There's nothing quite so exhilarating as swimming in the great outdoors
Whether you’re jumping into the sea, tidal pools, rivers or lakes, wild swims are an adventure.
Some enjoy the sea’s unruly nature, being bobbed up and down by waves and moving with the ebb and flow of the tides. Some prefer long calm beaches where you can stretch in an endless front crawl never far out of your depth. In the sea you can circumnavigate islands, skinny dip with seals on white-sand beaches, snorkel above kelp forests or wave your hands around like an aquatic Merlin should you be lucky enough to find a warm shallow bay with phosphorescence at night.
River swims, too, are as various as the people who swim in them: there are waterfalls, sun-warmed paddling pools and swimming super highways. There are traditional bathing spots where you can join in the splash with children and picnickers, and remote crags and brooks known only by ramblers, where you can swim through underwater arches and plunge off rocks.
And then there are lakes, ponds and tarns – nature’s swimming pools – safe, still bodies of water that have a timelessness about them, particularly in the early morning when they lie undisturbed by the night, holding a perfect reflection of the surroundings – whether dense woodland or barren rocks.
Wherever you swim, an open mind is essential. I have discovered that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t turn out ‘right’. Some days the water will sparkle and the sun will be high; other days you’ll mistime the tides and end up sitting in a car rocking in the wind as the sky turns black. But I’ve never had a bad swim, because there was always freedom and spontaneity and fun…
It was in an outdoor shop in Ambleside that I was recommended one of my favourite wild swims. Blackmoss Pot has a magical combination of qualities: a longish walk to a hidden spot, crystal-clear water, a waterfall, jumps, a natural Jacuzzi and a 20m swimming channel between sturdy rocks.
We set off from Langstrath Country Inn, where walkers were drying out their boots by the fire and lunching on ‘Goosnargh chicken’ or ‘Eskdale steak & ale pie’. We started up the Langstrath valley and, after five minutes, passed a wild camping spot that made us want to buy a stove and stay for the week. A couple of tents and a van were backed up to the river and a painted wooden sign thanked people for keeping this ‘a clean and peaceful place for everyone’.
The Cumbria Way and Dales Way run to the east of the river, which tumbles clear over grey rocks, but we walked on a footpath on the west. After ten or 15 minutes we reached Galleny Force, a recommended swim spot with a series of waterfalls in a crevasse with lichen-covered trees hanging overhead, ferns on grassy mounds and places to sit in natural Jacuzzis.
We continued up the gentle slope, passing an ideal children’s section where the river spreads out wide and shallow, with every chance of pockets of water being heated up into little paddling pools by the underwater rocks on sunny days.
The steep walk up through the bleak valley is all part of what makes this swim. For the first half hour of the ascent our normal lives came with us as we chatted away, but gradually we piped down and the landscape took over. After an hour we were rewarded by Blackmoss Pot – a deep pool behind a cluster of rocks.
We couldn’t get our clothes off fast enough. There’s a big round stone about 2m high, the perfect easy jump for landing with a comfortable splash in completely clear water. It is breathtaking in both senses of the word.
As it started to drizzle I swam upwards to the waterfall. Grey rocks like stepping stones covered its lip. I watched soggy sheep cross the falls one by one while I wedged myself into some bubbles. Then I let go and swam down through the main pool, then up and down the calm 20m channel between the two high rocks. It was sheltered, crystal clear, alive with baby brown trout, and – company allowing – the ideal spot for five-star skinny dipping.
How long: Just one impromptu night
Wild swimming top tips:• Know your limits and swim within them