When temperatures hit a furnace-worthy 36.9°C in July, one lido in London was literally mobbed by a crowd of 500 bikini-clad, goggle-toting people.
Obviously, the hot and bothered siege at Brockwell Park prompted a call to the police and got the lido shut down for a few hours. But rioting aside, you can sympathise with the would-be outdoor swimmers’ intentions – they just wanted to be in some cold H2O on a sweltering day.
And why limit yourself to chlorinated, turquoise-tiled pools – however David Hockney-esque they might be – when there are natural places to take a dip instead? Or restrict yourself to swimming outdoors in summer? The health benefits are worth benefiting from whatever the season (and yes, that includes winter).
“When you plunge into cold water, it releases a flood of endorphins and whatever mood you were in beforehand, you don’t regret it,” says Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming (Wild Things Publishing Ltd, £16.99). “Being submerged in cold water makes you feel alive and elated.
“You’re so in the moment,” he adds. “Particularly if you’re surrounded by nature and have a frog’s eye view of the world – it’s like a form of meditation, you feel very present.”
For those concerned about diving into icy water for the first time, Start explains that ‘cold adaptation’ tends to kick in around your third cold water swim. This is when your body will begin to adjust and not feel quite so sensitive to the chill. Obviously, “the more cold water swims, the better” to build up your tolerance levels, he notes.
As well as being a cheap, fun and easy way to stay fit, studies have found that people who swim in cold water throughout winter are half as likely to develop a cold, while it’s also believed to be beneficial for those with mental health illnesses, MS, ME, anxiety and depression, among others.
It’s also “a great way to reclaim your life”, muses Start. “Just swimming down a river, it’s very achievable, but doing it gives you a huge sense of accomplishment. Combine that with the endorphin release and the exercise element and you feel fantastic.”
Plus, “nothing burns calories like swimming, especially swimming in cold water”.
If you’re heading out on a wild swim, it’s always a good idea to take someone with you, dress appropriately for the water temperature, check the current and depth of the water and have some warm, dry clothes on the shore for when you’re finished.
Wild swimming is fantastic fun – but it’s always important to know your limits and build up your experience in the open water slowly.
Tempted? These wilder swimming spots in the UK all offer a lush and health-boosting experience…
1. Hampstead Heath Ponds, London
Leap into Hampstead Ponds and it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve dived straight into a Richard Curtis movie – or the Eighties. Open year-round (visit cityoflondon.gov.uk and search ‘bathing ponds’ for times and info), there’s mixed, men’s and ladies’ pools to pick from (and ladies, you get hot showers).
2. River Dart, Staverton, Devon
If distance swimming is your thing, this long stretch of water is a great place to practise your breaststroke while floating past weeping willows and the old steam train, which runs adjacent to the river. According to locals, the best entry point is down the footpath between the railway station and old mill.
3. Kailpot Crag, Ullswater, Lake District
This enormous lake is the perfect spot for blowing off the cobwebs during a long hike. Rugged Kailpot Crag is a particularly picturesque place to dip your toe in – a daredevil jumping spot surrounded by deep, crystal-clear waters.
4. Fairy Pools, Skye
Swim spots don’t get more photogenic than Scotland’s aptly titled Fairy Pools, which funnel the freshest water from the foot of the Cuillin mountains into waterfalls that tumble into turquoise lagoons. Be warned – the waters are icy cold.
5. Howth, County Dublin
Along the coastal path from this Irish fishing port is a popular spot for teens who want to launch themselves off the gnarly islet during the summer, but it presents a year-round opportunity to make a splash for confident open-water swimmers. Wetsuits are advised in the winter.