You don’t have to be the hardiest of folk to enjoy the benefits of open water swimming, and what a way to explore extraordinary east coast locations.
Open water swimming has become immensely popular, not just for its health benefits (boosts immune system, gets the blood pumping, can improve your body’s natural defence system, reduces the risk of mental and physical ailments, it’s good exercise) but it’s a wonderful way to connect with nature and enjoy an outdoor pursuit, in picturesque surroundings, with friends.
And picturesque is something Essex has in spades. The region offers a lovely mix of river, seaside, and inland waterways for those swimming enthusiasts amongst you.
Here’s our pick of the best (in our opinion) open water swimming spots in and around the River Crouch.
Before you take the plunge though, DO TAKE CARE. Open water swimming is not without hazard. Every time you enter the water you do so at your own risk. Whatever your swimming experience or level, remember do your safety checks first.
1. River Crouch Estuary
Let’s start close to home. The broad River Crouch estuary is a pretty swimming spot but not suitable for beginners or weaker swimmers. If in doubt, wear a buoyancy aid. Edged by marshes, creeks, big skies and an expanse of lovely flat landscape, the river estuary (and mud!) warms up nicely during the summer months, but there are hardier swimmers who venture in during winter. The safest section to swim is between the pontoons – you’ll need to ask permission first – but not the Town Pontoon (by the Anchor Hotel) as it’s open to the public.
It's a deceptive river, at 1/3 of a mile wide please do not attempt to swim from bank to bank, the tide runs faster the deeper you venture. On a spring tide, the current can run up to 3 knots. The safest time to swim is at slack water and on a neap tide ie: 20 mins around low tide and high tide.
The deepest water is on the far side – marked by red and green buoys – indicating the deepest channel for ships heading to the Baltic Wharf. You’ll see the mudflats edging the banks, although the mud won’t harm you, DON’T SWALLOW IT, keep your mouth closed when swimming (UK law doesn’t prevent boats dumping sewage into a UK tidal river) and wear something on your feet, in case of any broken bottles and glass.
The stretch of water between Burnham-on-Crouch and Althorne is mostly calm and the views are splendid. And from South Fambridge to North Fambridge the River offers a blend of river swimming and charming coastline.
The RNLI warn of potentially strong currents in the River Crouch, so pay close attention to your surroundings and get out immediately if you feel unsafe or if conditions deteriorate.
Watch out for boat traffic and make sure you’re visible with a brighter than bright swim cap and/or tow float.
2. River Stour
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 38miles
Flatford Mill is a very pretty, leafy, open historic site where you’ll often find people swimming. Enjoying the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. Fen Bridge is a quiet spot with 2m deep river pools and shelving access. Watch out for the weeds and be aware the water is Grade C because of its fertiliser content but safe enough to swim, so the advice is wear a nose clip and ear plugs to keep the nasties at bay. There’s a social swim in summer from Flatford Mill to Dedham Mill (2.2km), slap bang in idyllic Constable Country. Manningtree Station is the nearest train station, about a 20minute walk away.
3. River Chelmer
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 24miles
Included in the Evening Standard’s “best places to go wild swimming near London”, the River Chelmer is a really peaceful open water swimming destination, the wildlife plentiful and the scenery spectacular. You’ve got 2 miles of river running downstream from Hoe Mill bridge to give you time to really take in your surroundings. Lovely and clean for swimming but keep your eyes peeled for boats! Walk back upstream and dip in the river opposite Ulting Church (dating back to 1150AD).
Flowing through the heart of Essex, the River Chelmer offers a refreshing and invigorating swim.
Check tide times and be mindful of water flow and currents. Strong currents can be challenging even for experienced swimmers, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and avoid hazardous areas.
4. River Blackwater
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 15miles
This river has a bit of a tradition of wild swimming so it’s a popular destination with open water swimmers. Its tranquil waters stretch over 15 miles, providing ample opportunities for swimmers of all levels. With a variety of access points and picturesque scenery.
The RNLI recommends choosing a supervised swimming location whenever possible. So check if there are any designated bathing areas monitored by lifeguards or swimming clubs and follow the safety advice.
5. River Blackwater Estuary (Maldon to Heybridge Basin)
For a longer open water swimming experience, the Blackwater Estuary provides an exciting opportunity. Stretching from Maldon to Heybridge Basin, the estuary offers a mix of river and coastal swimming. The tides and currents add an element of challenge, making it even more thrilling for experienced swimmers.
