Wild swimming spots in Kent
PUBLISHED: 15:58 18 July 2014 | UPDATED: 15:58 18 July 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
A trendy new name for something as old as the hills, wild swimming is exercise in its most natural form. You find a safe, suitable body of water outdoors and take the plunge
These days, due to our indoor lifestyles, wild swimming is seen as a sport taken up by only the bravest, the wildest and the strongest swimmers, but it’s actually the way swimming was always done.
It was only when the craze for indoor swimming pools reached its peak that people started forgetting about the lovely natural places their parents and grandparents used to splash about in.
The idea of stepping into a cold, clear lake, river or sea water lost its appeal and swimmers stopped thinking about anything other than covered and chlorinated public pools.
Yet we know we need to get more fresh air and exercise, so with millions of pounds a year being spent on gym membership and fitness DVDs, why is it more people aren’t stepping out into the Kent countryside and indulging in this free, healthy activity?
Wild swimmers will tell you that it just requires a change in attitude. Forget what you think you know about swimming endless lengths of the same pools and get back to nature, have an adventure, see wildlife up close and make every swim an experience rather than a chore.
One Kent resident who devotes as much of her free time to wild swimming as possible, whatever the time of year, is Juliet Thomas from Faversham. With a wetsuit and a swimming hat she braves even the chilliest of open waters and a dip in December is just as welcome as any other.
“I have a great group of swim friends and we meet at Tankerton almost throughout the whole year, depending on weather conditions during the winter,” she says.
“We’re all different in our approach to swimming and what we want to get out of it – fast, slow, leisurely, competitive. The main thing is we support each other and have a laugh. It blows the cobwebs away.”
As well as her regular group swims at Tankerton, Juliet swims at Dover Harbour (not to be confused with the area the ferries use) with people who come from all over the country to train for cross-Channel swims.
She’s also a member of the Faversham Masters Swimming Club, which trains at the town’s outdoor swimming pool in summer. “Last year I thought I should try swimming from the outskirts into Faversham Creek,” says Juliet.
“It was a lovely sunny day and great fun and I had a boat to support me, but I didn’t quite make it in as the tide turned. But I’ll certainly be getting my kayak out again this year to paddle out of Faversham to find some secret swimming spots.”
In Kent we’re lucky to have some of the best wild swimming locations in the British Isles. With nine blue flag beaches (seven in Thanet, making it the area with the most top-quality beaches in the country), it seems a waste not to swim there.
For Juliet, Tankerton and Minnis Bay are her favourites but there are keen sea swimming groups in Margate, Ramsgate, Folkestone and around the county’s coast.
Jennifer Oyston Chapman swims in Walpole Bay tidal pool in Cliftonville. Having moved to the area a couple of years ago, she fell in love with the pool as soon as she saw it. Created in 1900 when sea bathing was very fashionable but trudging through wet sand at low tide was not, it’s a much-loved part of the area’s heritage and a useful way to exercise in sea water without the dangers of currents and tides.
“It’s a short walk or cycle from my house and is really the most incredible place,” she says. “Everyone who visits us just marvels at it. It appears and disappears with the tides, has beautifully clear water and amazing colours. I love the fact that you can use the walls and ladders to go straight into the deeper water, rather than wading out through the shallows. At high tide I’ve swum both in and outside the walls.”
Unlike Juliet, who grew up swimming outdoors with her family, Jennifer is a new convert. “I had a real fear of open water and the sea when I was younger and was notorious for never going in without shoes and generally being terrified,” she admits.
“But the tidal pool feels protected. The first time I swam here was in June 2012 and after that first time, I’d never been so pleased at having decided to do something in my life and I wasn’t afraid any more.
“It can be so calm inside the walls, but it’s enormous, about four acres, so it still feels like the sea. It’s both vast and enclosed.”
Places like Walpole Bay’s tidal pool are a rare treat for fans of outdoor swimming. As well as the regulars it also attracts visitors who have heard about it through wild swimming websites and social media.
But only recently the tidal pool and beach at Walpole Bay faced a crisis when Thanet Council applied to Defra to de-designate it as a bathing area. Thanks to the many local swimmers who spoke out against the move, Defra turned the request down.
Sea swimming is one thing but Kent is a vast county and not everyone lives close enough to the coast to make it a regular option. It’s unusual to see people swimming in lakes and rivers inland but there are places, like Holborough Lake and Leybourne Lakes, where donning a wetsuit and having a swim is something you see most days.
River and lake swimming has been made more popular by the increasing numbers of people taking part in triathlons, and you can often see training for these events in lakes and along safe stretches of river.
But the days of youngsters making rope swings over riverbanks and spending summer days splashing and swimming are pretty much gone. It’s been drummed into us for decades that outdoor swimming is inherently dangerous, away from the safety net of trained lifeguards watching over us.
But while the risks are there and taken seriously, wild swimmers use their own safety guidelines and don’t let it faze them. As Juliet says: “Safety is always the main thing to hold in the back of your mind, as well as monitoring how cold the water is and how long you’ve been in. It’s also a good idea to swim with others. Sometimes the sea can be pretty rough, and I do get seasick in rough swimming conditions, but I know my limitations and I’m probably extra cautious in the rougher conditions.”
Groups like the Outdoor Swimming Society offer detailed safety advice, something anyone thinking of swimming in open water should study before they dive in. They also have a map of the best tried and tested places to swim in each county.
Having the right kit is crucial. While some days the water can be warm enough to strip down to a swimsuit and jump in, it’s a good idea to have goggles, a towel and a bag to store your clothes in at the least.
Juliet adds: “I also wear a swim hat (sometimes several in winter) and usually swimming shoes. I use a towel robe for drying and changing in and I always have warm clothing and a hat to pull on.”
Wild swimmers come in many shapes, sizes and with varying levels of fitness, but they are all attracted by the same thing: the freedom. “Wild swimming makes you feel electric and alive,” says Juliet. “Those happy endorphins are released and after swimming you feel amazing. My mother was still swimming in her late seventies and I very much hope to do the same.” n