Let go and jump in!

The Sea

Ballyvester Bay

Millisle low tide 1

OS Map: Sheet 15

Grid ref: J592778

Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

The key to Ballyvester Bay’s charm is that its character is constantly changing. Visit at high tide and you will find a bay, almost a kilometre across, punctuated with a few emergent rocks. Visit at low tide and it is transformed into a rocky maze, offering shallow swimming through underwater rock gardens full of gracefully swaying seaweeds.
 
Paradoxically, it is easier to swim here when the tide is high. At low tide, if you want to swim across the whole bay, you will have to go out beyond the rocks to find water that is deep enough. Then if the swimming becomes too much, or you get cold, clambering to safety over the rocks in bare feet while hypothermic will not be pleasant! If you do happen to visit at low tide and are unsure of your abilities, I suggest you limit yourself to a short swim at the southern end of the bay, near Kinnegar Rocks (marked by a granite standing stone).

Ballyvester Bay at low tide.

Getting there

Ballyvester Bay is roughly equidistant between Donaghadee and Millisle. There is a car park on the inland side of the A2. Park there, cross the road and descend to the beach.

Benderg Bay

Benderg Bay

OS Map: Sheet 21

Grid ref: J605433
 
Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

Benderg Bay is situated on the southern side of Killard Point, a small peninsula jutting out into the mouth of Strangford Lough.
 
The Point has recently been designated as an Area of Special Scientific Interest, and for good reason. The unfertilised grassland is home to a rich variety of wildflowers, including several species of orchids. If you make several visits over the course of a summer you will see different species in flower on each occasion. The Point also supports rich birdlife. Skylarks can be heard singing impossibly high above the grassland in summer and the cliffs above the Bay provide nesting sites for sand martins.

The bay, which is about half a kilometre across, is an idyllic swimming location. Not only is it very beautiful but you may well have it all to yourself, even on a sunny day. This is because the nearby beach at Ballyhornan is much more popular with the crowds. Why? Simply because it has a car park just a few metres from the beach.

Do not swim east of the Bay. There are strong currents there where water rushes in and out of Strangford Lough.

Getting there

From Strangford take the A2 southwards, towards Ballyhornan and Ardglass. At Kilclief Castle the road forks. Take the left road, which hugs the coast. Park at the sign for Killard Nature Reserve. You will see Killard Point jutting eastward into the mouth of Strangford Lough.
 
You can walk around the Point to Benderg Bay, but I prefer to walk over the Point, past the remains of the long disused RAF radar station. This approach will reward you with a panoramic view of the Bay, from above.

Brown's Bay

Browns Bay 1

OS Map: Sheet 9

Grid ref: D436028
 
Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

Perhaps because of its location, on the end of a peninsula, Brown's Bay always seems to have a feeling of remoteness. Despite this, the bay bristles with amenities: toilets; a small campsite; and sometimes a chip van.

The bay is about 600m across and, while you swim, you can watch the ships coming and going from the nearby port of Larne.

Getting there

Take the A2, north-east from Carrickfergus. Follow the signs for Islandmagee, right, and continue along the B90. Brown's Bay is well signposted.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Image1178

OS Map: Sheet 5

Grid ref: D052448

Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

With its soaring cliffs, rocky islands and dramatic rope bridge, the swim across Larrybane Bay to Carrick-a-Rede Island is arguably the most awe-inspiring swim in Northern Ireland.

For hundreds of years the rope bridge provided fishermen access to the salmon fishery based on the island. Sadly, numbers of migrating salmon have plummeted in recent decades and the bridge now serves as a tourist attraction.

The swim across Larrybane Bay to the rope bridge and back is a good two kilometre round trip. It is a serious swim for confident swimmers only. Once you enter the water you will be committed to getting out at the same point; getting out early and picking your way along the boulder-strewn shore while cold and barefoot will not be an option! Knowledge of the local tides will be useful. I chose to swim at low tide so that the volume of water squeezing through the gap between the island and the mainland would be at a minimum. There are strong currents at the western end of the bay, near Sheep Island: avoid!

The view across Larrybane Bay with the rope bridge in the distance.

Getting there

Carrick-a-Rede is about five miles west, along the coast, from Ballycastle. It is a National Trust property so is well signposted. Park in the lower, overflow, car park in the quarry and descend the rocky path to Larrybane Bay.

