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France's secret pools

From ancient craters to secluded hot springs and natural gorges, France boasts some astonishing swimming spots.

From ancient craters to secluded hot springs and natural gorges, France boasts some astonishing swimming spots in beautiful hidden locations. Daniel Start has compiled a guide to 400 of them and shares some of his finds with KEN SEATON

IN THE world’s top tourist destination there are still many spots where you can enjoy the most amazing scenery in absolute isolation – and Daniel Start has found many of them.

After two books on wild swimming in the UK, he turned his eye to France, a country he has long loved and where he has enjoyed many summer holidays and which has fabulous weather and clean water.

Wild Swimming France looks at places to enjoy as a family, as a way to get away from it all or just experience the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of a magnificent water-carved landscape. It has taken four years to compile, with visits to France every summer (including the final trip on his honeymoon with wife Tania).

Daniel said: “When I thought of my love for France it became natural to look at doing a book where the water is even cleaner and warmer and still just a train ride away.

“You don’t have to fly to France, even if it does make the journey a bit more complicated. We found that people who bought the first books were keen to find beautiful places closer to home that you didn’t need to jump on a plane to reach.

“They were well aware of the environmental side and part of the agenda of the books is to get more people in the UK and, maybe, in France to realise how beautiful and precious our water is and, hopefully, by doing that to feel more responsibility for protecting it and conserving it and cleaning up.”

His guide introduces many of the lesser-known areas of France from the tranquility of Ardèche river pools to the aquamarine beauty of the gorges of Provence and Corsica. He looks, too, at the remote spots where you can still find hot-spring pools, plunge pools with high cliffs and long canyons where you drift downriver in complete calm.

It reminds him of his childhood when he spent much of his time on the River Wye in Herefordshire where he learned to swim.

“The UK books came together as a concept during a very hot summer in 2006 and I was trapped working in a council office in London and I was dreaming of my childhood river swimming holes.

“I couldn’t find any information on places close to home and I thought of doing a guidebook – when you find a beautiful place to swim you find a beautiful part of the countryside and maybe a place to camp and a place for a weekend.

“It becomes not so much just about having a swim but a new way of exploring the more remote and beautiful parts of the countryside.”

The majority of the 400 sites he has chosen are in the south of France as that is where the best weather and locations are and where most people go on holiday.

“In Brittany there are so many beautiful beaches, but we wanted to keep it focused on fresh water and thought it would not be so useful to provide a guide to the region’s rivers.

“France is next to the Atlantic Ocean and there’s a lot of water that comes over and falls on its three mountain ranges and it has wonderful water resources. The difference in Britain is that we have all the amazing scenery in the north and Scotland and in France it’s in the south – and it’s warm.”

When they selected sites for the book they got a lot of help from locals when on visits to make sure they were suitable. People were taken with the idea of such a book. “The country is so big and there are so many places to swim people were a lot less precious about the information on the good places to go.

“So they would listen when we asked about a swimming hole and would suggest walking a bit further upstream or downstream and we got some great ideas for beautiful spots.

“I wouldn’t even class myself as a particularly good swimmer. But I love it – although, as I was doing all of the photography I couldn’t actually get to enjoy the water as much as the others.”

There are spots to swim near the châteaux of the Loire, in the craters of ancient volcanoes in the Massif Central, in the secluded hot springs in the Pyrénées, and a place to enjoy Swiss Family Robinson-type natural waterslides in the gorges of the Alpes-Maritimes.

Starting in the Jura, the guide finds swimming spots in the Alps before moving down to the Clues behind Nice and then to Corsica for stunning locations and waterslides.

Back to Provence and the Gorges du Verdon – and including terrific finds downstream of the Lac de Saint Croix – and the guide moves to Daniel’s favourite location: Sillans-la-Cascade in the Var. This series of pools and waterfalls surrounded by lush tropical vegetation is the land of dreams.

Head next to the gorges of the Ardèche, the river Gard and on to the Cévennes before switching to Languedoc and the Pyrénées and then heading north towards the Dordogne and, finally, the Loire.

Each spot is referenced with a grid location and detailed descriptions of access (as many sites are off the beaten track) – plus, of course, photographs. Daniel said: “We wanted to use pictures well and that was one of the main features of the book – to inspire people and show you’re not going to be swimming in a ‘swamp’ but also to show how it can be pretty cool and lovely.

“We use information boxes to give the really compact directions and grid reference – but we also give a running narrative that contains some interesting information that comes up as we speak to locals.” Despite the emphasis on fun in the water, safety is one point Daniel stresses. He has a special list of the 10 ways to be wild and safe and says: “Playing around in gorges also carries risks from falling rock and you need to be very aware of the risk from thunderstorms.

“Although dams do release water, it takes time to rise appreciably and EDF usually timetables releases at night, but that is definitely not the case if there is a thunderstorm.

“Waters can rise very, very quickly – dangerously so.

“You should always check the weather forecast if you are entering an enclosed gorge – and if you are exploring, do it from the bottom.

“Compared to Britain, in many ways swimming in France is safer. In the UK the main danger is the cold, combined with not being able to swim very well. The most common cause of drowning is a young teenager, a weak swimmer, being persuaded to join friends in crossing a lake and then not being able to cope in the cold water and being overcome by hypothermia.

“The sea is more dangerous as there are rip currents, especially on France’s west coast which is best for surfing, not swimming. Rip tides can take you far out but on the river the key is to try not to swim against a strong current.

“If you are using swimming holes, dealing with currents or jumping into gorges it is essential to have worked out an escape plan. It’s a bit like on an airplane you look to see where the emergency exits are, you do the same on the water.

“Look where the current will take you if you cannot swim against it – if you are whisked downstream itgives peace of mind to know there are no dangers further down such as a waterfall and if you swim to the side you can get out.”

He added: “We’re not nutty swimmers as we don’t head to the pool to do 100 lengths – we just both love swimming and wild swimming is the best.”

See sample pages from the book and find more information at www.wildswimming.co.uk/France

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