When I started researching this article I had planned to call it “wild swimming in Hertfordshire” but it turns out that there isn’t much wild swimming to be had around here. However, there is plenty of outdoor swimming in Hertfordshire if you know where to find it. We have some good lidos in Hertfordshire and a decent number of open water swimming lakes. The wild swimming in Hertfordshire is limited to one place, but two rivers – the Beane and Lea – which merge in Hertford. And it’s my new favourite place to swim.
I’m a bit of a fair-weather swimmer, but it doesn’t stop me enjoying an al fresco dip. When I lived in London, I used to meet a friend for a swim and a catch up at the brilliant Oasis outdoor pool near Covent Garden. We swam all year round – the water was toasty warm – and it was a highlight of my week. I’m trying to begin a similar habit by swimming at my local lido in Ware as well as heading down to the Beane and Lea Rivers for a wild swim.
In researching this article, I did come across various outdoor swimming places in Hertfordshire which I’ve decided not to include – on private land or with questionable safety features and dodgy water quality – but I’ll update this post if I hear of any changes. Free swimming is very gratifying but you do need to exercise a bit of caution.
The weather can affect water quality in lakes and rivers so it’s important to check conditions regularly – some open water swimming venues may close at short notice if the water is deemed unsafe. If you’re doing proper wild swimming in Hertfordshire or anywhere else, it’s a good idea to check locally in case water quality has been compromised.
Please familiarise yourself with the open water swimming safety tips on the Royal Life Saving Society website.
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Lidos in Hertfordshire
There are four main outdoor swimming pools in Hertfordshire. They all date back to the lido heyday of the 1930s.
Ware Priory Lido
This is my local lido. It’s a lovely swimming pool with a great community of regulars. As well as the main 30 metre heated pool there’s also a smaller teaching pool and a small play area for toddlers. The pool is surrounded by grassy areas with tables and chairs and there’s a little kiosk serving refreshments.
Ware Lido has been updated in recent years so the changing rooms feel clean and modern and the pool itself looks good. I really enjoy swimming here.
The lido in Hitchin, opened in 1938, is part of the town’s main leisure centre where you’ll also find an indoor pool and other sporting facilities. The heated outdoor pool is a decent 50 metres long and there’s a good sized children’s pool as well plus plenty of space to lounge around.
As with Hitchin, the heated outdoor pool in Letchworth is 50 metres in length. It’s set on a large nature reserve on the edge of town. There’s a toddler pool too.
Hemel Hempstead Lido
The outdoor swimming pool in Hemel Hempstead is smaller at 25 metres but it’s heated and there’s a kids’ paddling pool too. The pool is part of the main Hemel sports complex which also has indoor swimming pools.
Rivers for wild swimming in Hertfordshire
So, rivers are where you’ll get that authentic wild swim experience in Hertfordshire – it’s just you and the water (and possible a few other hardy souls). Unfortunately we’re not blessed with many suitable rivers – I’ve just included two here (and they’re next to each other!).
I have read lots of articles about wild swimming on the River Colne in Rickmansworth but I’m not sure it’s actually deep enough for a decent swim. I’ll update this article once I’ve had a chance to explore the stretch in question (near Bury Lake).
The River Beane and the River Lea, Hartham Common, Hertford
Hertford is a watery kind of place so it’s rather fitting that the only reliable wild swimming in Hertfordshire should be found here. Four rivers converge in Hertford – the Beane, the Rib and the Mimram all flow into the River Lea (or Lee as it is also spelt), which in turn flows eventually into the Thames. The Beane and the Lea are the rivers to head to for a Hertfordshire wild swim.
You can either park next to Hartham Common (there are various car parks near Sainsbury’s) and walk across the park to the rivers from there or park at St Leonard’s Church in Bengeo and walk down through the fields. There are two main entry points into the rivers. One is in the Beane on the Bengeo side. A muddy beach has formed at a bend in the river next to a metal footbridge in King’s Meads. I last swam here in September 2020 and it had a good depth and a decent current.