Crawfordsburn

Crawfordsburn

OS Map: Sheet 15

Grid ref: J467826
 
Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

Crawfordsburn is the bay just east of Helen's Bay. The beach, which is 1km long, is part of Crawfordsburn Country Park which which boasts, amongst its attractions, wooded glens, meadows, a visitors' centre, a decent cafe and toilets. There's plenty to do and see here, apart from swimming, so why not make a day of it!

Getting there

There are several options: swim from Helen's Bay; walk from Helen's Bay; or arrive by road.

Crawfordsburn Country Park is well signposted. Travelling eastwards from Belfast along the A2, turn left onto the B20 (Ballyrobert Road). Then turn left again, onto Bridge Road South (signposted Crawfordsburn Country Park). The final sign, directing you right after about 0.5km, may be overgrownand is easy to miss.

Dunseverick

Image1309

OS Map: Sheet 5

Grid ref: C997446

Type of swim: sea swimming and jumping

Description

If you're looking for a wonderful location for a seaside family picnic, or a spot of aquabuddhist practice, you need look no further than Dunseverick. This spot has it all: daring but relatively safe jumps into deep water in the inlet; large rock pools where young children can safely swim; patches of sand, ideal for making sandcastles; rocks where you can sit and eat your sandwiches; and toilets at the nearby harbour.

If the swell is strong, take care when leaving the water after jumping into the inlet. Time your exit well and you will alight, almost effortlessly, on the rocks, courtesy of the swell. Time your exit poorly and you risk being grated on the rocks like a lump of unfortunate cheddar!

Getting there

Turn off the A2, on to the B146, towards Dunseverick. At Dunseverick, follow the sign for the harbour. About 400m before the harbour there is a stile. Park here, if there is room, climb the stile and follow the path down to the inlet and rock pools. There is also a car park at the harbour.

Helen's Bay

Helens Bay

OS Map: Sheet 15

Grid ref: J460829

Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

Helen’s Bay is just a short drive from Belfast. The Bay is about 600m across and is a good place to swim laps if you are training for a competitive open water swim. Grey Point, at the western end of the Bay, is a popular mackerel fishing spot in the summer.

Getting there

Take the A2, east out of Belfast. Turn left at the Craigdarragh road, sign-posted ‘Helen’s Bay’. The Craigdarragh Road becomes Fort Road just before you reach the car park on the right. There are public toilets at the car park which are handy for changing.

Janet's Rock

Image1128

OS Map: Sheet 29

Grid ref: J352172

Type of swim: sea swimming and jumping

Description

Janet's Rock and Black Rock, together, form a small sheltered bay.

The rocks and the bay offer a pleasant opportunity to jump in, swim in crystal clear water and explore rock pools. On a sunny day it's also a lovely spot for a picnic with friends or family while watching the fishing boats pass by.

Getting there

From Newcastle, take the A2 south and continue through Annalong. Just before Ballymartin there is a bus stop on your left. Park here (if there's room). Failing that, drive on to Ballymartin to park and walk back. Walk down the rocky lane from the bus stop to the beach.

Maggie's Leap

Maggies Leap

OS Map: Sheet 29

Grid ref: J388283

Type of swim: sea swimming and jumping

Description

Maggie’s Leap is named after a girl who, according to legend, leapt across a chasm carrying a basket of eggs while pursued by soldiers. Did she survive? How many eggs were broken? Were the soldiers after more than just omelettes? These are all questions whose answers seem to have been lost to folk memory. Or perhaps I’ve just been talking to the wrong folk!

I was only introduced to this magical place about a year ago by a friend. It's strange to think that I had driven past it so many times in the past, not knowing of its existence.

Maggie’s Leap is a wonderful place for jumping in and exploring sea caves and waterfalls. I remember swimming along a tunnel into one of the caves and enjoying the sound of my laughter and of the sea swooshing through.

Getting there

From Newcastle, take the A2 south. About 1.5k after passing Newcastle Harbour there is a small car park on your right. Park there and continue, on foot, away from Newcastle. After a short walk you will find a gap in the wall on your left. Go through it and descend the grassy slope, still trending away from Newcastle, until you come to the broken cliffs and the sea.

Otter Zawn

Otter Zawn

OS Map: Sheet 21

Grid ref: J587400
 
Type of swim: sea swimming and jumping

Description

Much of the Lecale Way, which stretches from Dundrum Bay to Strangford, has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The area south of Ballyhornan, is dramatic, with cliffs and rocky inlets and sea caves that demand to be explored. In many places it is possible to jump safely from height into deep clear water.

