Waterfalls, Rivers, Lochs and Lakes: Britain’s Best Alternatives to the Beach

With the weather heating up and summer fast approaching full swing, Liz Wootton shares the best alternatives to the beach in Britain. 

I’ll be honest here, Britain isn’t exactly the sunniest of all the isles. And it’s probably for this reason that Brits tend to go a little bonkers when the slightest sliver of sun appears. Being the sun-deprived nation that we are, when we get a beautiful sunny day it makes perfect sense to celebrate it in style. Usually, this means hordes of holidaymakers in their suncream-covered (or else varying-shades-of-red) masses, carting coolers full of cans, sunhats, flipflops and sun umbrellas akimbo, doggedly making their way down to the nearest beach. 

However, as lovely as a weekend trip to the beach is, unless you’re up and away at the crack of dawn, the closest carparks are likely to be overflowing and the beach itself already jampacked. After eventually finding and setting up on your own small patch of sand (the dream), or stretch of tiny, but surprisingly sharp, rocks (more realistic), then you can finally sit back and enjoy the day – until you’re trampled by a horde of children playing frisbee or else covered in sand and spray by an overly-enthusiastic dog that is.

As well as falling short on the relaxation side of things, beach days en masse can also be pretty damaging for the local environment, with litter-strewn seasides being just as inevitable as sunburn after a sunny day in the UK. Although it’s lovely that everyone’s out enjoying the sunshine in nature, it also needs to be noted that, by single-mindedly making our way to the country’s most popular beaches, we’re putting large amounts of pressure on these coastal beauty spots and the surrounding areas. Getting off the beaten track and exploring some of Britain’s great beach alternatives is a great way to both lose the crowds and give the planet a helping hand. 

Instead of Brighton beach, head to the rivers and lakes in Surrey Hills and the South Downs.

As much as we love Brighton’s vast, pebbled waterfront, on a hot summer’s day the whole stretch swarms with a sea of people, all intent on pitching their towel and soaking up the rays. Escape the heady swell of the crowd by heading into the tranquil Surrey and Sussex hills, which are home to secret forest pools, sun-dappled glades and cool, shaded glens. Or else make your way through the South Downs to Chilbolton Cow Common or Frensham Pond. Surrounded by nature, both are great swimming spots and come complete with perfect patches of grass – just waiting to be picnicked upon.

Instead of Barmouth or Black Rock Sands beach in Snowdonia head to Watkins Path Waterfall.

Going off the beaten track can be arduous at the time, but it certainly has its rewards. Although getting to this gorgeous waterfall involves a 40-minute walk each way, it’s more than worth it. Possibly one of the loveliest spots in the Snowdonia National Park, this series of waterfalls and crystal-clear pools is the perfect antidote to a hot summer’s day. Pack a rucksack with picnic blankets and plenty of food and drink and set off for the day. You may pass a couple of other groups heading there with the same intentions, but (probably due to its location and the fact that not too many people know about it) the place never gets too crowded, even in the peak of summer. Just remember to bring any litter back down with you when you leave. 

Credits: River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey – outdoorswimmingsociety.com

Instead of Scarborough or Blackpool beaches head to the River Wharfe in the Yorkshire Dales.

‘I’m just off on a beach holiday in Yorkshire’, said no one ever. Be that as it may, there are some truly cracking beaches up North – Scarborough and Blackpool being two of the most popular. However, like the rest of the country, on a sunny day these beaches and the surrounding promenades are typically choked with locals and tourists alike. 

Instead of heading to the Yorkshire coast, you could stay inland and make your way to somewhere along the River Wharfe, which runs through the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. The pretty bucolic village of Grassington is a great place to base yourself for a day of aquatic adventures: there are lovely river meadows to either side of the river here where you can set up your picnic or barbeque and there’s plenty of exploring to be done all along the river. Upstream from Grassington, you’ll find Ghaistrill’s Strid, where a series of cascades, rapids and chutes have made a natural waterpark for all the family to enjoy. Another great option is following the River Wharfe down to Bolton Abbey, where you can splash and swim in a wide and shallow stretch of the river, with the beautiful ruins of the priory as your backdrop.

Credits: Goldiggins Quarry – wildswim.com

Instead of Bude Sea Pool head to Bodmin Moor.

Instead of heading to Bude’s beautiful, but busy, sea pool at Summerleaze Beach, you can always journey inland to the wild and windswept Bodmin Moor – the least populated part of Cornwall. Here you’ll find Goldiggins Quarry, a 20-minute walk from the Hurlers carpark in the little village Minions – where you can stock up on supplies. With beautiful jade-coloured waters, flat ledges for jumping off and plenty of grassy areas for sunbathing and picnics, this tranquil spring-fed quarry is the ideal place to spend a sunny day. On your way back from the quarry you can stop by Pony Pool – a small, more sheltered lake – which has sandy areas and gently shelving shallows, making it a perfect swimming spot for younger kids. The nearby Golitha Falls is also a great option: paddle in the shallows or follow the falls down to a secret plunge pool, hidden at the bottom. 

Credits: An Lochan Uaine – visitcairngorms.com

Instead of Aberdeen Beach, head to An Lochan Uaine in Cairngorms National Park.

The beautifully-rugged landscape of Scotland boasts thousands of lochs and the country’s open-access laws mean that you can swim in pretty much all of them. Although during the winter months this may seem like a ludicrous suggestion, if some hot sunny weather does ever decide to pay Scotland a visit, then a refreshing dip in one of the country’s lochs will seem just the ticket. If on such a day you’re looking for an alternative to Aberdeen Beach, then An Lochan Uaine is a great option. Located in the UK’s biggest national park, this magical little loch is known for the beautiful emerald hues of its waters (its name literally translating to ‘the green loch’). The loch is surrounded by a small but lovely stretch of beach, perfect for parking your picnic blanket on and spending a relaxing day enjoying the sunshine and your surroundings – which are so beautiful that you’ll find yourself wondering if you’ve actually been transported away to the Italian Alps. 

Also in Cairngorms National Park, Loch Caoldair is another lovely spot to head to on a summer’s day. A mile’s walk from the road, this is a wild and secluded haven, hidden amongst the birch trees. You’ll also find a little beach here, upon which you can hunker down for the day. If you do get itchy feet and want to explore some more, then there are the lovely Pattack Falls just down the road in Strathmashie Forest. These charming waterfalls end with a large calm pool at the bottom where you can cool off to your heart’s content. 

Wild Swimming Safety

If you are planning on taking the plunge at one of these beautiful spots, then it’s best to bear these wild swimming safety tips in mind:

  • Prepare for the water to be cold and rather than jumping in at once, lower yourself in slowly to avoid sending your body into shock. 
  • Wear swim shoes to protect your feet.
  • Try to check the water quality/online reviews before you go. 
  • Bring something to wrap up warm in once you’re out in case the sun goes behind a cloud.
  • Always check your body for leeches on leaving the water, just in case! 

Alternatively, read cold water swimmer Sophie Hellyer’s dos and and don’ts for first-time wild swimmers

Before you set off, read Max La Manna‘s guides on how to travel plastic-free and how to plan a low-waste picnic.

See our favourite women’s sustainable swimwear brandsmen’s sustainable swimwear brands and eco swimwear for kids.