By Lunges & Lycra | Published on 14 June 2019
Escape the chlorine, pack a bag of snacks and take a dip on the wild side with these open-water swim spots along the Great Northern line.
When I was a child, whenever we got one of those really hot summer days – you know, those days where you can smell the tarmac melting and your 99 drips all over your fingers - instead of joining all the other families taking their windbreaks and buckets and spades to the coast, we’d jump in the car and head to my grandparent’s house in a small mining town near Durham.
Grandpa would put a knotted hankie on his head (it was the 80s), Gran would pack sandwiches, and we’d all put our swimming costumes on under our shorts and walk down to a bend in the River Wear on the outskirts of town.
No matter how hot the weather, the river provided a cool and refreshing welcome. We’d paddle by the side and then as we got braver walk on the mossy stones lining the river bed until it became deep enough to swim. Sometimes there were other people there, the brave ones diving straight in and the more cautious dipping their toes first, but sometimes we had the whole place to ourselves.
As I got older I swam for a local aquatics club and spent every evening after school ploughing up and down the bright blue chlorinated lanes. It was fun but nowhere near as fun as the river.
The joy of wild swimming
Now, as adults, both Emma and I take part in triathlons which involve a swim, usually in open water, cycle and run. When I was training for my first, back in 2009, I went for a session in the Serpentine, a lake in London’s Hyde Park, to prepare for the open-water swim leg. Until then I’d forgotten about the joys of swimming through nature but as my fingers pulled through the green water, ducks swam past and the canopy of trees provided dappled shade from the day’s heat I remembered just how bloomin’ amazing it is.
Turn onto your back and you’ve got the sky above, there’s space to swim as you want without others bashing your shoulders or touching your toes, it’s a place where you can really switch off. Swimming outdoors in lakes, rivers and the sea even has a romantic name nowadays, it’s called wild swimming.
The best thing about wild swimming? As long as you’re a competent swimmer, anyone can get out there and enjoy it. There are spaces in towns, cities and countryside all across the UK where you can swim and it’s a great way to explore the country through its waterways. One of our favourite things on a sunny day is to pack a picnic, jump on a train and explore a new swimming spot.
Think you’re ready to take a dip? Here are some of our favourite spots along the Great Northern line.
Granchester Meadows, Cambridge
Taking a punt along the river is not the only way to explore the waterways of Cambridge. Around 4km of the river, which are free of motor boats, have been designated for swimming. The tree-lined area around Granchester Meadows is a particularly beautiful place to take a dip and if you’re lucky you’ll see plenty of wildlife including herons and kingfishers.
Like the city itself, a swim in the Cam is steeped in history, poet Robert Brooks and author Virginia Woolf used to swim in the Cam and Lord Bryon regularly took a dip in the weir pond in what is now a local nature reserve called Bryon’s Pool. There are also some lovely walks and pubs in the area for drying off and refueling afterwards.
Serpentine Lido, London
While most lidos are open-air swimming pools, the Serpentine Lido is a cordoned off area of the lake in the middle of Hyde Park so you get a real sense of swimming with nature – watch out for swans and ducks! An oasis in the city, it’s open daily from June to August and weekends and bank holidays in May. It’s great for kids as there’s also a paddling pool and children’s play area. If you’re a serious swimmer you’ll be pleased to hear it’s around 100m in length so you can easily get some good distance in.
Stanbrough Park, Welwyn Garden City
On the outskirts of Welwyn Garden City, Stanbrough Park has two lakes set among the parkland. The South Lake has a host of watersports available and at certain times from April to September – early in the morning as the sun is rising or in evenings as it sets – you can turn up and pay £5 for a swim among the swans and ducks. You’ll find exact swim times here.
Wild swimming safety
Before you dive in, however, there are a few rules to bear in mind. In England and Wales, a right to roam law means that while most public places and open spaces are open to swimming there are some exceptions so double check first – The Outdoor Swimming Society has a great interactive map showing places to swim.
For safety reasons, swim with a friend and ensure you tell someone where you’re going. Be aware that open water can have dramatic changes in depth that aren’t always visible and watch out for strong currents.
Open water can be much colder than a swimming pool so ease yourself in gently to acclimatise, take dry clothes for after and in colder weather consider a wetsuit. A bright swimming hat will ensure you can be seen by others while goggles will help you see yourself!