Daniel Start, author of a new guide to Britain’s secret coves, tells us why this summer is the perfect time for some wild swimming.
As the days heat up and sea temperatures rise, find yourself a slice of secret beach and dive into the crystal waters. Wild swimming is the simple art of snorkelling and exploring along some of the most remote and spectacular parts of our beautiful British shoreline, discovering shell-white coves, purple sea caves and sparkling lagoons along the way.
With Britain’s coastal waters cleaner than any time in living memory, and new legislation opening up whole swathes of previously inaccessible beach, this summer is the ideal time to take the plunge.
I’ve been exploring and photographing the best places for a dip around Britain for over 10 years. The journey started as a series of childhood holidays in Cornwall, but has evolved into an aquatic odyssey, almost an obsession. I have travelled thousands of miles on foot, by bike, kayak and camper van. I have twisted ankles, drowned camera bags and suffered from hypothermia and heatstroke. But I found solace, too, in the wonders of our foreshores – a communion with dolphins, a sea cave encrusted with pink coralline, or a night swim under full moon as the campfire embers glow. Using maps and satellite imagery, and often guided by local knowledge, sea kayakers and fishermen, I’ve been amazed at the places waiting to be discovered with just a bit of scrambling and exploring off the beaten track.
My favourites are always the places with some adventure – perhaps a sea arch to swim through or an echoing sea cavern, all pink and cool to clamber into and listen to the sound of the sea booming from the interior. Swimming is also a wonderful way to interact with nature. Once some friends and I were exploring a series of beautiful rock stacks and collecting mussels along the Pembrokeshire coast when a pod of seals followed us all the way, swimming with us and nuzzling at our toes.
Bobbing away in an expanse of turquoise ocean you can feel as happy as a salmon. The sea birds soar higher, the sky stretches wider and the great unknowns of life wash over you. The rhythm and sensuality of a swim in the ocean soothes the mind and carries stress away on its ripples.
One branch of evolutionary theory suggests that humans spent millions of years evolving into uprightness as semi-aquatic waders and swimmers in the Indian ocean – so our subsequent life on dry land is a relatively recent and bereft affair.
But our fondness for swimming for health and leisure is a relatively recent one. Not until the end of the 16th century did the fashion for “taking the waters” really begin to develop, as pilgrims and health seekers travelled miles to bathe in fountains and springs around the country. But when the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary in Margate opened its doors around 1791, offering treatment for complaints such as tuberculosis, skin conditions or jaundice, sea bathing really entered the mainstream.
Today we have a better understanding of the health benefits of wild swimming. If you feel groggy or tired before, you will feel awake and revitalised after a plunge. If you felt good anyway, you will come out on a natural high. A surge of endorphins are released when you dive into cold water and this, accompanied by the fresh tingling sensation, creates an addictive urge to dive back in. We also know that regular sea bathing leads to a much stronger immune and cardiovascular system, and that nothing burns calories quite so effectively. So as well as making sure you are hot and sweaty before a swim, reward yourself with a good picnic lunch afterwards!
Large tracts of Britain are still wild, but its coastline is perhaps its greatest unexplored terrain. Whether you are floating through the sea caves of the Stair Hole in Dorset or swimming with seals in the Moray Firth; collecting mussels and samphire in Northumberland or basking in the ethereal blue glow of the Cornwall’s giant rock pool lagoons, wild swimming offers a spectacular introduction to the island’s natural history. Britain is as rich in wilderness and secret places as ever and, if you can pick a sunny day, the swimming is out of this world!
Daniel Start is the author of Wild Swimming Coast: Explore the Secret Coves and Wild Beaches of Britain, published by Punk, £14.95 (€17.50). It is the sequel to best-selling Wild Swimming: 150 Hidden Dips in the Rivers, Lakes and Waterfalls of Britain. Both are available at www.wildswimming.com
TOP TIPS FOR WILD SWIMMING
British waters are on the cool side compared with those of the Mediterranean, and that first dip of the season can feel like a breathtaking rite of passage. But if you shriek a bit, count to 30 and swim for something nearby, you’ll soon warm up and wonder what all the fuss was about. And remember to stay safe:
- Don’t swim in rough seas, unless you understand rip currents.
- Don’t swim from headlands or points, unless you understand tidal currents.
- Wear something on your feet to protect you from rocks.
- Never swim alone, and keep a constant watch on weak swimmers.
- Don’t go swimming if you already feel cold – warm up first.
- Wear a wetsuit if you plan to be in the water for more than 20 minutes.
For more on comfort and safety, visit www.wildswimming.com
Britain’s Best Wild Swimming Spots
BEST FOR SEAFOOD: Wide, sandy Embleton Bay stretches out beneath the dramatic ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. Continue a mile south across rolling grassland to the village of Craster, for Robson’s kippers and oak-smoked salmon, and the Jolly Fisherman’s crab sandwiches.
