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A Place Like No Other: wild swimming spots in the south-west that make a splash

There’s a wealth of wild swimming spots in the UK – so where to start? We take a tour of Devon and Cornwall’s best and most beautiful lakes, pools and coves. Pack a cozzy and dive in…

Cat Sarsfield
A Place Like No Other: wild swimming spots in the south-west that make a splash

The pursuit of wild swimming in England may have higher stakes, but it also promises higher gains. Tricky thorn-lined paths lead the way to icy temperatures, but also to turquoise waters, calm coves and – if the weather’s right – sun-drenched spots hidden from view. The south-west is replete with swimming holes; some are on the wild and rugged Atlantic coastline itself while, further south, there are the more placid rivers that wiggle through rolling countryside scenes, where sailboats and swimmers alike enjoy the waterways in harmony. As summer peaks, we’ve rounded up our top five wild swimming spots across Devon and Cornwall, from epic waterfalls to rocky bays.

Grebe beach, Helford river, Cornwall

There’s a snapshot that you can’t help but take as you walk down the path from the National Trust Bosveal car park to Grebe beach. Imagine: the tide is high and as you look out to the Helford river, the dramatic, windswept Monterey pines frame your view, while the sun dances on the water. Get to the bottom and it will be all the more delightful. One of many beaches found on the curved shoreline of the Helford, Grebe is a particularly long pebbled stretch, punctuated by a mighty fallen tree trunk that serves as a perfect spot to set up for a slow afternoon of swimming. Paddlers can play in the shallows – perfect for kids when the tide is much lower – while those more confident in the water might swim out to the pontoon. Feeling brave? Dare the longer crawl to neighbouring Mawnan beach for a rest before journeying back alongside the wooden boats that sail placidly up and down the Helford.

Speke’s Mill Mouth, Hartland, Devon

You’ll drive through a canopy of trees to get to Speke’s Mill Mouth in North Devon and then through a particularly sticky stretch of bumpy forest road. You’d hardly know that behind these shaded green scenes lies such an expansive ocean view with both an epic waterfall and classic Devonian moorland behind, sitting in striking juxtaposition. While some might prefer to walk down to the flat slabs of rock on the right-hand side, where you can swim in more open seas, the waterfall to the left may just be more irresistible to others. It doesn’t get as much light, but this only makes for a more atmospheric swim. Hardly a gentle waterfall, its sound positively thunders. You can clamber over rocks to reach the pool where the waterfall lands or, if that feels a bit too risky, there are smaller bodies of water further along (just beware of the current).

Buy nearby: Hartland Point, a grand Georgian beauty with views over the sweeping North Devon coastline.

Prussia Cove, Cornwall

Prussia Cove is an undeniably picturesque, sheltered spot along the west Cornwall coastline, running from Porthleven to Marazion. Here, headlands jut out into jewel-toned waters, which trick you into thinking you’re anywhere other than in the Atlantic sea. A handful of houses dot the coast, which can be rented should you wish to stay in close proximity to the cove. And why wouldn’t you? As you descend from the small car park (get there early to avoid disappointment or narrow parking spots), you’ll be met with views of rugged rocks, cool blue sea and perhaps a fishing boat or two, depending on the hour. Go left towards the small pebbled beach that appears at low tide, or right to swim straight off the rocks. For a little more privacy, you could follow the path to the right and head over to the next part of the headland, which is a little steeper but equally azure and beautiful. It is, however, a little less sheltered, so be sure to visit when there’s only a gentle breeze. When the water calmly laps against the rocks, it’s a perfect place to swim.

East Lyn river, Exmoor, Devon

The East Lyn river runs through a majestic valley of the same name, snaking high above Exmoor National Park. As you’d expect from a moorland setting, it’s extremely verdant and feels quintessentially British, especially when the light breaks through the leaves, or – perhaps more likely – gentle rain falls and taps the river’s surface. There are so many starting points to choose from here. Take a walk along the path, which stretches upstream from Lynmouth to Rockford, and choose any one of the idyllic spot dappled in light, likely past one of many babbling brooks.

Porthtowan tidal pool, Cornwall

The tidal pool in north Cornwall’s Porthtowan is only accessible when the water’s out. Quite hidden from sight, at the foot of the cliffs, it takes a bit of a walk to reach it, though the precarious descent to the coast is rewarded by the flat, mermaid-green oasis that sits just behind the shoreline. This small body of water, perfectly still – especially on a windless day – begs to be dipped in and out of. Thanks to its more challenging and clandestine location, it’s often empty too, which means beautiful, unspoilt views of the celebrated sunsets of the north Cornish coast. As the sun dips behind the horizon, gaze out from your spot upon the rocks.

Buy nearby: Cocks Hill, Penhallow, a former church just a mile inland from the coast and a mere 15-minute drive from Porthtowan.

Image credits, from top: 1, 3-5 Cat Sarsfield; 2 Tim Green, ‘Helford River, from Grebe Beach’, 2013. Flickr/Tim Green; 6 Lady Rose MacClare, ‘Porthtowan Tidal Pool’, 2020. Wikicommons/Lady Rose MacClare

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