This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
It’s funny to see serious swimmers bobbing in the sea. They look like coloured buoys wearing goggles.
But from the swimmer’s eye, everything is magnified and looms larger than when on land. The cliffs and ferries at Dover tower over you. You feel at one with the sailors, oyster beds and groynes at Whitstable, while the sky and sweep of the coastline at Dunwich can feel overwhelming.
Sea swimming exhilarates, excites and inspires. The saltwater helps you feel buoyant and light, vulnerable yet powerful. Swimmers almost always emerge grinning.
I swim all year round in England’s seas in just a swimsuit, cap and goggles. The water can burn and prick your skin like needles, but it also refreshes and tingles to make you feel a million dollars. On calm days, you feel as if you are slicing through silk, while in rough seas you concentrate on beating the waves and limiting your saltwater intake. That’s when your stroke and breathing go out the window. Not that you care a jot — the sea’s bounce and cadence make you imagine what a dolphin feels like riding the waves.
When you emerge from the water, everything, especially your extremities, will feel cold and may be numb, so focus first on dressing warmly and quickly. I wear ear plugs against surfer’s ear, a condition that arises from exposure to cold water and can lead to hearing loss.
Hours immersed in salt bring out spots on my tongue, which also often gets swollen. Plus you discover where you chafe most. It’s different for everyone.
Many feel unnerved when out of their depth, their imagination running wild with what lurks beneath — I sometimes get a slight lurch in my stomach, but it is all in my head. Apart from the occasional seal or porpoise, arguably the scariest thing in English coastal waters would be jellyfish.
Always check with locals for any “bloom” or jelly sightings before you get into the water. It is rare, however, for a swimmer to be particularly affected by them. As the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CSPF) says: “It is more of a psychological worry, rather than a real risk.” It is best to avoid the trailing tentacles of all jellyfish, some of which can extend to three metres. Vinegar helps soothe any pain if stung. Left untreated, a jellyfish sting can cause blisters, cramp or nausea, or at the most extreme a heart attack, according to the CSPF.
Portuguese men-of-war (or, as the Portuguese call them, caravelas) are deadly but rarely appear in the English Channel. Often seals come up close to you as you are swimming, more out of curiosity than anything else. Treat them with respect. They are not pets.
The sea too demands respect, as the medieval population of Dunwich discovered when multiple storms battered the Suffolk coastline and the water swallowed what was once one of England’s biggest towns and a thriving port. Today the beach is isolated and hard to reach by public transport, but that adds to its charm. It is squeezed between the North Sea and a nature reserve buzzing with wildlife and flora, and even at the height of summer I am almost alone in the water.
Last month, as part of a six-member relay team, trained and organised by the spinal-injury charity Aspire, I tackled one of the most iconic ocean swims. We crossed the Channel to France in 12 hours 33 minutes. The water at either end of the Channel was a bit “lumpy”, a swimmers’ term for swell, but in the middle, it was as calm as a millpond. We came across only a handful of small jellyfish and saw some porpoises, while the water was a decent 18C.
The tides meant we set off from Samphire Hoe at 2am and were one of 10 swimming boats out in the “Ditch” that day. We each felt a sense of camaraderie and closeness, especially when we were circled by cargo and container ships and ferries.
My months of training took me to several places on the English coast that are within an hour or so of London and many are doable in a day. Most of them are good for all levels of swimmers. But however strong you are in the water, never swim alone and always inform somebody where you are going.
Here are my top five.
Dover Harbour and Swimmers’ Beach
Good for: Long-distance training and strong swimmers. The water is clean but “dirty clean”, often leaving your swimsuit with a brown film inside. A glimpse of the Channel and view of the cliffs. Channel-swim training and chatter.
Not so good for: Weaker swimmers, and it has no official lifeguard service. The way in is steep, the harbour deep, and the water can raise quite a chop. For those with less confidence in the water, it is advisable to swim closer to the shoreline. You occasionally get jellyfish in the harbour.
FYI: The train from London St Pancras to Dover Priory takes about an hour. Then it’s a 20-minute walk to Marine Parade. Sliders are the preferred footwear for the beach, which slopes down towards the water’s edge. Regular swimmers say they have had no sewage problems, but some building works have churned up the water recently. Local media keep them informed.
