I’m not a winter open water swimmer: I swim for the experience – getting there and the scenery – not just for the swimming. When it’s raining (or worse) and bitterly cold I want to be out running, with lots of layers on, a dry change of clothes in the car, and a cafe at the end where I can warm up (or, of course, just my house). Getting changed in cold air at the side of a cold lake, possibly in wet weather as well, has no appeal to me whatsoever: I love swimming but in terms of winter swimming training and improving my swimming stamina, I’d rather go to a leisure centre pool and have a warm shower straight afterwards.
It’s therefore always a bit dodgy arranging to do any open water swimming at the end of September, especially an extended swimming trip which entails getting in and out of wet swimsuits, wetsuits, gloves, etc. I’d had an idea of ‘swimming Snowdon’ as part of my 6 at 60 challenges, but in the end decided that actually I’d far rather just have a weekend of trying to complete swimming in the lakes and tarns of Cumbria: there were about 6 left (though of course as soon as you talk to anyone about it they say ‘oh, have you tried…’ and a new idea gets added to the list).
Penny agreed to join me on another mini-adventure, and so I booked a yurt via AirBnB in the Wasdale valley, originally thinking that we might have time to do 4 tarns in a day and 2 the following day ‘on the way home’. However it became clear when thinking about logistics that actually it was more likely to be 3 on one day and then 1, possibly 2, the following day (when I got home and counted up how many lakes and tarns I had swum in in total it came out at 28, so although there are still more to try, I feel I’ve had a pretty good go at the challenge).
I drove down to Penny & Tim’s house on the Friday evening, stopping off to say ‘hello’ to my children en route, and we went to the Millyard Cafe at Morland for pizza. I’ve mentioned them before but they deserve to be mentioned again as it is literally some of the best pizza I have ever had: the other food is good as well and it’s a great place to stop during a bike ride or walk, or just because you want something to eat. Penny and Tim go there regularly.
On Saturday we got up and fuelled up on granola before setting off to the Lake District, having to divert through Matterdale and up to the A66 towards Keswick, as the road down past Ullswater was blocked off by police (we never found out why). The first stop was to be Moss Eccles Tarn, at Far Sawrey (not far from Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop). We’d run past this several times when doing the Hawkshead trail race/trail race route, and I’d always thought the rocks at the southern end looked like an inviting place to get in and swim. We parked in a church car park (opposite the Cuckoo Brow Inn) which asked for a £2 donation (willingly given), and walked up the track towards the Tarn. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and we were quickly quite warm.
The tarn itself was quite busy. We had a chat with a couple of other women who were sitting enjoying the sun, and then a bunch of teenagers came along with a radio and sat and chatted, followed by some dog walkers and then, as we were leaving again after swimming, another group of teenagers (doing Outward Bound or Duke of Edinburgh or something, I would guess). It was a glorious day to be out, so not surprising that there were plenty of people around.
I swam over to the little island you can see towards the background of the picture, but it was a bit squishy underfoot (I’m not good with squishy), so I turned straight round and came back again. Penny really liked the fact that alder had self-seeded at the side of the water; I liked the various flowering plants we saw.
From Sawrey we drove southwards and parallel to the western shore of Windermere, to Stott Park. There are several car parks here as the walk up to High Dam is a popular one; a Lake District National Park car park and a farmer’s car park. If you fancy going to see Stott Park bobbin mill as well, which to my mind is one of the most interesting of all English Heritage sites, especially if you get the opportunity to go on a tour and especially if the steam engine is running, then the bobbin mill also has a car park.
We were going up to High Dam, which is owned by the Lake District National Park Authority but which once upon a time was the top lake which fed the stream which powered the water wheel for the bobbin mill: this was in the days before steam. The trees all around would have provided wood for the bobbins – hence the log stacks in the photo above – and if any readers remember wooden ‘Silko’ bobbins then that’s the type of thing which was more latterly made at the bobbin mill; also wooden duffle coat toggles.
High Dam was also busy with people, with several people already in or on the water, and others walking and sitting around. It’s a lovely spot but you don’t have the magical peace and tranquillity that you get from some of the more remote tarns, and we were also a little worried about our bags. It was probably these two tarns that made me consider what it is I want from wild swimming, and hence my initial comments: Penny and I were discussing that if swimming was our main ‘sport’ then we’d be more likely to go to a lake or tarn closer to home and more easy to walk to, and not be bothered how many people were there; but what we were looking for were those tarns which are just that little bit extra-special. Having said that, swimming in Buttermere was one of my favourite swimming experiences and one I would like to repeat, and Buttermere is always popular.
