A chance to forget the stresses and strains of the daily grind, rest the mind and relax in nature, outdoor swimming is a wonderfully life-affirming pursuit. Across the country, stretches of open water including lakes, rivers and coast attract hardy souls to whom no chlorinated leisure centre pool would ever really appeal.
With teeth chattering, knees knocking and hands tingling, outdoor swimmers embrace the cold… many bold coastal dwellers even unwilling to go a day without a dip. There’s something about the adventure that many people love and, when you’re in and warmed up, there’s no feeling quite like it.
Around Bristol, Bath and beyond, a whole host of amazing wild or open swimming spots are just waiting to be discovered. From heated outdoor pools and luxurious lidos to open rivers and windswept tidal lakes, this corner of the country is a haven for outdoor swimmers.
Portishead Open Air Pool
Portishead Open Air Pool celebrated its 50th anniversary recently — 5 decades of outdoor swimming history dating back to 1962. The pool has been heated through its entire life; first, by hot water created as a by-product at the nearby phosphorus plant, then by an oil-fired boiler.
Years of neglect and underfunding saw the pool threatened with closure until, in 2009, local supporters established the Portishead Pool Community Trust to keep it afloat. Their resounding success is evident, as today the pool is heated by an eco-friendly boiler to a balmy 28 degrees, and welcomes keen swimmers young and old from the local community and beyond. Volunteers help run the show, and they’re always looking out for more people to get involved.
The best thing about visiting the Portishead Open Air Pool is that it doesn’t matter what the weather’s doing. It was tipping with rain on my visit, but with the pool heated so pleasantly it was warmer in the water than out of it! A handy on-site café is a fine spot for cake and tea when you’re done swimming.
Lido Bristol sits at the top of Park Street, behind the Victoria Rooms in Clifton. One of the country’s oldest surviving lidos, it dates back to 1849 and welcomes keen swimmers all year round.
Image courtesy of Lido Bristol
Lido Bristol fell out of public favour in decades recently passed, and went through a long period of neglect and decay. The doors closed in 1990 and remained so until the ‘Save the Lido’ campaign was launched. English Heritage protected the venue with a grade II listing — preventing demolition — and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history.
Today, visitors to Lido Bristol can enjoy a heated outdoor swim in the heart of the city. If you’re in need of a little tlc or a spot of pampering, there’s a broad range of relaxation, mood enhancement and body rejuvenation therapies available. Of course, you can always just swim.
Warleigh Weir, aka Claverton Weir
Known to some as Warleigh Weir and others as Claverton Weir, this is a dream swimming location that many would undoubtedly like to see kept secret. The weir sits in the valley floor just east of Bath, surrounded on all sides by rolling hills, open fields and dense forest. The Kennet and Avon canal runs gracefully past, with boaters and cyclists enjoying the picturesque journey between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon. The whole place is just idyllic — there really is no other word for it.
Visitors can relax with a picnic in the field near the weir before braving the frigid waters for a dip. Those plucky swimmers that do take the plunge are treated to what must be one of the country’s loveliest and most natural wild swims. You head upstream over the reeds — with the weir behind you — and within a few moments it’s just you, the river and perhaps the odd swan or two. Bowing trees trail their branches in the flowing waters as dragonflies hover overhead. When you’re done swimming upstream, you can simply lie on your back and let the gentle current carry you back to the weir. Magical.
Unless you know your way round Bath, Warleigh Weir is a bit of an arse to find, frankly. First time I tried, we spent about 2 hours pratting about on the wrong side of the valley… we could see the weir, but it was way out of reach. In short, do your research, approach it from the west (Warminster Road / Ferry Lane) and you should be fine. If you can car-share with pals, fellow swimmers will thank you as parking is very tight indeed down there.
Clevedon Tidal Pool
Clevedon’s marine lake is set in Salthouse Bay and plans for the build — according to records — date as far back as 1896. By the late 1920s, the lake was finally built and ready to be officially opened. There followed decades of regular use, with the pool playing a huge role in public life.
By the 1980s, however, the pool was in a sorry state. Funding had dried up, vandals had left the place a mess and the whole site needed a massive overhaul. That came in 2000, when the renovation campaign began picking up pace. Before long, diggers were in place and plans afoot to breathe new life back into Clevedon’s outdoor swimming scene. By 2014, Heritage Lottery funding had been secured and poured into further regeneration works. Today, the lake is enjoyed once again by locals and visitors alike.
Image courtesy of Steve Bridger on Flickr
The pool is emptied and filled with the tides, and stretches an impressive 200 metres across Salthouse Bay. The estuarine waters are pleasant to swim in but diving down to explore the bed is pretty pointless — you can’t see past the end of your nose! Still, for a fresh dip on a hot day it’s a very tough act to follow.
Aside from the aquatic theme, the one thing that ties many of the country’s outdoor swimming spots together is dereliction and neglect. Public opinion comes in and goes out like the tides, and our interest in outdoor swimming is no exception. Portishead Open Air Pool, Lido Bristol, Clevedon Tidal Pool and countless other swimming facilities across the land have lived through periods of uncertainly and many, sadly, have paid the price — permanent closure.
But for now at least, outdoor swimming is enjoying something of a renaissance. Splashing kids, happy families, triathlon trainers and silver swimmers alike are united in the shared joy of getting in the water and enjoying a swim.
Portishead Open Air Pool: http://www.portisheadopenairpool.org.uk/
Lido Bristol: http://www.lidobristol.com/
Warleigh Weir, aka Claverton Weir: http://www.wildswimming.co.uk/map/claverton-weir-avon/
Clevedon Tidal Pool: http://wildswim.com/clevedon-tidal-pool
For more Bristol-based adventures, follow me on Twitter @cjcallaghan