Birthday swimming in the Lake District

There is nothing I enjoy more than wild swimming with my sister. That’s why I chose swimming together as the way to spend my 26th birthday last month. I headed up to the Lake District where she is currently living, carrying a swimming costume and towel stuffed in my bag and an eagerness to get into the water.

She lives in Keswick just a few minutes’ walk from Derwentwater. I envy this closeness to water – when I visit I love spotting signs that point ‘To the Lake’ and knowing that we are never far away from an opportunity to swim. It calms me, knowing the lake is there should we feel we need to plunge into cold water.

We spent the two days walking, canoeing and, of course, swimming. Together with my friend Kim who had joined us for the weekend, we canoed the length of Derwentwater, stopping every now and then to let our paddles rest on the surface and simply admire the beauty around us. The birds landing on the lake, the boathouses tucked among trees and the green weeds beneath the surface of the perfectly clear water.

Once we reached the end of the lake we dragged the canoe up onto a pebbly beach that we had entirely to ourselves and ate our sandwiches, feeling very Swallows and Amazons. And then it was time to swim. I increasingly believe you haven’t really lived unless you have tried wild swimming. For me there is nothing that matches the joy it brings, that feeling of being completely alive and free.

On our way back we stopped at an island in the lake and swam again, unable to resist the call of the water.

The next day we swapped the lake for a river, walking through fields alongside its bank until Keswick felt far behind us and we stopped at a secluded spot. We picnicked on the pebbles and then ran into the river, floating and swimming and drifting with the current. Sometimes wild swimming is about swimming, but often it is just about being in the water. The feeling of the cold on your skin and the sun on your face.

It felt the perfect way to spend my birthday. This past year has been a whirlwind for me: getting the publishing deal for The Lido, quitting my job and getting stuck in to my second book. It has been wonderful, but also at times overwhelming. Getting into the water with my sister is a way to pause and reflect on everything that has happened but also to take a moment to just be. I already can’t wait to get back into the water together.

A New Year’s Day swim

The new year’s sun rose above the sea and we swam towards it. The cold was shocking. It bit at my face when I attempted front crawl, so painfully that I was forced to swim a head up breast stroke instead. The surface of the water was bright gold from the winter sun. To one side of us was a castle, to the other mountains. In front, only sea and sun.

It was New Year’s Day and we were swimming in the Welsh sea. The day before we climbed Mount Snowdon. I had never climbed a mountain before, and at times doubted that I would make it to the top. At the summit the wind pummelled me so hard that I couldn’t stand up – instead I stayed on my knees and gripped the trig point for dear life. But I had made it.

So if we could climb a mountain, we could swim in the January sea. Getting changed was the hardest part. We parked the car above the beach and changed beside it. Even with my clothes on (coat, hat, scarf and gloves) I felt cold, so peeling off my layers felt awful – and insane.

“Why are we doing this?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Bruno, who was keeping his coat and hat very much on, his camera slung around his neck, “I think you’re mad.”

Once I had done the awkward wetsuit wiggle and zipped it up at the back, I felt much better. They are so hard to get into, that there is never any going back. Once it’s on, I must swim. And I always want to. I know I must look ridiculous but in my wetsuit I feel like a superhero. It hugs me and warms me up and protects me from the wind that had made me shiver when I was in my clothes.

To prepare myself for the water I jumped up and down (woolly hat still on my head) and ran up and down the path above the beach. When Alex was ready we ran together onto the beach, the sand and rocks firm beneath our feet. I find the trick is to get in quickly. I swapped my bobble hat for a swimming cap, and then another one layered on top for warmth (I looked like an alien) and then strode out towards the water and the sun. I didn’t stop until I was waist deep. At that point I leant down, pulled my wetsuit out from my chest and scooped up a bucket’s worth full of water, letting it trickle down my chest and the rest of my body.

“Aaaaaaaa!” I sang into my scream – somehow singing it made the pain more bearable.

“It is so coooold!” I sang.

I looked out at the sun lighting up a beam of the sea and launched myself forwards, swimming towards it. A few quick strokes, letting my heart get used to the beating, and then I was able to float, looking up at the castle to my left and the mountains in the distance on the right.

“Come on Alex!”

She stood at the water’s edge, stretching her arms above her head, looking like an athlete. I will never look like that. I am in awe of it – of her. She strode out a little further and then pushed off too, ducking under and starting a quick front crawl, until she met me and we both treaded water, looking out to sea.

