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.”

Wild swimming in the River Usk

When I was younger I hated all forms of sport, especially those that involved running. So I surprised myself when I agreed to go trail running with my sister, early in the morning on the first day of our holiday in Wales. Our mum woke up as we changed into our running gear but we couldn’t persuade her to join us – instead she decided to go down to the river for a gentler walk.

The three of us were on a rare and special holiday together, staying in a beautiful country hotel just outside of Crickhowell in South Wales. It was the kind of place where you feel as though it’s okay to curl up in your tracksuit bottoms in front of the fire, poring over one of the many gorgeous hardback books they had on display. The view was stunning: out across the hills topped with trees and sheep, and down through fields and ferns to the River Usk, which flowed gin-clear at the bottom of the valley.

Alex and I stepped out into the early morning. The fresh cold woke up immediately. AI followed my sister down the hill, watching the white flash of rabbit bottoms as they disappeared into the hedgerows. The morning sun poured liquid gold onto the fields and the river. On the other side of the water was a small wooden hut painted slate grey and with two wooden chairs outside. The perfect swimming hut, we said to each other as we ran. I imagined sitting outside it with a thermos of tea and a book, drying off in the sun after a swim.

The track headed out of the field and up into the woods, where the light fell in patches through the trees. It smelt damp and quiet. I dodged rocks and tree roots and followed behind my sister, who is (of course) much faster than me. I kept her mostly in sight though, focusing on her to keep me going.

As I got used to the uneven terrain I started to relax and look around me more. Perhaps running isn’t so bad after all, or maybe it was the magic of the quiet woods. Every now and then we disturbed a bird that crashed up through the branches to the sky, but otherwise the woods were hushed.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” I thought to myself, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

What are my promises? The promise to keep running perhaps, to try my best to keep up with my sister, and to do what I can to keep my body healthy. It is the only one I have, after all.

We ran further into the woods, until the sound of rushing water below us became too tantalising and Alex veered off the track and down the hill. She ran deftly between the trees while I slowed to a walk, following the sound of the river.

“Wow,” she shouted back up to me.

And then we were standing on the edge of the most beautiful section of river. A waterfall crashed over slabs of rock, creating a rapid that rushed and then slowed into a deep pool. There was a slower flowing pool next to the waterfall too, with rocks leading down to the water’s edge. The sun reflected on the surface and it was completely ours.

We hadn’t planned on swimming, but the water was too tempting. Together we scrambled down to the water’s edge and stripped to our pants and sports bras, leaving our shoes and clothes on the rocks. And then we plunged in. The water was so cold it took my breath away. I swam quickly towards the waterfall and back, my heart beating against my chest like a restless bird in a cage. Alex swam for a little longer but I pulled myself out, warming myself on the rocks. Once out of the water my skin felt so cold it glowed.

This spot was magical and we feel proud; like we have found this place through some skill even though it has been here for thousands of years and was created by nature, not us.

I arrived back at the hotel damp and cold but with a fire in my chest. Mum told us that on her walk she saw an otter sunning itself on a rock. It gave the water even more magic. Even though I didn’t see one myself (and never have) it was wonderful to swim knowing that otters were nearby. It reminded me of when I was young and believed deeply in the existence of fairies. When I walked in woodlands I kept my eyes wide open, hoping to see one. But even though I never did see one, it didn’t matter. The woods still held a special magic because my young-self knew they were there. Otters are my new fairies. They are water fairies that fly through the rapids catching fish for their supper.

The next day we brought Mum to our swimming spot, after a long day of walking along rivers and canals (broken by a pub lunch and a pint of beer). She was surprised as we are when she pulled on the wetsuit Alex lent her and jumped into the river with us. It was her first experience of wild swimming.

“I can see why you love this,” she told us as she floated in the cold pool, watching the trees above us.

We had the river to ourselves, and swam up and down it, Alex and I jumping off the rocks as Mum watched. We were alive, and sharing the same sensations: the cold water on our skin, the rustle of the trees, the beating wings of a heron. The river held a magic that binded us together.

As I changed after the swim in our secluded spot I turned and faced my bare chest to the river. I felt part woman, part wild river creature. I wanted to tip my head back and roar.

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.

 

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!