Swimming at St Helens: freedom in the forest

This lovely place brings together two joys in my life – swimming in rivers and enjoying the forest. It is magical any time of day or year, and is free to enjoy. Numerous families bring their children every summer.

I have loved woods and forests all my life, ever since family trips to Tunstall Forest. I’ve been involved in two of the campaigns to save our public forests from privatisation, in 1991 and 2011. I’ve got to know and love Thetford Forest especially over the past few years since I moved to Norfolk.

Although I swam in the local river when I was young, I only recently rediscovered what is now called ‘wild swimming’ – swimming outdoors in rivers, lakes and ponds. My first swim in the Little Ouse at St Helens (September 2012) was only my second river swim as an adult, and I’m now totally hooked.

view of the river with reflections and trees
The river looking downstream from the bridge at St Helens

St Helens picnic site, near Santon Downham in Thetford Forest, brings together the two wonderful environments – forest and river. And not only that: it brings them together under the management of the Forestry Commission with its ethos of right to roam and welcoming people to enjoy and appreciate the forests.

It’s a joy to see so many people, and especially families and children, enjoying swimming and splashing about in the river in the summer.

children in the river with a family sitting on the edge
Children enjoying the water in summer at St Helens

As I have become increasingly involved in outdoor swimming, I’ve realised how important it is to introduce children to it and to teach them how to do it safely – how to judge the safety of a place, how it is different to a swimming pool in unpredictability and cold. Often a key factor in the rare but tragic drownings of young people in the summer is that they swim without understanding these things, and get into trouble through unexpected hazards or cold.

It’s also extremely important that there are relatively safe places where such swimming is allowed, as otherwise children and young people will find forbidden and more hidden places, making it a potentially more dangerous activity.

St Helen’s is ideal, as it is suitable for all ages with its shallow beaches and stretches where children can safely play even if they can’t swim (with adult supervision).

There are also plenty of deeper stretches for adult swimmers and those wanting to take a longer swim. It has got even better since the changes a couple of years ago created deeper pools and shallower gravel bars.

view of the river with sandy beach and trees
The river looking downstream from the bridge at St Helens

I’ve also become aware that the number of places where swimming is allowed is limited. This is sometimes because of the mistaken fears of landowners that they might be liable for any accidents, sometimes by the misguided concern of anglers who think that swimmers will disrupt their activity, and sometimes simply by the fact that many river banks are not accessible because of private ownership.

Read about and download the OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Areas and find other information on access on my Links page

So a stretch of river with public access is a rare and special thing to have.

St Helens is popular with the wider outdoor swimming fraternity. It is listed on two popular swim maps, and mentioned in many articles about outdoor or wild swimming.

Roger Deakin swam there as he describes in his book ‘Waterlog’, which is credited with popularising wild swimming. He swims past the beaches at St Helen’s:

“I left my clothes near the bridge and walked barefoot on the warm sand along the over bank upstream for a mile and drifted back down, swimming gently with the current, pushing between the sensual weed, past more sandy bathing bays and sun-hollows in the miniature reedy dunes along the banks.”
(pages 196-7, 1999, Waterlog on Amazon).

footbridge over the river, sandy beach and bare feet
The bridge at St Helens, where I am relaxing on a warm day

Find St Helens on the Outdoor Swimming Society’s wild swim map; and on the wild swimming map, where there are accounts of long swims. See also my Location details for St Helen’s picnic place. It’s also listed on the Visit Suffolk website. You can also read the Waterlog Reswum account

Since that first St Helens swim in 2012 I’ve been many times, in spring, summer, autumn and winter, sometimes to meet a friend who comes in his lunch hour for a swim and snorkel to see the underwater wildlife, other times I swim alone at dusk, sometimes taking longer swims down to Santon Downham bridge.

I usually walk in the forest to warm up afterwards or just to enjoy such treats as Lily of the Valley growing under just opening beech leaves, the scent of gorse by the railway line, the mysterious spring at St Helens Well (see my photo of it on the Geograph website)

Lily of the Valley under beech and pine trees
Delights of the forest near St Helens

St Helens picnic place can be magical at any time of the day or night. I have swum at sunset, returned from a kayak trip at dusk, gone for a walk under a full moon. You hear owls and sometimes distant nightjars, see bats flitting past or a deer. The mist can make the river look eerie, and the moon casts strange shadows.

river at sunset with mist and trees
The Little Ouse at St Helens at dusk

Because parking is free and there are no barriers to the car park I can enjoy coming there without having to worry about coins or paying or having to leave or turn up before a certain time. And so can the thousands of summer visitors, some local and some from further away.

There have been consultations on charging for parking, including in 2018, but many of those consulted rejected that suggestion. In 2020/2021 the toilets had to be closed because they were not working and repairing them was prohibitively expensive and difficult. And the size of the car park was drastically reduced. The car park and picnic site are adjacent to and part of them are in a scheduled monument, which the landowner has to respect.

grassy car park, toilets and ice cream van
Summer at St Helens picnic place

Location details for St Helen’s picnic place

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