There is nothing better than swimming with my sister at my side. Even if the water is so cold it makes my chest tight and my feet numb. In the water I feel like a child again – away from the stress and responsibilities that wait back on dry land, and just floating with my sister. I can’t think of a better way to start the new year.

Swimming sisters new year swim

Winter swimming in Stoke Newington West Resevoir

On Saturday mornings most people prefer a lie in. But this Saturday I chose to wake early and head for an outdoor swim instead, despite the air temperature being a bitter 4 degrees.

As I changed into my wetsuit at Stoke Newington West Resevoir I wondered if I was completely mad. But there were a few of us in the changing room, so it made me feel at least less alone in my madness. We chatted – as outdoor swimmers always do. You already share a bond which brings you together and in turn separates you from others (your friends and colleagues tell you that you are crazy).

Once I was zipped up it was time to head outside onto the decking. I jumped up and down for a while to warm up and raise my heart rate, making myself laugh at how strange my neoprene self must have looked. Then I slowly stepped down the ramp until I was knee deep in cold. I looked out over the grey expanse of water as the chill seeped in through my wetsuit. Buoys marked the distance I would swim and looked further away than normal on this grey morning. Life guards sat in kayaks in the middle of the water, plump in their coats, life jackets and scarves. On the other side of the reservoir tall blocks of flats reminded me I was in the city, making stepping out into the calm water even more surreal.

I ducked to fill my wetsuit with water, making sure it ran all the way through, swearing loudly as the cold spread over my body.

Somehow I found my courage inside me and pulled it over me like a warm blanket, shielding me from the shock of the water as I launched off and started a quick breast stroke. My wetsuit socks kept my feet warm so it was only my hands and face as I ducked under that felt bitterly cold. The water gripped my cheeks and forehead and squeezed.

Beneath me the water was inky blue and all I could see were my pale hands and an occasional autumn leaf. It made me feel brave that the unknown beneath me doesn’t worry me any more. I have grown to accept that beneath is beneath, and I am above, pulling myself along the surface. Whatever is down there is down there, but the unknown doesn’t have to scare you if you don’t let it.

I swam to the first buoy, then the next, a mix of breast stroke (watching the sky, the buildings beyond and the surface of the water) and front crawl (seeing the body of one of the few other swimmers as they overtook me, black neoprene body and glowing bright white feet and hands).

Half-way round a lifeguard shouted from his kayak to one of the swimmers ahead of me, “How are you? Still got your fingers and toes?”

“Let me check,” said the swimmer, reaching under the water for his toes, “Yes, still got my toes.”

He waved his hands, treading water, “Yes, still got my fingers!”

As I swam I slowly warmed up, feeling invigorated. It was the latest in the season I have ever swum, and there were only a few of us in the quiet water. When I clambered out after completing the loop I felt like I had conquered the morning. While others lay warm in their beds I was dripping wet and cold, but felt like I had discovered a secret – something that everyone tucked up inside was missing. The cold water shook me awake and made me think, “this is what it means to be alive.”

Discovering the Thames

 

Seeing a river from a duck’s level is completely different to seeing it from the bank. The Thames stretched ahead of us in an elegant curve, looking much wider than it had from the side. All along its length were plump trees that jostled each other and bulged over the bank into the water.

You notice things at this level that you don’t when you are walking along the edge. The pattern of the water stretching ahead of you, rumpled like a crinkled tablecloth; the size and awe-inspiring nature of the trees and the sky; waterboatmen swimming their crazy backstroke beside you, and the reeds blowing gently at the edges of the water.

It was a busy stretch of water, and as we swam we tucked in under the trees to let barges, river cruisers and little motorboats pass. The captains and their passengers waved at us and we waved back.

We swam up and down our little stretch and crossed over to the other side, looking back and forth in each direction as though we were crossing the road and watching for traffic. On the other side was a National Trust property and grounds (Cliveden) and people sat eating their sandwiches and watching us. A beautiful stone staircase swept down from the bank into the river, ornate with carvings and flourishes. We swam to it and wished we had a camera with us.

