• Wild swimming has been gaining popularity, touted for its many mental and physical health benefits

  • Author of Just Add Water Sarah Henshaw offers her beginner's tips

Wild swimming has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, and not just during Bank Holiday heatwave weekends. Instagram feeds are full of bobble hats, swimming cozzies and elated grins well into winter, and converts insist not only is it more fun out of season, it might even be better for you too.

Certainly, in terms of mental wellbeing it can have significant benefits. Plunging into cold water regularly has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety. Learning to cope with your body’s physical reaction to the temperature is believed to help you react to other stressors less extremely. It also promotes the release of the ‘happy hormones’ serotonin and dopamine, leading to a post-swim high.

In summer you’re likely to stay in the water longer, making it a great way to explore the countryside. You’ll experience the thrill of being dive-bombed by dragonflies during your sedate breaststroke, or the simpler pleasure of turning onto your back, picking out a friendly cloud and lazily racing it downriver. Much like a form of mindfulness or meditation, wild swimmers attest it helps them to be in the moment, focusing their mind on how their body feels in the water rather than work worries or other stresses.

It can help people navigate even darker moments too. Ruth Slater, an educational psychologist and regular swimmer in the River Derwent in Derbyshire, says that her dips help ameliorate the worst symptoms of Long Covid and resultant chronic fatigue. “Without the Derwent,” she says, “I’m not sure how I and many close friends would have survived the pandemic; the hysteria, the surging anxiety and the lockdowns. For me, the river is not only stunningly beautiful and home to magnificent flora and fauna, it is my safe place, my haven.”

Getting started

Staying warm both before and after a swim is key to maximising enjoyment, so pile on the layers in colder weather and try to work up a slight sweat with a brisk walk to the site.

Whether you don a wetsuit or stick with standard swimming wear is entirely your choice. Some people find wetsuits too fiddly to take off afterwards, and enjoy being swaddled by the water itself rather than a layer of neoprene. However, when it’s really cold you’ll see many wild swimmers in special gloves and socks to protect their extremities.

Getting in is the awful part. Do whatever works for you: splashing water over your limbs first, dithering no deeper than your knees, or grabbing a friend’s hand and running in howling. Remember, however, that it will take a few minutes before the cold feeling goes away, so don’t turn around and head straight out. Equally encouraging is the fact that the more you do it, the less you’ll feel the cold thanks to your body’s clever way of adapting to the temperature. Don’t push it, though. It’s generally advised not to spend longer than 20 minutes in cold water, and definitely leave sooner if you’re shivering.

“Keep your first swim short,” agrees Simon Griffiths, founder of Outdoor Swimmer magazine. “Think of it as a dip rather than a swim. Keep your feet on the bottom to start with and immerse yourself up to your shoulders. The cold may make you gasp initially. Wait until your breathing is calm before trying a few easy strokes. Don’t worry about what stroke you use. Just savour the moment and enjoy the experience.”

Once you’re out, dry off and layer back up as quickly as you can. It’s helpful to organise your clothes so you can put them on fast afterwards – the last thing you want is to be digging around at the bottom of your backpack for ages in just a towel. A thermos of hot sugary tea and a flapjack will also be your friend and help fight what’s known among outdoor swimmers as the dreaded ‘after drop’ – when your core temperature continues to fall even after you’ve left the water, leading to shivering, feeling faint or even hypothermia.

Where to do it

There are plenty of books offering comprehensive lists of places to take a dip based on geographical location, ability and appetite for being off the beaten track. Online, the Outdoor Swimming Society (outdoorswimmingsociety.com) is an excellent resource and curates numerous platforms where members can find other local bathers or get tips on kit and locations. It also has great advice about water cleanliness and keeping on the right side of the law, urging swimmers to do their homework first to decide whether it is safe and legal to jump in.

There are some iconic swimming spots in the UK. We’ve already mentioned the River Derwent, where you can bathe within view of Chatsworth House, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more quintessentially English swimming scene than at Grantchester Meadows, just south of the city of Cambridge. This delightful stretch of the River Cam has been a popular swimming spot for at least 500 years and counts Lord Byron among its legions of fans over the centuries. In the early 1900s, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke, among others of the Bloomsbury Set, would skinny-dip here, and it is still synonymous with river raucousness.

Scotland, meanwhile, has a number of great swimming sites beneath spectacular castles and ruins. Try Loch Ness in the Highlands to get up close to Urquhart Castle or, on the west coast, Loch Laich for an eyeful of Castle Stalker. In Wales, you can enjoy the natural beauty Snowdonia National Park from the waters of Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake to the English) – the largest natural lake in Wales. The foreshore there is a safe and popular swimming destination for families.

Alternatively, adopt the spirit of Roger Deakin, author of the seminal wild swimming book Waterlog and probably the closest thing us Brits have to a patron saint of dipping outdoors. He was particularly taken by the idea of secret swimming spots just waiting to be discovered rather than listed on internet Top Tens or in guidebooks. Word of mouth recommendations from locals, whether they be keen swimmers or not, often spawned some of his most memorable plunges.

Wherever you choose to bathe, do it in company if possible. And not only for your personal safety; the social aspect of wild swimming is often cited as one of the best things about this sport. If you are going for a solo dip, consider taking an inflatable tow float. You can stow your phone in the centre, sending a GPS tracking signal to a friend or partner to let them know where you are, as well as keys and a whistle. Most floats are luminous too, which makes you more visible in the water should you end up needing help.

Sarah Henshaw is the author of Just Add Water: Over 100 ways to recharge and relax on the UK's rivers, lakes and canals 

Use code JAW25 for 25% off for Welldoing readers on https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/just-add-water-9781399400459/

Further reading

6 ways wild swimming can improve your mental health

Connecting with nature helped me overcome OCD

Why we swim: the benefits to mind and body

Forget perfect: consistency is key in fitness