Where is the best place to go wild swimming in the sea on Holy Island?
Over the last year, I’ve been doing quite a lot of swimming on the island, after finally daring (with the help of a local swimming group) to brave the chill of the North Sea. Finally I can answer this question with a bit more confidence, especially as wild swimming has become so popular these days.
Instead of giving you a full rundown of all the beaches on the island (not all of which I’ve tried), I thought I’d give you the two best options, depending on what you’re looking for and the time you have. I’ve spent quite a lot of time swimming in both, so hopefully I can provide some helpful tips.
Even if you are an experienced swimmer, it is essential you read the RNLI’s tips on open water swimming. A couple of crucial points to note:
- Cold water shock: If you’re used to swimming in the warm azure waters of the Med, the chill of the North Sea can take your breath away. Literally. Jumping straight in can cause your breathing to increase tenfold and may cause loss of control, panic and drowning. As the heart works harder to pump blood, a sudden cold shock can also lead to a heart attack. To avoid this, walk in slowly, allowing your body to adjust. When the water has reached thigh level, wait a couple of minutes. When you do submerge the rest of your body do so in the shallows.
- Do not use inflatables. That fun lilo can swiftly be dragged far out to sea by a breeze and the currents. Many RNLI rescues are of this variety, and parents thinking this is a good way to keep their child safe, have found that child drifting away from them at speed. The advice is to leave your pizza lilo in the pool.
Please, please also read the RNLI advice link above, which contains additional essential information. Those inexperienced with the North Sea who think they are strong swimmers are up there in the risk groups for getting in trouble.
My two recommended Holy Island beaches for a swim
Now we’re done with safety, let’s get to the fun. Which of the following you choose for your swim will depend largely on the time you have and the tide.
St Cuthbert Beach – The nearer swimming option. Tide dependant.
If you don’t fancy walking the distance, there’s a beach right on the edge of the village, behind St Mary’s church, just opposite St Cuthbert’s Island. It’s not as good a swim as Sandham’s below, but is so close, that I included it here first. It’s a great option for an easy fun dip in the sea, and you won’t have to walk for ages in your wet clothes.
- This beach is really only an option when the tide is high enough, ideally close to the tide’s highest point. At other times, the sea will have retreated and there’s nowhere near to swim (i.e. sand, rocks and seaweed you can walk on). You can check the high tide point for the day of your visit here (and remember: the tides don’t come in at the same time every day).
- The water is colder during the rising tide and warmer as it recedes. This difference is because the rising tide comes in from the open sea and the ebbing tide is water that has had a chance to warm up a little in the shallower region between the island and the mainland.Therefore the ideal time to swim is just as the tide has turned, when the sea is at its highest depth and the water will be warmer. Check the highest point of the tide (see bullet point above) and aim for that.
- A defining characteristic of this beach is that there is usually a strong current, because it is the entry/exit point for the tide. If you are swimming during the exact point of high tide, you’ll feel the current calm and then change direction. For that reason I wouldn’t recommend going out of your depth. St Cuthbert’s Island seems like a short distance away, but if you try to swim to it, you may find you are fighting against a strong current, which can be dangerous.
- The advantage/disadvantage of this beach (depending on your point of view) is that there are often people on the beach, especially if the weather is reasonable, and you won’t be swimming unobserved. On sunny days, your swim may become a spectator sport.
- There are quite a few rocks here, so swimming shoes of some description are recommended.
This is my favourite place to swim on Holy Island, and I’m a bit reticent to share it, lest it becomes a busy hotspot, but for the greater good and all that I will…
It’s a good 25 minute walk from the village and can be approached either via the path from the Castle or via the dunes. Unlike St Cuthbert’s beach, you don’t have to worry about tides for this one. I prefer high tides, but low tide swimming can be as enjoyable.
For those unfamiliar with the dunes, it might be easier to go via the Castle, just because it’s easy to lose your way in the dunes (not in a worrying way, you can always find the sea and walk back, but then, you might end up further than you expected).
Walk towards Lindisfarne Castle and then pass it on its left (so the castle should be on your right). Continue until you get to the path that takes you along the sea, where you turn left and then walk towards the white pyramid structure (Emmanuel Head). The beach past the pyramid is Sandham Bay.
Walk along Straight Lonen (the road that runs along the back of coach/disabled car park on Green Lane). You’ll pass Saint Coombs farmhouse, at which point the road becomes a path. Follow it until you reach the gate to the dunes. Once past the gate walk a few metres into the dunes and, diagonally to your right, you’ll see a post with its top painted white. Head towards it From there follow the marking posts until you reach the beach, noting that you should be aiming a little bit to the right (or you’ll end up in the next beach along which is Coves Haven). Google maps is your friend and should help.
Sandham Bay is divided into two parts by a line of rocks that juts into the sea. Personally, I think the northern one is better (the one further from the pyramid).
- This is a lovely beach which is mostly sandy. I like it because as long as I don’t stray too far from the shore, I’ve never encountered a current or too much drag.
- You can swim here regardless of tides. Even in the lowest tide, it is still swimmable.
- As already noted, there’s a line of rocks that divides this beach in two. In higher tides, you may not see them, so I’d recommend you stick to one side or the other, but don’t try to swim between them, as you might end up on the rocks.
- For safety, it’s best to stay in your depth. If you swim out, or outside the bay the rules of the open sea apply, and you may encounter currents and rip tides.
- As it’s a longer walk to get back, dont forget to bring warm clothes for the return journey. Winds are a common feature of Holy Island, and you might get colder than you think.
Water temperatures and your “wild” swim
If you haven’t had the experience of swimming in the North Sea here, it could be a bracing experience (and that’s part of the fun). Personally, it takes me about three minutes of ‘Argh, argh, argh!’ to acclimatise once I’ve gone in fully. In summer I don’t bother with a wet suit, but in early season and winter I wouldn’t dare go without it. We each have a different cold threshold, and if you’ve never felt the freezing, breathless delight of the chill on your feet and the nape of your neck, it might be good to limit your exposure time initially, until you understand how your body reacts. I’ve also read on wild swimming forums that cold endurance is something you build up over time.
The water is at its warmest in July and August: between 11C (52F) on a cold year and 17C (62F) on a warm year.
Between September and March the water temperature gradually decreases reaching the coldest point, ~5C (46F) in March and then it starts to rise again.
You can see graphs and details of water temperatures here, though bear in mind that different websites offer different calculations.
In conclusion: swimming in the sea on Holy Island can be great fun, just read the safety advice, have warm clothes for after and maybe a flask of tea. Enjoy your swim!