Make a Splash: Wild Swimming in UK Lakes and Rivers
If you’re thinking about trying open water swimming, the beach may be the first place you head, but there are plenty of rivers and lakes across the UK that in the right conditions are safe to swim in. Here we guide you through some of the things to look out for as well as where to head.
Swimming In Lakes And Rivers
Swimming in lakes and rivers is different to swimming in the sea. Although you don’t have tides or waves to contend with, you still need to assess the conditions and prioritise your safety at all times.
Generally lakes have very calm waters, so can be good to help you build your confidence when starting out wild swimming. However, many lakes are open to a wide range of activities which means you have to stay vigilant for boats, kayaks and other crafts while enjoying your swim. Wearing a brightly coloured swimming cap or using a tow float can help ensure that you’re more visible to others. Also bear in mind, that powered crafts can create small waves and disrupt the usually tranquil water.
Rivers can be great fun for the whole family to take a splash in, but can be fast-flowing with strong currents especially near narrower stretches, waterfalls and weirs. When planning to take a dip in a river make sure you do some research to find calmer stretches and avoid swimming after a heavy downpour when rivers can swell and become much faster flowing.
Things To Watch Out For When Swimming In Rivers Or Lakes
Swimming in any natural water comes with a risk, but there are a few things to be aware of heading for a dip in a lake or a river:
• Check the strength of the current before entering a river. A good way to do this is to throw a stick into the river. If it floats off faster than you can swim against, then you won’t be able to beat the current back upstream, so you should avoid swimming.
• Check your entry and exit points before getting in. It is best to plan a few different exit routes. Riverbeds and the banks of lakes can get muddy and slippery, especially after wet weather or heavy usage, so it’s best to have other exit routes already planned.
• Gauge the depth of the river or lake before jumping in. Enter the water and check how deep it is and that you can’t feel any unseen obstacles beneath you when you’re in the water.
• Don’t drink the water – after heavy rain, pollutants that are harmful to humans can get washed off the land and spill into the water.
• Try to go swimming with someone else or let someone know where you’re heading so that if you do get into any danger, someone can raise the alarm for you.
• Give yourself time to acclimatise to the cold water. UK rivers and lakes will remain cool even in the height of summer, so wear a wetsuit until you get more used to the cooler water temperature.
• Consider using a tow float or swim cap to make yourself more visible to others.
• Consider taking a dry bag or swim bag with you on your swim to keep all your essentials safe and dry. Dry bags are especially handy if you want to swim downriver and not return to where you got in, as you can carry everything you need with you on your swim.
Our Favourite Locations For Lake And River Dips
The Lake District
If there’s one area of England where you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to wild swimming, it’s the Lake District. As well as rivers and lakes, you can take a dip in numerous tarns or enjoy a natural shower under one of the area’s many waterfalls.
Of the main lakes within the National Park, only Ennerdale Water, Haweswater and Thirlmere are off-limits to swimmers. However, bear in mind that some of the larger lakes, including Windermere, Coniston and Derwent Water, have moorings and jetties and can get busy, so it’s best to find a quieter spot and to stay vigilant during your swim. Derwent Water is also very popular with families as it has a campsite on its shoreline.
If it’s tranquillity you’re looking for, Buttermere, Crummock Water and Lowes Water are three smaller lakes clustered to the west of the National Park. Not only are they surrounded by breath-taking scenery but powered crafts aren’t allowed on these lakes, making them more peaceful places to enjoy a swim.
For those up for a hike, there are loads of tarns you can swim in. One of our favourites, and said to be one of Alfred Wainwrights too, takes you on an eight-and-a-bit-mile circular walk from the village of Patterdale, which gives you the chance to swim in two tarns - Angle Tarn and Hayeswater.
Swim the Lakes have loads of useful information and run regular swim days and events.
The East of England
In the East of England, Cambridgeshire is a great place to head for river swimming. Grantchester Meadows is a much-loved swimming spot for Cambridge students past and present as well as locals, as the gentle stretch of the River Cam that is perfect for a leisurely swim. A picture-perfect country scene, the 2km of river meadow is owned by King’s College Cambridge and famous former bathers include Virginia Wolf and Lord Byron.
For a lake swim, Milton Country Park in Cambridgeshire is the ideal place to build your confidence as they hold regular open water swimming sessions throughout the year. There are also plenty of other activities available too if you want to do something to get warmed up after your swim.
The Yorkshire Dales
The River Wharfe is one of the best spots for wild swimming in Yorkshire and is the only river in the UK that currently has an area designated as bathing water. However, before we get into where to swim, it’s important to mention a section that you should NEVER attempt to swim in.
