For me, summer means swimming outdoors. Much of my youth in Vermont was spent happily damming a brook to make a swimming hole, diving into a toe-tingling glacial lake, or packing the car for a trip to a reservoir beach. So, when I moved to the UK, I was mystified by the attitude to swimming outdoors. My queries about places to cool off naturally were met with tales of rusty junk in the water and expressions of disgust at the idea of people swimming in drinking water. I was warned, wild swimming involves freezing my arse off, getting hassled by anglers, or being arrested for trespassing.
I gather that it wasn’t always this way, but at some point over the years it has become socially unacceptable to swim in rivers and lakes here. The way people now refer to swimming in natural water – ‘wild swimming’ – implies that there is something unruly or rebellious about it. At best, it’s seen as decidedly eccentric. So it was with great relief I found the River and Lake Swimming Association and the Outdoor Swimming Society. These like-minded weirdos have been my guide to checking out some of the best places to swim outside in the Northwest.
The experiences I’ve had investigating the waters around Manchester have been so positive that I’m quickly becoming one of those boring people who rattle on about their pet hobby all the time. Obviously, you need to know your rights (and bring your common sense). And the most useful tip I can offer: wear crocs, tevas or aqua socks to protect your feet unless you really know what’s down there. Here are five of the best swimming spots within 30-40 minutes’ drive of Manchester city centre.
Here are our picks
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.
Lumb Falls, Old Rd, Hebden Bridge, HX7 8R - Visit now
One for the rugged outdoorsy types, a scramble up a trail and down a bank wins you a bracing dip in the waters of this West Yorkshire beauty spot near Hardcastle Crags. The people of Hebden and surrounding towns have enjoyed cooling off here for ages, but it might be a little tricky to find if you’re not familiar with the area. There is limited parking on Haworth Old Road, alternatively, park at Hardcastle Crags and walk up Crimsworth Dean to the falls.
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.