Sty Head and Sprinkling Tarns

Two more tarns ticked off the list of tarns and lakes to swim in this year!

Though whether it could accurately be called ‘swimming’ is perhaps a bit of a moot point… (where does that term come from? Ah… something debated in the moot? Yes – the internet has just confirmed that law students used to debate legal points in the moot).

The weather has continued to be rather wet and rainy, alternating with sun; wind from the non-prevailing north and east; and temperatures varying from quite warm to rather cold. I’d suggested to the Ladies of the Lakes whatsapp group that we should swim on Sunday 23rd. However the forecast looked dire, so when Penny said she was free on the Saturday and I knew I’d have to take the children down to Penrith, we made tentative plans to do something. The children’s plans then changed as well and in fact I only needed to take Edward down to his Dad’s at lunchtime, which gave me more of the day free. As it was chilly but relatively dry and Penny is still recovering from injuries, I suggested we walk and swim – there’s a 10km walk which starts from Seathwaite in the Borrowdale valley, and passes Sty Head tarn and Sprinkling tarn.

When we arrived at Seathwaite there were lots of cars parked on verges, and for a moment or two we wondered whether we’d get a space. I was optimistic that people would be beginning to leave, and in fact we found a space on a stony verge (as opposed to a grassy one) right up near the farm. Usefully, there are toilets there – they’re not huge and they’re a bit smelly (so were my feet after swimming and walking in wet trainers), but it’s nice not to have to look for bushes to hide behind.

The walk starts going through the farm, where there were cows sitting on and close to the path, which would be intimidating for some people and where it was definitely a case of trying to avoid cowpats. You rather got the impression that the farmer was trying to deter walkers – but judging by the number of walkers and tents we saw along the entire route, it’s a popular walk.

We went uphill up a stony bridle path – the paths on this walk were clearly man-made, with some bridges in places and signs of repairs in others. A waterfall could be seen cascading down the hillside, but the path took us away from this until it meandered its way back towards the gill at the top of the waterfall. Because of the rain recently the streams are quite full and flowing quite fast, unlike this time last year when a lot of them had dried up completely. Penny was regretting not having worn walking boots; I was happy in my trail shoes but we were joking that I looked a bit ‘ignorant’ walking along in jeans and trainers and carrying a paper bag (it had a cake in which I didn’t want to squash in my rucksack) and drinking from a can. I looked like the sort of person who gets criticised when Mountain Rescue gets called out – however I have to say that at least the tread is still good on my old trail shoes, even if the goretex uppers have holes in. I was also far too hot but knew that I’d need my waterproof jacket and its fleece inner after swimming.

We arrived at Sty Head Tarn having met a lot of people coming in the other direction, including a friendly, chatty Australian guy. It’s funny how some people walk past with their heads down and trying to avoid looking at you, as if they could get Covid from the word ‘hello’ (or perhaps they just don’t want to be sociable and would prefer to be on their own in the hills), whereas the vast majority will at least say hello and a friendly minority will chat.

At Sty Head tarn there were a few tents but it felt a little exposed, with a northerly wind creating little waves on the surface of the water. The path ran quite closely past the western side of the lake, and there were a few stony beaches to choose from. As we approached the water we could see how beautifully clear it was: although we could also see that it shelved quite steeply down. I got changed with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and stepped into the water – the stony bit sloped down quite quickly and within little more than a meter of the edge I was out of my depth. And it was cold! I didn’t feel like putting my face in, though Penny put hers in and confirmed how clear the water was.

We didn’t stay in long as it was so cold: especially having a second tarn to swim in as well. After all, we said, this isn’t about how far we swim or how long we stay in but about trying out different tarns and lakes, often with different ways of getting there. We kept our wetsuits on and walked on uphill in the direction of Sprinkling Tarn, ‘wowing’ the views as we went.

We passed a couple walking in the other direction who we had been walking behind heading away from the farm (they’d taken the route directly to Sprinkling Tarn whereas we’d gone the other way). We were almost at the brow of a hill and they told us that the tarn was literally a few yards ahead. Sure enough we got to the top of the brow and there it was. It was a stunning way to approach it as you almost come across it by surprise, and it has more dramatic surroundings than Sty Head tarn. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Angle Tarn, but the more I think about the two of them the more I think of their differences. Both are gorgeous!

We got in quite quickly and again the water was incredibly clear. I still wasn’t brave enough to put my face in, and doing breast stroke was making my neck ache, so I didn’t stay in long: Penny swam for a bit longer and then once we were both dry we sat and shared the cake (out of my paper bag) and drank coffee. Sprinking tarn hadn’t seemed quite so cold as Sty Head, and was probably a little less exposed. We agreed it would definitely be one to come back to when it was warmer. Little did we know how much this view would be confirmed on the walk back down.

If we thought the walk up was pretty, the walk down was stunning. There’s a fairly steep descent immediately to the east of the gill (it’s called something at the top and then becomes Grain Gill lower down), which plunges down the hillside through a rock-sided chasm to start with and with waterfalls and plunge pools. The water in the pools lower down is a clear green-ish colour, which I wonder is due to Borrowdale slate; there were also some almost pure white stones on the path. At times you could see Derwentwater in the background; and we were lucky that the sky was fairly clear, although it was grey to the west. It was absolutely stunning and we agreed that we definitely needed to come back in warmer weather, and bring the others up there too: we agreed we needed to make it an all-day trip so that we didn’t feel the need to rush.

Meanwhile I needed to get home to my daughter, but I’m really hoping to be able to swim in Sprinkling tarn and the rock pools when the weather – and the water – is warmer.