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.

Running the Wales / England border

We ran 11.5km and only passed one other person. It was at the end of the run: a dog walker throwing a ball in a field for an energetic spaniel. For the rest of the time it was just the two of us: Alex and me.

We were staying for a few days on the Wales / England border, in the village of Longtown. We both needed a break, and found it in the cosy cottage with its log fire. But it was getting outside that really revived us.

One morning we both woke around 8am and slowly got ready and into our running things and headed out into the morning.

The garden looked beautiful – red berries covered in a dusting of white, the grass like stalagmites and a wren hopping into the bushes. It was frosty and sunny again, but the halo of mist had descended again onto the hilltops. We set out through a field behind the cottage. Alex spread her arms out wide and ran like you run when you’re a child – fast and free.

“Yes! I’m so happy!”

We wound our way up to the village and then headed out across the fields that would eventually take us to the top of the huge ridgeway that marks the old border between England and Wales. It soared above us, wearing a mottled coat of rust brown, sand, and green. The white blobs of sheep were scattered all the way along the hilltop.

The running was hard: the ground beneath our feet was frosty but not always completely hard and frozen, making it slippy and springy like running on wet sand. With every step I took my feet slipped slightly. It felt like I was running backwards at times, and as it got gradually steeper, in places I found it more efficient to walk. We could see the path we were heading for, winding its way up the hillside and we ran slowly towards it.

On our way we passed a cluster of abandoned shepherd’s huts. One was tumbled down completely but two still had their roofs and splintered wooden doors. I imagined shepherds huddling up here, looking down the valley at the village and the fields beyond. The grass here was wild and grew in tough mounds, and a bare tree stood in the clearing between the huts. Behind them was a path that followed a small stream up the hill, steep banks of trees on either side. It was dark and damp here but the sun rested at the top of the channel, showing us where we needed to go. We trudged and slushed our way through the thick carpet of brown leaves and the stream that trickled beneath. When we reached the top we came to the start of our ascent up to the top of the ridge.

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A flock of sheep gathered around a hay feeder stopped to look at us as we passed them and joined the path. I wondered how often they saw people here. But then they turned back to their hay, and we turned to face the hill. I want to call it a mountain, because that’s what it seemed like as we stood at its foot. It looked like a mountain, and climbing it felt like one (even if I have only ever climbed one mountain).

At times it made me nervous when I stopped focusing on putting each foot in front of the other and took a moment to look out across the valley. The view was beautiful, but the drop down the hillside was stomach-churningly steep, and getting worse the higher we climbed.

I tried to ignore the drop down the hill face and focused on the climb instead. And it was beautiful. Even the path was beautiful – bright green and mossy with sections of natural slate walls and nooks every now and then. Puddles were frozen over, bubbles of air trapped beneath and creating beautiful abstract patterns.

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And then suddenly, miraculously, we were at the top.

We climbed the last section of pathway and emerged on the top to see… Nothing. The ridgeway was covered in cloud, completely obscuring what I imagine would have been stunning views on either side – views out of the countryside miles in each direction. At first I was disappointed, but then I looked closer. Actually, the ‘nothing’ was beautiful too. The clouds rolled across the ridgeway in gusts and waves, obscuring patches of long grass and frozen pools, then revealing them again. The gentle moving of the cloud was hypnotic and magical. It made us feel completely alone in the world, like we were up in the sky and everyone else was far away on the ground. And we were alone.

It was bitingly cold at the top, so we started running again, following the old ridgeway path. This was wonderful running – not as hard as pavements but hard and smooth enough to spring from and run with ease. After covering only about 2km in an hour (because of the steep and tough-going terrain) we sped along and had suddenly covered another 4km without even thinking. Running here felt wonderful, like my body was doing exactly what it was meant to do. It was so cold that it was the only way to warm up, so felt completely natural. It felt better to run than to stop and face the icy wind.

Again, Alex spread her arms and ran like a child, making gleeful noises.

“Weeeeeeee!”

Her happiness was infectious, and besides, I was feeling incredibly happy too.

Eventually it was time to come down from the hilltop (or the mountain, as I will always think of it as. It really did feel like we were at the top of a mountain). As we got lower it got warmer and I recovered feeling in my nose and fingertips. We sped down, so much so that at one point I slipped and fell – covering my whole bottom half and one of my arms in mud. I just laughed – it was bound to happen eventually. My running shoes have no grip (I need to invest in some trail running shoes) and in places the path was just a trench of mud.

I was muddy but happy as we made our way back to the cottage I so quickly thought of as home. My legs were exhausted by now but I knew we didn’t have far to go.

“You’re doing so well,” said Alex, “We’re so nearly there.”

And we were. Suddenly we were there, jogging down the lane to the little cottage where I knew the heating and the fire would be on, and a hot shower would be only seconds away. We gave each other a high five – and I think we deserved it.

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!