We live on a wet island, we may as well embrace it. The North of England is veined with cuts and canals that once were vital to the functioning of our society. Our lakes are treasured by all and none go unpainted for long, while rivers forge through our towns and cities, defining them. The local word for stream changes every 20 miles, and it rains – it rains a bunch.
Exploring the blue parts of the North is one of the great simple pleasures, and wild swimmers reflect the waters themselves with their array of characters. Some see challenges to be met, trials to be endured. Others just see a chance to get away, relax, and reconnect with something honest and good. For me the purge in a mountain tarn at the end of a hike is the biggest draw, for regulars at places like Sale Water Park and Hathersage Swimming Pool it’s also the sense of community. The tapestry of our waterways throws up a similar diversity, waterfalls like Janet’s Foss and Low Force are dramatic set pieces, while lakes like Windermere, Wastwater and Derwent Reservoir exude a more tranquil majesty.
Unrelenting curiosity and a sense of adventure are two of the only constants among wild swimmers. Once you’re in, you’ll find that the country is a refilling cup. The more tarns you dip or ghylls you scramble, the longer your wishlist will become. With more man-made outdoor venues opening up every year like Ilkley or Hull Lido, you’ll never be too far away from a swim.
Here are our picks
Derwent Reservoir, Blanchland, Consett, County Durham, DH8 9PT - Visit now
Confusingly there are two Derwent Reservoirs in the UK, and where one in Derbyshire is guarded by a fairly kitsch warning post promising a penalty for bathing ‘not exceeding five pounds’, the other up in the North Pennines has a very different attitude. Owned and managed by Northumbrian water, this is one of the largest inland waters in the country and services water to much of the north-east along with the nearby (and bigger Kielder Water). This reservoir is so much more than functional though. Derwent Waterside Park has furnished the water’s edge with glamping spots, a visitor centre, play areas and easily navigable paths around the whole thing.
If you’re in the area and want to get into the water, the sailing club offers open-water swimming as one of the water-sports available here. If you can stand the cold and have the endurance, there’s plenty of room to push yourself.
Windermere, Windermere Lake, Cumbria, LA23 1AH - Visit now
The Lake District features unsurprisingly heavily on this list, but perhaps no water here is more storied than Windermere. For centuries it has drawn to its banks the great and good of Britain, each padding out the lake’s iconic status.
It is the largest body of inland water in England, and supplements the scale and serene drama of the region. Swimmers who enjoy a challenge (or relish ticking things off lists) have naturally flocked here for centuries. For others, the misty-eyed romanticism of following in the breast-strokes of Wordsworth, Coleridge or Potter endures enough to get them in the water. On a pleasant day, you might like to pad down from Grasmere with some tough local gingerbread and pass through Ambleside to Borrans Park. There, at the Waterhead end of Windermere you can paddle in amenably shallow waters, take a crawl along the northern shore, before resurfacing for some fish and chips.
Morecambe Bay, Central Promenade, Morecambe, LA4 4DB - Visit now
Morecambe bay, replete with its famous cockles, is a significant coastal landmark. The largest tidal mudflat in the UK is where the distant lakeland fells would come into view for travellers in times gone by. It’s a sight to behold at high or low tide.
Now, wild swimming can be a transformative solo exploit, but for some time, folk in Lancashire have enjoyed coming together to swim in the sea. M.A.L.L.O.W.S was founded by Jon Gibirdi in 2017 and now has over 2000 members spread across the county. Sea swimming is a different animal to inland swimming and these groups often follow a course along the coastline taking care to consult the tidal charts and weather before getting in. The atmosphere with them seems to be ‘the more the merrier.’
Park up by the 115 year old clocktower on the promenade – you can’t miss it.
Black Moss Pot in the Lake District, Langstrath Valley, Keswick, CA12 5XQ - Visit now
A leisurely walk through the Langstrath Valley from Stonethwaite produces stunning vistas you’d normally expect only to find after an uphill slog. Pursuing becks through the dales here can be very rewarding for the wild swimmer. Two miles or so along the path you’ll come across a cauldron of crystal clear water known as Black Moss Pot.
