Once upon a time there was no such a thing. Just the softness of water on skin, light and dark rippling, the cut of tingling cold and the warm richness of salt, moss, earth.
It’s a salve to modern life and our obsession with adapting our environment to ourselves— forgetting we evolved doing the opposite. A wild swim isn’t about comfort, or room temperature.
It’s about feeling: every shiver and glow, the buzz of serotonin and endorphins. And thinking, too. A body/brain collab to climb slippery riverbanks and rocks.
Wild swimming is rewilding at its best. A chance to re-engage with nature, and ourselves. And it doesn’t get wilder than Exmoor National Park and Devon’s gorgeous North coast.
Tucked into secluded wooded cliffs, this might be Devon’s most beautiful cove. It is locally revered for its turquoise water, which entices you on the steep 200-step descent to the two shingle beaches below. You’ll find a series of secret caves and an old island lookout to explore. But few people—thanks to the climb.
The shingle shelves into deep water, which the protective hold of the headland keeps sheltered from the waves out to sea. Made for idle floating and gentle lengths.
1½ miles west of Combe Martin on A399, 4 miles from Ilfracombe.
Watersmeet is a forested glen of ancient, furrowed oaks and sprightly ferns, through which the water rushes like smoke over smooth rock.
High on Exmoor, where the river Lyn joins Hoar Oak water, is a glen of ancient oaks, ferns and water, which rushes like smoke over smooth rocks. Where the water is widest, green banks stretch out under a dappled canopy. This is also where you’ll still find the Glenthorne estate’s fishing lodge, now a National Trust tearoom serving cream teas.
Bring the whole family – and the pup – to splash around in the pools, or follow the river for 1.5km to Long Pool. This is a 50m long ravine, where the inky depths of water are shielded by granite sides, over which ferns have crept. It’s an otherworldly, implausible spot. So serene that you may hear the plop of a salmon or see an iridescent flash of dragonfly. Watersmeet is 2km south of Lynmouth on the A39. Long Pool is 1.5km up from Watersmeet before Rockford, on the western side – cross at the footbridge.
Hidden among the wild cliffs and peaks of Exmoor’s coast you’ll find a mermaid’s lido. At the far end of Woody’s Bay, a remote shingle beach, the softly undulating rocks dip into a natural tidal pool.
Clamber across the rocks, watch the sky swim along the surface of the water, or starfish in it, trailing your arms and drinking in the blue and wisp-white above.
An epic pool, you can float without a care, and with no one there.
The largest river on Exmoor National Park, the Barle is a mighty vein of coursing water and a rich habitat for salmon, otters, kingfisher, and a rare river jelly lichen. This makes it a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and, as you may expect, the water is crystal clear.
The Barle flows from the heights of Simonsbath high on the Somerset moors to the River Exe in Devon. Along it you will find many spots to quietly slip into the water, and bathe in its amber-glow (a product of the mosaic of smooth stones which form the riverbed).
Underneath Cow’s Castle, an iron age settlement near Simonsbath, there is a calm and open section of river which lends itself to swimming.
If you’ve never been, Woolacombe is the perfect beach. A three mile stretch of golden sand and deep blue sea, backed by green hills which are sometimes majestic, and at others soft with pastel wildflowers.
It’s no surprise that this year TripAdvisor named it as one of the top 20 beaches in the world. Ever since surf boards arrived in the UK, Woolacombe has seamlessly rocked a dual identity. One part laidback surfing village, with a buzz to be found in the dusk waves. The other a rural hideaway, with miles of quiet coast path and endless blue horizons.
Swim in the crystal clear shallows, play in the waves, or discover quiet inlets around the rocks. Afterwards wrap up in a towel robe like the surfers do, or even better enjoy a post-swim rasul using vegan-friendly Natural Spa Factory products.
The rasul dates back hundreds of years to an ancient Arabic bathing ritual. It hasn’t changed much since then: an old and powerful trinity of mineral-rich mud, steam, and heat warm the cockles and cleanse mind and body, before a scrub to gently exfoliate the skin. Available at The Alchemist Spa, a stone’s throw from the sea.