Wild swimming is a great way to cool off in a heatwave – and good for your mental health too.
“It was a prelapsarian afternoon at Hampstead Ponds [in north-west London] at the height of last year’s heatwave that first got me hooked” on wild swimming, says Madeleine Howell in The Daily Telegraph. But it’s not just a way to cool off – it might even help with mental well-being. Wild swimming has been associated with sleeping better and feeling happier. “It certainly works for me.”
“The secret is to swim at least once a week, gradually extending your time in the water,” Dr Heather Massey, a researcher at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, tells Howell. Summer is a good time to start when the water is warmer. But “always get out if you are uncomfortable” – a wetsuit is advised in water that’s below 16˚C.
Dipping a toe in Lewisham
More and more people are dipping their toes in “the cold-water swimming craze”, says Ellen Scott in Metro. Last Saturday a 285m-long Georgian lake that’s up to 3.5 metres deep in places opened to the public at Beckenham Place Park, in Lewisham, southeast London.
Originally created in 1800 by the owner of Beckenham Place Mansion, John Cator, and later filled in, the lake has been restored as a haven for cold-water swimmers over the age of eight as part of a multi-million-pound regeneration programme. Entry costs £3 for adults – book in advance at ptpcoaching.co.uk/beckenham-place-park. There is also a “non-lifeguard splash zone”, which is open all the time and free for all.
Cooling off in Montenegro
In the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, temperatures can soar to 40˚C. It’s no surprise, then, that the river Moraca is popular with locals, says Jo Tinsley in Lonely Planet magazine. On its banks, “poker-straight black pines grow at impossible angles, and chamois peer down from ledges. Eventually, the placated river empties into an astonishingly green valley.”
This is “where people come to cool off”, Vuk Djukié, a keen swimmer, tells Tinsley. He gestures to “a deep limestone cleft filled with turquoise water beside… a restaurant just south of the city”, where locals sip coffee in the shade. “I ask Vuk if he’d care to join me for a swim,” says Tinsley, but he declines. The water still isn’t warm enough for the locals.
Undeterred, Tinsley ambles down to the water and sits on a submerged step, “watching ducklings explore the pitted edges of the rock”.
“Looking down, I’m amused (and a little horrified) to see hundreds of tiny fish gathering around me, nibbling at my legs,” she says. “I push quickly away and swim out into deep water, then tread water as swallows swoop overhead, taking sips from the pool.” Despite Vuk’s reservations, the water is far from cold.
Camping in the forest
Naturally, there are warmer options for wild swimming abroad. Sarah Donaldson took her family camping to the Minho region of north-eastern Portugal. Just outside the Peneda-Gerês National Park – “a major destination for wilderness-seekers” – lies their first stop, Lima Escape (lima-escape.pt), a campsite “on a hillside over a wide bend in the river Lima”, she says in The Observer. The campsite isn’t small, but it is peaceful – “even in August”. What’s more, the best spots for camper vans have “terrific views”.
Peneda-Gerês National Park is “a wild-swimming paradise”. “In the mornings, we swim from the small beach of mud-coloured sand at the foot of the campsite. We take short treks into the surrounding oak and pine forests to nearby fern-fringed “lacs” – small, clear spring-water pools – where the water is breath-catchingly cold”, says Donaldson. The river Lima is also perfect for pootling about in kayaks.