Nature

WILD SWIMMING: THE JOYS OF TAKING THE PLUNGE IN THE LAKE DISTRICT

Hands down, it’s the best way to discover this region. Want to experience it too? We can help…
See article
“Truth is, you haven’t really been in the Lake District unless you’ve swum its river, lakes and tarns,” says Pete Kelly with a smile. “It’s as different to swimming in a pool as running on a fell is to running on a treadmill. Here…stick these on your head and let’s show you.” As instructed, I pull on the bright orange swimming cap and fix a pair of goggles, before following him as he makes his way down a grassy bank dappled by sun through oak leaves, and slips into the water. After a moment of steeling myself, and a few deep breaths, I do the same.
The water’s cool but the wetsuit makes it warmer than I expected. It’s surprisingly clear too; I can easily make out the silty rocks of the bottom. Ahead the shimmering surface of Rydal Water is spotted with a few lurid orange dots – the heads of other wild swimmers already breast-stroking through the water in the direction of a tiny tufted island of trees that must be a hundred metres or so away. Moving is the best way to stay warm – I’m told – so after submerging my face and acclimatising to the brief shockwave it sends through my body, I push out to join them, setting a decent speed. But twenty metres further I’m slowing down and treading water again. It’s not fatigue or cold stopping me though; it’s the view. Even with a breeze turning the water choppy, this is a breathtakingly idyllic spot, made grander by my sudden adoption of the swimmer’s perspective – what writer and wild swimming guru, Roger Deakin, called a ‘frog’s eye view’ of the world. Towering hills rise from the water with suitably atmospheric names like Nab Scar, Ewe Crag, their rippling flanks intersected by streams and bursting with clumps of dark woodland that still drift with mist. 

With such an outlook it’s easy to understand why wild swimming has enjoyed a dramatic resurgence, seeing increasing numbers of people young and old discovering (or re-discovering) the endorphins and excitement that come from taking an al fresco dip in this country’s more picturesque stretches of river, lake and sea. While we’re embarrassingly spoiled for locations in the UK, Pete – owner of the adventure swimming company ‘Head to the Hills’ in nearby Ambleside – maintains that few places can rival Cumbria for its breadth and beauty. “It’s a swimmer’s paradise here,” he says, paddling over. “Whether you’re a beginner or expert we have the accessibility and the scenery. I mean, just look around us.” As the sun breaks out from behind a bank of cloud, edging the black water with chrome, I know what he means. It feels like another world but even here we’re only a few minutes stroll from a place to park up and a decent pub.
We front-crawl on in tandem and catch up with our co-swimmers, a collective of wild water devotees all of whom hail from the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, BW Premier Collection. Paul Cookson is the general manager, Mike Durkin, the head chef and Mike Hicks, the resident plumber who – unlike the rest of us – prefers a pair of trunks to the warmth and buoyancy of a wetsuit. “Ah, yes. That’s why we call him ‘Calypso’,” Pete laughs. “He doesn’t think it’s cold unless he has to break the ice to get in.” For a second I think he’s joking. He’s not. “Yeah we did that in the January,” Calypso says. “I just love the feeling of cold water on my skin. It’s like transformation. There’s no barrier between you and the environment. Pure joy.”

Tellingly, all the Ambleside Salutation team came to wild swimming later in life but each of them has developed a passion that borders on obsession. It has resulted in the hotel garnering a reputation as the place to go to find out tips, share experiences and divulge secret locations. It has also led to many guests feeling inspired enough to try a dip in the outdoors themselves. And for those that want a little tuition (or to hire a wetsuit) before taking the plunge, Pete is on-hand a few doors down with the kit and the knowledge to give anyone the confidence to get in the water.

“Rydal’s just fantastic today, isn’t it?” Shouts Mike, the head chef, whose energetic enthusiasm for open water and seeking out new spots has seen him become something of a wild swimming oracle for the hotel.
I love it when guests come out here too. They always return beaming and we get to swap stories about where they’ve been or where they plan to go next. Hands down, it’s the best way to discover this region
Our own magical discovery for this morning, the little island ahead, draws closer. I can see its massed ranks of trees including a copper beech erupting at its centre. There are ravens floating down from the peaks and a family of ducks bobbing along on the waves. As we approach, Mike is in front of me when he stops suddenly and points down into the shallower water. Beneath us four huge perch hover over the mud, seemingly calm and untroubled as we pass over. 
By the time we’ve looped around the island, I feel in a similar state. The hundred metres or so back to shore suddenly seems a lot less. Too short, in fact. So I flip onto my back, stare up at the drifting clouds and kick out towards Rydal’s middle again. I’m already wondering where I might explore tomorrow. 