This isn’t a dip for the faint-hearted or squeamish. The former because the most popular way of entering the pot is by leaping in from the high rocky outcrops above, and the latter because it’s a bit of a skinny dipping hotspot.
Splashing about in the shallows upstream is a fun alternative to the leap of faith. It’s also recommended anyway to acclimatise to the temperature. A good idea if you’re planning on subsequently making the plummet. Finish off by getting drenched under the waterfall and then sunbathing on the grass.
Slippery Stones, Derwent Valley, Howden Reservoir, Hope Valley, S33 0BB - Visit now
As you follow the river Derwent upstream through the heart of the Peaks, its course stutters across three reservoirs. At the north end of the middle one, the Derwent visitor centre is not a bad place to park up. Here, if you’re lucky, you can see the young Derwent get into its stride flowing in a torrent over the vast Derwent Dam. A sign here quaintly deters visitors from bathing in the reservoir or indeed committing “any nuisance”.
As you make the 5 mile journey to the Slippery Stones the Derwent will become narrower and the eponymous stones will start to appear in the shallows. In time you’ll arrive at a modestly-sized natural pool which can be up to 3-4 metres deep and is great for a cannonball. No notices from the Derwent Water Board here.
A bearded vulture was spotted here last year – so pack binoculars if you’re ornithologically inclined.
Wastwater, Overbeck, Wasdale, CA20 1EX - Visit now
Here’s one to tick off – Wastwater is the deepest lake in England at 258 feet and one of my favourite spots in the country to swim. On one side 2000ft scree slopes provide a looming backboard, on the other the valley has a spareness to it. That openness and seclusion makes the lake feel like a giant mountain tarn.
Here in the shadow of Scafell Pike, England’s loftiest peak, Rather than start trying to rack up lengths, I’m more compelled to stroke out into the middle and just take it all in. This glacial lake feels expansive in every direction, the fathoms of water below, the volcanic rock that stretch up on one side and the dale stretching out the other. Along with the icy water this seems to awaken neural pathways previously dormant. It’s those sensory spikes that epitomise for me the feeling of clarity we associate with water.
Hell Gill, Mallerstang, Aisgill, CA17 4JY - Visit now
Hell Gill Beck burrows into the soft rock of the Yorkshire/Cumbria border to create this 500m long slot canyon. There is plenty of wading and swimming to be done here but it’s a journey too. With a wetsuit, wet boots and perhaps a helmet you’ll follow the water’s descent down into the bowels of the limestone where it has carved out high narrow walls.
Upon emerging into the light you’ll only be a short meander from Hell Gill Force, where the beck meets the infant River Eden. Here, beneath an 8m waterfall you can bathe in the sunlit water and perfectly punctuate the end of your journey.
Putting aside the intimidating name this is one of those swims that can grant you a truly altered perspective, it does require caution however, and going with a guide could be an idea if you feel you lack the necessary experience.
Bolton Abbey, Stepping Stones, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 6EX - Visit now
This corner of Wharfdale, immortalised by JMW Turner, is a gorgeous day out. After you’ve investigated the priory and seen what fascinating relics lie in store there, the grassy area around the stepping stones is perfect picnic territory. The stones themselves offer up the challenge, then a touch northwards is a shallow beach. It’s a wonderful picnic spot and a chance swim in Wordsworth’s ‘crystal Wharf’.
Be warned, when I hopped off the final stone onto the rocky eastern shore only one of my trouser legs was still dry. It’s an amusing image to picture monks bouncing from one step to the next, but some of the gaps are not laughing matters. My advice: make peace with the possibility of getting wet – though if you’re reading this guide, you probably already have. And when you do dip your toe, there aren’t many better rivers for swimming than the Wharf.
