Wild swimming means freedom.
Swimming in a pool is pleasurable enough, I suppose. You experience the mystery of gliding through the supportive medium of water. Plus, the comfort of heated water is appealing. Sooner or later, though, ploughing up and down inevitably gives rise to the frustration of a caged animal; there are always other people going too slow or too fast and at the end of one length what else is there to do but to turn around and retrace your strokes?
It’s time to leave the watery cage and begin a voyage of discovery. Instead of watching nature on TV, or admiring it from the comfort of a car, immerse yourself in it.
Jump into the sea and feel your body tingle with life. Surrender yourself to the rising-falling, pushing-pulling swell. ‘Fly’ over swaying seaweed forests and catch glimpses of wrasse, pollack and shimmering shoals of sand eels. Swim over sandy expanses and smile at scuttling crabs as they defiantly wave their pincers at you. Set yourself the challenge of reaching a rocky micro-island never before visited by any human. Marvel at the architecture of sea caves.
After swimming for a while, stop and turn around to discover that you are being followed by seals. Then after your swim, dance on the beach for them. They like that, they really do! What will they be thinking? I have no idea, but they will watch; I guarantee it.
But wild swimming in Northern Ireland? Is it not a bit cold? Well, not as cold as you might think. In fact, Northern Ireland has been called the ‘Mediterranean of the north’*. It is considerably warmer than other places on the same latitude, thanks to the Gulf Stream. In late summer, once you have become acclimatised, you will probably be able to spend about an hour in the sea fairly comfortably.
Dancing for seals
It’s hard to say when the best time is for wild swimming in Northern Ireland; every season has its charms. May is often the sunniest month but the water will still be pretty cold. In July, August and September the sea will be quite warm and the weather may be pleasant, if you’re lucky. Don’t rule out swimming in October, or even in November; the sea cools much more slowly than the air. Expect rain throughout the year; you may, occasionally, be pleasantly surprised by dry weather. Fresh water will tend to warm up earlier in the summer than the sea, but it will also cool down earlier in autumn.
One of the great things about wild swimming in Northern Ireland is that your experience will not be blighted by the thronging crowds and sprawling car parks that so often mar equivalent beauty spots in Great Britain. Often, in the middle of a swim, I will stop to look at the beauty around me and marvel at having it all to myself.
For such a small place Northern Ireland offers an impressive variety of swimming opportunities. The expansive beaches, big swells and crashing breakers of the north Antrim coast offer exhilarating and panoramic swims. The gentler waters, rocky coves and smaller bays of county Down invite exploration of underwater ‘gardens’ and rock formations. Inland you can choose between fast-moving sparkling mountain rivers, the austere cold serenity of mountain loughs or the relatively balmy waters of tree-lined lowland loughs.
Just one of Northern Ireland's many stunning swimming locations. Where is everyone?
The swimming locations I describe here are my personal favourites. I will not attempt an exhaustive guide, rather an enticing introduction. You are setting off on your own adventure. Perhaps some of the places I describe will become special to you too, but perhaps, also, you will discover your own places. I wish you well as you let go and jump into the adventure that is wild swimming in Northern Ireland.
*Northern Ireland has been called the ‘Mediterranean of the north’ on at least one occasion. The phrase, used in reference to Northern Ireland, was overhead in a conversation between two gentlemen strolling in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens one day in summer 2010.**
**Ok, I admit it: I was one of the gentlemen.