Tides and currents in these areas can be unpredictable and strong, which can present significant risk. And remember, weather and water conditions can change. We advise swimming in a group, follow established routes, and taking a tow float for better visibility.
6. Shoebury East Beach
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 24miles
This shingle beach has a designated area for swimmers but watch out for the tides and strong current. At low tide you can expect to walk out (or back) more than a mile! There’s parking, toilets, outside shower and although the water quality is excellent, do check the @surfersagainstsewage app before going in.
7. Chalkwell Beach, Southend-on-Sea
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 19miles
Not the prettiest beach but there’s a grassy bank behind the promenade which is good for picnics. Check out the tide times before you visit this one. High tide can mean the sea reaches the wall and low tide can mean a very long walk out to sea during spring tides. Two very different experiences! Many swim groups come here: the Southend Seals, Chalkwell Redcaps, Bluetits and the Men’s Bluebells. With Chalkwell station only a 2 minute walk away it’s easy to get to but don’t expect all sand on this one, it’s a mixture of sand and pebbles.
It's a good idea to always swim parallel to the shore (within your limits) and gradually increase your distance as you grow in strength, confidence and ability.
8. Tollesbury Salt Pool, Maldon
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 17miles
Situated on the Dengie Peninsula, next to Tollesbury Marina is Tollesbury’s salt pool offering a fantastic open water swimming experience. The only natural saltwater swimming pool in the UK, surrounded by breath-taking views of salt marshes and a diverse array of local wildlife. The calm waters make it an excellent spot for beginners, and there are longer distances for those seeking a more challenging swim.
If you are a beginner or not confident in open water, wear a wetsuit for added buoyancy and warmth.
9. Mersea Island
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 23miles
A lovely tranquil spot, this 6acres of man-made salt-water swimming lake is open all year, Monday to Friday and runs a range of events you can swim with your dog. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, it’s a clean, sandy/pebbly beach with a run of pretty beach huts, considered safe for swimming although do check the @surfersagainstsewage app before entering the water.
10. Hadleigh Country Park, Benfleet
Distance from Fambridge Yacht Haven: 15miles
Close to Hadleigh Castle you’ll find Hadleigh Country Park Reservoir with a 350 metre swimming course, manned by qualified lifeguards, ideal for beginners and those more experienced. Swimmers are encouraged to wear their NOWCA wristbands to track their swim times and distance. There are changing facilities on site, hot showers and you can pre-book via the Actio app.
Photo courtesy of Hadleigh Plungers Swimming Group
*Think before you swim*
Always swim with a buddy, familiarize yourself with the area, and be aware of currents and tides. This is NOT the time to blend in with the surroundings; wear the brightest swim cap you can find and use a tow float to enhance your visibility. It will improve your safety in the water.
TOP TIPS - Swimming Safely in Open Water
- Be swim smart: How strong a swimmer are you? If you’re a beginner or not very confident in the water, book yourself some swimming lessons first.
- Check Weather Conditions: Strong winds, rain, and poor visibility can wreak havoc (and danger) for swimmers.
- Check Water Conditions: The water temperature dictates what to wear; swimsuit or wetsuit and how long you can safely stay in the water. And don’t forget, pack what you’ll want to wear post-swim. If it’s cold, you’ll want to wrap up and having a warm drink handy after a lovely refreshing swim is always welcome.
- Swim Buddies: Always swim accompanied and make sure you have someone onshore who knows your plans and can watch out for you while you are in the water. Swimming in a group means you’re more visible in the water and have additional support in case of emergency.
- Stick to Designated Swim Areas: It’s always advisable to stick to designated swim areas monitored by lifeguards or swimming clubs. Respect the signage (it’s there for a reason) and only swim between the flags.
- Check for Hazards: Scan the water and surroundings for rocks, currents, rip tides and marine life. If in doubt, ask a lifeguard or local authority for advice.
- Get Yourself Seen: Wear a brightly coloured swim cap and/or a tow float so you’re easy to spot in the water. If you get into difficulty, you’ll want other swimmers or boat operators to see you.
- Wear a Wetsuit: For improved buoyancy, added warmth, and a protective layer from jellyfish and/or rocks.
- Know Your Limits: Don't attempt to swim distances or in conditions beyond your abilities. If you feel tired or unwell, get out immediately.
- Respect the Water: Tides turn, conditions can change so be mindful at all times.
Remember, safety is your No.1 priority when swimming in open water. So, grab your goggles, pull on your wetsuit, and dive into the delights of Essex’s open water.
If in doubt, contact the RNLI or local authorities for more specific information on open water swimming safety in the Essex and River Crouch areas.