1. Winter icicle cascades, The Lady Falls, Waterfall Woods, Brecon Beacons
With its ancient forest and dozens of deep blue plunge pools, Waterfall Woods (Coed-y-Rhaiadr) is a Narnia at any time of year. But nothing compares to the magic of winter, when the waterfalls freeze into cascades of icicles and silvery fingers. My favourite swim is at Lady Falls (Sgwd Gwladys), where a slender chute of water tips over a high ledge in to a glade of woodbine and ancient oak. Wait for a bright sunny day after a sharp frost. Walk briskly to arrive hot and steamy. The water will be cold enough to make your skin zing, but it takes only a few frantic strokes to cross the pool and clamber out on the other side. Here you can walk behind the waterfall and bathe in your own pink afterglow. Continue up the main path to find many more pools or cross over to the river Mellte to explore the great wild caverns of Porth yr Ogof.
Pontneddfechan is 2 miles from Glyn Neath on the A465 from Swansea. Behind the Angel Inn follow riverside track and continue for 20 minutes, bearing left at the footbridge for Lady Falls (postcode: SA11 5UR; grid ref SN 896093).
2. Misty chalk stream pools, Figheldean, River Avon, Near Salisbury/ Stonehenge
The chalk streams of southern England are some of the clearest and purest in the country. Percolating up from deep springs, the water remains a relatively constant temperature through the year – so much so that it can appear to steam on frosty mornings. One of the best pools is behind the village church at Figheldean in Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge. The spring water roars over a sluice, into a pool deep enough for jumping, and then gurgles through white pebble shallows and under a wooden footbridge. There are fine views out over the fields to Salisbury Plain. If you’re in the area and exploring then why not head on to Steeple Langford on the River Wylye. A similar pool by the nature reserve has been popular with bathers for generations.
From the A303, take the A345, direction Pewsey. After 3 miles turn right, cross river then left down a small lane. A short path leads to the bridge and pool (postcode: SP4 8JL; grid ref: SU 151475).
3. Grand lakes, Wastwater, Wasdale Head, Lake District
In the low golden light of winter, nothing compares with the views from Wastwater, England’s deepest lake, set beneath Scafell Pike, her highest mountain. Sunlight falls in pools along the white sand coves and as you swim out Scafell rises in broken reflections on the water. It’s a heady feeling looking down: the quartz lake bed drops away to depths of half a kilometre and more. The water is incredibly clear, especially in winter. After your dip visit the pub at Wasdale Head or warm up with a hike up into some of England’s most sensational upland scenery.
Follow the A595 coast road to the western lakes, beyond Barrow, or approach via one of England’s highest roads, the Hardknott Pass (closed in extreme weather). From Nether Wasdale a narrow lane hugs the lake side but the best beach is at Overbeck Bridge (postcode: CA20 1EX; grid ref: NY 168069).
4. Skinny dipping in Gulf Stream coves, Pedn Vounder Sands, Treen, Penzance
If inland water seems a bit icy for a midwinter plunge, try the sea. Its high thermal capacity means it is still a bearable 10°C – and if you head west, you’ll gain a degree or two more, thanks to the Gulf Stream. One of the most westerly and most beautiful coves in England is Pedn Vounder Sands. At low tide, a sand bar and lagoon are revealed and at high tide it’s fun to play in the crashing surf. This is a naturist beach, so it’s perfect for a wild New Year’s Day skinny dip. The cosy Logan Rock Inn emits a warming glow from the village above, perfect for thawing out around the fire with some mulled cider. The famous Minack Theatre, perched on the cliffside, is close by.
Eight miles west of Penzance on B3315, turn left for Treen and Logan Rock Inn. Park by post office and follow track through fields to cliffs, and then down steep track to beach below (postcode: TR19 6LF; grid ref: SW393223).
Pool parties: Festive outdoor swims
1. Aldeburgh Christmas Swim, Suffolk
11am, Christmas day
Once England’s greatest medieval port and shipyard, much of the 16th century city of Aldeburgh has been lost to the sea. A tiny coastal town remains, with a fine shingle beach, excellent local seafood and a world-famous summer music festival. Its winter swimming fixture, inaugurated in 1988, is run by a committed band of Suffolk bathers who raise money for charity. Immersion is for one minute and fancy dress is optional. To warm up afterwards, enjoy a drink at the Mill Inn, opposite.
The swim will start at 11am opposite Moot Hall, Aldeburgh. A donation will be made to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, whose members turn out to keep a watchful eye, and also join the swim. aldeburghchristmasswim.org.uk
2. Hampstead Men’s Bathing Pond, London
11am, Christmas day
The Hampstead Heath Ponds have been popular winter-swimming venues since the 1860s. The lakes were originally built to collect pure spring water, which was channelled down to the city in a series of hollow elm pipes. Today there is a Mixed, a Ladies’ and a Men’s pond in use on the Heath. The Ladies’ pond is said to be the most beautiful and secluded, but the famous Christmas day swim takes place at the Men’s pond where, for one day only, ladies are allowed to enter. There are carols, trumpets and mince pies afterwards. The event has only been cancelled twice in the past hundred years – when the ice was too thick to break.
The Men’s Pond, off Millfield Lane, Highgate West Hill, N6 6JB.
3. The Loony Dook, Edinburgh
12noon, New Year’s day 2010
Every year, hundreds of fancy-dressed sea swimmers (known as “loony dookers”), gather in South Queensferry, Edinburgh, to celebrate Hogmanay by plunging into the freezing waters of the Forth. Hot toddies and soup, served in the shadow of the famous bridge, are well earned post-swim treats. The event’s lunacy and location regularly attract crowds of thousands. For costume inspiration go to theloonydook.co.uk
To register, participants should be at The Moorings Hotel, Hopetoun Road, South Queensferry, between 9.30am and 11.30am on January 1. A charity contribution is required.
Daniel Start is the author of “Wild Swimming Coast: Explore the secret coves and wild beaches of Britain” (£14.95). For more festive swim locations, and advice on safety, go to wildswimming.co.uk
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