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Strokes of genius: the beauty and calm of wild swimming

Lake District

Suzanna Cruickshank
When I first moved to the Lake District I was a big walker but then I started swimming and realised all those feelings you get from climbing a mountain – the sense of peace, the satisfaction – you can get from swimming for five minutes in a lake. Swimming is a different way to appreciate the beauty of the area; it’s a view that you’re not sharing with anyone else because you’re on your own out there.

My perfect spot is Crummock Water, in the north-west lakes. It takes a bit of effort to get to but is surrounded by mountains. The water is very accessible, so it’s suitable for beginners, but it’s also very quiet. You do get busy spots, normally around car parks, but within five or 10 minutes’ walk you can find your own little secluded bay. I was there at 6.45 this morning and it was mirror flat with the sun coming up over the hills. It was fantastic. The Barn Tea Rooms at New House Farm, near Crummock, is a quaint place to go for a coffee or hot chocolate afterwards.

I set up my swim-guiding business in December 2016 and demand is growing. When you swim in a lake or river you can’t take anything into the water with you. There are very few experiences like that where you can have such detachment from your everyday life.

Suzanna leads wild swims across the Lakes for all abilities, suzannaswims.co.uk

Brecon Beacons

Daniel Start in Keeper’s Pond.
Still water … Daniel Start in Keeper’s Pond. Photograph: Daniel Start

Daniel Start
The Brecon Beacons provide a Narnia of pools, lakes and rivers; an enchanted land I have paddled, swum and explored since I was a child. Coed-y-Rhaiadr, the “waterfall woods”, are carved out by the Mellte and Nedd rivers where they meet a band of soft limestone coral. There are canyons to snorkel through, waterfalls to climb behind and emerald pools, such as Lady Falls, hidden in a great moss-and-fern amphitheatre. Bushwhack up to Einion Gam, a narrow, roaring cascade – it’s one of the tallest falls in Wales but is rarely visited. The New Inn in Ystradfellte is a cosy place to warm up afterwards, with roasts and a bunkhouse.

To the east, around Blaenavon, Keeper’s Pond (Pen-ffordd-goch) is a natural infinity pool with mountain views. From here follow Hill’s Tramroad to the Blorenge Punchbowl, a forested cwm with a secret lake and an island to swim to. They’re both close to the highest inn in Wales, the Lamb & Fox at Pwll Du, with roaring fires, live music and a wild-west feel. For something gentler, the River Usk cuts a meandering course past charming villages and twisted yews with idyllic beaches all the way. My favourite is at Llangynidr, where the river runs rocky with rapids. Explore downstream to find beautiful swimming at Crickhowell.

Daniel Start is the author of Wild Guide: Wales (Wild Things Publishing, £16.99)

West Sussex

Alexandra Heminsley swimming  in the Arun.
Crawl along … Alexandra Heminsley in the Arun. Photograph: Chris Floyd

Alexandra Heminsley
I came to river swimming as someone who had learned my stroke in the sea. The first river I swam was not far from my home town of Brighton – the Arun, from Ford down to Littlehampton. I spent the first few minutes lost in a sensory wonderland. There was none of the noise of crashing waves that I had become accustomed to in the sea, nor was I rocked from side to side by tidal swells. Instead, I felt the river’s gentle motion take me through the countryside and with it down to the beach.

The water is greener than I have ever seen in the sea, the colour and opacity of a piece of glass. Nor does it taste of briny tang – only the hint of “mint and mud”, as Virginia Woolf called it. It is silty, but fresh, like spirulina.

As the river approaches the sea, its banks are high, its curves wide and slow. The swimmer, often surrounded by swans at this point, sees the world as a cygnet might: drifting softly by, protected but enjoying the view. The Arun is the second fastest tidal river in the UK, unmistakably so once you near Littlehampton beach. It felt like the very best of flying dreams, when you need only put your arms out and feel yourself carried aloft by the elements. When I can’t sleep, I relive that swim.

