Modern life has almost eradicated mass uprisings of cheer – almost, but not quite, as there’s nothing like a group roar into a freezing sea to remind us that life is good.
Communal swims have a slightly different feel depending on the day they take place – Christmas Day swims are a rare chance to commune with your tribe (which may be different from your actual family) and may inspire a little joy for the rest of the day. Boxing Day swims can be a purification after all the indulgence. And charging in on New Year’s Day is a good way to embrace the year ahead.
When I am not near enough to join a big swim, I still find somewhere for a dunk on at least one of the days. It’s not the same as thrashing about in the middle of a happy group, but it’s still one big, cold joyful shot in the arm (and buttocks, and legs).
Cautions apply: cold water raises blood pressure and leads to gasping, and carries risks including heart, asthma and panic attacks, and hypothermia. Winter swimming should not be undertaken under the influence or hungover. The beauty of these swims – some of which have been going for more than 100 years – is that they are still holding on to their spontaneous everybody-go-for-it nature and safety light touch. Help them preserve this informality through the current winter swimming explosion by managing your own risk. Check the process before setting off – some swims require online registrations and ask for £10 plus for local charities.
Pier Road, Whitby, from 10am on Boxing Day
Fun, frantic and 48 years old, this is a local tradition for families meeting up to spend Boxing Day morning together. It was last held in 2021, where 230 swimmers dashed into the ice-cold North Sea. Swimmers in the north-east can also attend Boxing Day dips at Hartlepool, Redcar and Sunderland, while in the north-west, there’s a modern organized swim at Salford Quays (£25, with tow floats).
Whitby Lions Boxing Day dip£10
Cromer beach, from 10am on Boxing Day
What started with a few runners going for a Boxing Day run then carrying on into the sea 30 years ago has grown into “a glorious spectacle watched by thousands”, says current organizer Clive Hedges.
The dip starts with a fun run, then 45 minutes later there’s a dip, watched by spectators lining the promenade and Cromer pier.
“Everyone is high on the spirit of Christmas or life,” says Hedges. Fancy dress is a small part of it but “nobody can dress up over a wetsuit: wetsuits are not in the spirit of it at all”, he adds. Bring money for the collection buckets and if possible wear trainers for the swim. The beach runs from sand to pebbles so you’ll need them to get back to your clothes.
Other big swims in the area include Felixstowe and Hunstanton on Christmas Day, and Gorleston and Southend on New Year’s Day (£25 for the latter).
North Norfolk Beach Runners Boxing Day dip, free
Sunny Sands beach, Folkestone, from 9.30am on Boxing Day
There’s a three-minute maximum immersion time at the Folkestone Boxing Day dip, with fundraising for the charity of your choice. Dippers received a medal for their first and 10th braving of the waves, and the event is run by Folkestone Lions Club. There are also Boxing Day dips at Deal in Kent and Ventnor on the Isle of Wight.
Folkestone Boxing Day dip, free
Crooklets beach, Bude, 11am on Christmas Day
The south-west is heaving with swims that will induce you to leave the comfort of your home no matter how hard the wind is blowing. Bude’s is a beauty, with more than 600 swimmers raising money for Bude Surf Life Saving Club watched by thousands on the beach and cliff.
In addition to a few big events, the southwest has many traditional swims that are not officially organized (no website or Facebook group). On Christmas Day try: Falmouth, Coverack, St Agnes, Polzeath, Sennen, Boscombe, Weymouth, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton, Cheltenham (in the lido). On Boxing Day: Poldhu, St Ives, Charlestown, Paignton, Teignmouth, Torquay. New Year’s Day: Lyme Regis, Newquay.
Bude Christmas Day dip, £10
Blackroot pool, Sutton Park, Sutton Coldfield, 10am on Christmas Day
As many as 1,000 people join at this entirely unorganized Christmas swim, with all ages jumping into Blackroot pool on the count of three at 10am. The Midlands is a bit of a dry area for festive swims, but there is a New Year’s Day swim at Mablethorpe.
Sutton Coldfield Christmas Day swim, free
The Hi-Tide Inn, Porthcawl, from 10.30am on Christmas Day
One of the larger swims in Wales (more than 1,300 people), this is a festival of fancy dress and fundraising, and perhaps the only swim to have its origins in a local chamber of trade. The event began in 1965, when one of them (dressed as Coco the Clown) pushed another (dressed as Father Christmas) off the pier. Crowds have followed.
Swimmers in Wales can join Boxing Day swims at Llandudno, Rhyl, Tenby (50 this year), Pembrey country park and Pontypridd lido (also open on New Year’s Day, but book ahead). On New Year’s Day there are swims at Saundersfoot (2,000-plus people), Porthmawr (see St Davids Penknife Club), Abersoch, Porthdinllaen and Barry Island.
Porthcawl Christmas morning swim, free
Broughty ferry harbour, Dundee, 12pm on New Year’s Day
This is the oldest festive swim I’ve found (130 years and counting) and from the club with the best name: Ye Amphibious Ancients Bathing Association in Broughty ferry harbor. The tradition began in 1891; YEABA members used to bathe every day except the Sabbath in the River Tay, and on occasion ice had to be smashed. Children from the age of five take part, but there is one rule: no mankinis. Register early, as in 2021 numbers were limited to 500 and closed before the day.
Edinburgh’s traditional South Queensferry Loony Dook has recently been cancelled, with bathers invited to head to the Portobello Loony Dook instead (also on New Year’s Day).
YEAABA New Year’s Day Dook, £15 for adults, £10 for children aged five to 16
For a full list of festive swims, visit the Outdoor Swimming Societywhich also shares safety guidance
Kate Rew is author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook (Ebury, £22) and Wild Swim (Guardian Faber, £14.99)