Wild Swimming in London
Wild swimming in London sounds like a no-starter, as wild swimming usually refers to ragged coastlines and remote lakes. Urban settings are the exact opposite of wild and yet, with 50% of the city as blue or green spaces, London is the first National Park City in the UK. Thanks to Victorian health initiatives and the city’s shipping history, London actually features lots of lakes, ponds and docks that can double as wild swimming spots to the adventurous urban swimmer — not to mention the Thames River. With a little creativity, they offer great swimming escapes close to home.
The only hitch is that these spots are not all legal. If you decide to swim there, make sure that you know about local restrictions and consequences. Most importantly, stay safe and enjoy reclaiming the city’s waterways.
WILD SWIMMING | CENTRAL LONDON
#1 Serpentine, Hyde Park
My weekly gateway to urban wild swimming came in the middle of London in Hyde Park with the Serpentine and its famous Serpentine Swimming Club. Members of this Victorian-era club can swim in the Serpentine every morning, courtesy of the Royal Parks.
Through the seasons, I’ve seen all types of swimmers enjoy the lake. The early birds show up at 5am for long swims before the office, the mid-session swimmers enjoy social breakfast afterwards, and the last-minute swimmers rush in for a refreshing dip before the Lido Cafe tower clock shows 9.30am. Whatever the weather, I’ve very rarely been alone at the Serpentine.
For many, the lake is also a training ground for serious swimming events and thanks to its central location, swimmers of all abilities and ages can access it easily. Accessible by bike or public transit, the Serpentine is an easy central stop before work or breakfast.
#2 Thames River
On 18 July 1927, Mercedes Gleitze left Westminster Bridge to swim a staggering 120 miles, down the Thames and around Beachy Head to Folkestone. In 2006, endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh swam the length of the Thames River as part of a challenge to draw attention to the dangers of global warming. In 2011, it’s David Walliams who swam 140 miles of the Thames River for charity Sports Relief, ending at Westminster Bridge.
It would seem that swimming in the Thames River is A-OK but on paper, swimming in the central London portion of the Thames River is strictly forbidden. Considered unsafe and unhealthy, with strong tides and currents as well as heavy boat traffic, it is completely discouraged by the harbour master of the Port of London Authority (PLA).
The PLA allows swimming upriver of Putney Bridge through to Teddington. It is permitted in this area only but be reminded that it is still a busy section of the tidal Thames for leisure and recreational activities.
In real life, the Thames River has always been a popular venue for recreational swimming though only experienced swimmers acquainted with the tides and currents should get in. This is not a spot for beginners.
In the winter, Greenwich swimmers jump in the water for quick dips, attached with a rope at the waist, and laugh about it. Daredevils swim and splash at low tide close to Tower Bridge too. The Isle of Dogs also has a few choice spots and anything upstream of Hammersmith is fair game.
Looking forward to brighter days when the Thames River will be open to all.
WILD SWIMMING | EAST LONDON
#1 Shadwell Basin
In East London, the Docks are the wild swimming option. Since the Thames River is closed to swimming from Putney to the Thames Barrier, the docks provide large water bodies in residential or commercial areas and can be great opportunities for a dip. Of course, you’ll come across a few no-swimming signs. Danger! Death! Don’t! These signs are there to scare away people and yet, their multiplication makes them blend in with the landscape and be royally ignored. It’s not to say that accidents don’t happen in the docks. Take Shadwell Basin. In the past 10 years, three people have drowned there. Yet on a hot day, it’s rammed with guerilla swimmers.
When I swam at Shadwell Basin in the summer, local kids were already enjoying an evening romp in the water when I parked my bike. All I had to do was go over the metal chain and reach the floating pontoon, then hop in with others. The water was warm and being surrounded by buildings in the sunset was beautiful. The proximity of The Prospect of Whitby, the oldest pub on the Thames in London, for an after-swim drink makes this spot even more desirable.
#2 Surrey Quays
Eight minutes is roughly how long it takes for the police to come and ask you out of Surrey Quays, which is very unfortunate, as the water is lovely and plenty of steps go down into the water. Ironically, Surrey Quays features a watersports centre and regular open water swimming events, but it seems that the casual non-fee paying swimmer is not welcome. When I swam at Surrey Quays, I actually saw a guy report us from his building window. It is a bit disheartening that such a nice and big swimming spot in East London is so “protected” by overzealous residents. What’s the risk to them?