Otter Zawn is just one of several zawns in the area that are worth exploring. Otter Zawn, by the way, is the name I came up with after seeing a certain mammal there. Can you guess the species?

What is a zawn? It’s a deep, narrow, high-sided sea inlet.
 
Why not visit Otter Zawn as part of a longer walk along the Lecale Way?

Getting there

Park at the car park at Ballyhornan and walk south along the coast, past Gun’s Island. One kilometre past the southern tip of the island you reach the prominent Legnaboe Zawn (which is also worth a swim). Contour around Legnaboe Zawn and continue along the coast until you come to a fence that crosses your path. Follow the line of the fence down the grassy slopes to the immense rock that is detached from the shore. Otter Zawn is between the rock and the shore.

Pans Rock

Pans Rock

OS Map: Sheet 5

Grid ref: D133416

Type of swim: sea swimming and jumping

Description

Pans Rock, on the eastern end of Ballycastle Bay offers adventurous swimming around magical rock formations. The Rock itself is connected to the shore by a wooden bridge which provides easy access to anglers in search of pollack. When the water is clear there is a wealth of marine life to observe.

Just east of Pans Rock there lies another rock formation, the Devil’s Churn, which is worth exploring. It has a tunnel through which the sea surges. Explore it, if you dare! A few metres offshore from the Devil’s Churn there is a rock on which a mysterious human face was carved, in around 1890.

Although I've never experienced dangerous currents here I have sometimes encountered a strong swell. So when there is a swell, take care when close to rocks.

Getting there

Take the A2, east out of Ballycastle. Turn left, just after the ruins of Bonamargy Friary (on the right), towards Corrymeela. Car parking is on the left, by the beach. Pans Rock is a short walk, east, along the beach from the car park.

Pig Island

Image1143

OS Map: Sheet 15

Grid ref: J541700

Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

This is a swim strictly to do at high tide; at any other time it will be a gloopy wade! The swim from the car park to the tiny island and back is a round trip of about 1km.

Don't be tempted to venture onto the island as your arrival will trigger pandemonium from the resident nesting bird population.

Pig Island is the small island between the Phormium and the picnic bench.

Getting there

From Newtownards follow the A20towards Portaferry. Just after Newtownards Sailing Club the road swings to the left and the car park appears on the right.

Portmuck

Muck Island

OS Map: Sheet 9

Grid ref: D461024

Type of swim: sea swimming and jumping

Description

Don’t be put off by the name; the sea here is normally among the clearest anywhere along the Northern Ireland coast and the undersea life and rock formations are very beautiful.
 
The limestone rocks east of the bay provide some great opportunities for jumping in. The Isle of Muck, 300 metres offshore, makes a good target to swim to, but only attempt this at low tide when an isthmus between the mainland and the island blocks the strong current that runs here. When the tide is running it is safest to stay in the bay and not stray east of the harbour wall.

Getting there

Take the A2, north-east from Carrickfergus. Follow the signs for Islandmagee, right, and continue along the B90. Turn right at the sign for Portmuck and Mullaghboy. On reaching a T-junction the signs, unhelpfully, run out; turn left and follow the winding road down to the car park and harbour.

Reagh Island

Image1103

OS Map: Sheet 21

Grid ref: J525645

Type of swim: sea swimming

Description

Sadly, for the hoi polloi, much of the western shore of Strangford Lough is privately owned and thereby inaccessible. Reagh Island is a welcome exception.

The shallow and sheltered bay bounded by Reagh and Mahee Islands offers picturesque swimming, at high tide only. Avoid at low tide, unless you enjoy wading through deep mud!

Thankfully the island is joined to the mainland by a causeway, so there's no need to put extra air in your tyres! Although, why not swim to it?

From Reagh Island it is about a one kilometre swim to Mahee Island, although there is a rocky, seaweedy area to contend with just a little past the half way mark. If you do swim to Mahee Island, bear in mind that it is privately owned.

Getting there

From Comber take the A22 south. Turn left, on to the Ballydrain Road, towards Mahee Island. Turn left, again, on to the Ringneill Road, continuing to follow the signs for Mahee Island. Drive over the causeway on to Reagh Island. Pass Cross Island on your left before coming to the National Trust car park, also on your left. Park here.