3rd Place in our Top Five Iconic Swims in the South of England is Christchurch Bay, Dorset/Hampshire
Over the past few years, swimming in Christchurch Bay has steadily grown in popularity reaching its frenetic peak during the pandemic. Like everywhere else in the country, people turned to the dwindling number of remaining permissible activities. Who could blame the residents of coastal Hampshire and Dorset for taking to that final frontier of freedom, the sea, for their daily hour of exercise? Even local MP, Sir Desmond Swayne, was spotted out swimming in Mudeford last November with not a shred of neoprene in sight.
We live just a few miles inland in the beautiful New Forest National Park, so we are only a ten-minute drive to all the swim spots in this ten-mile sweep of the south coast. Christchurch Bay is a fabulous place for a swim when the conditions are right: from Mudeford, in the west, to Milford-on-Sea, in the East, the bay crosses the county line separating Dorset and Hampshire and is served at regular intervals by access points and ample parking which mean that crowds tend not to build up in any one spot. If you are lucky you might spot Sammy the Seal sunbathing on the beach or a pod of dolphins further out to sea. Bournemouth, with its crowds, is to the west, and to the east is The Solent separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland.
Check out our handy Christchurch Bay swimming map
Hordle Cliff, just outside the village of Milford-on-Sea, is at the heart of it all. Lined by brightly coloured beach huts this quintessentially English beach, with the dramatic cliffs of the Needles on the Isle of Wight as a backdrop, is the ideal place for either a leisurely dip or a long-distance swim. Like most south coast locations, there is some protection from the wild Atlantic swells, but the swimming here is at its best when the wind blows from the north. On these occasions, protected from the wind by a shallow-rising grassy cliff, the first hundred metres out from the shore is flat calm and the water so clear so that you can watch the fish below you zipping along the sandy bottom.
Hordle Cliff, with its row of brightly coloured beach huts
For the two miles west from Hordle Cliff to Barton-on-Sea there are no routes at all down the unstable cliffs to the beach, so this is an incredibly special place to swim if you like total seclusion as the only way to get there is on foot...or by swimming of course. Last weekend we marked the spring equinox with a swim back from Barton. Although the sea was still and a light northerly blowing, there was a rolling swell coming in from afar, and we had to wait for a lull to get past the powerful shore break and safely out behind the waves. The only people we saw during the hour of the swim to Hordle Cliff was a lone pair of longboard surfers catching the glassy waves off the end of a rock groyne; we stopped for a moment, made the sign of the shaka, then continued on our way, enjoying the gentle rise and fall of the swell as we swam.
The ultimate Christchurch Bay swim, which we managed twice last summer, is the ten-kilometre crossing of the whole bay from Mudeford to Milford. Starting early to miss the crowds and before the sea breeze built, we entered the water at Avon Beach. The route is best attempted on the flood tide, so that you can ride the gentle current which builds the further east you swim. To take the straight line all the way, swimmers must keep sight of Hurst Lighthouse in the distance and hold their nerve as the beach falls away – about a mile out from the shore at one point – before homing in on Milford-on-Sea. It’s a long way and not for the faint hearted; we took the precaution of arranging outriders, in the form of paddle boarders and canoes, to chaperone us across.
We will be running more Christchurch Bay swims in 2021. We do not advertise the swims in advance, partly because we want to make sure we swim in perfect conditions – dependent on the weather forecast – but also because we are keen to limit numbers to respect the local swimmers: the last thing we want is a mass participation event in our beautiful bay. If you are interested in joining us for a Christchurch Bay swim this summer check our swims, keep an eye on our social media or even consider joining us for a New Forest swim retreat.
Swimmers and support paddlers preparing to set off across the bay
Check back again next week to see where we went for our second placed Iconic Swim.