For Channel swimmers, Dover is home base. Our spiritual home. Nerves tingle as you gaze at the Channel, often referred to as the “Ditch”, and towards France.
There is something so special about swimming in the harbour beside the Strait of Dover and in the shadow of the castle, the white cliffs, the esplanade that displays the best and worst of architecture, and ferries to and from France. Dover simply looks better from the sea.
Swimmers’ Beach close to the town centre often teems with unbridled swimsuit joy whatever the weather. The training season in Dover begins on the first Saturday in May and runs until the end of the season in September. The harbour has a training circuit for the summer season of just over 2km marked out with buoys that run between the pier and close to the wall of the cargo terminal.
Two Dover-based organisations, the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation and Channel Swimming Association, adjudicate and accredit crossings while a number of registered boat “pilots” escort swimmers across the Channel. The swimmer sets the speed, the boat sets the course.
In June, as the first boats of the season set out — usually from nearby Samphire Hoe or Shakespeare’s Beach — to guide swimmers across the “Ditch”, the town conversation gives way to news of relays and solos.
On dry land, The White Horse and Les Fleurs pubs a few minutes’ walk from the beach have become shrines for Channel swimmers, with many having scribbled their names and dates on the walls.
Good for: Sunsets, families, sailing and other water activities, shopping, coastal walks, London connections
Not so good for: Post-rain sewage outflows, pebbles, low-tide swimming, late nights
FYI: London trains run from St Pancras, Cannon Street, London Bridge and Victoria, and the station is about 15 minutes’ walk to the beach. Note the tide changes on the beach about half an hour before published times. Check current conditions here
Whitstable on the Kent coast facing the Isle of Sheppey is a favourite place of mine to swim. You have plenty of company in the water with regular sailing regattas on the go and enthusiastic paddle boarders while on land there is plenty to see and do. I enjoy wandering over to visit its working harbour.
Your day in Whitstable will be dictated by the tides, which will sweep you along the coast rather than out to sea. You get good swimming for a couple of hours either side of high tide. Hit low tide and your knuckles will scrape the seabed and you will be skirting oyster beds. If the wind picks up from the west or south, sidestep Whitstable and walk 10 minutes round the corner to Tankerton.
Controversies around clean water and a lack of infrastructure investment have riled locals over the past few years. Southern Water, which serves nearly 5mn people in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, was last year fined a record £90mn after pleading guilty to thousands of pollution discharges in the five years to 2015.
Regulations allow the local utility to release untreated sewage to the beaches via combined sewage overflows, which hold waste along with excess rainwater and release the mix into the environment. Best to check the water quality, especially after heavy rain, on Southern Water’s website and the app by the marine conservation campaigners Surfers Against Sewage.
“This is the epicentre of a lot of the outcry in the south coast region,” says Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage’s chief executive. “This year we’ve tracked about 50 ‘pollution events’ in the sea off the Whitstable/Tankerton area.”
“People should definitely be aware and inform themselves,” Tagholm adds. “They should be looking at real-time data. Think about weather conditions: has it rained recently? What does the water look like? On our app, you get sewage alerts and pollution-risk forecasts.”
Along the coast and closer to Margate, Walpole Bay, which has the UK’s largest tidal pool, is on my list to visit. You will have about three hours to swim either side of low tide. Access it — barefoot and with care as it is thick with algae — from the sea walls and steps rather than from the beach. It has no facilities.
In Whitstable, suggestions for post-swim sustenance include the slightly pricey yet well situated Harbour Garden for cocktails, Pearson’s Arms or Samphire for a good meal, while Wheelers, a renowned seafood restaurant and takeaway, serves local produce such as oysters, prawns and crab tarts. Booking is advisable.
Good for: Training, walking, fish and chips, isolation, free daytime parking, facilities, access to the beach, wildlife
Not so good for: Easy access via public transport, bustle, nightlife. No lifeguards
FYI: Trains run from London Liverpool Street to Ipswich, then change to a local service to Darsham, about five miles from Dunwich. Check taxi availability before you travel; a local service operates
Dunwich is complicated to get to on public transport but that is part of its charm. Its shingle beach stretches on both sides from a locally run free car park, tucked in between an RSPB reserve and the North Sea. Donations are welcome. It’s a steep pebbly slope into the sea, so remember your sliders. The water gets deep very quickly. To the south, the white dome of the Sizewell nuclear power plant peeps above the low cliffs.
