The thrill of diving or just dipping a toe into open water has many of us turning away from roped lanes and membership plans. We talk to Daniel Start, author of the Wild Swimming books about his pioneering role in getting a nation swimming outside again.
Why do you love Wild Swimming?
It’s a wonderful way to discover your own backyard taking you into the countryside with a completely different compass. Wild swimming is a way of understanding and exploring the British landscape. Water is the driving force that has shaped and informed our valleys, gorges and tarns. It’s also really fun – each dip is a mini adventure, good for your health and mental wellbeing.
What got you started?
I grew up on the River Wye in Herefordshire. It was a Huckleberry Finn childhood building rafts and learning to swim in the river. A stint running wilderness retreats in Snowdonia had me guiding swims in the tarns and waterfalls, but a trip with friends on the River Dart in 2006 was the seminal moment. We got into the river at Dartmeet carrying tiny inflatable dinghies and swam for 4 hrs over 5/6miles of rapids and waterfalls to Newbridge. I was completely hooked.
What prompted you to write the first Wild Swimming book?
I was working in an office in London and searching for ways to escape a busy city life but realised there were no resources to help people share the experiences I had as a child. What started as a passion became a two-year project, roping in friends, leaving my job and persuading very reluctant editors to publish my book. Strange to imagine now but they kept asking me why anyone would want to swim in the wild?
How do you find the best spots?
A mix of walking rivers to see where people are swimming, chatting to locals to document traditional swimming spots that otherwise might be lost from memory, poring over satellite images and maps, and focusing on national parks and lowland areas. What we realised early on is that if there’s a good spot all the locals are already there.
What makes a great wild swimming spot?
Take the River Dart with its beautiful archetypal British upland scenery and a river flowing off high land with enough water for deep river pools, channels and torrents to swim down. The landscape is stunning with ancient oak forests and clean, fresh waterfalls. Or you might want to go somewhere higher with waterfalls you can swim under or larger pools for longer swims. Dips that include a lovely walk with riverside paths are also good.
Do you have favourite spots for different seasons?
I prefer the sea in winter. It’s great to use the swell to do some coastal swimming in caves or coasteering in places like Pembrokeshire. For inland swims I stick to any sunny day between Easter and Halloween. Snowdonia has a treasure trove of canyons and waterfalls. The lesser known Rhinogs in Snowdonia have a very good mixture of tarns, gorges and waterfalls with huge pools and flat slabs to dive in. In contrast we have some bucolic lowlands such as Grantchester Meadows on the River Cam where you can dive, swim and punt. The grassy banks provide good access and the meandering river has lovely beaches.
What are the best wild swimming spots for camping?
Close to where I was born in Kings Lacey, just down from Hoarwithy, there’s a great riverside campsite where you can canoe, swim and walk to a very good pub. A couple of other noteworthy spots are Great Hexworthy in Dartmoor that has a good riverside campsite and Appletree Wick on the River Wharf in Yorkshire with classic river swimming and lots of magical waterfalls.
Why do you think we lost the love and confidence in taking a wild dip?
Up until recently throwing yourself into cold polluted waters was understandably seen as quite strange. People tended to go to the beach to swim as many of our rivers were quite toxic. There are news reports of the police hauling people out of the Severn River presuming they were mad. What’s key is that rivers are now cleaner than they’ve ever been in living memory. Joining the European Union in the 1970s led to us adopting their water standards, cleaning up our rivers and improving our drainage systems.
Why is it now having a renaissance?
It’s seen as a salve from the stresses and strains of lock down and digital life. The benefits of cold water for our mental health and immune system are better understood, as are the psychological effects of the community adventure, forming clubs, exercising with friends and getting outdoors.
You’ve also done a number of Wild Swimming books in Europe. Is there more of a culture for wild swimming there?
Yes, take France. It has much less coastline than the UK and what it has is rough and challenging for swimmers, so people are more likely to holiday inland by rivers, lakes or reservoirs. They have over 2,500 registered swimming rivers and lakes that are life-guard monitored and every reservoir in France is permissible to swim unlike the UK. The dramatic limestone and granite geology also creates some of the most magnificent swimming spots in the world.
What’s next for Wild Swimming guides?
We’re about to publish guides to the Alps, Croatia, Slovenia, the Balearics and Andalusia; and closer to home we’re trying to fill in the gaps in Britain bringing out a Wild guide for London, Wales, Dorset and the Lake District. Lucky for us there’s still so much to explore.
Here’s our Yurtel guide to the best wild swimming spots with some glamping creature comforts:
Cornish Tipi Holidays and Camping, North Cornwall
A woodland valley folded around a clear, spring-fed lake created from the old Tregildrans Quarry. Have a pre-breakfast dip, laze away an afternoon by the water or rent a rowboat and go exploring, the sea is a short ten-minute drive away.
Nightingale Camp, Gloucestershire
A converted railway carriage and Japanese Ofuro hot tub are tucked away by a bend of the River Coln in the Cotswolds. Named after the songbirds for which the area is famous, the camp comes complete with a wooden deck, canopied kitchen and fire pit.
Farrs Meadow, Dorset
A bucolic tent-only site in Dorset with the River Stour running right by the campsite. A big wide-open meadow is surrounded by shady woodland and the river is ideal for a morning dip or some fishing for a DIY dinner.
West Lexham, Norfolk
This rambling estate with 21 acres of gardens and woodland, lake and river. Choose from a lakeside bell tent, quirky cabin or peaceful treehouse in the forest. For a salty dip the seaside at Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea is only 30 minutes away.
Inshriach Yurt, Badenoch and Strathspey, Scotland
Have a swim in the cold water of the River Spey then warm up by the wood stove in this yurt tucked away in wonderful isolation in the Scottish Highlands. With stunning views of the Cairngorms National Park, it’s also the perfect base for hiking, biking, boating, skiing and even dog sledding.