The Top 5 wild swimming spots in the Lake District
Pete Kelly runs adventure swim company headtothehills.co.uk in Ambleside. with his wife, Andrea Tucker, offering courses, tuition and regular meet ups. Here he reveals his five favourite places to take a dip in the Lake District.

1. Stickle Tarn, Great Langdale
It may require a hefty slog uphill to reach it but once there it’s not hard to see why the Victorian artist, Heaton Cooper, was so enamoured with the majestic, mountainous setting and crystal waters of this high tarn. He wrote: “When I cease to respond to this place I shall know I am growing very old indeed.” Beautifully warm on a hot, high summer day yet freezing in winter, it is a place of solitude and awesome scenery surrounded by dramatic crags and scree slopes, and it’s fed by a gin-clear tumbling beck. There’s also a cracking pub complete with open fire – The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel – waiting all warm and cosy at the bottom as you trek down to your car again.

Map: OS Explorer OL6 (Coniston, Ulverston & Barrow-in-Furness).

2. Windermere
An obvious choice and not everyone's favourite as it can be a big and busy lake, but get the timing right (early morning is pretty special) and 10.5 miles of iconic Lake District water becomes your playground. No wonder it’s on every long distance swimmer’s training schedule; in fact, few swim the Channel without mastering Windermere first. But away from the big open stretches where you can build strength and perfect technique, there are plenty of less formidable spots, like little sunlit bays and characterful islands for you to explore. There’s a lot of parking too and many cafes where you tuck into restorative cakes and hot tea post-swim.

Map: OS Explorer OL7 (Windermere, Kendal & Silverdale).

3. Coniston Water
This is where I fell in love with swimming outdoors again. Unbeatable on a summer’s day, its tranquil water is easy to cross and the setting is spectacular. There’s not much traffic and the swim out to Peel Island from the western shore is like a Swallows & Amazons adventure. Quite literally, in fact. Arthur Ransome used it as the setting for Wildcat Island in the books. It’s even easier from the eastern shore and once there you’ll find some good rock jumping into deep, clear water and sandy coves you can call your own. Parking can be limited in Coniston village though so aim to get there early.

Maps: OS Explorer OL6 (Coniston, Ulverston & Barrow-in-Furness); OS Explorer OL7 (Windermere, Kendal & Silverdale).

4. Rydal Water, near Ambleside 
My local ‘pool’ and the jewel beloved of Wordsworth (the poet lived at Rydal Mount which overlooks the water), this mile-long stretch with pretty islands is one of the friendliest lakes in Cumbria and the location of many of our guided swims and courses, being just up the road from Head to the Hills HQ. It’s relatively shallow (about fifteen metres at its deepest) so of all the lakes in Cumbria, Rydal warms up first in the season, although it’s great to swim here right through the year if you have a wetsuit. Also it’s really accessible; there are nice flat rocks providing an easy entrance and exit from the water, there’s good parking nearby and a decent pub – The Badger Bar. 

Map: OS Explorer OL7 (Windermere, Kendal & Silverdale).

5. Black Moss Pot, Langstrath Beck, Borrowdale 
I’ve saved the best for last. Just for name alone, this deserves to be crowned number one wild swimming location in the Lake District – and what it promises in its intriguing moniker, it delivers in reality. Provided you can find it. Park in front of the phone box at Stonethwaite and trek the two miles up the beck until you get to Blea Rock where a perfect, deep, clear mini-chasm awaits with a waterfall at one end. Bring a picnic as you’ll want to stay all day. It has superb rock jumping and is a local kids favourite, but the steep rock sides also conceal swimmers from the nearby footpath, meaning it’s also sometimes known as a skinny-dipping hotspot…allegedly.

Map: OS Explorer OL4 (Keswick, Cockermouth & Wigton).
fin
Share this article

Where did this all happen?

Explore articles in other categories