GRID REF: NU247225 / POSTCODE: NE66 3DT
BEST DESERT ISLAND: Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, Britain’s most sacred island, provides a perfect place to swim with the saints. St Aidan built his wooden monastery here in the 7th century, and the island became a centre of Christian learning in England. If you fancy some solace, cross the dunes to the little known north side of Holy Island to find Coves Haven, a wonderful sandy beach set beneath caves – a perfect place to find solace and spiritual inspiration from the sea.
GRID REF: NU127439 / POSTCODE: TD15 2SJ
BEST FOR MUD BATHS: If your children like mud, then they’ll love the inlets on the wild beach at Stiffkey Freshes in Norfolk. The sea has eroded channels and creeks and created some wonderful pools, with white sand on one side, and mud slides on the other. West of Blakeney, turn right after the Red Lion and follow the path over six mini footbridges.
GRID REF: TF973448, POSTCODE: NR23 1QF
BEST WILD BEACH: Just west of Wells in Norfolk the beach extends for miles. Follow a line of cool forest set behind hot white sand. Holkham beach morphs into the dune hills and marram grass of Burnham beach. From here locals swim the narrow channel to Scolt Head Island, a fabulous uninhabited nature reserve which is also a tidal island. Watch the sun go down and, if you’re lucky, swim in magical night-time phosphorescence.
GRID REF: TF854459 / POSTCODE: PE31 8JE
BEST FOR SEA CAVES: Stair Hole, two minutes from Lulworth Cove car park, is a superb inland lagoon with extraordinary rock formations, sea caverns and arches leading out to the sea. It’s best when calm. Head west along the coast path to find dramatic Durdle Door arch and Man o’War Cove.
GRID REF: SY822798 / POSTCODE: BH20 5RH
BEST FOR HOT ROCKS: The golden lagoons and limestone inlets of Winspit and Seacombe are like Crete on a hot summer’s day. Also visit Dancing Ledge, a low-tide rock pool blasted into the limestone in 1908, and stop for a pint in the eccentric Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers.
GRID REF: SY977761 / POSTCODE: BH19 3LF
North Cornish Coast
BEST FOR SNORKELLING: Treyarnon rock pool is a swimming pool-sized low-tide natural rock pool in the rocks above and to right of this family beach. The calm water is clear and safe, and this is a magical place for children to learn to swim. The YHA café above has warming food for afterwards. Constantine Bay to the north is a classic surf beach and leads on to Trevose Round Hole, an intriguing collapsed sea cave and blowhole.
GRID REF: SW855744 / POSTCODE: PL28 8JP
BEST FOR JUMPING: For the boys it’s always good to have a place where there’s a chance for some real adventure! Port Gaverne near Port Isaac is a classic jumping and adventure swimming location with a small safe beach. Walk up the narrow headland to find steps on the left down to a rocky inlet. There’s also a canyon leading to a rocky lagoon on the far right.
GRID REF: SX002810 / POSTCODE: PL29 3SQ
Lothian and Fife Coast
BEST FOR CASTLE: Seacliff Beach (North Berwick) sits beneath the magical ruins of clifftop castle Tantallon, dating from the 14th century. The wooded beach also overlooks the guano-capped island of Bass Rock, sticking up like an iced cup cake from the sea. To the left of the beach is a tiny harbour inlet with jumps.
GRID REF: NT603848 / POSTCODE: EH39 5PP
BEST FOR COASTAL SCRAMBLING: The Fife coastline was the home of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, who was abandoned on a south sea island and tormented by hordes of mating sea lions before being rescued five years later. If you’d like your own small adventure then try the Elie’s chain walk, the UK’s only via ferrata, a series of chains and ladders that take you on a scramble over a mysterious black volcanic landscape of plunge pools, inlets and caves at Kincraig Point. It’s a brilliant place to swim if the sea is calm.
GRID REF: NT466996 / POSTCODE: KY9 1HB
BEST GIANT ROCK ARCH: Portknockie is an ordinary fishing village that sports extraordinary coastal features. Here the Bow Fiddle rocks sits in a little cove to the rear of the town. The slanted rock strata have created a huge natural archway. The swim out is easy, and once underneath you can climb up onto the arch. You may even be lucky enough to witness a pod of the famous Moray dolphins swimming close by.
GRID REF: NJ494689 / POSTCODE: AB56 4N
One of the best ways to reach the UK’s wild swimming spots is by car, and if you don’t fancy taking your own, Hertz provides numerous options for different types of terrain. They can be hired from all Ryanair airports. For more details, visit www.hertz.co.uk