Open water or wild swimming is on the increase in the UK: more than 4.1 million people swam in lakes, lochs, rivers, and seas between November 2017 and 2018, according to the Sport England Active Lives survey.
Speaking on White Wine Question Time, podcaster Stu Whiffen told host Kate Thornton that he’s a big wild swimming fan.
“I love wild swimming so I go and swim in lakes as often as I can,” he said.
“You spend all your life when you get to these nice places walking along the side of these lakes and rivers looking at them. But when you're in them looking back out, it's something completely different and it's incredible and it feels amazing.”
Ella Foote, a keen open swimming who runs The Dip Advisor, says there are numerous benefits to outdoor swimming. Like regular swimming, it releases endorphins that make you feel good, however swimming in the wild also has other health benefits.
“By exercising outdoors, you will benefit from fresh air, natural daylight and being immersed in nature,” she explains.
“Swimming is great for anybody – it uses all the muscle groups, it forces you to disconnect from electronics (water and those devices don't mix) and it is a supportive sport. There is a lot of evidence and science to swimming in cold water too, especially for mental health.”
Chris Glasson, who appeared alongside Whiffen on White Wine Question Time, agrees. “Anxiety is growing and growing and it is because we're connected to absolutely everything,” he told Kate on the show.
“We walked for about 90 minutes to go up a mountain to sit in a lake. The water was like a black mirror and it was just the most… You're so present in that moment, aren't you? And all the stress is just what's leaving you and you're freezing cold, but it's awesome.”
How to dip your toe in the water
If open water swimming is new to you, Foote recommends that you can swim 25 metres, a standard length, in your local pool first.
“Get an understanding of who you are in the water,” she explains. “Can you float on your back like a star fish? Can you tread water for periods of time? Learn your limits and what you are capable of.”
Foote recommends doing lots of research before taking to the water. She says you need to ask yourself the following questions: “Where would you like to swim? What are the risks? Do other people swim there? Can you join them?”
It’s also always more fun – and safer – to hit the open waters with other people. If your friends aren’t so keen, there are plenty of places to find like-minded people.
“Finding people to swim with is a great way to start,” says Foote. “You can join me through my swim-guiding business The Dip Advisor, you can find existing swimming groups through organisations like the Outdoor Swimming Society or from magazines like Outdoor Swimmer.”
Being prepared is also important. Foote recommends taking warm clothes and a hot drink ready for after, even in the warmer months.
“If you do venture alone, walk into the water rather than jump,” she says. “As you get in, let the water introduce itself to you. Is there a pull at your feet indicating currents? Which direction is the water moving? What is the weather like?”
Whiffen has one more word of advice to give: “'Wear a wet suit, and the minute it gets cold... have a wee!”
Where to go wild swimming
Now you’re ready to get swimming, but where to go? Wild Swim is a cross-sourced swim map, where fellow swimmers leave their recommendations and is a great place to start. Also, why not check out these recommendations?
The ‘Inverness Lake District’, Scotland
On White Wine Question Time, Whiffen recalled a memorable swim with this daughter around Loch Ness.
“We went to Scotland last year and I was saying to my youngest daughter, “Do you want to do some wild swimming?” he recalled. “I said, “Shall we swim in Loch Ness? Shall we go?” And I made the mistake of going to the Loch Ness museum beforehand, which was all about the shit that was in there and the monsters and stuff. Bless her, she still put her little wet suit on and came in with me!”
While Visit Inverness Lochness do not recommend you swimming in the Loch itself due to very low temperatures, there are some lovely small lochs that are perfect for a spot of open water swimming. These include Loch Mhor, Loch Duntelchaig and Loch Ceo Glas.
Holborough Lakes, Kent
This man-made lake is a great destination for beginners as it’s clear – no weeds or algae - and clean and run by Nemes Watersport Academy. It’s great for families and comes well equipped – your entry fee of £4.50 gets you heated changing rooms and a hot drink!
The Lake District, Cumbria
Swimming in the lakes here is a great way to experience the UK countryside. Whiffen says that wild swimming has given him a true appreciation of the UK.
“I've literally laid on my back in the middle of Lake Conniston in the Lake District, surrounded by mountains,” he told Kate. ‘Just paddling around on my back, just blown away at how majestic the area is and then just get out, have a little whiskey and it's just beautiful!”
While swimming in the large lakes such as Conniston and Windermere are allowed, the The Lake District National Park Authority recommends picking a swim route alongside the shore to avoid any boats on the lake and to also wear a bright hat so you’re visible.
Anstey’s Cove, Torquay, Devon
Another great location for newbie open water swimmers is this area just off the coast of Torbay. The clear waters are very calm so is great for families, plus there’s lots of wild-life in the sea - come equipped with your googles and snorkel for a good old look around. You can check out other great Devon and Cornwall wild swims on this curated Google map.
River Thames, Pangbourne, Berkshire
Don’t worry, this section of the Thames isn’t as busy as the bit that flows through the capital; however, it still makes up part of this iconic river. The best bit about this stretch of river, with very clear water, is that it leads to a whole lot of pretty pubs in Goring-on-Thames, just three miles down the river – the perfect end to a perfect swim!
Lady Falls, Waterfall Woods, Brecon Beacons
For a swim with a difference, head north of Swansea to try this plunge pool set in a large wooded amphitheatre, the centre piece of which is a 30ft waterfall. You can also climb behind the waterfall and dive back in. Once you’ve got your nerve up with this cute of water, swim upstream to Einion Gam, one of Wales’ tallest waterfalls.
Hear Stu Whiffen, Chris Glasson and Scroobius Pip chat about their love of the open water, plus the life changing advice they’ve been given on the latest episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify and all over good podcast providers!