Alexandra Heminsley is author of Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim (Hutchinson, £12.99)

Cairngorms national park

Calum MacLean ducks beneath the surface in the Cairngorms.
Deep breath … Calum MacLean ducks beneath the surface in the Cairngorms. Photograph: Calum Maclean

Calum MacLean

I’m based in Glenmore in the Cairngorms national park and I try to swim every day of the year, even if it means breaking the ice. There are two lochs within a mile of where I live, so I’ll usually go for a swim in one of those.

Loch Morlich is the bigger of the two and it’s accessible by road. It’s quite big and they do loads of water sports there. It has a really nice long beach and the water takes a long time to become deep, so you can wade in easily and get acclimatised. There’s also the Red Squirrel café where you can get your hot chocolate and bacon roll after your swim. The other one is Lochan Uaine. It means “Green Lake” in Gaelic and it’s this amazing jade colour. The folklore is that it’s because the fairies wash their clothes in it, but I think it’s something to do with the minerals in the water.

Lochan Uaine is a mile’s walk on a good track from Glenmore. It’s a popular place for walkers, but not everyone goes for a swim. I don’t know why… They’re missing out. The lake is surrounded by a proper Caledonian pine forest, so you might see squirrels – and on one side there’s a huge scree slope.

Calum MacLean is an outdoor instructor and broadcaster who makes vlogs and videos on swimming for the Scottish Gaelic channel BBC Alba

River Wye

Panoramic view across the picturesque Wye Valley between England and Wales.
River Wye and Wye Valley. Photograph: Getty Images

Gemma Cairney

There’s something really grounding, but also a bit OTT, about wild swimming. It resets you. I travel a lot for work so now I just look up the nearest lake, river, puddle, where I can go wild swimming whenever I’m away.

For the last couple of years I’ve done the Hay Festival. In my work I’m often communicating, public facing, trying to make people feel comfortable, so going off on my own and keeping my mouth shut for a bit is a real pleasure. I’d heard about the River Wye so I got up early and walked through the woods to this place called the Warren. It was beautiful, really serene, and the water was green and still. These are the things you start to notice with cold-water swimming: it’s quite animalistic, you notice nature’s colours. I really enjoyed it, but then I had a bit of fear wash over me because I was on my own and I was like: I don’t really know if there are electric eels in here! I did it again this year, but this time I took my colleagues with me. Wild swimming has changed my life. When you’re just this tiny little thing flitting around in a big lake, it gives you a real sense of perspective.

Gemma Cairney is a TV and radio presenter and the author of Hometown Tales: South Coast (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) and Open: a Toolkit For How Magic & Messed Up Life Can Be (Macmillan, £12.99)

West Country

Kate Rew after a swim
The Outdoor Swimming Society’s Kate Rew. Photograph: Louise Wilson/Getty Images

Kate Rew
A Devon girl born and bred, I have enjoyed the swimming holes of the West Country since I was a child. My favourite places at the moment are family-orientated: my two boys (five and six) love Farleigh and District Swimming Club, one of the country’s last river swimming clubs, on the River Frome near Trowbridge, where they can jump in, wade with small fish in the shallows around the weir and attempt to get their open-water long-distance badge. It’s a very English kind of river: mellow green water, kingfishers, mayflies, mating damselflies, giant shags on floating branches… and cream teas at the farm next door. With a sunbathing field to spread out picnics and BBQs, it’s a delight.

Also near my current home in Somerset is Warleigh Weir in the River Avon. It is massively popular, to the extent the Canal and River Trust has put up signs giving swimmers risk information, rather than trying to scare them off. The River Dart in Devon has myriad dipping and swimming spots. Spitchwick Common on Dartmoor suits children well with space for a picnic and ball games. There are river pools and natural water slides nearby, and deeper water on the far side.

Kate Rew is founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society. For more tips, see Kate’s West Country Swim Selection on wildswim.com

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