At points we swam with our heads down, Alex in front and me just behind and following in her bubbles. We swam in bursts to keep warm. I looked down into the water beneath me. It was mostly a milky green and too deep to see the bottom, but then a patch of weeds would loom out of the darkness, reminding me that water does always have an end. I wondered what other creatures shared this river. I didn’t want to see them – I was happy keeping ourselves to ourselves – but it was nice to know that other animals were with us in the water.

The cold clutched at my forehead and squeezed, feeling like the brain freeze that you get from eating ice cream too quickly. But then we would stop our front crawl and lift our heads like ducks bobbing up from under the surface. We lay on our backs, lazily watching the sky and the boats. Because for us, wild swimming is not just about swimming. Thinking that’s all there is to it misses the point.

It’s about the shock of the cold and the sense of adventure at leaving our dry clothes on the land and stepping out like explorers into an unknown stretch of water. It’s looking up at the sky that looks somehow different from the water, and realising how small you are but that it’s okay. It’s feeling part of nature, not just an observer on the shore. It makes me feel more alive than anything. Wild swimming is living.

 

Parliament Hill Lido

Swimming at Parliament Hill Lido

Time Out recently said that Londoners have replaced going out with exercising, and I think it’s true. This evening as my colleagues headed to yoga classes or the gym I hopped on the bus to Parliament Hill Lido – one of the few lidos in London that I was yet to try.

This summer I am making it my aim to swim in as many of London’s outdoor swimming spots as possible. Preferably all of them. On a summer’s day that had perked up just in time for the end of the working day, I couldn’t think of anywhere better to be than in a lido.

Parliament Hill Lido might be my new favourite place to swim. It was bigger than I was expecting (60 metres in length) and as I swam I felt as though I could keep going forever. It felt wonderful to swim uninterrupted.

The water was perfectly blue and the sun reflected off the metal bottom of the pool. I swam while the sun set and the concrete decking around the water was golden. There were only a few other swimmers: some doing laps with me and a few children playing on foam mats and jumping in from the deep end.

Despite a day punctuated by cloud and rain the water felt warm. It felt perfect. After my lengths I sat on the poolside for a while taking in the last of the sun, moving further up the bench every few minutes as my sunny spot turned to shade.

Above the top of the lido walls I could see the green and the trees of Hampstead Heath, where I headed after my swim to sit in the grass and look back on London. Seeing it from a distance makes it somehow more beautiful. The sky was full of cranes and I wondered when London will be finished. When will it be satisfied enough to say, “That’s it. I’m done now”? I think never.

For more information on Parliament Hill Lido: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/hampstead-heath/swimming/Pages/Swimming-opening-times-and-charges.aspx

Sisters wild swimming in the Lake District

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Me and my sister Alex

My sister always wished she’d had a brother. Growing up she was very sporty and most likely to be found up a tree; I’d rather hide somewhere with a book. Throughout her life she has done (and excelled at) most sports: hockey, rugby, rowing, judo, and swimming (sorry if I’ve missed any, Alex). I went along to watch and support from the sidelines, but I could never join in.

Since discovering swimming I have been able to share so much more with my sister, and I think we’ve become closer as a result. Last weekend we went on a long weekend to the Lake District to swim in tarns, lakes and a waterfall. It was my first time visiting the Lakes, and my first real experience of wild swimming.

Swimming must be good for the soul. As I stood in front of the still and peaceful water I felt something inside me move like someone standing up and shaking out their body after a long time sitting still. I took deep breaths and prepared myself for the shock of the cold. Together my sister and I waded until we were standing with the water at hip-level.

“Shall we count to three?” I said, looking at her and then out over the water.

“Okay.”

“One, two, three…”

And then we both pushed ourselves off the bottom, diving together into the cold, clear water. As we swam I looked down at the tangle of weeds and up at the sky in the window made by my bent arms. And across from me was my sister, never too far away. We swam in each other’s ripples, following the patterns our bodies made and the bubbles kicked up by our feet.

Here’s where we went….

Blea Tarn, Little Langdale

The water at Blea Tarn was perfectly still and painted with the hills and trees that surrounded it. It is a short walk from a car park and a less-than-short walk up the hill behind (which I learnt was called a Wainwright, not a hill). The walk up the hill was worth it though for the beautiful views down the valley and at the water we had just swam in.

