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.

Birthday micro-adventures

A year ago some friends and I celebrated my birthday by swimming in Wastwater: and what came to be known affectionately as WastFest was born (

The swimming has got a bit more energetic this year – going further, trying the water without wetsuits – but people who hadn’t swum in Wastwater before were keen to know why we were so enthusiastic about this lake. So 12th September was set as the date, and despite the rainy days preceding and the rather gloomy forecast, we set out – beating ‘The Rule of 6’ by just a couple of days.

Not surprisingly it was busier this year than previous years, with frequent cars passing us – though they were leaving the lake rather than heading towards it. Fortunately we had Tricia and Tim with us this year, who are used to camping – they brought a gazebo and that (well-tethered), along with an awning fixed to the back to stop the rain driving straight in, worked well. Two fires down on the beach area warmed us up after swimming, as well as cooking sausages, and Penny and Tim brought their smoker and produced a delicious smoked salmon.

We all agreed that it was just as good as last year, in a wetter, colder, more challenging way. I had been worried that it wouldn’t be as good this year as it had been so great last year – but the smiles on our faces say it all. I think it could well become an annual occurrence.

On Sunday I thought I’d allow myself a lazy day, and I decided to go up to Housesteads to recce Broomlee Lough. It was a beautiful sunny day – such a contrast to the day before! – and Housesteads and the Hadrian’s Wall path were busy. I followed the Hadrian’s Wall path to start with, and then crossed over an undulating area of rough grass to get to the lake. I passed the ruins of the north gate to Housesteads, and the ruins of Knag Burn gate, and could feel how imposing these gates would once have been to people approaching from the north.

The lough was stunning. It’s not terribly accessible – it probably took me 45 minutes to walk there, over mostly uneven ground – but once standing in the water in my wellies under Dove Crag, I could well imagine Roman soldiers on their time off, laughing and splashing in the water.

Part of me wished I had my wetsuit with me (which was still hanging up to dry from the previous evening), but it was incredibly windy and swimming would have been hard work. Also, part of the enjoyment of wild swimming is sharing that excitement and wonder with friends. One day I shall swim solo though.

I walked all the way round the lough, which wasn’t that easy – there was no path and it was quite marshy in places. An old corrugated metal boat house stood forlornly alone, rusting into oblivion.

I walked back towards the crags of the Whin Sill and once again was intimidated by the defensiveness of the Wall. The crags loomed above me and on top of that the wall, which would once have been 2 or 3 times the height, painted a blinding white, and bristling with soldiers. It gave out a clear message. But I could look back and see the playground of Broomlee Lough behind me.

Monday also dawned sunny and warm, without the wind, and as it was my birthday I had taken the day off. After yoga and a short run, Clare and Colin came round to make me lunch, which we sat outside to eat. I then went down to Penrith, where I met Penny, and we drove to Glenridding.

I previously wrote about running up to Grisedale Tarn and back; today we walked up, rucksacks on our backs laden with our wetsuits and related clobber. Penny had had the sense to bring water and sandwiches, which had completely escaped my mind.

The tarn was another one which was incredibly clean and clear; like Crummock Water there was a gently sloping stony shelf which suddenly dropped down into darkness. It was cold but all right so long as you kept swimming: Penny mentioned face freeze. Even so we swam about halfway up one side, across the Tarn and then back. As we swam lots of walkers came past or could be seen coming down from Hevellyn. Two groups started putting up tents: I’m not sure wild camping is actually allowed, especially at the moment, but you could see the appeal. I hope they took their rubbish home with them.

Walking down took almost as long as walking up, and with no signal (mobile or internet) I couldn’t phone my daughter until we reached the houses at the foot of the hills, to tell her I’d be home about 9p.m. (there was the usual request for something from the Co-op). In the typical way of teenage daughters she had complained that I was going out on my birthday – presumably instead of cooking her tea – and told me that there was no way she was going to say Happy Birthday to me. Having not gone out for a post-walk-and-swim drink with Penny (who also needed to get home to her husband anyway), it was disappointing to get home and find I had to start clearing up mess.

However it didn’t take long to smile about it: Clare and I had recently written a light-hearted poem jointly about children being vile. And the photos below are partly by me and partly by Penny.

What a brilliant way to spend a birthday.

The Lake District: on two wheels and two feet

The first time I ever visited the Lake District was for a mountain biking weekend one cold but sunny November. It was the days before digital cameras, so the photo of me falling into a stream as I tried to cycle through it is buried in an album somewhere: but what I do remember is that the weather was beautiful and that I immediately fell in love with the area.

Living in Cumbria (it’s 12 years next month), I still love the county and a trip to the Lakes usually engenders feelings of going on holiday, even if only for a half day. There’s also plenty I have yet to explore and to learn.