Janet’s Foss in Skipton, Malhamdale, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 4DL - Visit now
If you are, or know, someone who loves wild swimming in northern England, then you, or someone you know, will probably have spoken in reverent tones about Janet’s Foss. The gin-clear turquoise waters of this beloved waterfall has a magical aura. You ought to come in from Malham through Wedber Wood if you can – it’s a nice easy stroll and you’ll feel that you’ve earned your dip. What with all I’d heard of the Foss, it felt like a pagan ritual padding slowly through the gnarled woodland towards the storied falls.
After steeping yourself in the hallowed waters there’s plenty more to enjoy about this enchanted place (try and spot the tree-trunk studded with coins). The waterfall spills out of Gordale Scar, a striking limestone ravine that was the muse of both Wordsworth and JMW Turner, two people who seem to be cropping up rather a lot.
Wild Shore Liverpool, Gower St Dukes Dock, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD - Visit now
A giant inflatable obstacle course doesn’t scream wild, but Wild Shore Liverpool is extremely fun and a tonic to all these other ‘Wild Swimming’ spots, most of which don’t have any giant inflatable obstacle courses. Now on most of the obstacles the aim is to not get wet, but unless you’re a Total Wipeout veteran you’ll certainly be taking a dip sooner or later. 50 minutes of slipping, sliding, clinging on for dear life and ultimately, falling in the water is great value for money with this alternative approach to open water. But don’t misunderstand, this is no heated swimming pool, when you eventually leap off ‘Mount Ranier’ at the end of the course (height-unenthusiasts can slide down) you’ll be splashing down in by the Royal Albert Dock.
Not so much ‘wild water’ as ‘working water’, this historic spot revolutionised docking and is now packed with museums and attractions – none more of a laugh than this one.
Manley Mere in Cheshire, Manley Lane, Frodsham, Cheshire, WA6 0PE - Visit now
Admittedly, this one does also have a giant inflatable obstacle course.
Manley Mere in Frodsham is a man-made lake between the Mersey and the Dee. With an emphasis on safety it is tailor-made for people to get to grips with all kinds of water-sports, including open-water swimming. But this isn’t just a place you can turn up and swim. To get in the water here you’ve got to be a member of NOWCA, which sounds more disappointingly exclusive than it is. NOWCA is actually the National Open Water Coaching Association, and they offer safety courses you should know about if you’re a wild swimmer. This place is great for cutting your teeth before heading out on your own.
Sailing, Kayaking, Fishing and basically anything you can add the suffix surfing to can be done here, and there are a bunch of courses and groups to join up to if you think you can get down regularly.
Hull Lido, 94 Albert Ave, Anlaby Rd, Hull, HU3 6QE - Visit now
The Albert Avenue lido in Hull has the distinction of being the one place in this guide that doesn’t yet properly exist. Sadly that has hindered my attempts to try it out. However, after 25 years of closure, the council is planning to open it up again after a 4.6 million pound refurbishment. When it does I’ll be making my way there with salmon-like determination.
What’s so exciting about it is that this is further evidence that lidos are coming roaring back. The UK coastline was once awash with the things, but sadly their popularity diminished and most closed. With wild swimming now becoming good-living buzzwords it’s vital that it’s encouraged through proper investment in infrastructure. Many city-dwellers can’t easily get to remote outdoor swim spots but this new facility will seek to rectify that and become a community hub – complete with a gym and fitness studio.
Lacy’s Caves in Penrith, Little Salkeld, Penrith, CA10 1NW - Visit now
Lacy’s Caves are fascinating structures in an area marked with the indelible pick-axe of history, and they just so happen to be in a spot made for wild swimmers. The River Eden meanders invitingly past these curious caves and the Victorian gypsum mines.
Colonel Samuel Lacy’s pet project is a bit of an oddity – the five chambers were carved directly into the sandstone on the former war hero’s commission in the 18th century and no one quite knows why. But it’s easy to explain why letting yourself drift peacefully along the river Eden is a treat. Here the water is plenty deep and if you’re so inclined, leaping into the water from a stack of rock known as the ‘Tower’ is apparently a knee-wobbling thrill.