Easedale Tarn, Grasmere

On our second day the weather was heavy and damp. We walked up from Grasmere to Easedale Tarn, passing soggy sheep and waterfalls trailing down the hill. Finally we reached the crest of the hill and saw the water below, only broken by a pair of ducks on the surface. The mist rolled in over us as we swam. It felt like swimming on the top of the world. We walked half way down the hill in our wetsuits and walking boots and then stopped off for a dip in one of the waterfall pools. Walkers past us with raincoats and in waterproof trousers and shouted down to us, asking if the water was cold.

“It’s lovely!” we shouted back.

Ullswater

Ullswater was the only lake we swam in on our trip, and we noticed the difference in the temperature. I had been told to watch out for the glacial tarns, but it was the lake that froze my fingers and face (the rest of my body was thankfully kept warm by my wetsuit, socks and bright pink swimming cap). We swam from the shore out to Norfolk Island, where the seagulls shouted at us to get off their island. As we were sharing the water with sailing boats and a small local ferry service I wore a neon pink safety buoy that tied around my waist and trailed in the water behind us. It also doubles as a handy dry bag.

I can’t wait for my next experience swimming in open water – hopefully with my sister.

For more wild swimming spots in the Lakes take a look at the Wild Swimming website. In Ambleside we visited a great open water swimming shop that is worth a visit!

 

 

My favourite books for swimmers

swiming books

Some of my favourite books about swimming

I organise my bookshelves by categories, and one growing section is books about swimming. Whether you are a pool-swimmer, an outdoor-swimmer or just have an interest in getting in the water, here are some of my favourites:

Down Stream: A History and Celebration of Swimming in the River Thames, Caitlin Davies

When I told people I was reading a book about swimming in the Thames their reactions were the same: “Eww!”

Most people associate the Thames with the murky brown central London section and bottles (or worse) floating on the surface. But humans have actually swum in the Thames for years. The book follows the river downstream from the Thames Head (the exact location of which is much disputed) right along to Southend, and tells the story of the people who have swum stretches of it over the years. I particularly loved the tales of kick-ass women who were swimming miles and setting records years before they were allowed to vote.

The book is full of characters and stories that made me smile and laugh out loud. You’ll have to read it for yourself to hear them all.

Swimming London: London’s 50 Greatest Swimming Spots, Jenny Landreth

I am making it my mission to swim my way around these pools, lidos and outdoor swimming spots in London (so far I’m on about 10). From central pools that you’d never imagine were hidden among the busy streets, to peaceful lidos a little further out of town, this book makes me realise how fortunate I am to live (and swim) in this city.

Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton trained as a professional swimmer when she was young, and is now an artist. Her book weaves together her experiences of training with vivid descriptions of being in the water and wonderful paintings. It also includes photographs of her collection of swimming costumes and a description of when she bought them all, which fascinated me.

It’s the kind of book that you can open at random and know what you read, and see, will be beautiful.

Wild Swimming Walks: 28 River, Lake and Seaside Days Out by Train from London, Margaret Dickinson

My sister bought me this book and I can’t wait to try out some of the walks and swims. They are all within easy reach of London and some include stops at pubs. When the weather is nice I am looking forward to slinging my swimming bag over my shoulder and heading off to one of the many places I have marked with post-its.

Do you have any other suggestions? Add them in the comments below

Stoke Newington West Reservoir

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My alarm went off at 6 on Saturday morning and I silenced it quickly, not wanting to disturb my sleeping flatmates. Half-asleep I pulled myself out of bed and reached for my swimming bag and wetsuit.

Stoke Newington West Reservoir is a short bus journey from where I live. The bus was quiet: outside the window I saw a few joggers, a dog walker and a smartly dressed woman walking bare foot down the high street, carrying her heels in her hand.

I was heading to the reservoir for an induction into open water swimming. I feel something of a cliché jumping onto the growing trend for swimming outside, but there is a reason why it is so popular. Being outdoors and in the water just feels right. It knocks me for a moment off the treadmill of life (work, cook dinner, sleep, repeat) and makes me feel completely awake (even at 6 on a Saturday). Particularly as someone who lives in London, finding moments to be among nature feels not just desirable, but essential for my soul. Slipping into cool water and swimming beneath the sky reminds me of the simple sweetness of being human.

IMG_9343I arrived into a cavernous reception area that looked out onto the water. It was a grey day but the perfectly still expanse of water still looked incredibly inviting.

The reception was already full of people. This made me extremely happy. I wasn’t the only one mad enough to wake up so early on a Saturday to come and swim in a cold reservoir: there were loads of us.

