those who like mud slides and mud fights; on the other, there’s golden sand, for sandcastle-building and sunbathing. At low tide, you can walk another half-mile to the foreshore, to see the seals over on Blakeney Point.
Find it: just west of Stiffkey, turn right after the Red Lion and park below the High Sand Creek campsite. Bear right through the woods 500yd, then follow the stream out onto the sand flats. After the sixth footbridge, you’ll arrive at the pool (52.9634, 0.9366).
16 Redmire, River Ure, Yorkshire dales
Wensleydale is not just about cheese, it’s also one of the best swimming valleys in the Yorkshire Dales, with waterfalls and deep pools galore. The Aysgarth Falls are the most famous
— there are three sets of waterfalls and pools — but for real peace, far from the summer crowds, head downstream to Redmire Force, where you’ll find acres of pasture, ancient oaks, limestone cliffs and deep pools. Above the waterfalls, the shore is wooded, with sandy bays.
Find it: from Redmire, there’s a lane down past Mill Farm campsite to the parking area. Follow the footpath signs to Redmire Force, half a mile away (54.3060, -1.9339).
17 Crummock water, Lake District
Crummock Water is the perfect wild swimmers’ lake: motorised boats are forbidden and it’s well away from the tourist crowds. For a quick dip, the silvery beaches below Wood House, on the south side, are perfect. Those after a longer expedition should follow the river path from Buttermere village, head to the mighty waterfall of Scale Force, then continue along the western lake shore. Swim wherever you please — Low Ling Crag is my favourite place. On your return, make sure you stop off to try a homemade ice cream from Syke Farm, in the village.
Find it: setting off from behind the hotel and car park in Buttermere, follow the footpath alongside the campsite (54.54492, -3.28759).
Pastures new: swimming with the cows at Kelmscott, in Oxfordshire18 Embleton Bay, Northumberland
The county’s beautiful beaches are no secret, but fantastic Embleton Bay is still quiet, even on the hottest summer day. The forbidding and dramatic ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle are perched on a crag overlooking the beach. After your swim, you can walk a mile north along the beach to the cosy Ship Inn, in Low Newton-by-the-Sea, which is done up with anchors and other seafaring memorabilia. A similar distance south across rolling grassland brings you to the village of Craster, for Robson’s oak-smoked kippers and salmon. There’s a low-tide plunge pool on the way that’s deep enough to jump into.
Find it: from Embleton, turn east opposite the church, then take the first right and park by the beach (55.4972, -1.6102).
19 Glen Etive, River Etive, Highlands
You could spend many days exploring Glen Etive, a hidden valley off Glen Coe. It’s a haven for climbers, wild campers and, of course, wild swimmers. The tiny road follows the river for more than eight miles down to a sea loch. The pink granite has been scooped into deep, smooth plunge pools, and there are waterfalls and gorges, too. It’s really a matter of stopping and dipping wherever you see something interesting, but the first set of waterfalls, two miles from the road junction at Etive, are as good as anything you will find in the British countryside.
Find it: head northwest along the A82, then turn left a mile after the Kings House Hotel (56.6252, -4.9052).
Glen Etive, in the Highlands20 Achmelvich, Lochinver, Highlands
At Achmelvich — from the Gaelic for “meadows and dunes” — the shell-white sand is brought in in drifts by the Gulf Stream’s ocean currents. The water here is a perfect blue, and even on the dullest days, the sand glows beneath the waves. The beach is rarely busy, but for absolute seclusion, bear right and continue on foot for 20 minutes. You will find several more sandy coves scattered around, but eventually you’ll come to Port Alltan na Bradhan, a sheltered sandy inlet and natural harbour with a waterfall and the ruins of an old mill. Granite outcrops create ledges that are perfect for jumping or sunbathing.
Find it: Achmelvich is four miles from Lochinver and signed off the B869. Turn left, then left again, to find parking and the campsite (58.1727, -5.3043).
Daniel Start is the author of Wild Swimming: Hidden Beaches and the Wild Guide series (wildthingspublishing.com). To buy them for reduced prices, call 0845 271 2135 or visit thesundaytimes. co.uk/bookshop
As with any water-based activity, wild swimming comes with risks. Take the following precautions.
- Never swim alone.
- Know your limits and stay near the shore or the bank.
- Work out how you’ll get out before you get in.
- Always check the depth of the water before jumping or diving in.
- A pair of cheap aqua shoes will protect your feet from sharp rocks and other lurking nasties.
- For hot weather, bring water, sunscreen and a hat and T-shirt that you don’t mind getting wet.
- Always bring a towel and a warm change of clothes — this is Britain, remember.
The pools panel: you don’t have to leave town to swim outside
Slideshow: urban swims
King’s Cross Pond, London (Getty Images)
Tinside Lido, Plymouth: average summer temperature 19.5C
Opened in 1935, this semicircular saltwater pool on the tip of Plymouth Hoe, overlooking the sea, has fountains, spa jets and wonderful art-deco details. Be sure to book. £4; everyoneactive.com
Lido, Clifton, Bristol 24C
Clifton’s lido is surrounded by townhouses, blocking out any urban bustle and making it a haven for a serene morning swim. A 78ft lane pool, it’s one of the oldest in the country, dating from 1849. Afternoon spa pass £20; lidobristol.com
Droitwich Spa Lido, Worcestershire 23C
The lido is geared up for long, sunny days, with a beach area, a sun terrace, deckchairs, a play area with water fountains and a cafe. If you want to do some lengths, there’s a 130ft pool.
King’s Cross Pond, London 23C
This is both a public bathing pond and an interactive art installation — a 130ft-long pool surrounded by gardens in a construction zone near King’s Cross station. It’s all to do with the “permanence of buildings and the changing nature of undeveloped spaces”. The water is chemical-free and filtered by wetland plants.
From £3.50 for two hours; kingscrosspond.club
Highgate road Ponds, London 20C
Since 1889, Londoners have been welcome, from dawn until dusk, to cool off in the three large ponds (male, female and mixed) on the east side of Hampstead Heath. You’ll find soft grass for sunbathing on, and all the ponds have jetties and diving boards, ideal for showing off your bombing technique.
Ilkley Lido, West Yorkshire 22C
Built for George V’s silver jubilee, this pool is the shape of a mushroom slice, with shallow areas for sunning and splashing, and deep ones for proper swims. It also has an indoor pool, just in case the weather turns.
Jesus Green outdoor pool, Cambridge 23C
At almost 300ft, this 1920s lido on the edge of the River Cam is one of the longest in the country. It’s surrounded by trees that act as natural windbreaks. If the sun deserts you, don’t despair: just hop in the new outdoor sauna.
Stonehaven Open-Air Swimming Pool, Aberdeenshire 29C
This Olympic-size saltwater pool, 40 minutes from Aberdeen, has art-deco features and an impressive array of inflatables. Come during the day for fun sessions or quiet dips, or at midnight for starry swims accompanied by disco tunes.
Liverpool Watersports Centre 20C
You won’t get heated baths at this city-centre watersports base — instead, it’s open-water swimming in Queen’s Dock. You’ll need guts, skill, a hat and goggles, though in summer they will let you in without a wetsuit.