The Eden Valley is as picturesque as the name suggests, and the Settle-Carlisle railway trundles right through it. If at all possible, that could be the ideal way to make your way to the caves.
River Wharfe in Ilkley, Riverside Gardens, Ilkley, Bradford, LS29 9EU - Visit now
The Wharfe’s passage through Ilkley has never been a hidden gem to locals or wild swim enthusiasts from around the parish. Once May is out and summer’s in the air, everyone and their dog seems to congregate about the river. In hydrological terms, there is a confluence between the community and its watercourse, so expect hubbub here, not serenity.
What is particularly remarkable about this stretch of river is that it was in 2020 declared a designated bathing site. The river is the first in the country to receive this status. This ruling, fuelled by local passions, is an environmental landmark as well as a fillip to those who love to dip in freshwater. It means that the river will be subject to regular and rigorous testing to make sure it’s fit to swim in.
Hathersage Swimming Pool, Oddfellows Road, Hathersage, S32 1DU - Visit now
Cold water swimming has many purported health benefits and it’s just as well because you’re not likely to find any outdoor water in the north of England that’s warm. Hathersage swimming pool in the Peak District has been a staple of the community for more than 80 years and is one of the few places out in the open air where you can experience both chilled and heated waters.
So popular is this lido that it broke with convention in recent years and started staying open all year round, hosting monthly music swims and loads of other events. If you pop down in the summer you’ll find very agreeable 28°C H2O in which to practise your strokes. And if you’re one of a growing number of Brits who have taken to freezing yourself to the bone on New Years Day you’d be in the right place here as the pool is open and totally unheated throughout winter.
Low Force in Durham, Bowlees, Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 0XF - Visit now
Upper Teesdale is a haven for nature lovers, significant for its flora, geology and natural water features. An ancient layer of dolerite forms the ‘Whin Sill’, and outcrops of the erosion-resistant rock along the Tees river are responsible for some spectacular waterfalls. High Force is the highest one in England and possesses awesome power. Swimming here is not an option, but hold fire, a stroll through the wooded upland will soon lead you to Low Force, another (slightly smaller) cascade of silty water. Here you may spot some kayakers flying over the ledge.
The Pennine Way dictates the path downstream along the bank, where you’ll find a calm pool off to the side away from the roil of the waterfall itself. There are plenty of walkers along this path, and guided tours too, but amongst the foliage it’s possible to find a little spot of your own to wade in.
Blea Tarn in Little Langdale, Blea Tarn Trail, Langdale, Coniston, Cumbria, LA22 9PG - Visit now
Tarns are perhaps my favourite places to swim – concealed, curious and cathartic. These secret little pools can usually only be seen, let alone accessed, by getting up high amongst the hills. Normally, at the climax of a long hike, one might reveal itself to a walker as a reward – Blea Tarn is a little different. Situated high in a hanging valley above Great Langdale, this pool seems just as remote as any other mountain tarn, but here, walking abilities don’t count for much. It’s easily accessible by road and there’s a car park about 100 yards away.
The National Trust own and upkeep this area and have done a fantastic job, the path is well maintained and it’s easy to walk around the tarn.
Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Chatsworth House, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1PP - Visit now
There’s a certain stretch of the River Derwent where taking a dip feels like something between wild swimming and highly civilised swimming. Unless you’re the Duke and/or Duchess of Devonshire you probably don’t live there, so you’ll have to book and travel to visit Chatsworth House.
The building itself is grand and ought to have an IMDB page it’s been in so many films and tv shows. But the River Derwent is a darling of Derbyshire even more enduring, and a discreet swim here seems to take you back in time. This is a river with a good bit of width so it’s tempting to make a beeline for the middle, here is the perfect vantage point to admire the wonderful 18th century gardening by the confidently named Capability Brown. It’s not bad the other direction either, west and northwards lies the full verdant breadth of the Peak District.
