Dive in… the water’s divine: A wild swimming expert picks the top UK spots for a cooling dip, from the Thames in Oxford to a dramatic Scottish loch
- Many of Britain’s swimming holes are accessible by bike, bus or train, reveals Joe Minihane
- Joe recommends swimming under the trees in the ‘perfect’ plunge pool in Sheffield’s Rivelin Valley
- County Down’s Bloody Bridge River has a series of deep pools that are ‘crying out to be swum in’, he says
There’s no better way to cool off on a searing hot summer’s day than indulging in a wild swim. Whether wading into the waves from the beach or slipping from the bank into the embrace of a languid river, taking a dip will help you shake off the torpor of too much sun and leave you feeling calm and connected to nature.
While searching out distant swimming holes around the UK has long been my passion, there’s much to be said for heading to more accessible water, whether by car, bike, bus or train. And from a quiet Lake District gem to a Cornish cliffside classic, there are plenty of choices.
Where the Thames flows gently out of Oxford is a place renowned for its river swimming. Port Meadow, its pastures backed by the dreaming spires of the city to the south, is blessed with numerous spots that are perfect on a hot summer’s day.
Splashing time: Wild swimming expert Joe Minihane says that there are plenty of choices when it comes to accessible swimming holes in Britain. Above are swimmers in the River Thames in Oxford, ‘a place renowned for its river swimming’
Located in the heart of historic Oxford, The Old Parsonage is the ultimate place to spend the night after a day of wild swimming, Joe reveals
The most popular and most fun is where Castle Mill Stream and the Thames meet, with the water deep enough for a proper swim and plenty of places to slip in from the bank and enjoy a paddle.
Park in the nearby suburb of Jericho or enjoy a 15-minute riverside walk from the station. Those keen on a longer walk should stroll north to Wolvercote, where there’s a handy bathing spot on a mill stream just off the main river.
Make a night of it: A luxury classic in the heart of historic Oxford, The Old Parsonage is the ultimate place to spend the night in the country. Rooms from £275 per night (oldparsonagehotel.co.uk).
After a swim on Saltdean’s beach, book into Drakes (above) in Brighton, where the roll-top baths are made for post-swim indulgence
Hop on the bus outside Brighton station and within half an hour you get to Saltdean’s quiet beach, the antithesis of the more hectic scene back in town and a place beloved by locals and families looking for a quiet spot to swim and relax.
Swim out to the yellow buoys and you can catch a glimpse of the Seven Sisters cliffs to the east and the towering i360 viewing platform on Brighton’s seafront to the west.
Make a night of it: Book into Drakes in Brighton, where the roll-top baths in its sea-view rooms are made for post-swim indulgence. Rooms from £158 per night (drakesofbrighton.com).
Set within the low cliffs that overlook Treyarnon Bay in Cornwall, a short drive north from Newquay, you’ll discover an iconic tidal pool.
As the tide heads out, the pool is left behind. Deep enough for jumping and long enough for swimming laps, it becomes pleasantly warm in late summer.
Above is the tidal pool that’s set within the cliffs at Cornwall’s Treyarnon Bay. ‘It becomes pleasantly warm in late summer,’ says Joe
When you’ve had your fill of wild swimming at Treyarnon Bay, check into the recently renovated Padstow’s Harbour Hotel (above), which overlooks the estuary from its clifftop perch
Bring a snorkel or goggles to spot starfish and anemones hiding among the swaying kelp below.
Swimmers should keep a keen eye on tide times and never attempt to enter at high water or when the waves begin to inundate the sides.
Make a night of it: Padstow’s Harbour Hotel, recently renovated, overlooks the estuary from its clifftop perch. Rooms from £218 per night (harbourhotels.co.uk/padstow).
The Lake District is a wild swimmer’s paradise, with tumbling waterfalls and vast, open bodies of water to choose from. For those who want somewhere away from the crowds without having to spend hours hiking high into the fells, Elterwater ticks all the boxes.
It’s found within Great Langdale and there’s parking close by, but you can also catch the bus from Ambleside to Elterwater village, from where it’s a short walk along the River Brathay to the water’s edge. There’s a small beach where you can leave your kit and wade in to enjoy a frog’s-eye view of this beautiful part of Cumbria. Steel yourself – the streams that flow straight off the surrounding mountains and into Elterwater make it a cool proposition.
Make a night of it: At the far end of Langdale, The Old Dungeon Ghyll is popular with walkers and ale fanatics. Rooms from £130 per night (odg.co.uk).
A short bike ride south of Cambridge, Grantchester Meadows and the River Cam offer some of England’s most bucolic, not to mention iconic, wild swimming holes. A favourite of Lord Byron and poet Rupert Brooke, the river here flows lazily past lush pasture and beneath willows that stroke the water’s surface. Keep an eye out for rope swings, perfect for more adventurous swimmers.
Stroll from the River Cam to the nearby Hotel du Vin (above) – it’s the ‘ideal place to get pampered after a dip’, according to Joe
The guest rooms at Cambridge’s Hotel du Vin – one of which is pictured – are priced from £151 per night
There are a series of handy entry points along the bank, as well as lots of space for a picnic. Those who haven’t brought sustenance with them will find much to love at The Orchard Tea Garden, on the edge of Grantchester village.