Please be very careful if you are visiting with children – the current is deceptively strong here and young children will not be able to swim against it. Paddling in the shallower stretches near the tennis courts in Hartham Common is a much safer bet for families.
The wild swimming in the River Lea is just after the point where the River Beane flows into it – about 500 metres from the Beane entry point. This is a much wider and open stretch of water – more inviting too and very scenic. There are some rickety wooden steps into the water here and someone has even erected a little changing area (with some camouflage netting).
There’s a charity swim in the Lea each September – postponed in 2020 due to Covid – which is organised in aid of the brilliant Mudlarks charity. It starts at Hertford Lock in Hartham Common, not far from where the above photo was taken.
If you’re interested in wild swimming in the Beane or the Lea, there’s a really friendly community of swimmers on the HOWLS Facebook page. (HOWLS stands for Herts Open Water and Lido Swimmers).
Lake swimming in Hertfordshire
What Herts lacks in suitable river swimming, it certainly makes up for in open water lake swimming. There’s a good range of options for outdoor swimming in lakes across Hertfordshire. Most lakes require pre-booking, and you’ll usually be required to do a test swim so that the lake staff know you’re competent at open water swimming.
H2Open Water Swimming at Westmill Farm, near Ware
There are two experiences on offer here – as the name suggests you can do open water swimming in one of the lakes at Westmill Farm. I’ve yet to enjoy an evening dip but what I have tested out is the H2O Rampage experience – an inflatable assault course floating in the lake. This has been incredibly popular with lots of local children during some of the hot spells we experienced last summer.
Open water swimming sessions at Westmill Farm are open to anyone over the age of 8. It’s a really lovely location and I’m looking forward to trying it out this summer.
Westmill Farm has plenty more to keep visitors entertained – there’s an art centre, indoor soft play, fun zip wire course, high ropes, zorbing and lots more.
Redricks open water swimming lake in Sawbridgeworth
This is a popular location for triathletes but it is increasingly attracting swimmers who just fancy a dip in the open air. It’s a well organised operation at Redricks – swimming is permitted at specific times and first time visitors have to complete an induction and sign a waiver. There are toilets and showers and a café serving hot drinks and snacks.
Entering the water is easy – there’s a sandy beach area and in the middle of the lake is a little island where swimmers can take a break if required. Wetsuits are available to hire and there are local swimming coaches should you require some open water swimming lessons.
Children are welcome to swim at Redricks – accompanied by an adult.
There’s also a separate company – Aqua Splash – who offer a seasonal inflatable assault course on one of the lakes.
Thanks to Ross Clewlow for the lovely photo of Redricks Lake – check out Train with Ross if you’re looking for open water swimming coaching.
Stanborough Park, Welwyn Garden City
The open water swimming in Stanborough Park is operated by Better – the organisation which runs the adjoining Gosling leisure centre. There are various swimming sessions available to book. Open water swimming sessions at Stanborough Park are open to those over 14 years of age.
There’s also stand up paddle boarding, sailing and other water-based activities at Stanborough and an inflatable assault course during the summer months.
Merchant Taylors Lake near Rickmansworth
This lake, in the grounds of the school of the same name, sounds well managed – there are staff in kayaks on the water keeping an eye on the swimmers. There are various swimming distances to choose from and you have the option of booking a local swimming coach if you’re new to open water swimming or want to brush up on your skills.
Younger visitors are welcome provided they are competent swimmers.
Thank you to Active Training World for the lovely photo of Merchant Taylors Lake.
Herts Young Mariners Base
Herts Young Mariners Base is on the edge of the Lee Valley Regional Park, in Cheshunt. It’s a brilliant organisation offering a range of water sports and some excellent outdoor activities for young people including climbing, archery and bushcrafts. There’s a youth hostel and a café close by.
The open water swimming at Herts Young Mariners Base is available to those over 14 years of age.
Tips for safe open water swimming
What follows are some tips on how to swim safely in open water, but for more information please visit the Royal Life Saving Society website.
Don’t swim alone – there’s a reason why most places we swim at have lifeguards. Even confident swimmers can get into trouble in the water – cramp, shock from the water temperature and underwater obstacles can all affect your safety.
