Goldiggins quarry, Minions, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall
This spring-fed quarry lake is the perfect suntrap. The beautiful jade water glistens within a rocky amphitheatre and there are flat ledges for jumping and grassy areas for picnics and sunbathing. It’s a beautiful walk out on to the moor past the Hurlers – one of the most complete remains of a stone circle in the south-west. From the Hurlers car park in Minions, follow the track, which heads north on to the moor; walk past the circle and after 15 minutes bear left at the junction. You can return via the Pony Pool and the “Cheese Ring” tor: a stack of weathered rocks piled up like lumps of mozzarella.
Grid reference: 50.5248, -4.4711
River Dart, Staverton, Devon
At Totnes jump on a restored steam train that runs on the South Devon Railway for the three-mile trip up the line to Staverton village. You’ll find a gentle and relatively warm stretch of the river Dart – deep and still above the weir and more secluded, with little beaches, downstream. Follow the path downstream from the station for 20 minutes, beyond the weir, and you’ll come to a superb jump on a corner bend, with steps built up the trunk of an old oak tree that overhangs the pool. It’s an exhilarating plunge into the dark, peaty water below. Return via the Sea Trout Inn and back up along the lane.
Grid reference: 50.4613, -3.7051
River Thames, Pangbourne, Berkshire
This is one of the best wild swims within easy reach of London. Get off the train at Pangbourne and head upstream three miles via the ancient oaks of Coombe Park. You’re right on the edge of the Chilterns here and you’ll find a wonderful wild stretch of river with chalky banks, clear water – and not a building in sight. Continue for another three miles to the pretty pubs in Goring-on-Thames, then jump on the train home. Alternatively walk or swim downstream from Pangbourne – it’s six miles back to Reading – taking in the meadows with views of the historic Mapledurham house.
Grid reference: 51.5080, -1.1109
River Waveney, Bungay, Suffolk
The Waveney was the favourite river of Roger Deakin – forefather of the wild swimming movement. I love the two-mile loop around Outney Common, starting and returning from Bungay. This town is one of Suffolk’s most independent little places, with quirky cafes, craft stores and antiques dealers, and it has its own river meadows at the bottom of Bridge Street, perfect for a picnic and a quick dip. There’s also Outney Meadow Caravan Park, a riverside campsite with canoe hire. It’s a good river for spotting otters too, though you’ll need to wait until nightfall. Head out under a full moon and embark on a lunar snorkel safari.
Grid reference: 52.4572, 1.4413
River Lugg, Bodenham, Herefordshire
The Lugg is one of several idyllic rivers that rise in Wales and flow down through England along the Welsh Marches. At Bodenham you are spoilt for choice, with long sandy beaches and river pools [see footnote]. Follow the path behind the church and cross the bridge to find the beaches downstream. Afterwards head for the village of Hope Under Dinmore, a mile to the north on the Marches Way, and visit the superb castle and gardens of Hampton Court. For picnic supplies, the yummy Monkland Cheese Dairy is excellent for replacing any fat you burned off during your swim.
Grid reference: 52.1535, -2.6892
River Trent, Anchor Church, Ingleby, Derbyshire
The great river Trent, artery of the coalfields and industrial heartlands of the east Midlands, doesn’t sound promising, but there are plenty of bucolic stretches to explore. I like the extraordinary caves of Anchor Church, a mile upstream from Ingleby near Derby, where the river has carved out a series of rock grottos. Hermits and saints have inhabited this remote place since the sixth century, adding windows and fireplaces. The swimming, in a quiet lagoon just off the river, is safe and it’s a perfect place to explore with children or to shelter from the rain.
Grid reference: 52.8415, -1.4975
River Stour, Fordwich, Kent
Fordwich is thought by some to be England’s smallest town. Set off from the old town hall and follow the path downstream along the Stour. The river is at first open and sunny, but becomes wooded and secretive after two miles, before winding through the reedy lowlands of the Stodmarsh nature reserve, good for spotting bittern, marsh harriers and water vole. You can only reach this section by swimming or canoeing, and if you continue through you’ll eventually arrive at the Grove Ferry Inn in Upstreet.
Grid reference: 51.3001, 1.1513
Kailpot Crag, Ullswater, Lake District
Ullswater is one of the most popular and beautiful lakes in the Lake District, but to escape the crowds head for this high, gnarly crag. There are twisted oaks and rowan trees, and a brilliant jump from the crag into deep, clear water. With its west-facing aspect it’s a perfect place for swimming at sunset, and there’s a beach alongside where you can brew up and make supper. Take the ferry to Howtown pier and follow the lake path a mile south-west; or take the Howtown turning from Pooley Bridge. You’ll pass several beaches en route and Park Foot camping has lakeshore pitches.
Grid reference: 54.5763, -2.8734
Lower Ddwli Falls, Waterfall Woods, Brecon Beacons
In the south-west hills of the Brecon Beacons, near Ystradfellte, you’ll find some of the most amazing waterfall plunge pools in Britain. There are more than 20 pools along five miles of the Fechan and Mellte rivers, so you could try dipping in every one of them on a long day’s walk. Lower Ddwli Falls is my favourite, a huge open pool with a great arc of a waterfall. Spray lifts up through the leaves and on a sunny day there are rainbows everywhere. Just downstream is Horseshoe Falls, with a great jump and rope swing. To reach them walk up the forest path from Pontneddfechan’s Angel Inn or park at Pont Melinfach car park, off the Ystradfellte road, and walk downstream. If you want to make a weekend of it stay at Clyngwyn Bunkhouse.
Grid reference: 51.7771, -3.5876
Loch Caoldair, Laggan, Western Cairngorms
There are thousands of lochs in Scotland, and open access laws mean you can swim in virtually all of them. One of my favourites is Loch Caoldair, on the western edge of the Cairngorms. It’s only a mile from the road (three and a half miles south of Laggan) but it’s completely wild and hidden among birch woods, with a lovely little beach. Afterwards, refuel with homely food and a warm welcome at the remote Monarch Hotel in Laggan and admire the ruined church. There are some great waterfalls a mile down the road at Strathmashie Forest, with a perfect place to pitch your tent right by the edge of the water, ready for that early morning skinny dip.
Grid reference: 56.9791, -4.2677
Wild Swimming: 300 hidden dips in the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Britain by Daniel Start is published on 13 May by Wild Things Publishing for £16.99 (wildswimming.co.uk). To buy a copy for £13.59 with free UK p&p, visit guardianbookshop.co.uk
• This article was amended on 14 May 2013 to remove a reference to Bodenham lake. Herefordshire Council has asked us to make clear that swimming in the lake is discouraged.
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