A beginner's guide to wild swimming in South West England and Wales

A beginner's guide to wild swimming in South West England and Wales

    BEEP BEEP! The jarring iPhone alarm pierces through the silence of a bitter December morning. In the frosty twilight of 6am, electricity permeates the air.

    Dragging myself from the cosy warmth of my bed, I quickly make my coffee to-go and head out into the darkness. There’s a certain feeling of exhilaration, walking the streets of a city before it wakes up. It’s like you’re let in on a secret side of the world no one else gets to see.

    I approach the smooth pebble shores of Tranquility Bay, hearing friendly voices chatting in the distance interspersed with the gentle lapping of incoming waves.

    All apprehension is washed away by a reassuring sense of camaraderie. It’s enough encouragement to forgo my wetsuit and wade into the waters with nothing but a regular swimsuit and my trusty bobble hat.

    IT. IS. GLACIAL! From head to toe, a prickly pins and needles sensation sweeps over my body as it adjusts to the numbing temperature. My heart beat races and my muscles tighten as I sink my shoulders beneath the inky blue water. 

    As I focus my mind on remaining calm and slow down my breathing, I feel an overwhelming sense of clarity as those delightful endorphins kick in. 

    This is why people do it. This is why they launch themselves into the freezing sea before the sun is up” 

    Ok, let’s backtrack a little. What exactly is wild swimming?

    Well, apart from becoming a bit of a recent buzzword, wild swimming is certainly nothing new. It’s essentially just entering a body of natural water. This includes lakes, lagoons, lochs, streams, rivers, oceans, seas, rock pools, tidal pools and even ponds.

    It is also, ironically, not restricted to actual swimming (although, do feel free to get some lengths in). You can still wear the proud badge of a wild swimmer by simply wading into the water, keeping your feet firming on the seaweed-covered floor.

    Also, don’t feel as if you need to leave the neoprene at home. If you want to wear your wetsuit, do it! The wild swimming community is a welcoming one, so go at your own pace, wear what you want, and have loads of fun!

    Looking back at how I fell into the wonderful world of wild swimming…it all started when I moved across the country from the landlocked midlands to ‘Britain's Ocean City’, AKA Plymouth.

    And one thing I quickly learnt about Plymothians is they sure do love the water. Any season, any day and any time, you’ll always find one of them in the sea. I’m not kidding, I remember taking a frosty walk along the seafront on a January evening and spotting two pensioners wearing headlamps and tankinis paddling away like they were in the Bahamas.

    From that point on, I just had to see what all the fuss was about. So, I bought a cheap wetsuit and took the plunge.

    Now, leaping into the icy depths isn’t exactly an appealing idea for most. Especially when you factor in the unknown, like when you're neck deep in the middle of a murky lake. 

    But, there's simply no denying the benefits of a cold water dip. From boosting your immune system, brain power and circulation to improving your mood and reconnecting with nature. The list of positives is a hefty one.

    No prizes for guessing that spring and summer are the easiest seasons to embark on your wild swimming journey. That being said, autumn and winter would certainly be more exhilarating. Although, I’m not encouraging anyone to don their speedos and freestyle through an icy lake Wim Hof-style…just yet. 

    My tips for beginners

    My number one piece of advice is to never enter the water if no one else is around, and always tell others when you plan on swimming.

    In the unlikely event that something does go wrong, it’s vital you have someone who knows where you are. If you stick to the popular spots, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem with this. You can also have a look for swim groups in your local area on social media to help co-ordinate your dips with others.

    Dressing appropriately is crucial. A swimsuit is fine, but if you typically struggle with the cold, you might prefer to invest in a wetsuit:  

    • For winter: a 5 mm wetsuit 
    • For summer: a 2-3 mm wetsuit 

    You can always start with a shorty or spring-suit if you’re hoping to transition to a regular costume later on. A sturdy pair of sea shoes also helps to combat slippery rocks, and a neon float will keep you visible. Most importantly, bring lots of snugly layers for after!

    Before taking the plunge, I always find it helpful to try to psych myself up a little by having a quick jog on the spot. Others prefer a few Tai Chi motions or a couple of loud shouts. Whatever floats your boat, just do what you gotta do to get in that water.

    No matter the season, I’d always recommend wading in slowly rather than jumping in with a showy canon ball. It may look cool, but if the water is cold enough, your body can go into shock and start seizing up. The slower you get in, the easier it is to acclimatize.

    When it comes to picking your place, you also need to be aware of water pollution. During heavy rain, water companies often discharge unsafe wastewater through sewer overflows into common bathing areas—gross, I know! Surfers Against Sewage have a helpful map which highlights the water quality in many coastal spots. It’s definitely worth checking out before you swim.

    Finally, always be aware of your general surroundings. When you’re out in the elements, there's very little you can control, and conditions can change in a matter of seconds. Terrain, wildlife, currents, and weather can all pose possible dangers, so it’s crucial to stay alert.

    My favourite wild swimming spots for beginners

    Devil's Point Tidal Pool, Plymouth (level 1)

    My first suuuper easy wild swimming spot is Devil’s Point Tidal Pool in Plymouth. Tidal pools are a fantastic way to dip your toe into the waters of wild swimming. Freshly replenished by the tides every day, they remain clean and are typically only waist deep. Plus, you don’t need to worry about currents or rip tides pulling you away.

