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

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.