#3 Royal Victoria Docks
The Royal Docks is a giant open water swimming venue open to the public. It is also the home of the London Swimming Club, an open water swimming club based in East London. To access the Royal Docks (legally), you need to book your time slot, wear a wetsuit (although not always), and sign up for the seasonal safety wristband system.
I have only been there twice as it’s far from my home and expensive, but it’s a great swimming with a real post-industrial feel. The water is briny and clean, and the loop circuit makes it a favorite triathlon training location.
WILD SWIMMING | WEST LONDON
#1 Thames River | Hammersmith
Going back to the roots, the Thames River is a great spot to swim in West London. Sure, you need some common sense and knowledge of tide tables, but the river is all yours to swim in. With a group of friends, we’ve explored the stretches of the river open to swimming (upstream of Putney bridge in western London). As you can see on this photo in Hammersmith on a summer evening, the experience was a success. The water is murky but it’s clean, unless you swim after a heavy rainfall in which case, the river is a soup of floating branches and mystery debris. Let me rephrase. Avoid the river for two days after a heavy rain if it has resulted in a sewer discharge.
If you wish to join an organized swimming event, check out Love Open Water Tidal Thames Swims.
#2 Thames River | Richmond
Further afield in Richmond, the river looks positively wild and yet, it’s only minutes from the end of the District line Tube. At Petersham Meadows, you can access the river from a gravel beach and swim across to the other bank, to the island or watch college rowing boats in training from the water. Pretty cool, right?
#3 Thames River | Teddington
During 2020 & 2021’s lockdown, Teddington became the notorious meeting spot of wild swimming enthusiasts every week. Right beyond Teddington Lock, the grassy edge of the river allows for several entry and exit points. The Blue Tits, an informal group of open water swimmers, meet and welcomes newcomers to join them for downstream swims, even in the winter.
#4 Thames River | Hampton Court
Still reachable by public transport, this is a wonderful swimming spot year-round with very little current (courtesy of a couple of locks downstream).
To find a good entry spot, follow the Thames River path upstream from Hampton Court Palace on the south side all the way to Hurst Park or Molesey Hurst. Find plenty of nice grassy spots to get in and a particularly nice tree with a rope you can swing from!
WILD SWIMMING | NORTH LONDON
#1 Hampstead Ponds
Last but not least, North London. Hampstead Heath is wild swimming central in this beautiful part of the city. Whether you head to the Men’s, the Mixed or the Kenwood Ladies’ ponds, the swim will be surrounded by rolling hills and ancient trees. It might be crowded at times but the setting is quite unique. In fact, the ladies of the Kenwood Ladies Pond wax poetic about their pond and post amazing pictures on their Facebook page, inspiring others to take a dip and embrace the weather. They also publish a book about wild swims around London and organize swims around the country at festivals. Over at the men’s pond, the swimmers have created a sub-group called the East German Ladies Swimming Club. Obviously, it’s only guys but what a fantastic bunch!
#2 Camden Town and Regent’s Canals
North London’s canals are an unknown quantity to me as far as swimming goes. On the one hand, people claim that they’re not as dirty as everybody thinks, as kayakers and canoeists fall in sometimes and seem to be doing OK. On the other hand, there’s Weil’s disease, blue-green algae and underwater hazards, but that probably applies to a lot of the other urban places too.
I haven’t seen anyone take the plunge there, but the canals would be amazing wild swimming venues. Lined with cool eats and drinks, pedestrian paths and trees, they would be such great aquatic “highways” to swim from A to B (with a mouth shut).
#3 West Reservoir
Right by the famous Castle Climbing Centre, the West Reservoir Centre is not really wild at all but with a 400m loop and a 100m warm-up lane, it’s very tempting. Plus there’s a cafe – a sweet little space with a big wooden deck overlooking the water. Even better, Secret Escapes organizes cocktail evenings in the summer by the lake. Who am I to say no to a mighty 23 acres part of Woodberry Wetlands?
Why Wild Swimming in London Will Grow in Popularity
As you see, wild swimming in London can be so much more than a lovely summer fling. It’s a unique perspective on the city that boosts your energy levels naturally. It’s also a way to learn a necessary life skill, away from chlorine tanks. It’s a way to meet new friends and an opportunity to be silly and relaxed when the weather is hot. If you stick with it through the winter, your immune system will thank you for it. Most importantly, it’s a way to reconnect with nature in urban environments where nature has been so cruelly tamed.
Would you do it?