    Devil’s Point Tidal Pool is particularly great as it’s in walking distance from Plymouth City Centre and equipped with a car park, toilets, and a café. Literally everything you’d get at your local sports centre pool, minus the admission fee and stinging chlorine.

    It’s a popular spot, visited by plenty of locals and swim clubs. Just know if you’re stood on the shore looking a little apprehensive, chances are, you’ll get a few cheerleaders egging you on to take the plunge.

    The location isn’t too shabby either, and if you time your trip with the rising tides it creates a pretty neat ‘infinity pool’ effect. 

    Lucky visitors may even spot Spearmint, the local seal. Don’t worry, she’s pretty chill and likes to sunbathe on the nearby rocks.

    One final cool fact about Devil’s Point, is its proximity to the largest navel base in Europe. So, make sure to keep your eyes peeled out at sea to spot some seriously epic battleships and even nuclear submarines emerging from the depths!

    Quick honourable shout out to Chapel Rock in Perranporth, my second fave tidal pool. Another stunning location, but a little trickier to clamber over the rocks.

    The Watkin Path, Snowdonia (level 2)

    This one is something seriously special, and I still find it bewildering how so many people don’t know it’s there.

    The Watkin Path is one of the 6 main routes up Mount Snowdon, and, given it’s one of the longest, it’s also one of the quietest.

    But, little do most tourists know, it’s home to some of the most stunning crystal clear pools you’ve ever seen!

    I’m not kidding, with mesmerizing turquoise hues and trickling waterfalls, they all look so incredibly mystical. Almost like they were built by little Welsh fairies :-)

    If you're hoping to level up your swims, this is the spot to do it. It’s definitely more ‘wild’ than a tidal pool, yet still easy-peasy.

    Starting off, you’ll need to park up around Pont Bethania, then follow the sign posts through a mossy woodland. The walk is a gentle incline and the terrain is pretty level, so it’s doable for most.

    It’ll take around 10 minutes before you emerge out onto the open moorland, and another 15 before you reach the first pool.

    First off, the positives… All the water here is fresh spring water, so it’s impeccably clear and clean. Meaning, you won’t have to worry about what’s lurking beneath the depths since you’ll literally be able to see down to the bottom.

    Another bonus is that every single pool is shallow enough for my 5ft self to comfortably stand up in. At most, the water came to my shoulders in the largest pool further upstream, but in general it’s mostly waist level. 

    It’s also worth mentioning that although this spot remains unknown to most Snowden tourists, it is popular with locals, so chances are you won’t be alone.

    On to some trickier aspects to this spot. Its location is a little more remote than the first, so say goodbye to all those facilities (I mean, you are wild swimming for a reason). Although, it is only a 30-minute walk to the nearest café, so it’s not exactly the middle of nowhere.

    Back onto that point about the fresh spring water, this also comes with the price of it being f-f-freezing. On the rare occasion the sun makes an appearance, this will massively help to warm the waters, but on a typical day be prepared to feel very fresh.

    Side note: I probably wouldn’t advise continuing the walk up to Snowdon on this path, unless you feel like a spot of scrambling. It’s reeeally long and once you get past the final pool the views aren’t any better than the other paths in my opinion. But hey, if you want to take on a 7-hour hike after your swim, go for it.

    Sharrah Pool, Dartmoor (level 3)

    So, you’ve conquered the tidal pool, braved the icy waters of mountain springs, now for the final boss level – a river. Concealed within the peaceful forests of Dartmoor National Park, sits an idyllic stretch of the River Dart, and it’s the perfect place for your first river swim!

    Rivers don’t always have the best rep for being particularly safe or clean, but this one is both, and absolutely spectacular. The gentle flow of water is barely noticeable, and it’s secluded location completely encapsulates the essence of wild swimming.

    Now, you are going to have to put in a little effort to reach this one (about 1 hours’ worth, to be exact) but, I promise it’s worth every step.

    Start by leaving your car at New Bridge Carpark and pick up the narrow path heading uphill towards the woodland. Stick to the same path as it climbs down and then up and down again until you reach a small waterfall. Shortly after this, the trail opens out and, hey presto, you’re there!

    Getting in the water is a breeze with plenty of large smooth rocks to help you easily slide in. Plus, the water on the edges is only knee-deep, so once you’re in, you can wade out to a depth you feel comfortable with. For reference, I couldn’t quite touch the floor in the centre, so it’s perfect for actually swimming.

    Although the water is incredible clean and clear in most parts, it doesn’t quite have the same sapphire blues as the previous spot. Therefore, prepare to accept a little bit of mystery to accompany your swim.

    There will be plenty of wildlife around you, above and below the water. This is nature, after all. If you don’t mind spotting a new friend down below, awesome — take a snorkel. Last time I was here, a child emerged from the depths, claiming to have seen 3 eels! If you’re a bit freaked out by that, don't worry, so was I. Luckily, I didn’t spot any.

    I hope you’re now ready to shimmy into your swimsuit and head out into the wilderness. 

    Once you’ve managed these 3 (or similar places), the world is your wild swimming oyster. Just remember to stay safe, have plenty of fun, and respect mother nature.

    Happy Swimming!