Make a night of it: A short walk from the River Cam, the Hotel du Vin is the ideal place to get pampered after a dip. Rooms from £151 per night (hotelduvin.com).
Norfolk has some of England’s finest beaches and for swimming, Sea Palling is hard to beat. It’s backed by steep, sandy dunes and protected by artificial reefs placed out in the bay.
End your day at Sea Palling beach with a night at The Ship Inn in Mundesley (above), where rooms look out to the sea
Taking to the water here feels less intense and calmer than at some of the wilder stretches of coast in the north of the county. There’s plenty of parking and lots of space for setting up for a day of alternating between dips in the sea and lounging on the sand.
Make a night of it: Drive north to stay at The Ship Inn in Mundesley, great for fish and chips and rooms with views out to sea. Rooms from £146 per night (mundesley-ship.co.uk).
Thanks to the tireless efforts of local dippers, Sparth Reservoir, close to the village of Marsden in West Yorkshire, has become a mecca for wild swimming. You won’t find ‘No swimming’ signs here – rather a welcoming crowd enjoying the gorgeous water and the Yorkshire countryside that surrounds it.
People swim here all year round, making use of the nearby railway station just a ten-minute walk along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’s towpath. However, it’s at its best in high summer. Slide in for some leisurely breaststroke, then dry off with views of the canal and nearby broadleaf woodland. Make it extra-special with picnic supplies from the village’s excellent grocery.
Make a night of it: With beautiful views across the moors, The Olive Branch Inn is the ideal place to kick back after a swim. Rooms from £140 per night (olivebranch.uk.com).
Just over an hour away, Sheffield is known as the Outdoor City for good reason. Its easy access to the Peak District means locals are never far away from adventure. But you don’t even need to venture into the national park to find great wild swimming.
The Rivelin Valley is home to a river of the same name, with a perfect plunge pool that’s ripe for taking a dip as it tumbles over large slabs of rock, with trees arching above to create perfect, dappled light. Leave the car at Rivelin Valley Park or catch a bus from the city centre before taking a walk through the valley to the water’s edge.
Swimmers in the River Rivelin are sheltered by ‘trees arching above’ that create ‘perfect, dappled light’. Pictured is a swimmer cooling off in the river
Once you’ve enjoyed a Rivelin Valley swim, check in to Brocco On The Park (above) in Sheffield
Make a night of it: Brocco On The Park, close to the beautiful Endcliffe Park in the heart of the city, features Scandi rooms and a restaurant that focuses on local ingredients. Rooms from £130 per night (brocco.co.uk).
A brief bus ride from the centre of Edinburgh, Portobello is known for its year-round community of wild swimmers.
Its wide, sandy stretch of beach that eases gently into the sea can get busy in summer, but there is much joy to be had in the sense of the city decamping to the water for the day.
Enjoy the views across the Firth of Forth to Fife and the Lomond Hills.
Make a night of it: Head to No 11 on Brunswick Street in the city for a post-dip snooze and a blow-out meal in its superb restaurant. Rooms from £187 per night (11brunswickst.co.uk).
The Warren, a picturesque meadow on the banks of the Wye just outside the book-loving town of Hay-on-Wye, is heaven for wild swimmers. A shingle beach slips into the shallows, as if made for those who would rather paddle.
A deeper section beyond a set of rapids provides those who prefer a long soak with the perfect spot to get a view of the valley. You can park close by or walk from Hay. Keep your eyes peeled for otters and kingfishers – this section of the Wye is known for its biodiversity.
Once you’ve swum at The Warren meadow, bag a room at the Swan at Hay, a stunning Georgian property that’s a short walk from the centre of book-loving Hay-on-Wye
Rare treat: Kingfishers can be glimpsed near The Warren
Make a night of it: A stunning Georgian property, the Swan at Hay is a short walk from the centre of town. Rooms from £145 per night (swanathay.co.uk).
Within the heart of the beautiful Rothiemurchhus Forest and replete with the ruins of a 13th Century castle on a small island, Loch An Eilein is one of the most dramatic places to swim in Scotland.
The jackdaws on the island lend the area a Gothic feel, while the views up to the Cairngorms are best appreciated while enjoying a dip in the refreshing water. Best of all, it’s just a short drive from Aviemore, with ample parking making it easy to reach. A little beach within sight of the castle offers an easy entry point.
Make a night of it: Macdonald Aviemore has luxury Woodland Lodges set within a gorgeous pine forest. Lodges from £253 per night (macdonaldhotels.co.uk).
Flowing down the slopes of Slieve Donard and into the sea just south of Newcastle in County Down, Northern Ireland, Bloody Bridge River – the site of a 17th Century battle – has a series of deep pools crying out to be swum in.
Park at Bloody Bridge and follow a footpath up the banks, where you’ll find plenty of options for swimming. The best pools look out across the Irish Sea, but quieter sections inland will make you feel even more in touch with the surrounding Mourne Mountains.
Make a night of it: The imposing Slieve Donard Resort and Spa has an indoor pool overlooking the bay. Rooms from £158 per night. (hastingshotels.com).
Within the heart of the beautiful Rothiemurchhus Forest and replete with the ruins of a 13th Century castle on a small island, Loch An Eilein (above) is one of the most dramatic places to swim in Scotland
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