Shivering, but on a cold-water high, we were all congratulating each other on a fine early morning swim across Windermere when Simon dropped the bombshell. “Guys, I’ve left my glasses by the jetty on the other side.”
Our plan – months in the making – to swim and hike across the southern Lake District was falling apart when we’d barely begun. Five of us were making the unsupported two-day trek, carrying and towing our gear across fell and forest, lake and tarn. Retrieving the glasses would take at least a couple of hours.
After much cursing and tearing apart of bags, the glasses turned up wrapped up in someone’s T-shirt. We headed towards the wooded uplands of Claife Heights on the western side of the lake – and our next two swims.
Striding in front was Will, co-founder of The Swimmer, a monthly half-marathon across London that visits many of the city’s lidos. The inspiration behind the event was John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster, in which Neddy Merrill decides to swim home via a dozen or so of his neighbours’ pools. I regularly do the London trip so I jumped at the chance when Will mentioned the idea of transplanting the concept to the Lake District – mountain climbs linking a chain of exciting open water swims on a journey back “home” to civilisation.
Last minute packing decisions delayed our start, but we were finally ready at 8.30am. Slipping into almost still waters at Brockhole, the Lake District National Park Centre, it felt as if we had the whole lake to ourselves. Ferries had yet to start sailing and as we swam the 1.3km across we stopped now and then to take in the stunning panorama – in the far distance the Langdale Pikes swathed in cloud, and just across the lake the turrets of mock-gothic Wray Castle poking through the trees.
Will had come up with a roughly circular 50km route – starting and finishing close to Windermere train station – linking big-lake swims and smaller atmospheric tarns. Three Dubs tarn, a lonely stretch of water surrounded by trees, certainly had atmosphere. Venturing into the dark waters of an imposing boathouse I came across a pile of animal skulls, lined up on a ledge at the back.
In contrast, Moss Eccles tarn, just down the hill, was bathed in sunlight. Perfect for a leisurely swim, and, as guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright noted, “a charming spot for a siesta”. It was hard to disagree with the old curmudgeon, but just as some of us were settling down for a spot of much needed bone-warming in the sun, Martin chivvied us along with a reminder: “If we don’t get moving, we’ll be doing the last swim in the dark.”
We were supposed to go straight through the village of Near Sawrey, once home to writer Beatrix Potter and on into Grizedale forest. (We hadn’t bargained on catching a Morris dancing troupe performing in front of the pub, which demanded another stop.) The sprawling forest was once the site of a Second World War prison camp; it is now a hive of outdoor activity and home to a sculpture park. Myriad footpaths and mountain bike tracks made for tricky navigation, and as we argued our way through the trees we would suddenly come across bizarre installations, such as a two-metre high stile.
Hikers liked to mock us as we stripped off, but open-water swimming is now enjoyed by tens of thousands of people each year. There are signs that more people are incorporating dips into their own mini-adventures. There are guidebooks to walks with swims, fell-races that involve sprinting between lakes in a wetsuit as well as guided swim tours.
It was at Coniston Water that I knew what the whole adventure had been for. Keen to cross it while it was still light, we had sprinted past Holly Howe, the farmhouse featured in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (there were even some swallows swooping above it). Lakeside, we began our now familiar drill: stuffing everything into bright orange waterproof bags, which incorporated inflatable chambers for extra buoyancy. It was torture pulling on a tight, sodden wetsuit (others opted just for Speedos), but once in the water I relaxed into a languid twilight swim across the lake.
As I looked down into the murky depths, long weeds came up to meet me. On the skyline the sun was starting go down behind the Old Man of Coniston fell. We’d paddle alone for a while, and then regroup, the five of us alone in the lake, chatting and joking, and, as Nils, our North American swimmer put it, making a “signature crossing”. The beautiful surroundings, available so freely to us, added to the swimmer’s high.
Perhaps inevitably, the second day felt harder than the first. After a night in a teepee at Coniston YHA, our first dunking of the day had been in Goat’s Water, a long, high-mountain tarn. Compared with the previous day’s swims, it was a freezing, brutish outing, followed by a steep climb to the Old Man summit, which at least warmed us up. After Levers Water it became apparent we’d underestimated the amount of walking involved and there was a chance we might miss the train home. It was the excuse we needed to scrounge a lift from some kind friends who lived nearby, to the picture postcard Loughrigg tarn.
And then came the grand finale: a swim in the river Rothay, leading to Waterhead on Windermere. As the current released us into the lake, the water temperature suddenly turned almost Mediterranean. “Prepare to swim back into civilisation,” shouted Will, as the solitude of the mountain tarns gave way to the hurly-burly of tourist lakeland. The sound of drinkers in lakeside beer gardens drifting across the water was the siren song luring us back to the shore.
The West Coast Main Line passes through Oxenholme for the southern Lakes (tpexpress.co.uk). The group stayed at YHA Coniston Holly How. Beds from £10, private rooms from £39. Tipis available until the end of October (yha.org.uk). Waterproof bags were provided by Swim Secure (swimsecure.co.uk). For more information on swimming trips, see theswimmer.org