I’ve always been somewhat put off swimming in Ullswater by going out one evening with a triathlon club. The idea was to swim across the lake and back. It was colder than I’d expected; it was choppy (one person actually got out on to the boat accompanying us, she felt so sick); at one point the steamer went past; and I was right at the back of a bunch of serious, ironman-training triathletes. I also had visions of great pike shooting up from the bottom of the lake to nibble my toes, or worse. The fact that it is almost 200 ft. (63 m) deep in the middle didn’t console me much either.
I knew it would make more sense to swim up and down parallel to the shore rather than straight across the lake, and having swum in Bassenthwaite, Crummock Water (twice) and attempted Derwentwater (muddy), I was feeling somewhat more optimistic about Ullswater: and Anne had confirmed that she knew a really good place to swim.
So, one rather rainy Saturday – we were going to get wet anyway – Anne, Jo and I travelled down to Sandwick towards the south-east corner of the lake. I hadn’t driven down here before although I’ve run round there twice – in fact the cottages there were what made me comment to Penny on our ’16 lakes runs’ that I’d like to live in the Lake District one day. There’s a group of about 4 or 5 houses with a nice grass verge where you can park (though I’m not sure the householders would be that happy to have that widely advertised). It’s then a short walk over a rushing stream and through a field to a little beach. The path is part of the Ullswater Way, so we felt quite public as we got changed – and a family had chosen that point to stop at the picnic table provided so we probably bothered them as much as they bothered us.
It was definitely a wetsuits day, and Anne had even bought a pair of gloves – something I must invest in (I have to admit to wanting some Huub ones to go with my Huub wetsuit). Jo had a new wetsuit, having tried a secondhand boy’s shortie wetsuit in Crummock and also having enjoyed open water swimming enough to want to come along again. We swam up and down a fair amount in a slightly farmland-ish setting, walkers going past on a fairly regular basis and commenting. It was all really friendly though if what you wanted was a ‘get away from it all’ experience, this wouldn’t be the one.
So far the weather had been kind to us: despite the frequent rain showers of the previous few days it had been mostly sunny. We got out – we have set a criteria that we must be in the water for at least 30 minutes (even if we get out in the middle and then go in again) – and got changed and at that moment there was a sudden but brief downpour. Fortunately the trees around the lake and the beach sheltered us and after only a few minutes we started the walk back to the car, where we had some sandwiches etc. About 10 minutes later the heavens opened in earnest and we leapt into the car and headed home.
Unfortunately Jo wasn’t able to come with us the following weekend (I was due to have the kids, but my ex had taken them away) and we’d decided we’d do Wastwater. This is another daunting lake. The scree slopes glower over the water on the southern side, and at times the water can look black. There’s not a huge amount of vegetation around the lake either, which perhaps adds to its starkly majestic feel: it’s not as enclosed by woods as many of the lakes are.
Wastwater is the deepest lake in England so if anything I should have felt more nervous about it than I did about Ullswater. However it doesn’t have a steamer going up and down (and potentially likely to chop you up), which helped, and I had seen people kayaking, diving etc. from the other side. My aim was to park near where Penny & I had parked when we ran round the lake. Having had incredibly heavy rain earlier in the week (the rivers were looking full to bursting), Friday had turned hot and sunny with forecasts of some of the highest temperatures ever for the bank holiday weekend.
The weather forecast was right and Saturday was glorious. As a result Wastwater was heaving – at least, heaving for a relatively remote Lake District lake which can only be directly reached from the western edges of Cumbria (there’s one road in which comes to a dead end at Wasdale Head, where Red Pike, Great Gable and Scafell Pike look down over the lake). However due to the lake’s rather daunting reputation, having plenty of people around was good rather than bad, and we joined the groups around a bay with an island in it.
The water was beautifully clear, and you get into the lake via stony beaches. The water was so clear that swimming across to the island you could see below easily: there weren’t any weeds until we were in about 8′ of water (I didn’t feel them beneath my feet when I put my feet down) and you could see some sort of pipeline running along the lake bottom. We swam out to and round the island before having a picnic lunch; and then got back in again. While Anne swam round to the next bay, I swam round to the next bay and then to the island and back again.
I felt that my swimming was improving: I haven’t swum regularly for so long that my stamina isn’t great, but these swims are giving me the confidence to know that if I did more training I’d feel like tackling a triathlon again.
We drove back over Hardknott and Wrynose passes: a narrow, hairpin route with stunning views. Just over the top of Wrynose I pulled in to allow a cyclist more room to go past: and burst my nearside front tyre on a rock. We spent the next 3 hours looking as if we were having a picnic admiring the view towards Ambleside from the top of Wrynose and acting like police officers making sure nobody came round the corner too fast and straight into the back of my car. When the breakdown van finally turned up it took the guy less than 10 minutes to put my spare wheel on: and I was extremely glad I hadn’t tried to do it myself, as even with wooden blocks behind the back wheels and a rock in front of the offside front, the car shifted a bit as he jacked it up (the first guy who had gone past us had said we were on too steep a slope to change the wheel).
We got back to my house hours later than intended but Anne’s lovely husband Mark had good-naturedly driven down from their house (he had had a long journey back from London already that day) to look after the kittens, who I had left outside all day and who I thought might be rather hungry. As we sat and had some food and drinks, we discussed our scoring system for the lakes and came up with a scorecard which gives marks out of 70 for each one. So far Wastwater is in the lead, Crummock Water second and Ullswater last. Wastwater had been utterly superb: so superb that I’m hoping to get a group down there for a sunset swim and picnic on my birthday in a couple of weeks’ time.