I love swimming here for the sweep of the coastline, which provides a good stretch for training. Even at the height of summer, there were few other swimmers in the water with me. Walkers enjoy the nature reserve, while unkempt wooden beach huts are dotted around and provide some shelter or, at the very least, a seat to admire the view. A café by the car park offers good fish and chips. Dogs are welcome year round.
The sea has been calm when I’ve been, but it conceals its strength so demands respect. Beneath the waves, the story goes, lies Suffolk’s lost Atlantis. Some say the area is haunted. The local museum traces the story.
Keep an eye on the tides and choose to swim on an incoming one. Seals and porpoises sometimes appear, as well as jellyfish. The beach is not monitored and there are no lifeguards. A National Trust beach lies between Dunwich and Sizewell.
Good for: Wide beach at low tide, running, games, sandcastles, families, dog walking from October to April
Not so good for: High tide covers the beach. No cafés, amusement arcades or piers
FYI: Train services from London Liverpool Street will take you to Thorpe-le-Soken. Change for an eight-minute trip to Frinton-on-Sea station. Then it is a 15-minute walk to the beach
My mother and her brother often went to Frinton with their grandparents in the prewar years, and there’s a photo in our family album with the tiny tots on a donkey. I go to make use of its wide sandy beach to catch the sunrise rather than a donkey. The beach, however, disappears at high tide. Seals often come close as you swim.
I find it more interesting to swim here than at neighbouring Clacton, where I took part one year in a triathlon. It’s excellent for swimming or dipping, with a gentle shelf into the water. Timber groynes divide the beach up.
There are no cafés close by, so bring your own coffee, cake and picnic and set up camp under one of its old-fashioned, colourful beach huts on stilts. It rarely gets crowded. You can park for free along the Esplanade and it’s a quick walk down through a grassy area, the Greensward, to the beach. Or you can make use of its concrete walkway that runs parallel to the sea.
Surfers Against Sewage says Frinton has a good-quality rating but urges people to be informed. “Those real-time alerts are so important,” says Tagholm.
Good for: Free parking above the beach, families, harbour life with plenty of waterfront cafés and bars, small-business shopping, historic architecture, sandy beach, coastal walks, water activities, connections to London, beach wheelchairs are available. Good water quality. Lifeguard service from at least May to September
Not so good for: Tides, currents, choppy waters, holiday crowds. Nightlife is limited to eateries. One main road in that can get busy. The nearest large shopping area is Westwood Cross a few miles away.
FYI: Trains run frequently from London St Pancras, Victoria and Charing Cross. It’s about 20 minutes’ walk from Ramsgate station to the Main Sands.
Ramsgate is one of the Isle of Thanet’s sandy beaches. It gently shelves into the sea to offer a good swimming length from the East Pier wall, which embraces the Royal Harbour and marina (one of the largest on England’s south coast), to another jutting out at the other end of the beach. Pebbles and stones scattered where the water breaks can make it hard to get out of the sea with your dignity intact.
The town faces the Channel and is subject to the effects of its tides and currents, so be aware of conditions before setting out. It can get pretty rough, as we discovered when some of our relay teams did their qualifying swim for the Channel there. One swimmer was sick after being tossed about like a cork in the water. The beach during the summer season has some lifeguard protection.
Locals have in the past organised swims to Broadstairs, about three miles away. But this cannot be done without trained support as it demands knowledge of the conditions, tides and weather.
If driving, head towards East Cliff and park above the beach. Take the Augusta Steps down. The entrance to the network of second world war tunnels is at the bottom. Coasters bar and café is next to the beach.
Ramsgate Main Sands is the main beach in town; look out for the red and yellow flags that demarcate the official bathing and lifeguard zone.
High-vis tow floats to ensure you are easily visible; some are waterproof and big enough to store keys, phones and other valuables as you swim
Sliders are preferable to Crocs, especially in shingle or pebbles, while flip-flops are hopeless with cold fumbling hands
A swimming cap helps keep you streamlined and goes towards keeping your head warm
Warm clothes: a merino vest that you can step into works well as a base layer and helps preserve your modesty. Avoid cotton
Robes or another easy-to-put-on outer layer
Don’t forget . . .
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