Wild Swimming

18th October, 2008

FT Magazine, 18 October 2008

In the car on the way to the Lake District, my friend Mark calls. He’s a doctor.

I tell him that I’m planning on going for a leisurely swim in one of the lakes.

“Be careful not to die,” he says helpfully.


“Look up ‘the diving reflex’ before you do this. When you splash cold water on your face, your heart rate slows down a lot. It can be fatal, although that’s quite rare.”

“The diving reflex. Right. Er, thanks.”

This is not helping my confidence. Nor does the news that the organisers of a swimming race in Windermere are recommending wetsuits on the grounds that the lakes are unusually cold this year.

I am strictly a warm-swimming-pool swimmer, and badly out of practice: it’s more than 20 years since I swam competitively. I am nervous. My wife Fran, who grew up near the Lake District and spent much of this summer jumping into tidal pools, is gung ho about the whole business.

I am relieved – if astonished – when my mother-in-law, our host in Windermere, turns out to have a couple of wetsuits in storage. We try them on, and they’re a bit snug, but I am glad they exist. I still sleep uneasily, waking often and thinking of the diving reflex.

We get up early and set off for the village of Buttermere, where our plan – hastily hatched the day before – is to swim in Crummock Water, then hike uphill to Scale Force, the Lake District’s tallest waterfall, before descending to Crummock’s sister lake, Buttermere.

This autumn Sunday is the first sunny day for months, and as I drive, my wife keeps gasping at the views. Rydal Water and Grasmere are absolutely still, mirroring the browns and greens of the steep hillsides around them. I have often enjoyed walking around these parts, and spoiling the walks with a swim in a frigid lake seems like madness.

In the Buttermere car park we meet a couple of friends, our ground support crew. There is no turning back now that there are witnesses, but they’re the only ones. After a boggy half-mile walk to a promising spot on the lake shore, there is neither a walker nor a boat in sight. Standing on a foot-wide strip of gravel, Fran and I strip off. She reaches for her wetsuit, but, suddenly emboldened, I feel that I would be cheating if I didn’t try a dip without one.

I take a couple of steps in, with Fran and the photographer yelling encouragement. It’s cold. I wade in up to my thighs, teetering awkwardly on sharp, slimy stones. Diving reflex be damned, I think. I bend my knees and lean forward to accept the lake’s gelid embrace.

To my astonishment, the chill is manageable. I feel rather pleased with myself, kicking out first on my front and then on my back. I’ve never done anything like this, and looking back at the shore, I realise the duck’s-eye view is something I’ve seen only in films. The sun sparkles on the water, which is disturbed only by my improvised strokes. While the water is too cold to linger, it doesn’t create the same kind of cowardly shiver I experience when slipping into a heated pool.

I scramble out and stretch the unco-operative wetsuit around me. After some pinching and tugging, Fran and I are ready to swim out together.

I am still nervous. A few yards out, something brushes against my leg – a fish? A floating bottle? – causing a reflexive, panicky yelp. Then, as we head out towards the middle of the lake, I feel myself growing in confidence. When I duck my head below the waves, at first I can see the weeds and the water. After a while, there’s nothing down there but shafts of green light disappearing into the darkness. It’s disconcerting to look for more than an instant.

I flip between sidestroke and back crawl while Fran, the stronger swimmer, sticks to a confident breaststroke. The wetsuits are a miracle, taking the water’s sting away. We arc out towards the centre of the lake, venturing gradually further from the shore, while the walking party disappears from view behind a ridge.

Wordsworth once praised the view from the centre of Crummock Water, but he was in a boat, which is cheating. He was right, though. With dead-flat water all around us, cormorants swooping low over the surface ahead, and the vast bulks of Mellbreak and Grasmoor above, this is the most impossibly beautiful place.

We are utterly alone in the middle of the lake. New mountain vistas are revealed with exquisite slowness by our gentle progress together. I try a little front crawl, but it takes just three strokes before my face is freezing. I thank the magic wetsuits again. Eventually we curve back in to meet our friends at a different point on the shore.

We don’t tarry long before plotting a course up the hill to Scale Force. The hill walkers are now out in force and we get a few strange looks. It is, however, easier than you might think to walk in a wetsuit.

Scale Force itself is a disappointment: we stand in 18in of perishingly cold water, treacherous stones concealed by the churning foam. Feeling foolish, we turn and head down the sodden hillside towards Buttermere.

The shores of the lake are bustling, but we peel off our wetsuits, and having lost our fear of the cold, wade out for a dip. It’s brief and bracing. We dress quickly in proper clothes at last, and five minutes later we’re back at the car, wolfing down pork pies.

We’re glad to be warm, but I cannot stop thinking about the view from the centre of Crummock Water. I’m going to buy myself a wetsuit, and I’m going back.

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