Despite my pre-children mountain biking weekends all those years ago, I haven’t cycled much in the area. So when my friend Jeremy suggested a 20-mile bike ride in Borrowdale and around Derwentwater I accepted eagerly.

He picked up my bike, Edward and me in his van and having dropped Edward at school we drove down to Keswick. As we cycled up the Borrowdale valley I thought back to running around and swimming in Derwentwater, and how each activity gives a slightly different aspect to the lake and its valley. The river near Grange was higher than it had been when Penny and I ran from Grange to Seatoller and back but whilst it was cooler, the weather was dry. We stopped to admire the Bowder Stone, which I hadn’t seen before, and its new steps, as someone Jeremy knows had something to do with them. I tried to imagine Victorian women in crinolines climbing up to admire the view, parasols in hand, and was glad to be clad in flexible lycra.

We cycled as far as the NT farm and cottages at Seathwaite before turning round and retracing our wheels to Grange. Here we turned to the west to go up the road that runs along the foot of Cat Bells, and I thought back to swimming in Derwentwater below there just a few months ago. I have loads of similar photos but it’s such a lovely view and one of my favourite lakes, by now dressed in its autumnal colours. How rapidly the seasons change and the temperature drops: various hardy swimmers are still open water swimming (without wetsuits) even now, and will continue throughout the winter, but I’m not yet anything like acclimatised!

We cycled back through Portinscale, discussing wanting to try some of the mountain passes and debating which would be the best to try first, and arrived back in Keswick in plenty of time for cake (Jeremy) and smashed avocado (etc. – me). On the way home we dropped into Rheged to look at Jeremy’s exhibit in a national landscape exhibition: I’ll leave the photos to tell their own story. I love the way Rheged have positioned it so the light creates a map in the shadow.

Only a short while later and I was down in the Lake District again, this time based at Monk Coniston for an assessment weekend to see whether I’d be good enough to be a walking holiday leader. As I drove down – over the Kirkstone Pass, as I love that route and it’s the most direct – the sun was setting and there was Windermere below me, shining as the sun went down. I never tire of getting to the top of the Kirkstone Pass and seeing the lake all the way down below me – I rarely stop to take a photo though.

I felt a little apprehensive about the weekend but before long Rachel, the other woman on the assessment (there were 3 men as well), and I were chatting away, comparing notes about 3 children, being divorced and life generally.

The following day the two of us were walking with Paul while the 3 men went off with a different assessor. We headed in a north-westerly direction up the Yewdale valley, alongside the Yewdale Beck for much of the way and seeing lots of remains of mines and quarries – we stopped for coffee in one, gazing around a corner at snow on the higher fells. There was a real feeling of human industry having returned to nature.

That evening was night navigation and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours trying to find our way in the dark up to Tarn Hows and back. I realised that either the battery on my headtorch was getting a bit low (it’s rechargeable) or I need a better headtorch; and we ‘calibrated’ my paces – I now know that c.63 of my double paces equals 100m.

The following day all 5 of us ‘candidates’ were out together with two assessors, starting at the New Dungeon Ghyll and walking up towards the Langdale Pikes. I had never walked further than the first waterfalls and pools before, and the stunning weather – the sky was a vivid cloudless blue until the afternoon – combined with the beauty of the fells made for a hugely enjoyable walk. I’m really looking forward to next summer and swimming in Stickle Tarn; there was also a small pool looking over Stickle Tarn: both reflected the sky and fells like mirrors. One day I shall do the entire Pavey Ark – Harrison Stickle – Pike of Stickle walk.

As we walked back down I could see Blea Tarn in the distance, and again thought back to swimming there not so very long ago. We could also see Windermere and Morecambe Bay, including Heysham power station; there’s something very gratifying about being able to orientate yourself because you recognise landscape features.

While writing this I’m studying the map again and my eyes are caught by ‘Castle Howe’ and ‘Ting Mound’ at the eastern end of the Wrynose Pass (the pass of my 3-hour wait for the breakdown lorry after swimming in Wastwater). Googling what they were, I discover that this could be an iron age fort of some sort and that the Ting Mound was used in the 7th-9th centuries as an open air meeting place. Apparently the route through Wrynose Pass might have been in use since neolithic times.

Perhaps this is what appeals to me most of all about living in this fairly remote, underpopulated part of the UK. The relative lack of development means that history of all periods surrounds you: the neolithic route and iron age hill fort; the roads, forts and great wall of the Romans; the names of Saxon and Viking settlements; the ruined castles of medieval times; the industrial archaeology of the Elizabethans and Georgians; and the tourism industry which more or less started with Wordsworth and continues to this day. The multiple layers of varying waves of human interest and influence; but over it all nature continuing with its own awe-inspiring beauty, ranging from the grandeur of the highest fells to the delicacy of a mountain flower.