Dress appropriately for the climate– the water will be cold so if you’re not accustomed to open water swimming it’s a good idea to wear a wetsuit along with hat, swimming gloves and swim shoes or swim socks.
Use a tow float – these are important to help keep you seen by other water users. Although not designed as a floatation device, tow floats will support your weight to a certain extent if you need a brief rest mid-swim. Some also come with a water proof compartment to hold your valuables.
Wear a swim hat – along with the tow float, a bright hat will help to make you visible to other water users.
Don’t jump in – the cold water can shock you and the depth can be deceptive. Also, you might land on something sharp.
Cover open wounds – use a waterproof plaster to cover any open wounds. This will help to prevent infection from any invisible nasties in the water.
Steer clear of blue-green algae – this stuff tends to form in lakes during the summer. It can cause severe itching so don’t get in the water if you see it.
Warm up properly afterwards – ensure you have a decent towel and plenty of warm layers to put on after your swim. Food and hot drinks post-swim are also a good idea.
Outdoor swimming gear
If you’re going to be in the water outdoors, it’s a good idea to ensure you’re kitted out with the right gear. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not half as resilient to cold water as I used to be. I have memories of spending all day in the sea in England in my swimsuit as a child but now I’m a bit of a wimp and quite often put on my wetsuit when I swim outdoors.
If you don’t want to spend a fortune on wetsuits for your family – kids grow out of them so quickly – check on local Facebook groups or Ebay for second hand wetsuits. Decathlon has a good value range of wetsuits as well as all the swimming accessories you might need. Meanwhile, for the more serious open water swimmer, it’s worth checking out the selection on the Wiggle website – Wiggle is a popular website for triathletes.
Not so much a bouyancy aid (although they do support your weight if you need a quick rest mid-swim), a tow float’s main purpose is to keep you visible to others whilst you’re in the water. Some tow floats have the added benefit of having a space in which to carry valuables (your car keys perhaps), a snack (if you’re on a long swim) or water (drinking the water you’re swimming in isn’t a good idea).
Unfortunately there are lots of nasty things in our UK waters. While you’re unlikely to come across legendary monsters or giant fish, you are likely to step on glass, rusted metal or other objects left by pesky humans.
These are a good idea if you’re swimming in particularly cold water.
If you fancy seeing what’s going on beneath the surface, a pair of goggles is essential. Polarised ones will also help to reduce the glare from the sun – if you’re lucky enough to be swimming on a sunny day.
Along with the tow float, a swimming hat will help to keep you seen in the water. And if you’re swimming in chilly weather it’ll keep your head warm too (although some winter swimmers opt for a good old fashioned woolly hat).
Along with the hat and shoes, gloves are essential if you’re swimming in colder weather. I remember swimming in particularly chilly water in New Zealand once and I ended up swimming with my hands above the water to stop them getting too cold – I wasn’t very well prepared!
Useful links for outdoor swimming
For more information on wild swimming or swimming outdoors, here are some online resources:
HOWLS Facebook group – I’d recommend joining the Herts Open Water and Lido Swimmers group if you’re looking for up to date information on outdoor swimming in Hertfordshire. If you’re new to open water swimming, there are plenty of friendly people in the group who are happy to meet up.
Outdoor Swimming Society – a great volunteer-run organisation championing all things outdoor swimming.
Wild Swimming – the people behind the lovely wild swimming books.
Royal Life Saving Society website – no harm in mentioning this three times in one article. Please do read the safety tips for outdoor swimming provided by this important charity.
Do you have any recommendations for outdoor swimming in Hertfordshire? Let me know in the comments below.
Looking for other activities in Hertfordshire? Read my article about places to visit in Hertfordshire. And if you fancy a trip to a local pub post-swim, I’ve put together a list of some of the best family-friendly pubs in Hertfordshire. Plus, don’t miss my complete guide on where to take afternoon tea in Hertfordshire – it covers everywhere from vintage tea rooms to luxury hotels.
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