As your senses heighten and your mind calms, feel the benefits of connecting to nature, by immersing yourself in the outdoors and soaking up its awe-inspiring beauty.
As an island nation with close affinities to the water there has long been a tradition of wild swimming in Britain. Wild swimmers take to nature’s open water spaces for an alfresco dip in all weathers and seasons, freeing themselves from the confines of indoor exercise spaces and chlorinated pools. In England and Wales, a ‘right to roam’ law means that we are permitted to swim in most rivers and lakes, whereas in Scotland all waters are accessible as long as swimmers uphold the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. In essence, as long as we respect the environment, each other and don’t trespass, Britain’s waterways are an easily accessible place to experience a fun form of exercise and a sense of adventure.
It is unsurprising that there has been a surge in the popularity of wild swimming in recent years, as people take to the water to reconnect with nature. I caught up with Lauren Biddulph, who runs swimming retreats as part of the Salt Sisterhood based in Cornwall, to learn more about wild swimming and the benefits of immersing oneself in the open water.
Lauren starts by clarifying to me that wild swimming can be in the sea, rivers or any open expanse of water, and includes a range of experiences, from relaxed river paddles to more adventurous sea swims, each with their own benefits. “We like to show case the diversity of wild swimming, so each day of the retreat has a different theme, reflected in the wild swimming activity we have planned.
For example, on self-compassion day we may take a trip to the quiet Helford River, which is beautiful and calm, whereas on bravery day we go rock jumping.” Whilst originally offering wetsuits as part of her retreats, Lauren tells me that it is more beneficial to swim with out them. She says she can’t encourage me enough to enter the water in just a bathing costume. “I initially hired wetsuits and some people wore them but they weren’t getting the full experience or benefit. By the end of the week everyone was out of the wetsuits and they felt a real sense of achievement; they said they got more from the experience when they were out of their wetsuits and a greater sense of freedom.”
When I asked Lauren why she began offering wild swimming retreats, she explained that being in or near water has immense health benefits, both mental and physical.“I used to struggle a lot with anxiety and depression. I noticed that going into the sea gave me a sensation of connectedness and grounding, it got me out of my head, reminding me of the bigger picture of what is and isn’t important. When combined with yoga it helped me to build a better relationship with my mind and body and helped me to overcome my generalised anxiety.”It is this sense of empowerment and freedom that inspired Lauren to share the wild swimming experience with other women.
“There is a physiological response in the body when we’re near water because life evolved from the water. You are in something much bigger than yourself and it can be dangerous, calm, frightening or relaxing. It’s a massive natural force that leaves you in awe and puts everything in perspective, resetting your mind and boosting your confidence.” Lauren reveals that as well as the benefits of wild swimming for wellbeing and mental health, there are also large swathes of research on its physical benefits. “Aside from being an excellent form of physical exercise, increasing overall strength and fitness, studies show that it also boosts metabolism, immunity, resilience and your rate of healing”.
For those wishing to embark upon their own wild swimming experience, it’s as simple as doing a little research into your local area and heading there with a towel. Things to be aware of are ensuring that water is clean and unpolluted, that there are shallow entry points and that you know how you are going to get out. Ensure that you don’t jump into water without knowing it is deep enough and that for areas which have a current, you can swim against the current faster than it can take you.
It’s advisable to go with someone else to spots you are visiting for the first time, but wild swimming is open to people of all abilities. This means there should be nothing holding you back from enjoying the relaxing sense of weightlessness and invigorating experience of immersing yourself in nature.
With thousands of miles of coastline and a vast network of rivers and estuaries we are spoilt for choice with waterside locations in Britain. We’ve decided to pick out some of our favourites for you to explore:
Cornwall – The Salt Sisterhood, Helford
Located on the banks of the Helford River, the Salt Sisterhood offers five-day wild swimming and yoga retreats for women. Here, they take a step away from the real world, immersing themselves in a bubble of self-care, nature and good food. The aim is for connection: to nature, other women and themselves. Retreats take place in June and September each year.
Scotland – Dores Beach, Loch Ness, Inverness
Sitting on the east side of Loch Ness, one of Britain’s largest lakes, Dores Beach is a popular spot for wild swimming and a great place to start for beginners. With shallow entry points and a wild swimming group meeting here every Saturday at 10am you can swim with confidence all whilst being encouraged by locals. The waters are cold but calm and the scenery is second to none. With awe-inspiring views of the Scottish Highlands and little signs of civilisation, swimming at Dores you find yourself in a cocoon of nature.
Wales – Llyn y Fan Fach, Brecon Beacons
A high lake in the shadow of the Black Mountain, Llyn y Fan Fach sits in a sheltered bowl with stony, gently shelving sides. Reaching up to 18 meters in depth, it’s the perfect spot for diving and practicing your underwater swimming technique. Located in the Brecon Beacons National Park, Llyn y Fan Fach is breathtakingly beautiful and according to legend, the home of a lake nymph.
Northern Ireland – Cushendun Beach, County Antrim
Found in the heart of the Glens of Antrim and not far from the Red Caves where several Game of Thrones scenes were filmed, Cushendun is a sandy, rural beach with views across to the Mull of Kintyre. The beach slopes gently out to sea, with rivers at both ends so that you can explore the kelp fronds. The water here is crystal clear as long as you don’t visit shortly after rainfall when peat is carried down from the fields.
London – Beckenham Place Park, Beckenham
Accessible by tube, Beckenham Place Park’s nearest stations are Beckenham Junction (tram), Beckenham Hill and Ravensbourne (both Thameslink). London’s first purpose-built swimming lake is available for swimmers 8 years of age and over. Surrounded by trees and a grass area to sit and watch, the sandy banks make for a safe family fun swim.
Words | Lydia Paleschi