Again we swam over to some islands – this time I found some rocks to perch on – before swimming back to rescue our bags, getting dry, and then driving on to our next tarn.
It was a longer walk to our next tarn and I was pleased with myself that I managed to navigate us correctly up there – I’m not the most reliable of navigators on walking routes (I’m fine on roads, but put me in the middle of the countryside and I forget to check contour lines and have little sense of how far distance on a map equates to on the ground). We had parked at Blawith, just south of Water Yeat (aren’t Cumbria place names great!), and started walking along a lane still rich with juicy sweet blackberries. This meandered up between some lovely cottages, before becoming a grassy lane where an old pony was tethered, with strict instructions on each gate not to feed him as the vet has put him on a very restrictive diet.
Crossing the fields to farm, we came out at the lane which leads up from Water Yeat, before taking a path that wiggled through ferns and gorse and crossed streams, leading slightly uphill. I kept thinking we’d come out at Beacon Tarn: finally we did, and there it was, glistening in the sun under a blue sky. A woman was getting dry having had a swim; as we got ready two more people got in, without wetsuits. We swam around in our wetsuits for a bit and then got out, took them off, and got back in in just swimsuits. It was chilly but bracing and invigorating, and we agreed that it had been the best tarn of the day and was probably a new favourite. I would definitely like to swim there again, and for longer – it was about the right size that you felt you could swim the length of it and back, possibly even more than once, without worrying about it being enormously deep or being too far from the shore or there being enormous (potentially vicious) fish… (I always have visions of something similar to the Loch Ness monster suddenly snapping at my feet from the depths of Ullswater or Wastwater – the problem is that you just don’t know what is down there, lurking in the depths).
After that there was only time to drive across Corney Fell, with an amazing view of the Isle of Man looking clearer than I ever remember seeing it before, and to find our yurt, which was just to the east of Gosforth. I can recommend it: The Yurt by the Stream. We walked into Gosforth for dinner at the Kellbank, which was also good (the vegetables were a bit overcooked, but the steak and ale pie was delicious), and which has a lamb who visits and which apparently behaves far better than many dogs or humans. Walking back the night sky was stunningly full of stars, an a line of red lights out at sea indicated the row of wind turbines marching away from Barrow.
As we fell asleep with the stars visible through the nightlight of the yurt, a tawny owl (or two?) in the trees nearby called ‘too wit too woo’.
The next morning unfortunately was grey and mizzly. After packing and breakfast we drove up along the side of Wastwater to Wasdale Head, where we parked in the National Trust car park, discussing how for future WastFests it might be good to camp overnight so nobody has to have a two hour drive back afterwards. The track to Burnmoor Tarn looked straight forward, but unfortunately it was all to easy to miss the point at which the bridlepath that we wanted to follow diverged from the footpath up on to the hill above the screes: partly as the footpath had had some maintenance work and so looked like the main path. As we started walking more or less straight up some fairly close-together contour lines, Penny said ‘are we going to the right way?’; as we looked back and across to the east it was clear that we weren’t.
We went back down the hill and managed to pick up the bridlepath we wanted, which was badly eroded in places and which then led over some fairly boggy patches. Burnmoor Tarn is more like an overgrown puddle on a fairly flat boggy bit of ground; it didn’t help that it was grey and damp and that the hill in the background (Great Worm Crag?) was rapidly disappearing behind a layer of cloud. Still, we were here now… we got changed and got into the water, to find that it was very shallow a long way out. Perhaps we should have walked further round, although other writers and swimmers say this is shallower than most of the lakes anyway, but to be honest I wanted to get this over and done with without getting too cold and wet. The water temperature was OK but the air temperature and dampness getting changed wasn’t the best.
All thoughts of swimming in another tarn that day evaporated, and after a couple of failed attempts at finding a cafe which would serve us some warming soup and a cheese scone, we ended up at Granny Dowbekins at Pooley Bridge. The service was friendly and the ham and lentil soup and cheese scone were delicious, the soup containing proper pieces of ham hock. Last time we’d been in there had been at the end of running around Ullswater, before the new bridge had been completed; both times were satisfyingly excellent and it’s somewhere I would have no hesitation in recommending.
It was time to go home, having clocked up 4 tarns in one weekend and having found one more to add to the ‘favourite tarns of all time’ list. But it’s now perhaps time to hang up my wetsuit until next year.