Swimming al fresco is enjoying a renaissance. Daniel Start reveals some of his favourite hidden dips in Yorkshire.
As the 19th-century dawned, a new era of artists were discovering the appeal of the swimming hole. The waterfall, surrounded by trees and mountains, was regarded as the quintessence of beauty. Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy spent much time bathing in the mountain pools of the Lake District. The fashionable tours of Provence or Tuscany were replaced by trips to the valleys of Wales, Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales, as Turner and Constable painted a prodigious flow of falls, tarns and ponds.
The health and psychological benefits of dipping in natural waters have also been long known. George Bernard Shaw, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were all advocates. Cold immersion soothes muscle aches, relieves depression and boosts the immune system. All wild dippers know the natural endorphin high that raises mood, elates the senses and creates an addictive urge to dive back in.
However the world seemed before a swim, it looks fantastic afterwards.
Here are some of my favourite wild swims in Yorkshire.
Upper Wharfedale and Eastern Swaledale
Upper Wharfedale is the classic Yorkshire Dale: rectangular hay barns in every field, green meadows filled with wild flowers and beautiful rivers dotted with pools and falls. High up on the fells of Moss Top and Chapel Moor the headwaters of the Wharfe begin to collect, filtering down through sinkholes, trickling through cracked limestone fissures before reappearing in tiny tributaries and streams.
The Wharfe gathers pace through Langstrothdale then flows through the pools of Amerdale Dub before arriving at Grassington, one of Yorkshire’s most picturesque swimming villages.
Most people gather on the river meadows to the south of the village. Here you will find families in rubber dinghies and children wielding fishing nets. At the weir, people slide down the smooth chute or swim in the larger clear pool above. Further down there is a waterfall by a footbridge and stepping stones to a riverbank church. The connoisseurs, however, head upstream of Grassington to Ghaistrill’s Strid, a series of cascades and rapids: the perfect place to while away the swimming in rocky pools, chasing minnows and “tubing” the rapids. Above the falls and alongside an idyllic grassy knoll, the river is forced down a 100 metre bobsleigh run. Only a modicum of skill is needed to navigate the chute, the current takes care of the rest. The best method is to lie down head-first on the ring so you can steer yourself with your arms – if you sit on it you tend to spin round and round.
Our group was soon running time trials for sets of three descents, including the run back up the hill. If the river is low, it’s possible to surf the white water without a ring at all, though you may end up bruising a knee or an elbow. The trick is to move with the flow like an eel.
The walk downstream follows an avenue of sycamore and oak, before arriving at the outskirts of Burnsall and Loup Scar. You might well be disturbed by the spectacle of young men throwing themselves off the cliffs into the plunge pool below as part of a local rite of passage. The small pool is certainly deep enough but the full jump requires a degree of judgement as an overhanging cliff must be cleared. There have no doubt been serious accidents here. If there are no jumpers, the pool is excellent for a gentle swim and you can sit with your legs dangling in the water over its perfect edge, almost as if you are at a properly excavated pool.
Just below the rapids, there is a large river pool before passing behind the old Anglo-Saxon church of St Wilfred’s and heading on to the village bridge.
On hot days the village green heaves with families and the river is chocked with a flotilla of kiddy dinghies.
Over in Richmond, the River Swale boasts a pretty swimming hole with a beach or, in another direction, there are waterfalls beneath a ruined castle.
Follow the river path upstream from the older upstream bridge on Bridge Street for three quarters of a mile. Or head downstream beneath the castle for the waterfalls.
North York Moors
Sutton Bank offers the finest view in England according to the real James Herriot, the late Alf Wight. From here you can see for miles. Halfway down the escarpment is the emerald oval of Gormire Lake. The water of Gormire is pretty warm and you’ll most likely be the only person swimming there. This is a quiet and secluded place among broad-leaved woodlands: a breeding place for coot, great grebe and mallard, sheltered by higher ground.
A steep path leads down Sutton Bank, from the top of the escarpment. The tarn was formed 20,000 years ago by glacial erosion, and folk tales and legends abound. One tells of a knight who tricked the Abbot of Rievaulx into lending him his white mare. The mare jumped off Sutton Bank and plunged him into the lake with the Abbot behind transformed into the devil. Schoolmaster John Hodgson was so inspired by this and a trip to see the white horses of Wiltshire, he and 31 volunteers carved their own horse into the escarpment.
From the top of the bank, 40 miles of heather and gorse lead to the sea. There are few large rivers, but several smaller becks and woodland waterfalls. One of the best falls is just below Goathland, the setting for TVs Heartbeat.
The Thomason Foss fall at Eller Beck is approached from the Beck Hole pub a mile down the road. It’s a short walk from there up to the rocky pool in a sunlit glade.
Closer to Whitby is Falling Foss at Ruswarp, set in deep woods by the fairytale cottage of Midge Hall. It’s a fair trek to the bottom of the falls, picking a way over an overgrown stream bed. Standing on the shingle beach looking up, the waterfall flows down the jet black cliff like a white veil, breaking into hundreds of competing rivulets.The dark green mosses and jungle-like setting made this place feel strangely exciting, like finding a secret passageway to a lost world.
Wild Swimming, 300 hidden dips in the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Britain, by Daniel Start is published by Wild Things Publishing, £16.99, www.wildswimming.co.uk
Stay safe – check before you jump
Daniel’s Safe Swimming Tips
Never swim alone and keep a constant watch on weak swimmers.
Never swim in canals, urban rivers, stagnant lakes or reedy shallows
Never swim in flood water and be cautious of water quality during droughts. You should also avoid contact with blue green algae.
Keep cuts and wounds covered with waterproof plasters.
Never jump into water you haven’t checked for depth or obstructions.
Always make sure you know how you will get out before you get in.
Wear footwear if you can
Don’t get too cold. Warm up with exercise and warm clothes before and after a swim.
Watch out for boats on any navigable river. Wear a coloured swim hat so you can be seen.
Outdoor Swimming Society, www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com
River and Lake Swimming Association, www.river-swimming.co,uk
Head to the Hills in Ambleside run open water swimming courses for beginners, www.headtothehills.co.uk