A bigger splash

<strong>Wild Swim: River, Lake, Lido and Sea - the Best Places to Swim Outdoors in Britain</strong>

Some of the worst fights I've ever had were with a boyfriend over who got to keep what river when we split up, Windrush v Ruther. God, it was vicious. Completely not in the spirit of wild swimming, but what can I say? Spleen sucks, but we both loved the water. In the end he got all the alcohol in the house and the Ruther through till 2010 (even typing that conjures pain to the brink of catatonia).

Kate Rew's suitably passionate guide to the best places to swim outdoors in Britain is a vital book. Hold it and salivate. Travelling from Cornwall to Skye, from river to sea to pond to pool, she points out 307 open-air swimming spots, some famous (Loch Lomond, Tooting Bec Lido), many hidden. The country she conjures could be one of fantasy. A place where swallows nest in changing rooms and Venetian glass beads from 17th-century shipwrecks dot the seabed. Where you can swim over sunken fields of lettuce and animal bones, watch sandworms continually on the move, and creep past silent fishermen hunkered down in water "shining like mercury" in the moonlight. Where children hurtle off the blackened walls of quarries and float on their backs through fields of unpulled turnips while purple-bottomed pigs look on with disapproval.

She describes a place where there's a whirlpool that calms down for just one hour a day, making it briefly possible to swim across. Where eels shelter in the shade, and the last summer wasps die twitching on the water. Where smelt, bass, flounder, herring, mullet, plaice and sole flourish, and if you hear a splash you'll see the pink open mouth and silver underbelly of a trout. Where families front-crawl past ruined abbeys and a community adores its canine lifeguard, who leads charity swims and patrols his parti cular stretch of the Devonshire coast. Where you can drop into Blackmoss Pot and the Blue Lagoon, or where a dragon once reputedly drank before eating all the local sheep and Wittgenstein skinny-dipped in a bad mood. Where dolphins glow with phosphorescence in the bay, and if you stand up out of the water sparks drip from your body. A kind of Narnia, then.

But this is not fantasy - it's serious shit. Rew (founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society) swims year round, in Yorkshire tarns and Scottish lochs, in wetsuit, cap and gloves, sometimes too impatient to get her clothes off (or on) and flinging herself in, too rapt to realise it's nine degrees and she's weeping into her goggles. Her friends are equally hardy. A conversation: "Don't you just hate it when swimming pools don't have cold showers?" "I can't find water cold enough." "Even the cold tap water's too warm." Rew confesses that "for me the best time to swim in Windermere is when it's pelting down with rain or in the very early morning . . ." but she is no bully, and doesn't necessarily expect any of us to agree.

Her prose is perfect. Helford is a "peaceful, tinkering kind of place" and seaweed hangs off the sides of rocks "like a balding man's last strands of hair". Page after page, she nails things. "Outdoor swimmers look at maps in negative. All we see is lines of blue, the trace of lakes and rivers and streams and shoreline, lochs and llyns and pools and tarns, and the rest is just geographic dead space."

Slowly a picture is drawn of a country of swimming clubs, riverbank societies and pressure groups, where literally thousands of people swim wherever they see water, confounding with each stroke the health and safety prefect and waterfront property developers who want to reduce the world to a concentration camp of dry bodies. The sound and depth, colours and contours of Britain are revealed - as though Rew had flown across the country rather than swam. But then, as T H White wrote in The Sword in the Stone, "He could do what men always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in water and flying in the air . . ."

Wild Swim is a hardbacked book full of lush photographs that will have you hunched on the sofa as though with a stash of love letters. Another new book, Wild Swimming (Punk Publishing, £14.95), is more of a bung-in-the-car manual, with crucial "within 20 minutes' walk of a train station" and "famous for having deep water into which you can jump from a bridge" sections. It, too, quivers with thrills. But neither book, I add with relief, contains my secret swimming spot on the Windrush. My sweet alimony. Just last weekend I crouched in the shallows dangling ham off bits of string to catch a crayfish - and sure enough, several came lumbering up through the dark, waving their too-heavy arms, like drunks hailing a taxi. Just moments away, tourists were sweating up the main street, unaware that you can literally dip out of this world of carbon and into one of waking dreams without parting with so much as a brass farthing. Where is this place? Marry me, and I'll tell you.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug