Thrill of the chill: the best outdoor winter swimming spots in Britain

From an icy dip in Snowdonia to a plunge into the Atlantic in Cornwall, here is where to go if you are in the mood for an invigorating, cold-water swim – bobble hats are recommended

Bude tidal pool, Cornwall

The rough waves and strong tides of the Atlantic can be daunting for even the strongest swimmer. This pool – part natural, part carved into the rock – offers a safer place to enjoy the chilly Cornish seas. Created in the 1930s to provide a safe pool for the people of Bude, it is supervised by lifeguards during working hours in the summer but not out of season. Friends of Bude Sea Pool, the charity that runs it, advises avoiding high tide and swimming at low tide. Head to Life’s a Beach cafe for a warming cuppa afterwards.

Llyn Padarn, Snowdonia national park

Below the surface: the smooth waters of Llyn Padarn.
Below the surface … the smooth waters of Llyn Padarn. Photograph: Robin Weaver/Alamy

At the foot of Mount Snowdon, near the village of Llanberis, the stunning, glacially formed Llyn Padarn is so popular it’s sometimes described as the “local swimming pool”. Take a dip here and you are swimming with the Torgoch, a rare type of Arctic char fish that has survived since the ice age. The lake also has a range of swim-scapes, from the shallow lagoons, where families often paddle during the summer, to deeper waters. Llyn Padarn’s waters have been designated as bathing water by Gwynedd council and meet the highest EU guidelines. There is plenty of parking – paid in the village, or free at the Surflines shop – and a public toilet.

Lake 32, Gloucestershire

Waterland at Lake 32, Gloucestershire
Come on in … Waterland at Lake 32 Photograph: PR

For those more interested in endurance training than a quick dip, Waterland, at Lake 32 at the Cotswold country park, Lake and Beach, is a go-to swim spot for triathletes and aquathon competitors. A naturally fed lake approximately 6ft in depth, it has buoyed courses of 200, 400, 750 and 1,500 metres – though we would advise keeping your swim-time short during the lower-temperature months. Non-members can swim Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings from 5.30pm until dusk (from 2 April) as well as weekend mornings. In winter you need to be a member to swim.

Loch Tay, Perthshire

Stay in your lane: Loch Tay is excellent for endurance training.
Stay in your lane … Loch Tay is excellent for endurance training. Photograph: Anna Deacon

One of the most important things about location for a chilly winter swim is where you warm up afterwards, and Taymouth Marina with its Hot Box, an outdoor hot tub and wood-fired sauna-with-a-view, has the perfect answer to that. This facility, set in a magnificent Perthshire loch, even offers a slide that takes you right out into the lake. Last March, for the inaugural Scottish Winter Swimming championships, the sauna was adopted as a post-race gossip box for those who entered. Many of us were still wearing our race “silly hats” as we chatted, on an after-dip high. But it’s open all year round and worth booking if you want to be sure of a spot on the warm-up bench.

Loughrigg Tarn, Cumbria

Mountains reflected in Loughrigg Tarn, Cumbria, UK.
Mirror image … mountains reflected in Loughrigg Tarn. Photograph: Daniel Kay/Getty Images

Said to be one of the warmest lakes in the Lake District, this gorgeous pool, nestled beneath the steep side of Loughrigg Fell, is often used as a drinking pond by cows, and is covered in lilies during the summer. Wordsworth described it as “Diana’s Looking-glass … round, clear and bright as heaven.” Although it feels remote – Alfred Wainwright described it as “one of the most secluded of tarns” – it’s actually one of the lowest and most accessible of ponds in the Lake District, reached by a short walk from a lay-by car park. For those who like to wake up under canvas and take a romantic dawn dip, there is even a nearby campsite, Tarn Foot, open from April to October. Warm up after your splash with cake or homemade lunch at Chesters by the River at Skelwith Bridge.

Portobello Beach, Edinburgh

Portobello Beach is only a few miles from the centre of the capital, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Sunset swim … Portobello Beach is only a few miles from the centre of the capital. Photograph: Anna Deacon

City swimming at its best, from Edinburgh’s town beach. An enormous and enthusiastic community has developed round the local Facebook group here, and almost any time of the year the chances are high that if you head down to the beach and promenade and linger for a short while you’ll see a few people charging down between the groynes, whooping and giggling. You can also go for a post-dip indoor shower or swim at the municipal pool on the front – though wetsuits are not allowed inside – and there is a string of good cafes for hot chocolate afterwards. We recommend Miro’s.

River Lugg, Herefordshire

The River Lugg at Lugg Meadow, Herefordshire.
Go with the flow … the River Lugg at Lugg Meadow. Photograph: John Finch/Alamy

The river Lugg, which winds from Llangynllo in Powys into the Wye near Hereford, has many lovely swimming spots along its meandering course. One of the best is at Bodenham village, where its course offers both long, sandy beaches and river pools. You can reach the water’s edge on a path that runs from behind St Michael’s church. There are, though, plenty of other idyllic spots on the Lugg, including the two-mile stretch from Lugg Mill to Lugwardine Bridge, through Lugg meadow, one of the few surviving Lammas meadows in the UK – a relic of the open-field common grazing systems, on which livestock is not allowed to graze until after Lammas day (1 August).

Loch Insh, Cairngorms

Man in a wetsuit and wolly hat by the side of a loch in Scotland at first light.
Cover up … when it’s really cold you will need a wetsuit. Photograph: Anna Deacon

There’s nothing quite like Loch Insh for a sunset swim, snatched in the pink-orange glow as the winter sun descends over the surrounding trees. The loch, at the base of the dramatic Cairngorms, has long been host to a watersports centre. It’s also not far from here to one of the best Spey river-dipping spots. Warming and hearty food is available at the friendly restaurant on the shore, and there are several cabins you can rent if you want to stay the night.

Frensham Great Pond, Surrey

Lakeside reeds at Frensham, Surrey, UK.
Big blue … lakeside reeds at Frensham. Photograph: Graham Prentice/Alamy

Though it may look like a natural lake, Frensham Great Pond, near Farnham in the Surrey hills, was actually dug out in the 13th century as a fishpond for the Bishop of Winchester. You don’t have to be a fish, though, to want to swim in its lovely, shallow, spring-fed waters, which are inviting at most times of the year – and in winter you won’t need to worry about the algal bloom that sometimes afflicts it during the hotter summer months. You might even find yourself dipping with the overwintering wildfowl, the moorhens, mallards and greylag geese that make it their home. There is a sandy beach and buoyed areas reserved for swimming.

Janet’s Foss, Malham, North Yorkshire

Swimming under Janet’s Foss, Malham, North Yorkshire.
Full force … swimming in the pool beneath the Janet’s Foss waterfall. Photograph: Laurence Berger/Getty Images

It’s said that Janet, Queen of the Faeries, resides here in a cave behind the falls. A short walk out of Malham, through a magical wooded gorge, its icy waters plunge into a natural bathing pool, cradled in a limestone valley. Winter is when you can get this place – busy the rest of the year – to yourself (there’s also no danger of it drying up, as it did in a heatwave last year). Reheat at the Old Barn Café in Malham, open only at weekends during the winter.

* The Outdoor Swimming Society website features advice for those attempting swims like those featured here, including six tips for cold-water swimming

• Taking the Plunge: the Healing Power of Wild Swimming by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan is out on 19 November (Black & White, £20)

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan

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