Ilkley Lido, Denton Road, Ilkley, West Yorkshire, LS29 0BZ - Visit now
It may have been formed using human, not natural, methods, but let noses not be turned up at this Grade II listed 1930’s uplands lido. As a concept the lido’s star had faded, but it’s making a stirring comeback up and down the country after renewed interest. Here is one that weathered the storm and never went away, but instead of coastal promenades, seagulls and arcades, it’s perched in full view of the beautiful Ilkley Moors.
The charm of this place is infectious and it’s often a vibrant hub in the summer. It’s certainly easy to lose track of time here. There are swimming lanes where you can get your lengths in, cafes for fizzy drinks and ice cream and even a retro aerated fountain in the water. It may not be the wildest swim in Yorkshire, but don’t come here expecting a heated pool!
Hatchmere Nature Reserve, Blackere Lane, Frodsham, WA6 6NL - Visit now
This lake near Delamere Forest has the rare distinction of being a place where swimmers’ rights are recognised. There’s a small lawned area just at the roadside and a tiny sandy beach. On the scorching day we visited, there was a bit of algae on the lake, but it was fine for swimming. The water deepens gradually, so it’s good for kids. Conveniently, there’s a great-looking pub with outdoor seating, The Carriers Inn, just next to the lake access, so you don’t even need to pack a picnic.
Next to the Carriers Inn, Delamere Road, Hatchmere, Norley.
Pickmere, Pickmere, Knutsford, WA16 0LG - Visit now
This large lake is, hands down, my favourite find so far. There’s a car park and a recreation area with lawns, picnic tables and lakeside paths to explore. It’s all property of the Parish Council, who don’t condone swimming there (hence the no swimming sign) but according to the RLSA, they can’t stop people prepared to swim at their own risk. The water was crystal clear, though the bottom was bit silty near the shore and it drops off quickly. Be prepared to share the lake with water skiers, kayakers and windsurfers. Those with kids may also want to check out nearby Stockley Farm, but everyone will enjoy a stop at Great Budworth Dairy Ice Cream Farm.
Parking/access off Mere Lane, Pickmere, Knutsford, WA16.
Gaddings Dam, Todmorden, Lumbutts Road, Todmorden, OL14 6JJ - Visit now
Another hiker-friendly swimming spot, this disused reservoir at the top of the moor near Walsden is a great place to cool off. And the fact that it’s accessed by a trail prevents it from getting too crowded. The beach in the Northeast corner is said to be the highest in England, and on a windy day it certainly feels like it. Interestingly, it’s owned and managed by a collective of locals determined to keep it open for swimming.
Access via Lumbutts Road, Todmorden – Park opposite the Shepherds Rest Inn, Gaddings Dam is at the end of a steep footpath up the hill opposite.
Helly Hansen Watersports Centre, 15 The Quays, Salford, M50 3SQ - Visit now
Going for a dip in the Manchester Ship Canal may sound like a bad punchline. But believe us, the water is much, much cleaner than it used to be. Because the watersports centre is run by Salford Council, there are forms to fill in and (reasonable) fees to pay before you can dive in for their hour-long open water training sessions on Monday and Thursday evenings. So, not the place to roll up on a hot day looking for aquatic relief – but a real find for the serious swimmers of the city.
Sale Water Park and Chorlton Ees, Rifle Road, Sale, M33 2LX
A stroll down the Mersey in this south Manchester and you’re suddenly inundated with water parks. Chorlton’s mirrors Sale’s on the opposite bank just a few hundred metres downstream. Sale is the place for swimming though and on a warm summer’s day you’ll find scores of revellers paddling merrily.
This is not just a fair-weather haunt for the cheerful populations of Sale and Chorlton however, there are dedicated professionals here too. The park stands as an active proponent of open-water swimming, and there are qualified coaching teams leading sessions throughout the week nearly all year round. There’s a nurturing atmosphere around Sale Water Park and it’s a brilliant way to begin a wild-swimming journey before going off searching for gems yourself.
Speaking of journeys, the trans-pennine trail potters right past here too – that’ll lead you to plenty of great swim spots.