The Strid – The Strid is a section of the river Wharfe between Bolton and Abbey and is known to be one of the deadliest stretches of water. It is easy to spot as the river narrows from around 16m wide to roughly 2m wide at this stretch. The drastic narrowing of the river teamed with the complex geological formation and the unchartered depths causes deadly undercurrents, which have and will pull swimmers under within seconds. So not only should you never attempt to swim here, but you should also never attempt to leap across the river and should avoid getting too close to the riverbank.
So now you know where not to swim in the Wharfe, let’s take a look at where you can head:
• Appletreewick is generally a quiet stretch of the Wharfe. The long shingle bay makes it ideal for families with children who want to paddle. However, it’s close to a caravan park, so can be busy during the holiday season.
• Loup Scar is another popular stretch of the River Wharfe, but as it is usually quite deep here, it can get busy with groups keen on jumping in. If this isn’t your thing, it may be better to look for another stretch.
• Burnsall is great in the summer as the grassy banks lead you into a relatively calm stretch of the river with a shallower pool downstream that is ideal if you’re looking for a relaxing swim.
For those who prefer lake swimming, Semerwater is a spectacular natural lake in the Northern part of the Dales. With good access and a pay and display car park close by, the lake is often the ‘swim’ section of local triathlons, so make sure you check if there are any events before you head there.
The South West
The river Frome in Somerset is home to The Farleigh and District Swimming Club, the oldest river swimming club in the country. Founded in the 1930s, the club has over 5,000 members, so is a great community to get involved with, especially if you’re new to wild swimming.
You have to become a member to swim here, but the annual membership is nominal, and with 100m of swimmable river stretch, a car park, toilets and changing rooms and a picnic and sunbathing area, it is well worth the cost.
Although the club is usually open from April to September, temporary closures are put in place when the conditions are considered hazardous.
When it comes to Wales, the River Wye is perhaps one of the most famous spots to take a dip. The river is the home of the annual Wild Wye Swim, an annual long-distance swimming event. However, don’t worry if you’re not quite ready to tackle this challenge, as there are plenty of spots along the river for a more relaxing dip.
The Warren is a popular stretch of meadow by the River Wye, ideal for paddling thanks to its white shingle beaches and shallow waters.
While for those keen to get more than their feet wet, the Rectory Pool is a nice quiet spot with easy access from the nearby river Wye walk. The water is fairly deep in places, but shelving rocks make for easier and safer access into and out of the water.
Finally, although actually in Herefordshire and not Wales, the stretch of the River Wye at Bredwardine near Hay-on-Wye is generally a calm and cooling place for a swim come late spring and into summer. Many families enjoy this spot and will come and paddle and picnic on the banks throughout summer.
For those just getting into wild swimming, the wild woman of Wye offers introductory sessions as well as guided swims to help you build confidence.
The Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland are a fantastic place to experience one of Northern Ireland’s many Loughs. Lough Shannagh is the largest body of water in the Mourne Mountains that isn’t man-made. 390m above sea level and framed by several peaks, including Slieve Doan and Slieve Loughshannagh, you get a stunning backdrop for a dip and is a great place to get away from it all.
Meanwhile, the path to Blue Lough is one of the most popular walking routes in the mountains, so is perfect if you’re looking to take a refreshing dip on your walk.
The Annalong river is also a favourite wild swimming spot, flowing right through the mountains and down into the sea at Newcastle. The Annalong rockpools are a bit of a hidden gem on this stretch of river and feature several pools and mini waterfalls, making it an amazing place to swim and soak up the atmosphere.
Like the Lake District, Scotland is littered with places where you can take a dip, including a wealth of lochs. In Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park alone, there are over 22 lochs to discover.
Millarochy Bay is a long stretch of the shoreline of Loch Lomond that offers easy access to the water. Despite Loch Lomond being popular with all kinds of watersports enthusiasts, its sheer size, 27.5 square miles, means it is easy to find a quieter spot and soak up the spectacular scenery.
Other lochs worth exploring in the park include Loach Earn. Not only is it generally quieter than many of the other lochs, but it offers spectacular views of the surrounding Munros. And, Loch Lubnaig is perfect for a peaceful dip as its sheltered position means the water is generally incredibly calm.
Venture out of Loch Lomond National Park, and there’s still plenty of lochs to explore, from braving the Loch Ness monster to the sandy beaches of Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms.
Find Your Favourite Wild Swim
We've only managed to highlight a few of the incredible lakes and rivers in the UK, so if you're looking for even more inspiration or just a location a little closer to where you live we recommend checking out the Wild Swim map which offers useful information and advice about wild swimming locations across the UK.
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