I might be biased (because I like to consider myself one of them and because I don’t do any other sport), but swimmers are the friendliest people. Unlike other public places in London where conversation with strangers is unusual, I always strike up conversations when swimming, sometimes in the water and sometimes while half-naked in the changing room.

There was a group of us who were there for the induction, and the instructor took us through the safety information and showed us around the facilities. Then it was time to wetsuit up and get into the water.

I love wearing my wetsuit. It feels hilarious. My arms hang stiffly by my side making me walk like a penguin. It takes ages to pull it on, and in the changing room I laughed with the group of women also doing the ‘wetsuit jump’ and twisting like contortionists to reach the zip at the back.

Standing on the side of the reservoir we looked not quite human, not quite fish. Together we walked down a pontoon and acclimatised to the water. We were instructed to ‘flush through’ our wetsuits, which I thought sounded very strange but just meant filling it up with water so the layer between you and the neoprene keeps you warm.

There were a few routes we could swim: the full 750m course, 200m or 400m. The 750m loop stretched away into the distance and I remembered what the instructor said about not pushing ourselves so went for the 400m as it was my first time.

After a few warm-up exercises (running on the spot in water makes me laugh) we were off. I love my local pool, but it felt wonderful to be outside and not constricted by the lanes and the pool’s short length. I swam, and then kept swimming. I felt strangely empowered as I swam – I was very aware of it being my arms and my legs making me move through the water. Go arms! Go legs!

Once I’d finished the loop I pulled myself out of the water, dripping and grinning.

IMG_9350The reservoir is a short walk from Clissold Park, one of my favourite parks in London, so after my swim I walked there and found a spot outside the café on the hill. I ordered a full English breakfast and ate it in the sun.

By now it was 9 but the park was still empty apart from runners and parents with small children. A group of girls played outside the cafe. One was dressed as ‘Batgirl’. Her cape billowed behind her as she ran up and down the hill. As I watched her I thought about how un-sporty I was for most of my life, and how up until a few years ago I could barely swim. When Batgirl stops wearing her cape I hope she still realises she can do anything that she wants to do.

http://www.better.org.uk/leisure/stoke-newington-west-reservoir-centre If you want to swim at Stoke Newington West Reservoir you must first book an induction.

A dip in Kings Cross swimming pond

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Kings Cross swimming pond

“Are you warm in that?” the man in the swimming trunks teased me. We were both leaning against the side of Kings Cross swimming pond, except his arms were bare and mine were cuddled in neoprene.

“I’m testing out the wetsuit,” I said. I’m going to the Lake District for an outdoor swimming adventure next weekend and wanted to check the hand-me-down wetsuit fitted. It did, after ten minutes of jumping up and down in the tiny changing cubicle and tugging wrinkles out of my knees.

It was my first time visiting the freshwater pond that is ten minutes from my flat, hidden behind the fountains and the fashion students at Granary Square. I walked there through a small park where a group practiced Tai Chi and chanted, not quite drowning out the sound of the construction sites all around. If you look in any direction at Kings Cross you can see a crane. The skyline is broken by half-built buildings and shiny glass tower blocks. And in the middle of them all is a swimming pond.

I swam alongside two other swimmers and a pair of ducks as the sun set behind us. The water felt warm (or maybe it was the wetsuit) and I swam front crawl up and down the small pond, catching glimpses of scaffolding and sky under my arm as I rolled my head for air. When it was nearly time to leave I floated in the middle of the pond, my feet and neon pink toes poking out of the water. I took deep breaths and floated. And I felt so happy.

There is nothing that says ‘London’ to me more than a swimming pond surrounded by building sites. London is a confusion of noise and buildings growing from the ground like weeds overtaking a garden. I hate it. But then I find a little pocket of something special – nature in an unexpected place, a bookshop so beautiful it makes me want to cry, a restaurant with the best banoffee pie, or a swimming pond in the middle of the city – and I am charmed. The surprises make my heart swell.

“No wetsuit next time,” said the man in the swimming trunks as I stood under the outdoor shower, my head turned up to the sun and a huge smile on my face.

“No wetsuit next time!” I replied.

http://www.kingscrosspond.club/ It’s advised to book your session online if you can. If you are turning up on the day the swimming pond only takes card, not cash.